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

Tickets for SIFF, Week Two

And here is the long delayed second half of my entry on Week Two.

Wednesday, June 1st

10.     Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (China 2010: 122 min)     Neptune Theatre     7 pm

This was not a film that I would have seen on my own, but the main organizer of the Seattle Cinema Club planned it (mainly because legendary fight choreographer Sammo Hung choreographed the fights for the film), it looked fun, and so I went.  After all, how can I say “no” to a film that combines detective skills with martial arts, and deals with spontaneous human combustion?

After refusing to support Empress Wu (Carina Lau) as ruler of China and taking part in a rebellion against her, Detective Dee (Andy Lau) is called back into service from his prison cell when two men, one connected with the construction of a huge Buddhist statue outside the palace grounds, the other having visited the same statue moments before, spontaneously combust.  With the help of Pei Donglai (Deng Chao), an albino subordinate of the Supreme Court , and Shangguan Jing’er (Bingbing Li), the Empress’s chief officer, Dee attempts to find the perpetrators before the Empress’s coronation ceremony takes place.

As I said, it’s a fun film, so it’s best not to think too much about some of the more incredible aspects of the plot (for example, where did they get the lava from?).  On the other hand, the fight scenes are fantastic.  And it proves the adage that if a large structure is being built at the beginning of a film, it will fall by the end of it.   3 out 5

Thursday, June 2nd

11.     The White Meadows (Iran 2009: 93 min)     Egyptian Theatre      7 pm

Of all the films I saw at SIFF, this one was the best.  Co-presented with the Global Film Initiative, it was preceded by a short film from the editor of The White Meadows (Jafar Panahi).  I remember it being about two young brothers in Iran, one of whom has his musical instrument stolen by a man.  He gets it back, but when he sees that the man is as bad off as they are, they join forces to play for money in the streets.  4 out of 5

Before the feature film began, the programmer, Maryna Ajaja, read a letter from the Global Film Initiative about the director of The White Meadows, Mohammad Rasoulof, who was jailed in 2010 for making this film.  The letter included a bio of Rasoulof, including the fact that he won the Un Certain Regarde Award at Cannes in 2001 (though I can’t find out what film he won it for).  Officially, he was sent to prison for collusion, along with Jafar Panahi.  Showing this film, then, is an act of protest against the regime for jailing him (for more information about the Global Film Initiative, go to

The film follows Rahmat (who I’m guessing is played by Hasan Pourshirazi, since IMDB only lists the cast, not what roles they play), a man who travels from place to place collecting people’s tears.  The movie, then, is very episodic, as he goes from place to place in his row boat, and the audience witnesses symbolism, allegory, and suffering.

In the first episode, a beautiful woman died because she tempted the men in her village.  Rahmat thinks that he is carrying her body out to sea to be buried, but a teenage boy from the village, named Saleem, has switched himself for her.  Rahmat only discovers this when, overcome with temptation, he peeks at the body under the shroud.  He allows Saleem to come with him, provided that he pretends he is deaf and mute when they stop to collect tears.  Otherwise, the people will not give their tears willingly.

At the next place he visits, a man is chosen to bring all of the townspeople’s petitions to a fairy that lives in the well.  He must complete his task, however, before the sun rises.  Rahmat collects their tears as they whisper their petitions in glass bottles, and then collects the tears of the man who must carry the bottles.  Literally weighed down by their petitions, his rope is cut when he is too slow to return, making a widow out of his wife.

In the next episode, a woman is being prepared for her wedding — to the sea.  The men proclaim that she loved the sea and so now is going to be wedded to it (which means, as we come to find out, that she will drown in the waves).  They also praise her purity, as the sea can claim her untouched.  Saleem, however, tries to rescue her.  He is sentenced to be stoned to death.  At first, Rahmat joins in the stoning, but he eventually stops the sentence from being carried out and takes off with Saleem, badly injured, in his boat.

The last person Rahmat collects tears from is a painter who says that the sea is red.  In order to cure him of his “delusion,” two men rub monkey urine in his eyes and even tell him, “Look at the sun and your eyesight will return.”  Eventually, the painter agrees that the sea is blue, but he is nearly blind.

So, what are these tears, which Rahmat collects in a bottle, used for?  (If you don’t want to find out, skip to the next paragraph)  Apparently, they are used for two things: to wash the feet of an old man, and to be returned to the sea.  In the last scene, I thought I saw the dead woman from the first episode (living), so it’s possible that the last place Rahmat visits is not an earthly one.  As to what it means, I’ll leave that up to you.

Creative, well-written, and gorgeously shot, this is a film that, unlike some political films, will not age, even as it serves as a strong critique and rebuke of the Iranian regime, and all regimes that oppress their own. 5 out of 5

Friday, June 3rd

12.      Project Nim (United Kingdom 2011: 107 min)     SIFF Cinema     7 pm

At the beginning of Project Nim, we see a baby chimpanzee taken from his mother.  This chimp is the sixth one taken from her, and we hear eyewitnesses tell of her all-too-human reaction to the theft of her child.  Even as the drugs make it impossible for her to protect her baby, she tries.

And yet chimpanzees aren’t people.  When full-grown, they can be dangerous, especially to people who wish to manipulate them for their own ends.  Through interviews and archival footage (including home movies), the film tells the story of an experiment in the 1970s, run by Herb Terrace (a psychologist at Columbia University), to have a chimpanzee be raised by a human family, and then see if the chimp could learn a language (in this case, sign language).  This chimp was the one stolen from his mother at the beginning of the film.  He is named Nim Chimpsky — a play on the name Noam Chomsky, who had said that only humans are capable of language.

We meet this family, including Stephanie Lafarge, his surrogate mother (and a psychology student studying with Terrace).  Once Terrace saw that Nim needed a more controlled environment (Lafarge ignored all the routines and documentation that Terrace asked for, and Nim began attacking people), he moved him to a mansion attached to Columbia University, where he was cared for by his second surrogate mother, Laura-Ann Pettito, and taught by Joyce Butler.  There, Terrace could get the documentation he needed to prove whether or not Nim was learning sign language or merely mimicking what his handlers were teaching him.  Deciding on the latter, he shut down the project, and Nim was sent to live in a cage as part of the Institute for Primate Studies.  That’s where Bob Ingersoll met him.  When that program was shut down, Nim was sent to a lab to be tested on.  He was eventually rescued with the help of his supporters, who petitioned the courts, and his final days were spent at Cleveland Amory’s Black Beauty Ranch, located in Texas.

If the film has a villain, it is, ironically, the scientist who started this experiment: Herb Terrace.  Objective to the point of being unfeeling, even when talking about his affair with Pettito, he doesn’t care for Nim’s well-being once the experiment is over.

Luckily, the movie also has several heroes.  During the Q&A that followed, Ingersoll mentioned Jim Mahoney and Joyce Butler as his heroes in the film.  Mahoney worked for the Institute for Primate Studies and was responsible for finding chimps for the institute, but later on, he is responsible for saving many of them when the program closed down.  Like Ingersoll, Butler actually cared about Nim once the project ended, though I forget if she had a direct role in getting him released from the lab.

This is a heartbreaking, funny, infuriating, and well-researched film that is more about the humans that it is about the chimpanzee.  While I somehow forgot to write down what I scored this film, I remember vacillating between giving it a 4 or a 5 (which means it was a 4.5).  I ended up giving it a 5 out of 5.

Beth Barrett (Head Programmer), Jessica Martinson, Bob Ingersoll, and Debra Durham

Q&A with Bob Ingersoll: As mentioned, there was a Q&A after the film was over.  Ingersoll, who introduced the film with Beth Barrett, said that he would be introducing us to some of his friends once the film was over.  Those friends were Debra Durham, who is a physician with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), and Jessica Martinson, who is the president of Chimpanzees Sanctuary Northwest. Debra spoke first and gave props to Ingersoll by bowing.  She talked about her organization and about the Great Ape Protection Bill that has been introduced in the Senate (here’s a link if you wish to show your support for the bill).  Then, Jessica talked about apes in the sanctuary. One thing that I noticed about some of their talking points is how heavy-handed they were in emphasizing how evil animal testing is and how we must do something before chimps die out.  Having just seen Project Nim, I don’t think the audience needed any more argument to help, but this heavy-handedness is why more people don’t help out with such important causes.  Still, as Ingersoll noted (he took the stage with Barrett after the other two finished speaking), “Chimpanzees will die out in our lifetime if we don’t do something.”

Some interesting facts from the Q&A:

  • Ingersoll noted that chimps do teach themselves.
  • Much of the archival footage was given to James Marsh, the director, by Ingersoll.
  • Terrace killed any future research into chimps and sign language with his book on Project Nim, though two other scientists (including Durham) are still doing research on it.
  • Someone in the audience noticed that the people who were attacked by Nim had ulterior motives, whereas the two people who weren’t attacked — Ingersoll and Butler — didn’t.
  • In 1975, when this experiment began, people didn’t know a lot about chimps.  Jane Goodall, who was one of the first to study them in their natural habitat, had only started studying them 15 years earlier.

Saturday, June 4th

Venue Volunteer: Ticket Tearer     Neptune Theatre     10am-1:30pm

Among my fellow volunteers, I met one who knows three friends of mine from Japan.  Previously, I had worked with him on Saturday, May 28th.

Fire in Babylon was the first film, about the 1970’s West Indies Cricket Team who in one year went from being losers to champions.  The accents make it difficult to understand the dialogue, but the film is very interesting and exciting, punctuated throughout by random musical numbers by West Indies musicians.  The second movie was Norman, about a boy who lies about having cancer. Knowing what I know about the film now, I wish I had stayed to see it, but hunger and my ignorance led to my leaving the theater, instead.

13.     The Empire of Mid-South     (France, 2010: 85 min)     SIFF Cinema     9:15pm

As it was such a beautiful day outside, I decided to walk to Seattle Center from Capitol Hill, where I had volunteered at Richard Hugo House for a couple hours (I believe I had dinner there, too).  As I passed the bus stop for Bus 8, which goes directly to Seattle Center, I thought about waiting for the bus, but decided against it.

When I arrived at McCaw Hall, having gone through Seattle Center, I noticed that there was police tape and a squad car near the steps right next to SIFF Cinema (Note: McCaw Hall is where SIFF Cinema used to be located, before they moved, in October of this year, to the Film Center and the Uptown).  I found out why when Anna, the year-round SIFF Cinema Manager, told us before the film began that Seattle Center was having electrical issues, and so the power might be cut during the film.  Luckily, it didn’t, though we got another announcement after the credits finished that they would be shutting off the power in seven minutes in order to fix that problem.

The Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences sponsored this documentary (called L’empire du milieu du sud in French) from directors Jacques Perrin and Eric Deroo, which includes lots of archival footage from the French occupation of Vietnam to the end of the Vietnam War, set to excellent music (including snippets from Mahler’s 1st Symphony, 3rd movement; and Beethoven’s 4th Symphony).  Also included are excerpts from letters, written by French, Vietnamese, and Americans who visited or lived in Vietnam.  Historical information is also provided, when necessary (such as Ho Chi Minh declaring Vietnam independent in 1945, only to have the French reoccupy Vietnam afterwards).

While the film has a poetic feel to it, no new information is given, though the wealth of archival material, especially the earliest footage, is remarkable.  I still remember a gorgeous scene in which teenage girls, topless (it’s hot in Vietnam, after all), perform a dance for some of the French people.  Shot in black and white, it proves 1.) that women’s bodies are beautiful, and 2.) there should be no sexual stigma attached to showing breasts in films or in public.  Still, I would’ve preferred a deeper, historical perspective on Vietnam to this more impressionistic one.  Even on its own merits, the impressionistic perspective gives us little sense of what Vietnam is like, minus info given on the early French settlers. 3 out of 5

2 thoughts on “SIFF: Week Two (May 29-June 4, 2011), Part Two

  1. Haaa! Spontaneous human combustion! You know, Dickens had that in one of his books; he believed it really could happen. 😛

    Even though I don’t always enjoy sitting and watching full-length movies, I still think film festivals sound like a fun experience. Thanks for letting me live vicariously! 😉

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