Ang Lee Film Tops Toronto Film Fest

After 10 days and more than 300 movies at the world’s ultimate “people’s” film festival, the people have spoken.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee’s historical action-romance, was named the winner Sunday of the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Lee is a native of Taiwan best known for such English-language movies as The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility. His current film, however, is set during the Qing dynasty in China and stars Chow Yun-Fat as a martial arts warrior who longs to retire.

“There’s an innocence, a pure magic of movement to this movie,” said festival director Piers Handling. “It takes you back to your childhood days, when people fly across rooftops and have sword fights in trees.”

The Dish, an Australian comedy about the 1969 moon landing, finished second among audience voters. Previous winners have included American Beauty, Shine and Life is Beautiful.

Power to the People This was the 25th year of the festival, which ended Saturday, and it was marked by appearances from Gwyneth Paltrow, Al Pacino, Ed Harris and many other celebrities. But what defined the 25th festival is what has defined it from the start: the public.

Unlike Cannes, Toronto is where filmmakers get to show their work to a general audience. For the past 10 days lines formed in lobbies, down stairwells, around street corners and back again. Film lovers woke up early, went to bed late, used up vacation time and came out to see everything from “Midnight Madness” horror screenings to comedies in the morning.

“I cut out of work to see a couple of movies,” admitted 27-year-old Andrew Egan, a bank programmer who stood in the late summer cold one morning to catch a showing of The Dish.

Once a far more intimate affair, the Toronto festival can be likened to a small business that grows beyond its own expectations. The challenge becomes how to handle all the extra customers without losing what made it special in the first place.

“We were very worried a few years ago that the industry side would crowd out the public side,” Handling said. “So we just added press and industry screenings. In fact, it was press people who had a hard time getting to see movies.”

Toronto has been known to “make” films. In 1999, response to American Beauty was widely believed to be a major step to its Academy Award success six months later. In previous years, productions such as Robert Duvall’s The Apostle and the German action film Run Lola Run picked up U.S. distributors thanks to that mysterious, essential aura known as “buzz.”

This year, however, there were no obvious favorites. Festival bees buzzed among several movies, including the Australian romance Innocence, the British comedy Billy Elliott and the American political drama The Contender.

Let’s Make a Deal

For salespeople, the 25th Toronto festival was the busiest yet; Toronto now challenges Cannes and Sundance as an industry showcase. From the Iranian drama The Circle to the Thai gangster movie Bangkok Dangerous, films received distribution deals all over the world.

“This is my 10th festival and it was the most successful so far,” said Wouter Barendrecht, chair of Fortissimo Film Sales, a company based in Hong Kong that represented Bangkok Dangerous and several other releases.

Before Night Falls, painter Julian Schnabel’s tribute to the late Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, was acquired by New Line. Lions Gate picked up Kathryn Bigelow’s The Weight of Water, which stars Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley.

Other movies attracting strong interest included Iron Ladies, a trans-gender comedy from Thailand; The Princess and the Warrior, by Run Lola Run director Tom Twyker; and the Canadian horror movie Ginger Snaps.

“We’re dealing with more markets than ever; every single company wants to come here,” said Kelley Alexander, director of the festival’s industry center. “That only makes it better for filmmakers.”