Brother Clement Virgo Kingston Canadian Film Festival

The Kingston Film Festival proves Canadian cinema no longer has anything to apologize for

Featuring reviews of the films Brother, Riceboy Sleeps, North of Normal, Eternal Spring and more.

The most incredible thing I saw at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival was a snow thunderstorm. For hours, as downtown Kingston was draped in wet, fluffy snow, the air would occasionally rumble with distant thunder. Muffled by the thick falling snow, it sounded more like a heavy pick-up truck hitting a pothole, but a flash of lightning soon followed. The unusual meteorological event, one that I’ve never witnessed in my 30+ years in Canada, does not mean, however, that the selection at the festival was lacking. 

Though the Kingston Canadian Film Festival featured a wide range of Quebec films, including Viking, Geographies of Solitude and Norbourg, I did not leave Montreal to watch movies that have had theatrical runs here. With purpose, my goal was primarily to catch up on English Canadian films — many of which have yet to find their way into Quebec theatres, even on the festival circuit. 

For a long time, there has been a stereotype that a lack of quality is emblematic of English Canadian cinema. A friend described it as a cinematic version of the “uncanny valley,” where the movies downplay the specificity of location and artistry in an attempt to blend into the broader world of the American independent market. Over the past couple of decades, though, there has been a noticeable shift, where even higher-profile Canadian films not only feel like singular visions but do little to disguise their Canadianness. 

There still felt like an apologetic edge to the whole affair, though. As many films were presented by film and crew members, even titanically great films were somewhat undersold (ironically) by being oversold as clever workarounds of the complex financing system. Though inside baseball about how Canadian films get made can be interesting, the hyper-focus on the topic feels like a crutch. Rather than allow the artistry to shine, they pivot discussions towards business, something less embarrassing. In these discussions of business, the fact the film exists at all becomes the measure of success. It’s impossible to discount that every film made (particularly in Canada) can feel like a minor miracle. Still, sometimes I wish our artists were more willing to own the film on its merits and talk about how they were inspired rather than how hard they “hustled.” Based on what I’ve seen, too, Canadian cinema no longer has anything to apologize for: it’s genuinely good. 

Riceboy Sleeps

Riceboy Sleeps Kingston Canadian Film festival cinema review
Riceboy Sleeps (directed by Anthony Shi)

Riceboy Sleeps, the festival’s opening film, is about a mother and son in the 1990s who immigrated from South Korea to British Columbia to start a new life. The film is divided into three main sections: childhood, adolescence in Canada and a third-act trip to South Korea. By employing a lot of conventions of the immigrant narrative with a strong dash of old-school melodrama, the film evades the most obvious clichés thanks to vibrant performances and a stunning aesthetic voice. The film features a roving moving camera and a distant gaze that captures the restless anxiety of being uprooted and unsettled. The sense of otherness is palpable and lived in, and though brimming with confrontations and misunderstandings, it also settles happily in slice-of-life antics with as much ease. The film sometimes feels caught between its arthouse aspirations and mainstream approach. Still, it ends on such a warm note, it’s easy to see why the film has won over audiences and critics, recently picking up the award for Best Canadian Film from the Toronto Film Critics Association. 

The Family of the Forest

The Family of the Forest (directed Laura Rietveld)

In the Gaspé peninsula, Gérard Mathar and Catherine Jacob have forged a new life in the forest. After leaving Belgium behind, they resettled in Canada to live off the land, raising their three sons in the quasi-wilderness. They aspire to build a house for each of their sons, each suited to their personalities and needs. The Family of the Forest is a documentary showcasing Gérard and Catherine’s endurance as they tirelessly rework the land, care for livestock and build their shelters. Set over many seasons, Rietveld pours over the enormous work of maintaining the family’s lifestyle, the inventiveness, care and expertise required to live (almost) off-the-grid. Arguably, one of the most fascinating aspects of the film is the care Rietveld takes in emphasizing how comparatively moderate the family is: the kids go to school, use electricity and (by necessity) they also run a business. Perhaps a little too long and aesthetically safe, the style nonetheless allows its strong characters to shine and perhaps offers a little inspiration to those interested in becoming more self-sufficient. 

Eternal Spring

Eternal Spring Jason Loftus review
Eternal Spring (directed by Jason Loftus)

From an outside perspective, Eternal Spring was a strange choice as Canada’s official selection for the Best International Film for this year’s Oscars. It’s a primarily animated documentary about a 2002 incident in Changchun City, China, when members of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong hijacked a State TV broadcast. The film’s structure employs a dual narrative. We follow comic book illustrator Daxiong (Justice League, Star Wars) as he recounts his experiences as a Falun Gong practitioner and his work to bring the largely undocumented incident to life through his illustrations, which are later animated. The contemporary segments feature interviews with surviving raid members structured around Daxiong’s practice. The rest of the film is the fruit of his labours, comic book-style animations bringing the heist to life. 

The film doesn’t quite hit the mark in the same way as some other recent “animated” docs. There’s a sense that the film works a little too hard to erase the more controversial elements of Falun Gong (well-documented as far-right) as if acknowledging some of the trickier aspects would somehow justify the Chinese government’s disproportionate response against them. Rather than oversimplifying the group’s ideology, acknowledging its complexity would have made for a more nuanced and compelling film. Instead, it’s impossible to walk away not feeling like you’ve been duped a little as if the filmmakers don’t have faith in their audience. 

Den Mother Crimson

Den Mother Crimson Kingston Canadian Film Festival cinema
Den Mother Crimson (directed by Siluck Saysanasy)

One of the festival highlights was the presentation of the world premiere of local film Den Mother Crimson. Made entirely in Kingston, Ontario, the movie was unfinished when it was presented. The edit was still a little rough, the effects somewhat incomplete and the sound design still in an early stage. Part of a pilot project to help make Kingston a new filmmaking destination, the movie primarily takes place in a warehouse, which feels counterproductive in showcasing all that the city has to offer. Nonetheless, the film’s sci-fi premise relies on production design, costuming and other locally sourced audiovisual dressing to pop. The film is straight out of The Twilight Zone, the story of three scientists hired as consultants in a remote prison project where the hyper-intelligent AI technology has gone rogue. The film itself, though rough, is entertaining enough despite its humble means and limited location. It’s a lot more text than subtext, at least in this iteration, but it will be interesting to see how much the final version will change based on this first public screening. 


Brother Clement Virgo
Brother (directed by Clement Virgo)

Clement Virgo easily ranks among Canada’s most high-profile talents. He wrote, directed and produced the critically acclaimed adaptation of The Book of Negroes. He’s directed episodes of Dahmer, The Wire, Empire and cult classics Lie With Me and Rude. Virgo not only directed Brother, but he adapted the screenplay from the best-selling novel. The result? One of the best English Canadian films in recent memory. With an intuitive approach to editing, simulating the act of remembrance, different timelines seamlessly intersect in the unravelling relationship between two brothers and their immigrant mother growing up in Scarborough, Ontario. Vibrant in mood and colour, the film brims with tenderness and intimacy. It portrays with sensitivity the irreplaceable bond between siblings and the heavy weight of tragedy tearing it apart. One of the biggest takeaways from the film is that Aaron Pierre, who plays Francis (you might also recognize him as Mid-Sized Sedan from Old and Caesar from The Underground Railroad), is one of the most incredible screen presences in recent memory. The film is set to be released this month in Quebec — keep an eye out for a full review. 

North of Normal

North of Normal Kingston Canadian Film Festival review
North of Normal (directed by Carly Stone)

Despite a winning cast featuring Robert Carlyle and Sarah Gadon, North of Normal exemplifies the kind of middle-of-the-road Canadiana that tries to pass for American. It’s not necessarily that the film tries to hide that it’s Canadian. They don’t evade naming provinces and cities, but in style and approach, the movie cribs off middling memoir-inspired American indies that rely on quirk rather than substance. Adapted from Cea Sunrise Person’s 2014 memoir of the same name, the film examines her childhood growing up in the countercultural movement in the 1970s, particularly her belaboured relationship with her mother, who was just 15 years old when she had her. Though “fine” in nearly every respect, the film struggles to find its voice. There’s no clear takeaway or focus in terms of narrative, and even the usually great cast drowns in clichés.


Shelter Tess Girard review
Shelter (directed by Tess Girard)

Though it doesn’t quite come together, there’s a lot to admire in Tess Girard’s latest documentary, Shelter. Departing from a more institutional voice, Girard attempts a poetic invocation of place. The title, which first refers to a fallout shelter built by Bruce Beach North of Toronto, eventually expands to encompass a greater sense of place. What does it mean to be tied to the land? At what point does a shelter become a home? Featuring a wide range of talking heads, no one can compete with the warmth and eccentricity of Bruce and his wife Jean. Beyond their strangeness, there’s an intimacy in those interviews that can’t be matched by the other subjects who fall back on discussing home renovations and chores rather than coming alive on screen. Girard similarly weaves her own story within the film, primarily by way of a voice-over that can’t quite shake its overtly mannered CBC tone. The overall experience is uneven though undoubtedly worthwhile. 

For more on the Kingston Canadian Film Festival, please visit its website.

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