Atom aplomb

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 March, 2006, 12:00am

ATOM EGOYAN shudders when he remembers his last visit to Hong Kong. It was 18 years ago and he was here at the behest of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, at which his critically acclaimed second full-length feature Family Viewing was shown. The highlight of the night was to be a post-screening meet-the-audience session.

'Nobody asked questions,' says the Canadian director, remembering the stony silence. 'And I brought my mother with me. I wanted her to see how exciting it could be - but it wasn't what I thought.'

This time around, the reception couldn't have been more different. Egoyan was in town last week as guest of honour at the local Canadian Film Festival - his latest film, Where the Truth Lies, was the curtain-raiser for the two-week event - and the 46-year-old director was feted wherever he went.

The red-carpet treatment hasn't gone to his head. Settling into his couch, the first thing he asks is how long it takes for mail-order DVDs to arrive in Hong Kong from overseas. Then he launches into an passionate recollection of a shopping spree in Yau Ma Tei the night before, where he found DVDs he has never seen anywhere else, and original production stills of Blowup and Rashomon.

Such enthusiasm for trivia is testament to Egoyan's reputation as an idiosyncratic director. At the same time that he was directing Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon in Where the Truth Lies, he was: screening his no-budget digital video pieces at Camera, a 51-seat theatre-cum-bar he helps run in Toronto; preparing for a production of Wagner's Ring Cycle; and writing a book about the cultural meaning behind film subtitles (which was published last year).

'I want to be able to use my position to support emerging talent and give it a space of its own,' he says. 'The great thing about the bar and the cinema is that when filmmakers show their digital features, there can be discussion with their friends about it - and I'm proud to be able to present this zone. But it's tough to programme it all the time.'

He's able to support such work, thanks to his major projects. And Where the Truth Lies is probably his biggest and most commercial film yet.

Taking the shape of a noir thriller, Truth revolves around the mysterious death of a young student, Maureen (Rachel Blanchard), in the hotel room of a Rat Pack-like 1950s comedy duo (Firth as straight guy Vince, and Bacon as his partner Lanny). The narrative takes place in 1972, 15 years after that incident, when young journalist Karen (Alison Lohman) is commissioned to interview the pair - whose partnership collapsed after the death - with a view to writing an expose.

But Karen does more than just interview the pair. First, she goes to bed with Lanny; then, she gets involved in a night of steamy shenanigans under the aegis of Vince. It slowly emerges that Karen's motives are far more than just financial or sexual: her pursuit of the 'truth' is as much about exonerating her own past - she was the beneficiary of a charity telethon the duo starred in - as it is a quest for justice.

Known for his subtle, slow-burning films, Egoyan surprised many with what could qualify as a conventional whodunit. Even more surprising was the amount of bare flesh in Truth. The cast appear in various stages of undress, including a no-holds-barred menage-a-trois that earned the film a Category III rating in Hong Kong (and an NC-17 in the US).

It's a far cry from his last film, Ararat, a heavy piece that examines the Armenian genocides in 1915 and 1918. Ararat won five Genies (Canada's annual film awards) in 2003, among them best film and best actress (Arsinee Khanjian, Egoyan's wife, who has starred in nearly all of his films). The success didn't translate to box-office receipts - but it seems likely that Truth will do much better.

Egoyan - born to Armenian parents in Cairo, but raised in Victoria, British Columbia - says he adapted Rupert Holmes' pulp thriller as a piece of light relief. 'After Ararat, I needed to do something really different,' he says. 'I remember when I read the book I was laughing because it was so pleasurable. And I thought this is exactly what I've been looking for - something so different from what I've done, to get that pure enjoyment of filmmaking, creating these images and this world with the costumes, art direction and the music. It would just be fun.'

It was also a sharp departure for his cast, Egoyan says. 'One of the reasons Colin did this film was that he got to deconstruct this persona he felt he was imprisoned by,' he says. 'As we were shooting he was doing all the Bridget Jones [sequel] promotion and he was suffocated by this Darcy character. He really loved this idea of deconstructing that and stripping all that away - literally.'

The same goes for Bacon, he says. 'Kevin just wanted to take risks. So many other people that I might have approached would never play these roles because they're so vulnerable, but I got two people who are, first and foremost, actors. And for Alison Lohman, who's 26, the characters she played before in Matchstick Men and White Oleander were adolescents, and she wanted to break out of that mould. I think everyone was attracted to the project because they're redefining themselves and not playing what people would expect.'

Leaving aside the glamour and sleaze, Truth is similar to Egoyan's more subdued productions. His films touch on how technology mediates and transforms experiences - whether it be homemade videos (Family Viewing, in which a father 'erases' past memories by taping porn over images of his ex-wife and son), movies (a director conjuring the Armenian genocide through a film in Ararat), or voice recordings (Krapp's Last Tape, his film adaptation of the Samuel Beckett play, in which the sole protagonist agonises over decisions he made, through audio journals from his life). It's no coincidence that Karen's taped interviews, the comfort she feels in rewatching old reels of Larry and Vince's telethons, and Maureen's covert use of a recording machine in the pair's hotel room just before she dies provide the keys to Truth.

Egoyan's obsession with the topic goes all the way back to his first short film, Howard in Particular. Made in 1979 when he was studying international relations at the University of Toronto - Egoyan never went to film school - it's a peculiar piece in which an aged worker at a fruit-processing factory is told about his redundancy via a tape recording.

Awards from local film festivals allowed Egoyan to continue making independent short films while still at university (his first few pieces were backed by Hart House, the university's arts and recreational centre). Provincial funding bodies contributed later on, with Ontario Arts Council sponsoring his first feature, Next of Kin (1984), about a young man who transforms his life by claiming to be the long-lost son of an Armenian-Canadian family.

After spells directing episodes for Canadian and American television - including Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone - Egoyan wrote and directed Family Viewing, which propelled him into the limelight. He has become a favourite at European film festivals: Speaking Parts (1989) and The Adjuster (1991) both made it to the Director's Fortnight showcase in Cannes, but his major breakthrough was Exotica (1994), a multi-layered intrigue about several dysfunctional characters frequenting a table-dance club. It won the International Critics' Prize at Cannes, an achievement Egoyan matched three years later with The Sweet Hereafter.

Unlike David Cronenberg, the other, better-known Canadian director of his generation, Egoyan basically sealed himself off from portraying mainstream concerns - until now. He says making Truth was a step into the unknown. Having completed the film, he discovered that a rebirth is easier said than done.

'It was only when I started editing Truth that I realised it was dealing with a lot of similar themes, but in a different way,' he says. 'There's the moment when I brought out the tape recorder [for Karen's scenes] that I was going, 'Oh, this is the same type of recorder John Hurt used for Krapp's Last Tape'. I was trying to reinvent myself - but you never really can.'

Where the Truth Lies opens today