SIFF: Week Two (May 29-June 4, 2011), Part One

I saw an insane amount of movies during Week Two, which is why I’m splitting this entry in half.

Sunday, May 29th

    Venue Volunteer: Line Person     Neptune Theatre    10am-2pm

I worked with stressed out lady again, but she wasn’t so stressed out this time. The first movie was called The Sandman and the Lost Sand of Dreams (English dubbed, from Germany), which alternated between live action and stop motion animation. Meant for children, there were a whole bunch of children who came to see it, which is why the first ten minutes of the movie had no sound. Though it was fixed (only an issue on the first reel), a couple of people asked for a refund, and I felt bad for the programmer of the film, whom I believed also arranged for a large group of children to see it.  Not that it was a noticeable improvement. While a cute film, the dubbing didn’t allow for space between the words, and so the rhythm (and the reactions themselves) were a bit comical.

The second film was the North American premiere of Red Eagle, a 130-minute action film from Thailand about a super hero called (wait for it)….Red Eagle. There wasn’t too big of an audience for this film. That’s not surprising, considering that I didn’t know Thailand to be well-known for their action movies (unlike Hong Kong), and 130 minutes for an action film seems a tad long. Besides, Red Eagle is a sucky name for a super hero. But maybe it was really good. I don’t know because I didn’t feel like staying for a 130 minute action/superhero movie from Thailand.

5.     Black Venus (France, 2010: 159 min)     Egyptian Theatre     8:30 pm

Dustin, the programmer for this film (my first at the Egyptian for this festival) was the same programmer, earlier than morning, for The Sandman and the Lost Sand of Dreams. I mention that because, considering the issues he had that morning, I felt even worse for him with this film.

The first hint that something wasn’t right came in line, where I heard about DVDs, watermarks, and the film not working. Dustin confirmed that once we were inside, saying that they had experienced “technical difficulties” with the digital print and so were using a DVD from the film company that included a rather large watermark in the top right corner. As such, he offered to refund anyone’s ticket if they were unsatisfied with the quality of the film.

Now, I thought a watermark was similar to the burn marks you see in 35 mm films that tells the projectionist to switch reels. Actually, it was the words “Property of MK2” in large letters. Still, the watermark didn’t annoy me as much as the quality of the film. It probably would have looked better on digital (if it were in hi-def), but why not use 35 mm for a piece that takes place in the early nineteenth century–especially when using locations in France and England?

The beginning of Black Venus (Vénus Noire in French) is the end of the film chronologically, as the “Hottentot Venus” is dissected in front of a group of medical students. That woman is Sara Baartman (Yahima Torres), who traveled from Cape Town to London with her manager/master, Hendrick Caesar (Andre Jacobs) to perform in a show in which she pretended she was a savage and had to suffer the indignities of people touching her buttocks. The movie follows her from her show in London, to the courts (abolitionists tried to free her; she testified that she wasn’t being forced to do anything against her will), to her show in Paris (with a new–and more depraved–handler), to her dealings with scientists who want to study her, to her life in the brothels, and finally, to her death.

Though the film is well-done (and based on a real person), it’s difficult to watch this woman be the subject of so much cruelty and sexual humiliation, especially once Caesar passes her off to Réaux (Olivier Gourmet). Also, there are some dull spots in England, where we follow her in her daily routine.

Luckily, there is a silver lining, as the end of the film chronicles the return of her body to her homeland (in 2002)–a bright spot to an otherwise bleak film (the body had been displayed in France since 1974).  It’s funny how I won’t watch an action movie that runs a little over two hours, yet I will subject myself to a movie based on a true story of human cruelty, which lasts for over 2 1/2. While a well-made film, once is enough. 4 out of 5

Note: I sat next to a woman a little younger than me whom I told about my blog, since she saw me taking notes before the film began. She asked if I were taking notes for every film, the name of my blog, what other kinds of writing I do, and why I chose to see Black Venus.

Monday, May 30th: Memorial Day    

6.     La Dolce Vita (Italy, 1960: 174 min)     Harvard Exit Theatre     10 am

Do I need to review this film for you? No I don’t. It’s one of the greatest films ever made and lived up to my high expectations. One thing that was unexpected (but welcome) was how long the line was for such an old film. That, and the fact that people were inside talking about RoboGeisha and The Hangover II, are the reasons I love Seattle. Where else would people going to see a new print of a classic Italian film be talking about such lowbrow and popular entertainment?

How new is this print? Before the film began, we were informed by one of the staff members that this print had only been shown in San Francisco (two showings) before coming to Seattle. He also joked that Fellini would be coming that afternoon to answer questions about the film. He also said we shouldn’t have received a ballot for Best Picture for this film, as it was ineligible, awesome as it would be if it won, and Fellini for Best Director.

I love films that make you feel as if you’re living them after you’ve left the theater. This is one of them (helped, perhaps, by its almost three hour length).  In it, we witness a man’s work, loves, family, friends, conquests, and tragedies: his highs and lows, the spiritual and the secular. My only complaint was that the man in front of me was tall, so sometimes I had to crane my neck to see the subtitles. When he slouched in his seat, however, I could read them fine.

I’ve seen shorter movies where I’ve wished for that time back. With this film, I felt privileged to have spent so much time in its company.

7.     Something Ventured (USA, 2011: 85 min)     Harvard Exit Theatre       6:30 pm

Dayna Goldfine (with the microphone) and Daniel Geller (to her left), directors of SOMETHING VENTURED

My second film of a three-film day was the documentary Something Ventured, which is about the rise of venture capitalists and some of the entrepreneurs they financed, including Nolan Bushnell (Atari), Steve Jobs and Bill Wozniecki (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), and Dennis Austin and Thomas Rudkin (PowerPoint). To give it poignancy, we also hear the story of Sandra Lerner, one of the few female pioneers of Silicon Valley, who was a co-founder of Cisco Systems (which sold some of the first routers), only to be fired when she rubbed too many people the wrong way (Leonard Bosack, her then husband and co-founder of the company, resigned the same day when she told him the news).  For this film, I sat in the same seat and row as I had for La Dolce Vita (fifth row center, second seat from the right).

Venture capitalism is when money finances high-risk, upstart companies that have the potential to earn high dividends on the equity that the venture capitalists own within these companies. Something Ventured specifically focuses on the rise of Silicon Valley, from the “Traitorous Eight” leaving Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory (two of them later formed Intel) through the rise of the Internet.

The film is a good mix of old photos, archival film, graphics, and interviews. In the Q&A that followed, directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine explained that there was no archived footage at these companies (past Intel), and so they had to search for old photos to use. They also decided to focus on the original venture capitalists because “they were the pioneers.” Therefore, we see people like Arthur Rock (who did the most extensive check on the directors before he agreed to be interviewed by them, and both hired and fired Steve Jobs at Apple) and George Doriot (the “father” of venture capitalism).  They also said that they interviewed Mike Markkula for the film (employee #3 at Apple) because they couldn’t “get any traction” with Steve Jobs (which Arthur Rock predicted because Jobs doesn’t look backwards).  Interesting note: Steve Jobs worked for Nolan Bushnell and so offered Bushnell a 1/3 share in Apple for $250,000 when he was looking to get backing for that company. Bushnell turned him down.

This is a film that I could have given either a 3 or a 4 to. Considering how much work they put into making this topic interesting and engaging, I decided on the higher score. 4 out of 5

8.     Dance Town (South Korea, 2010: 95 min)     Harvard Exit Theatre             9 pm

My last movie of the night was also one of the most depressing.  It didn’t help that my legs have been hurting for the past two days due to all the standing I’ve been doing.

I chose to sit in a different seat this time: third row center, five seats in.  Though I didn’t get a Back 2 Back ticket for this show, I didn’t really need it, as it wasn’t very full. The same programmer for Something Ventured introduced this movie (who you can see in the Q&A photo for Something Ventured and the Q&A photo for this film).

Dance Town is the story of a North Korean refugee (Rha Mi-ran) who arrives in South Korea by boat after her neighbor reports her and her husband for watching pornography purchased in South Korea.  Her husband, however, is detained before he can escape.  She goes through a grueling interview with a government agent who tells her, “If you lie, you’re dead,” and then is kept under secret surveillance until her case worker decides that she is not a spy.  To give you an idea of how depressing this film is, she meets a police officer who, one night while they both are drunk, rapes her in a back alley.  When she returns to the alley for her purse, she sees a homeless man stealing it.  In addition, we witness a high school girl who buys abortion drugs on the street after getting pregnant, only to see the devastating effect it has on her.

I felt these stories meandered a bit.  Either director Jeon Kyu-hwan should have delved more into the lives of the other characters or focused entirely on the North Korean woman, forced to make a new life for herself.  Though he did explain the purpose for the high school student’s story during the Q&A (which I felt was thrown in), the audience never really gets to know these characters by the end.  This was also an issue with Black Venus, but less so, mainly because that film focused entirely on her. 3 out of 5

Jeon Kyu-hwan’s translator, Kyu-hwan, and SIFF programmer

Q&A with director Jeon Kyu-hwan: Though the audience was small for the film, it got even smaller for the Q&A (then again, the film finished after 10 pm, and people had work the next day).  Still, I felt bad for Jeon Kyu-hwan, who came all the way from South Korea for this Q&A.  I felt even worse for his translator.  She had trouble translating one question in particular (about stock footage used at the beginning of the film, showing North Koreans escaping into South Korea), which led to all of the Koreans in the audience trying to translate the question for her, including college students.  While I’m sure she was grateful for the help, how embarrassing is it to have to rely on others to do your job for you, and to have them do it better than you?

The director explained that Dance Town is the third film in a trilogy about Seoul.  The first film, Mozart Town, deals with the point of view of travelers. The second film, Animal Town, sees Seoul through the eyes of animals and criminals. Dance Town sees Seoul through the eyes of its people, and gets its name from the fact that every person has a different style of dance in their lives.  Some dances are happy, while others are sad.

Because there were not many questions, and I wondered what purpose the teenage girl had in the story, I asked him about it.  He went on quite awhile about it, so I felt my question was a good one.  He said that he wanted to reveal hidden stories about the city, and while the movie shows the main character’s point of view, he wanted to show the stories that are taking place around her.  When his translator finished translating his answer, the guy next to me said, “That makes sense.”  It did to me, too.

The final question was in Korean and dealt with the final scene. Kyu-hwan answered that the purpose of that scene is to show that cities are not places to take care of others.  Cities do not care about their people, and they do not take care of them.

While other filmmakers show Seoul as a vibrant city, Kyu-hwan dares to show its flaws.  Perhaps that is why his films are not well known, even in his home country (if you look up all three of his movies on IMDB, you will see how little information there is about them).  While I didn’t give Dance Town a 4 or a 5, I find this troubling.  His films may not be commercial, but they should reach a larger audience than the one it reached at SIFF.

Tuesday, May 31st

9.     Late Autumn (South Korea/China/USA, 2011: 113 min)     Egyptian Theatre     4 pm

This was the movie I was originally going to see on Sunday night, before it sold out (not surprisingly, since it was shot on location in Seattle and Sunday night was the US premiere).  Instead, I had to run up the street after work to get there on time.  The place was packed, except for some seats left in the balcony.  Luckily, I found a seat on the floor, near the aisle.

Late Autumn stars the lovely Tang Wei (Lust, Caution) as a prisoner allowed to go home to Seattle to attend her mother’s funeral.  On the bus ride there, she meets a male escort (Hyun Bin).  Though she is at first repulsed by him, they grow to love each other, until she has to return to prison, and one of his past dalliances catches up with him.

The movie had a South Korean film crew and lead actor, a Chinese lead actress, and a shoot in America.  Though the main language in the film is English, Korean and Chinese are also used.  When the main actor and actress speak in their native tongues, the movie is good.  While Tang’s English pronunciation is great, her delivery seems caught up on her pronunciation, whereas Bin’s English is rougher, but flows more naturally from his character.

Unfortunately, much of this film is in English, including the disjointed middle section, which involves the love story.  While Tang and Bin share one of the longest and most passionate kisses I’ve ever seen onscreen, their relationship up to then reminded me of the one portrayed between Anakin Skywalker and Princess Amidala in Stars Wars: Episode II.  When Tang looked at Bin at one point and said, “Do you want me?” I almost groaned.  Now, I love Tang Wei and thought she was excellent in Lust, Caution.  Here, however, her face sulks for most of the film, without a sense of there being a person behind it.  Also, while it was nice seeing all those Seattle landmarks, some of the sights and sounds of Seattle (particularly the Market Ghost Tours) are introduced in a kitschy way.  Finally, the entire first scene in the film, where a dazed and blood-soaked Tang is wandering in the street before returning home, where her husband’s dead body lies, could have been cut, since the entire story of why she was sent to prison is covered later in the film.

What makes these flaws even more annoying is that, littered throughout these horrid scenes are some really strong ones, and Bin does much with the little that is given him.  In particular, the ending is strong, which is why I wish the journey to that end had not been so mediocre.  And having a love story where no one believes the two main characters would be in love?  Unforgivable.  2 out of 5

Yup, it’s the same programmer from last night

Q&A with 2 of the producers: I had been sitting pretty far back during the film, but I raced to get a closer seat during the Q&A.  The lighting was still bad for photographs, but it would have been worse had I stayed where I was.

Eunjung Yoon, one of the co-producers of the film, and another producer (there were many, in case you’re wondering why I don’t know who it was) attended the Q&A — though, as the photo shows, Yoon spoke for the entire time, and in English.

He said that the film is loosely based on a classic Korean film that came out in 1965 (IMDB says 1966), which is what brought him to the project.  In a way, he wanted to remake the film, since no copies of that original film exist.  Because they wanted to do a good job, they hired one of the best directors in South Korea (Kim Tae-yong) to direct the film.

He said that the crew searched for many locations in the US to film in during autumn (even my home state of Connecticut), but they felt that Seattle’s rainy atmosphere best captured the mood of the movie.  He also said that he’d love to film in Seattle again, and that Washington Filmworks was very supportive of the project (at which point, the programmer jumped in and said that this non-profit organization was up for renewal in the Senate, and so we should contact our state senators and show our support for this organization).

Unfortunately, though Bin and Tang wanted to come to Seattle for the US premiere, they were unable to.  For Bin, it was because he is completing his military service, while Tang is involved in another project in China.  As for the crew, they are all working on another project in Korea.

It’s too bad.  A photo with Tang Wei is just what this blog entry needs. And did I mention we’re the same age?

Note: In regards to Korean and Chinese surnames, I went with the most common usage.  Therefore, Tang Wei and Kim Tae-yong have their surnames first, while Hyun Bin and Eunjung Yoon have their surnames last.

Click here for SIFF: Week Two (May 29-June 4, 2011), Part Two

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