One Week in Another Town: Whackadoodle history, evolving myth and the abiding banality of evil

The richness and variety of artistic endeavor displayed in the Toronto International Film Festival's splendid lineup can't help but renew your faith that smart, caring folk are still wrestling with the world's pressing problems. And in such heady environs, it's easy to believe that art is more than sideshow entertainment or museum décor, that it might even have the power to change the world.

In the months ahead, keep an eye out for three wildly different films screened in TIFF 2005. Each yanks political/human realities out of simpleminded cliché, spin and jingoism and reimagines them in eye- and mind-opening forms.

Im Sang-soo's "The President's Last Bang" reframes the 1979 assas-sination of Park Chung Hee, South Korean dictator for 18 years, as blackest comedy. "Bang"'s POV is that of an alien eye, neither amused nor outraged by human flaws and trivial pursuits. In the film's near-slapstick milieu, getting rid of the repressive Park isn't noble or planned in the service of The People or a grand cause - and certainly freedom doesn't ring when the bad guy is eliminated from the picture.

Park's entourage is split between toadies who share his pleasures, mostly dining and womanizing, and gum-chewing tough guys reduced to chauffeuring presidential doxies and standing guard while he parties. The head of Park's secret police has no health left - too busy keeping down dissent and coddling his infantile boss. Taking a bathroom break from another evening of banal debauch, Kim impulsively translates his lack of movement in one arena into a decision to take action in another.

The bloodbath is half-horrific, half-Three Stooges. Likewise the aftermath, with gaggles of government officials milling ineffectually about, each afraid to take a stand, each looking for scapegoats and the next Number One. In the hospital ER, they crowd around Beloved Leader's naked corpse like geese, as though waiting for Park to rise and give them orders. Finally, one officer sidles up to place his cap over the presidential privates.

A deadpan satirist, director Im edges us toward disquieting questions. Is history made by accident, by buffoons and men with griping bowels? Because walkie-talkies don't work and bullets turn out to be blanks? Jonathan Swift would have loved "The President's Last Bang," a savagely comedic reading of Lilliputian humanity.

Sturla Gunnarsson's "Beowulf and Grendel" stays true to the scoured, forbidding landscapes (Iceland) where this mythic struggle between human hero and nightmare demon might have played out. But the lank-haired Danes and Geats who populate these godforsaken climes (Gerard Butler as Beowulf, Stellan Skarsgård as Hroth-gar, et al.) converse in an oddly effective mixture of period and contemporary rhythms; and their dilemma, as shaped by Gunnarsson, resonates as an ancient paradigm of hatred passed from generation to generation, a legacy of killing for god or fatherland.

The trouble starts when King Hrothgar rides down and kills Gren-del's dad, a troll who stole a fish from the king's store. Child Grendel is spared to saw off his sire's head, which he installs in his cave and reveres as a kind of God the Father. Ironic that when the grown troll starts wreaking havoc on Hrothgar's people, their despair drives them into the baptizing arms of an unkept, epileptic priest, proselytizing for a Christian God the Father. Gunnarsson's working the ways religion gets born of personal loss and desperate times. There's even a feminist witch (the always surprising Sarah Polley), an outcast used by the "civilized" Danes, protected by the unevolved troll.

The single-minded Beowulf - "I go where I'm called" - begins to grasp the troll's character and grief, and even glimpses the larger picture of the times in which these unlikely "brothers" are pitted one against the other. As na-tions build and property rights come to rule, primitives and loners must go under, breeding centuries-old calls to vengeance.

This ambitious film's never less than gripping as it complicates the old Beowulf-and-Grendel saga into a Cain-and-Abel tragedy that speaks to today's jihads and crusades, born of old grudges and hunger, not for a single fish, but for nations - and Mad Max's "juice."

In Michael Haneke's "Caché" ("Hidden"), an ultra-bourgeois couple (Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil) begin receiving eerie videotapes of their home, shot from across the street. Then postcards arrive, scrawled with a cartoon child's face, a gush of bright red blood erupting from its mouth. They're being stalked, but by whom? For what reason?

Their middle-class bastion - all glossy furniture, shiny appliances, floor-to-ceiling books - has been violated by something "hidden," its tranquilized order disrupted by the unsettling knowledge that someone is watching. And that awful wash of scarlet signals violence seemingly foreign to their civilized lives.

Emotionally shallow, self-absorbed, this family (there's a teenaged son) barely touch each other as they move through busy lives. But under the pressure of the tapes and postcards, abysses open between husband and wife, parents and child. Things assumed on faith - trust, morality, fundamental human connections - begin to look like window dressing, just accessories that accompany a good education and an excellent living.

A book-reviewer on TV (his set is walls of books with blank spines), Georges seems a sympathetic intellectual given to reading, thinking, feeling about the human condition. Auteuil delivers a terrific performance, letting cold selfishness slowly leak through his mask of conscience and compassion. In reality, he is a monster - a monster who mirrors the worst in many of us.

In flashbacks, we slowly learn of the original childhood sin that may have come back to haunt Georges. For fear of losing first place in his home, he deliberately sabotaged his parents' adoption of Majid, an Arab boy, orphaned in the 1961 massacre of protesting Algerians. Is it this Algerian "brother" who's again assaulting his castle? Yes, Georges thinks, and tracks the man down to his claustrophobic, hole-in-the-wall apartment. Discounting Majid's denials, he soon enlists obliging officialdom in the harassment of his Abel, along with Majid's son. There's no end to what this civilized man will do to keep family and his job secure ... to keep the have-nots from his door.

"Caché"'s slow turning of the screw, like the best kind of suspense thriller, culminates in a scene too real for movies, so visceral I cried out loud in shock. Shouldn't such sacrifice change everything? But Haneke is not the kind of director who sells out to the feel-good trade. "Caché" delivers no easy epiphanies, no instant redemption.[[In-content Ad]]