FEST REPORT I'm writing hours after the start of the Toronto International Film Festival's 31st edition. Opening nights are a ritual for film festivals, and this one is no exception. The big show is always a Canadian feature: this year it's Norman Cohn and Zacharias Kunuk's The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, the follow-up to the same team's hit from five years ago, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. I've seen the best and worst of Canadian cinema over the years at these opening nights, but I now choose to skip the red-carpet mob of Toronto's moneyed finest in favor of an alternative: at the Elgin, one of Toronto's best movie palaces, an international feature with high hopes unspools to an audience of cinephiles with equally grand expectations. To the collective joy of those assembled, The Lives of Others hits the giant screen with appropriate splendor. Already said to be Germany's contender for the Oscars (a prospect that isn't necessarily promising), this debut feature is much more than the usual polished Euro gem aiming at the global market. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck studied political science and economics as well as filmmaking, and it shows. Here is a man who can think about his society and who, moreover, trusts the specificities of history (in this case, 1984 in the German Democratic Republic) to speak to the present. Like Good Night, and Good Luck, Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others begs us to pay attention to history. In Germany — the film suggests — the days of political thugs abusing power to control a population are over. "To think that people like you used to run a country!" its writer-protagonist explodes in a pivotal scene to an ex-politician in the lobby of a Berlin theater reviving the former’s old socialist realist play. Here in George W. Bush and Karl Rove's America (where the wiretapping that dominates Henckel von Donnersmarck's film is a reality), no such comforting escape into the present is remotely possible. But The Lives of Others could be a lesson to US filmmakers on how to create complex characters that lead an audience through complex issues — to think and feel at the same time, as the director’s compatriot Rainer Werner Fassbinder once put it. The Elgin Visa Screening Room (yes, that's the name — festival sponsor Visa is inescapable) vibrated with passion at film's end. Directors aren't supposed to come back onstage at the opening-night screening, but the standing ovation demanded it. And the applause wasn't only for Henckel von Donnersmarck's very real achievement as the writer and director. Lead actor Ulrich Mühe — who gives an extraordinary performance as a conflicted Stasi agent — had been an East German theater actor under heavy Stasi surveillance. There he was, onstage too, a living storehouse of historical process. At a festival where politics are already emerging as a major focus, this jewel of a flashback may well be a flash-forward to the year ahead. (B. Ruby Rich) FEST REPORT I may be an American journalist scuttling around in Canada, but so far all of my top picks at the Toronto International Film Festival hail from Asia. South Korea's The Host is a film you will be hearing a lot about in the near future — especially if you're anywhere near my yapping mouth, which will be (loudly) singing the praises of Bong Joon-ho's colossal monster jam for months to come. Kinda like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Host is inspired by a true incident. According to a 2000 Korea Times article, an American civilian employee of US Forces Korea was jailed for ordering the dumping of toxins into Seoul's Han River. That he happened to oversee a US Army mortuary was a particularly juicy detail. As The Host imagines it, the freaky chemical combo births an underwater mutant. We don't have to wait long to get a full reveal either: it's a huge, mouthy sea monster, complete with dexterous tentacles and the ability to gallop across land, perform graceful backflips, and swallow whatever unlucky human being gets the hell in its way. Naturally, the local population freaks — especially a sad-sack father (Song Kang-ho, who also played a sad-sack father in Park Chanwook's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) who watches helplessly when his young daughter gets lassoed by the critter. The Host follows his oft-ridiculous plans to rescue her with the help of his brother (an educated drunk) and sister (a competitive archer who tends to choke when it counts). The film also chronicles the Korean government's strong-arm approach to handling the "river incident" — with the help of the US Army, which would just as soon incite even more panic by claiming the monster is the source of a terrible and mysterious new virus. Bonus: The Host boasts killer special effects by San Francisco's the Orphanage (Sin City, Superman Returns) and New Zealand's Weta Workshop (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong). With cutting political and social commentary gurgling just below the surface and black humor spurting from every orifice, The Host (due for a Magnolia Pictures release in 2007) is a must-see for monster movie fans — and jeez, everybody else too. If straight-ahead action's more your thing, keep an eye out for Johnnie To's Exiled (Bay Area release date unknown). Touted in some circles as the sequel to The Mission, this may be the prolific To's best gangster movie to date. The smashingly hangdog Anthony Wong anchors a cast of familiar Hong Kong faces (Simon Yam, Francis Ng, Nick Cheung); the plot, about hired guns and gangsters who do the double cross like nobody's business, matters less than the jaw-dropping gun battles it produces. When shoot-outs come this well choreographed, the word is gun-fu — and in Exiled, the bloody results are nothing short of stunning. Also topping my Toronto experience so far: Takashi Miike's latest oddity, surreal prison drama Big Bang Love: Juvenile A (by the time you read this, he’ll probably already have his next film in the can); The Wayward Cloud director Tsai Ming-liang's dreamy, gritty, and near-silent I Don't Want to Sleep Alone; and Nobody Knows helmer Hirokazu Kore-eda's samurai yarn, Hana. (Cheryl Eddy) For longer takes on these and other TIFF selections, read daily festival updates on the Pixel Vision blog at www.sfbg.com .