SIFF 2018 Edition: Best of Week Three — The Taste of Betel Nut

Ren Yu, Bai Ling, and Li Qi. Photo courtesy of SIFF.

In the opening scenes, we see Li Qi (Shen Shi Yu) put on clown makeup and perform with a seal. We then see him after the performance, alone except for his animal partner. He washes off his makeup and cleans his clothes in the sink with soap. He pauses to look at the soap bar, almost finished. The next day at the market, he sees someone he recognizes. He follows this person, hiding something behind his back that looks like a machete. After attacking him (the attack isn’t shown: the screen fades out as the machete comes down, and then reappears with Li Qi covered in blood), he marches around the corner to face the group of men who were with the man he killed.

The movie then travels back in time, and it is in these past moments that The Taste of Betel Nut shows itself to be directed by a steady hand. We meet Ren Yu (Zhao Bing Rui) receiving a flashy jacket. Ren Yu works the beaches as a karaoke singer, charging for people to sing and take photos with him. He gets a haircut and next is getting a blowjob and fucking the hair dresser behind a curtain at the hair salon. Li Qi and he are a polyamorous couple, though Li Qi seems to have no flings.

Ren Yu doesn’t have a permit for his line of work. Neither, too, does the older woman who operates the food stand where Li Qi and Ren Yu hang out after his gigs. During the summer, her niece Bai Ling (Yue Ye) comes to help out. The duo of Ren Yu and Li Qi soon become a trio. After trying betel nut at a friend’s wedding, the three of them have sex in a scene that effectively uses double and triple exposure. The problem is, Bai Ling eventually decides she just wants to be with Ren Yu, but he doesn’t want to be steady with anyone, and Li Qi likes her and Ren Yu equally.

This is only director Hu Jia’s second feature film (his first was 2014’s Dance With Me, which doesn’t even appear on IMDB), but based solely on it, I expect him to have a long and successful career. I only have a couple caveats. The biggest one is that Bai Ling is treated more as a plot device than as a person. Outside of being someone for the two main characters to love and for setting up a conflict later in the film, she doesn’t do much besides look at them with longing. She talks about going back to school after the summer, but that is all we know about her, besides being a pretty face. The other criticism is a recurring scene in which Li Qi walks in the water in slow motion (the camera follows his legs). I understand the mood Hu is going for, but I’m not sure why this motif. Perhaps a second viewing would clarify it for me.

On the plus side, Yue’s chemistry with Zhao and Shen is excellent, as is Zhao’s and Shen’s with each other. And the feel of the film reminds me of Hou Hsiao Hsien, but with room for comedy (perhaps Edward Yang is a more accurate comparison).

But what about the man Li Qi kills? We know he will appear again in the scenes that take place in the past, and though we sense the impending tragedy the first time he appears, it doesn’t lessen the blow on his second appearance. The tragedy, when it comes, is not something that the characters deserve due to personality flaws, but something that comes as a result of the flaws and meanness of others. And yet the last shot is of someone smiling. A happy ending, or the memory of a happy summer, before that happiness was destroyed?

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SIFF 2018 Edition: Best of SIFF, Week Two — Tigers Are Not Afraid

The young cast. Photo courtesy of SIFF.

Tigers Are Not Afraid starts in fact and ends in myth. Much like Pan’s Labyrinth, the film follows a girl (named Estrella and played by Paola Lara) who uses fantasy to deal with a grisly reality. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the reality was Franco’s Fascist rule of Spain. Tigers Are Not Afraid deals with a more recent nightmare: the drug wars in Mexico (title cards at the beginning of the film point out that no one knows many children have been murdered or orphaned during these wars). Like del Toro’s great film, Issa López’s mixes fantasy with reality. And like del Toro, the fantasy world is not a place of light, but of darkness.

While Pan’s Labyrinth dealt with the world of adults as well as children, however, Tigers Are Not Afraid focuses exclusively on the children, all of whom have been orphaned by the drug wars which killed their fathers and sold their mothers. In addition to Estrella, there’s Shine (Juan Ramón López), the leader of a group of orphans: Pop (Rodrigo Cortes), Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas), and Morro, who is mute and carries around a stuffed tiger.

The movie begins with Estrella writing a story about a prince who became a tiger, but has forgotten that he is a prince. And tigers are not afraid. As she narrates her tale, we see Shine steal a pistol and cell phone from Caco (Ianis Guerrero), a member of the local Huasca cartel, while Caco is drunkenly pissing in an alleyway. He points the gun at Caco’s head, but can’t pull the trigger. We then return to Estrella, where bullets ring out and the students dive under their desks. The teacher gives Estrella three pieces of chalk while she is on the floor and says, “These are wishes.” When Estrella gets back to her house, her mom isn’t there. We assume she hasn’t been home for some time. Estrella uses one of her wishes to wish that her mother would come home soon. Her mother does, as a frightening apparition out of Crimson Peak. But, like that terrifying ghost, she has some wisdom to impart to Estrella, though it’s cryptic. With nowhere to go, she joins Shine’s gang, who are soon hunted by Caco, wanting his phone back. This leads to a rooftop chase. While the gang agrees to take Estrella with them, their condition is that she kill Caco. She agrees to try, but once inside his house, she uses her second wish to find a way not to kill him. It comes true when she discovers he is already dead.

Who killed Caco? And what is on that phone? To reveal the answers would be to spoil the movie. Just like Estrella’s wishes, the resolutions in this film are unpredictable, but they are resolutions, and a large part of why this film is great is how tidily it resolves everything without resorting to clichés. Another part is the locations. Much of the action happens at night, in abandoned buildings, which cinematographer Juan Jose Saravia gives the right look for a film filled with ghosts and violence. And finally, there are the actors, particularly leads Juan Ramón López and Paola Lara, who are completely believable in their roles. For that, one must thank the director/writer/executive director Issa López. Ms. López is also smart in not trying to thrust a love story on us. Estrella and Shine grow to care about one another more as the movie progresses, but they are never lovers, and the friendship blossoms out of shared circumstances. Estrella’s mom was kidnapped by the same gang that burned down Shine’s house and gave him his facial scar. He wants revenge, but unlike tigers, he is afraid, and so is the audience for these kids.

When Guillermo del Toro saw this film in 2017, he put it on his top ten list for the year (at number 8) and offered to produce López’s next film. So far, however, this movie has no international release date, something that its distributor, Videocine, should rectify. Tigers Are Not Afraid is a minor miracle, and heralds a major new talent in the world of cinema.

SIFF 2018 Edition: Best of Week One — Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers with Daniel Striped Tiger. Photo courtesy of SIFF

Most people would be daunted by the subject of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Just the archival material alone, from all the shows of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that aired (920 episodes, according to director Morgan Neville), would give a lesser man a headache. Luckily, Morgan Neville is not a normal man, yet the story of this documentary started out curiously (which Neville explained during the Q&A following the film). Like many things today, it started with YouTube. Neville started watching all of Rogers’s speeches on that channel. Then, when making The Music of Strangers, which is about Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, he asked Ma who helped him deal with his fame, and he said, “Mr. Rogers.”

Fitting, then, that the film starts in 1967 with Fred Rogers  talking about music (while playing piano). In particular, he’s discussing modulations. In music, some modulations are easy, while others are hard. He feels life is the same and mentions how he feels his mission is to help kids through life’s modulations.  He stops at one point and wonders if he’s being too philosophical, but then he checks himself and says, “Well, it makes sense to me.”

To make sense of the man and the show, Neville didn’t shoot it like a normal documentary, where you film footage first and then cut it to an acceptable length. With all the archival material they had, they cut the essential ideas of the doc first…and found themselves with a 90-minute film (the film is 94 minutes, including end credits). And yet, the films runs chronologically, even as it stops and focuses on what made the show and the man so special, and radical.

For starters, Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who wished to used television to evangelize. The first show he was a part of played short films for kids. Unfortunately, the films had often been played numerous times beforehand and would often break on air, and since the episodes weren’t taped, the host had to fill time. One time, Rogers stuck an owl puppet above the clock and said, “It’s 5:02 and Columbus discovered America in 1492.” That was the first time he used a puppet on TV.

In addition, he was part of the group of scientists (Dr. Spock being one of the most famous) focusing on childhood development and how kids weren’t just miniature adults. Rogers connected to that group through his teacher, Margaret McFarland. He was horrified by what passed for children’s television in those days. Then, as now, it included lots of loud noises, fast action, and violence. His show, which premiered in February 1968 in Pittsburgh, was a gentler show, though the first episode not-so-subtly dealt with the Vietnam War in King Friday XIII’s erection of a wall and orders to kill any foreigners who come into the kingdom. Other episodes dealt with Robert Kennedy’s assassination, suicide, divorce, and other topics one wouldn’t typically find in a children’s show. For example, when he heard, in 1968, about a man throwing chlorine muriatic acid in a pool because he didn’t want black kids swimming in it, he filmed an episode where he shared a kiddie pool with Officer Clemmons, who is black, and mentioned how nice it was to share a pool on a hot summer day.* In another episode, he set a timer for one minute so that the audience could experience how long one minute felt like.

People knew there was something special about Mr. Rogers and his show when a meet-and-greet, scheduled that same year, translated into huge lines of parents with their kids.

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Believe it or not, the line to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was shorter than the line that greeted Fred Rogers in 1968.

When Neville came to Joanne Rogers for her blessing on the project, her one bit of advice to him was not to make her husband a saint. Indeed, Rogers was accused (by narcissists) of creating a generation of narcissists by telling kids they were “special,” a charge refuted by Rogers himself in one of the many commencement addresses he gave, where he explained what he meant by saying kids were perfect “just the way they are.” Richard Nixon even tried to gut Public Television (created under the previous administration). The Senate Subcommittee on Communications held hearings in 1969 to decide whether to cut $20 million in funding for PBS under the pretext that it was needed to fund the war. The man in charge of the committee, Senator John Pastore (a Democrat), ran on these cuts, and early on it looked like PBS wouldn’t get its funding. Then, Fred Rogers spoke. They got their funding.

In addition to archival footage, the documentary includes interviews of people who worked on the show, were on the show (like Yo-Yo Ma), and who knew him best (e.g. his wife Joanne). One person they don’t talk to is Jeff Erlanger, who made a memorial appearance on the show right before he was going to go in for surgery, and discussed with Rogers what it was like to be in a wheelchair. We know from the documentary that he survived the surgery, but the interviews are only with his parents. I discovered Jeff died in 2007, which is why he wasn’t interviewed for the film, but his sister lives in Seattle, and she was present at the Q&A after the movie with her daughter to talk about her brother and how much Rogers cared for him. The first night they met, he cut up Jeff’s food and fed him, but without any trace of condescension.

Besides Erlanger, the other person who had a touching story (among many touching moments in this documentary) was François Scarborough Clemmons (Officer Clemmons). He discovered he was gay, and one night, he visited a gay bar. Rogers heard about it and told him he couldn’t go there anymore, as he was worried the sponsors would stop funding a show with a gay man on it. Eventually he came around, but the touching moment was when Clemmons confronted him and said (I’m paraphrasing a bit), “You say, ‘I like you just the way you are.’ Were you saying that to me, too?” His response was along the lines of, “I’ve been saying that to you for the last two years and you’ve only now just figured it out.” Clemmons tears up at that point, for he’d never heard another man say that to him, not even his own father. From that point on, Rogers was like a father to him.

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Look at all those neighbors!

In addition to archival footage and interviews, the documentary incorporates animation to show some of Fred Rogers’s fears from when he was a child and how they stayed with him as an adult. A great argument is made that Daniel Striped Tiger was Rogers’s alter ego, and so an animated tiger plays the young Fred in these animations. Later in life, the cast agrees that he became more like King Friday XIII.

The masterstroke, though, comes at the end. In the spirit of Mr. Rogers, several of the interviewees are asked to take a moment and think about who has helped them. They all do, and at the very end is Joanne Rogers, who after reflecting for a moment, looks out through the camera, locks eyes with the audience, and says, “Thank you.”

One studio exec once said that if you do everything wrong on television, you end up with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. If you do everything right, you end up with this documentary.

Stay for the credits.

Now playing at SIFF Uptown

* CORRECTIONS: Discussing this event, one of the interviewees says that bleach was thrown in the water (not chlorine, which I initially wrote, but which makes no sense), but it was actually muriatic acid (undiluted hydrochloric acid). The swim-in that led to the motel manager throwing acid in the pool occurred in 1964. Since Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired in 1968, the episode aired at least four years after this event occurred.

The Most Fascinating (Unseen) Films of 2015

I saw many great films in 2015, some of which were released the previous year, yet every critic does a “best-of” list at the end of the year, and what do they tell you? That the same few movies were admired by most critics, with a fistful of variations. If I were doing such a list, I’d include Mad Max, Inside Out, Selma, The End of the Tour, and The Imitation Game. Instead, I’m including movies that may have slipped under your radar — and almost slipped under mine. You also can check out my reports from SIFF 2015, which include movies I haven’t included here.

Best Retrospective: Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien

With the release of The Assassin in U.S. theaters last year, I hope that Hou’s films become more available to American audiences. The festival retrospective I went to included 35 mm prints of six of his films: A Time to Live And a Time to Die; Dust in the Wind; Flowers of Shanghai; Millennium Mambo; and Good Men, Good Women. All movies were screened at the Grand Illusion and the Northwest Film Forum. In addition, Scarecrow Video hosted viewings of The Boys from Fengkuei (Hou’s first “artistic” movie), City of Sadness, The Puppet Master, Goodbye South Goodbye, and Cafe Lumiere in their screening room. Most films were introduced by cinephile and Hou aficionado Sean Gilman, including all the ones I went to (I missed A Time to Live And A Time to Die, Flowers of Shanghai, and all of the Scarecrow screenings, except for The Boys from Fengkuei). The films covered three specific periods of Hou’s filmography: coming-of-age tales, Taiwanese history, and contemporary (in Millennium Mambo, his mostly static camera is replaced with one that “floats” above the action). The prints were in excellent condition, the cinematography gorgeous, the stories meditative. I still need to see City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster, consider Hou’s two best films, so here’s hoping the next Hou retrospective includes prints of them, as the versions released over here are not in good condition (according to Gilman, Scarecrow replaced the Region 1 DVD of City of Sadness with a superior transfer for their screening).

Best Archival Presentation on Film: The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky)

For his final film, Tarkovsky employed the talents of Sven Nyvquist, Bergman’s legendary cinematographer. So, yeah, the film looked fantastic. I saw no dirt or scratches, just brilliance on the screen.

Best Archival Presentation Not on Film: The Apu Trilogy (Satyajit Ray), Jaws (Steven Spielberg)

Based on artistic quality, The Apu Trilogy easily wins, but the presentation for both films (DCP for one, laser projection for the other) was stunning. Jaws looked and sounded fantastic (I thought the music muted, but I discovered later that it’s supposed to sound muted). As for The Apu Trilogy, we’re lucky we can see it at all, since most of the original negatives were destroyed in a fire. This forced Criterion to hunt down duplicate negatives and existing prints to recreate the most life-fulfilling films I’ve ever seen.

Best Archival Presentation with Live Accompaniment: A Story of Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu) w/ live music and benshi by Aono Jikken Ensemble

In Japan, silent films were accompanied by benshi: men and women who translated and interpreted the movies on the screen, much as Tayū (chanters) tell the story in bunraku (puppet theater). This version of A Story of Floating Weeds included a modern equivalent, with one female member of Aono Jikken Ensemble performing the role of benshi while the rest of the ensemble played an original score. Since the members in the ensemble met the last living benshi, this is as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing silent films as they were experienced in Japan.

Best WTF Movie: The Astrologer (Craig Denney)

No other movie captured the glory of bad movies like The Astrologer, which played once during the Seattle International Film Festival. Random shots (including inappropriate slow-mo and rotating crane shots), horrible acting, bad cinematography, cheap special effects, cheesy dialog — it’s all there, blended in such a way as to be unintentionally funny. Among the spoken gems, my favorite was, “You’re not an astrologer; you’re an asshole!”

Best Use of Camera Angles: The Devils (Ken Russell)

Ken Russell’s UK cut of The Devils (on 35mm!) shows why most movies today are boring. His camera angles aren’t showy, but they have personality — something often lacking in contemporary films.

Best Vampire Movie: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)

I didn’t see What We Do in the Shadows, but that was a spoof, so I’m still going with Amirpour’s Iranian vampire film as the best vampire film of 2015. A vampire that only kills men who sexually prey on and abuse women? Not hard to see what Amirpour’s getting at here. It’s as black and white as the film’s cinematography, but the artistry employed in translating that message to the screen makes this more than a message movie, including as it does shades of Let the Right One In  with its relationship between The Girl (Sheila Vand) and the Arash (Arash Marandi).

Best Cinematography: Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh) — Dick Pope, cinematographer

Leigh isn’t an unknown quantity, but Mr. Turner didn’t get wide release in the US. For fans of J.M.W. Turner, that’s a shame, as the cinematography is as gorgeous as one of his paintings.

And now let’s list to movies you really should’ve seen, and why (in the order I saw them):

1. Beloved Sisters (Dominik Graf)

Worth seeing for the two lead actresses, Hannah Herzsprung and Henriette Confurius, who play sisters: one of whom (Confurius) marries the poet Frederick Schiller (Florian Stetter), one of whom takes him as her lover, even though she is married. Herzsprung, in particular, is fantastic to watch as the more strong-willed of the two sisters, who has literary ambitions of her own.

2. An Honest Liar (Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein)

A documentary about the Amazing Randi, who has spent his life denouncing charlatans, particularly those whom he feel are dangerous to the people they dupe. One of the best documentaries you’ve never seen, for though he’s spent his life denouncing untruths, an untruth lies at the center of his life.

3. Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore)

The best animated movie not by Pixar, with a drawing style very different from Disney.  By the same studio that made Book of Kells, but with a better story. Like that film, based on Irish legends.

4. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)

This wonderfully creepy film about an unstoppable force that is transmitted like an STD pays homage to 80s horror films, fills itself with characters we care about, and grounds its horror in the real world. Not quite as good as The Babadook, but scarier, it proves great horror films aren’t dead yet.

5. 1971 (Johanna Hamilton)

The premise of the film sounded interesting; who knew it’d be one of the best documentaries of the year? Re-enacting a break-in that occurred in an FBI office in Pennsylvania in 1971 in which the perpetrators stole files and sent them to major newspapers, the film interviews the participants of that event, who saw their break-in as an act of protest against the government and the Vietnam War. One of the documents led to the discovery of the secret surveillance systems that the FBI has on US citizens, leading to “the first Congressional investigation of an intelligence committee” (Variety 2014 film review: http://variety.com/2014/film/festivals/film-review-1971-1201202631/). Not only were the perpetrators never caught; no one knew who they were — until they revealed themselves in this film.

6. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)

One of the strangest films I’ve ever see, and one of the most beautiful. It starts in reality and ends in dream, as Captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortenson) searches for his missing daughter (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) after she elopes with a young soldier ((Misael Saavedra).

7. Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner)

In 1811, Heinrich von Kliest — writer of “The Marquise of O,” among others — shot and killed his friend Henriette Vogel on the banks of the Wansee before turning the gun on himself. Though a suicide pact existed between the friends (Vogel was dying of cancer), this films leaves enough ambiguity concerning the prognosis and Vogel’s willingness to die with the young author to make for a fascinating, female-centric retelling of the event, and the days leading up to it. To quote Scout Tafoya’s review on RogerEbert.com: “Vogel’s illness was never questioned as seriously at the time as it is in the film. The official word is that she was going to die either way. The film creates reasonable doubt because its chief interest is in telling the story of a woman at the mercy of circumstances” (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/amour-fou-2015).

8. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)

Excellent acting from Nina Hoss as Nelly Lenz, a woman who survives the Holocaust, but whose face undergoes plastic surgery as a result of her wounds. Her husband, not knowing she’s his wife, forces her to impersonate herself, in order to get her inheritance money. The ending is perfect.

9. Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley)

Constructed entirely from tapes that the late Marlon Brando made throughout his life, and edited with photos, movie clips, and TV spots. Admittedly one-sided, but what a fascinating side it is! And the editing job that went into this is astonishing.

10. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller)

Mainly to be seen for Bel Powley’s lead performance, who acts as a young woman — recently introduced to the joys of sex — would behave. And the fact that the film is honest about a young woman’s sexuality, instead of existing mainly for the male gaze.

11. The Diplomat (David Holbrooke)

Released by HBO, this documentary by David Holbrooke follows his father, Richard Holbrooke (mainly known for his role in the Dayton Accords), from the beginning of his career as a diplomat to the end. Honest in its portrayal of the flaws of the man, as well as the flaws of the administrations he worked under, this was one of the best surprises of 2015.

12. The Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson)

Dreams, death, and observations about the world. The imagery is eclectic, as are the subjects covered, and yet Anderson somehow ties it all together.

Toyo’s Camera (Junichi Suzuki, 2009, 98 mins)

Born in Japan in 1895, Toyo Miyatake came to the U.S. in 1909.  As an adult, he set up a photo studio in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles, and in the 1930s became famous for photographing Michio Ito’s dance troupe.

These beginnings are covered in Toyo’s Camera, the excellent first film in director Junichi Suzuki’s Nisei Trilogy (“Nisei” is a word meaning “second generation Japanese-Americans”).  The main focus of the movie, however, is what happens after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.  Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the order authorized the forced removal of anyone of Japanese ancestry from their homes and placed them in concentration camps.

Toyo and his family were sent to Manzanar.  Detainees were only allowed to bring what they could carry, and cameras weren’t allowed.  Toyo, however, snuck in materials to build a camera and received film through the guards he befriended.  He risked this because, as he told his son, he felt it was his duty to document camp life.

The film shows these photos, mentions Caucasian Americans who were against the order (including a teacher and a librarian) and interviews people who lived in the camps, as well as experts on that time period — and on the racism that led to the detainment of Japanese-Americans, but not German or Italian-Americans.  Several photographers also objected to the concentration camps, including Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams (the latter of whom mentored Toyo), both of whom took photos in the camps (in 1944, Adams put together a book called Born Free and Equal, which contains photos from Manzanar.  Unlike most of his photography, these photographs focus on individuals instead of landscapes).  Even Ralph Merritt, the director of Manzanar, helped.  Merritt was a photography aficionado and knew Edward Weston, another of Toyo’s mentors.  He eventually allowed Toyo to bring in photographic equipment from his studio, saying, “A photographer without a camera is like a bird without wings.”  At first, a Caucasian person had to push the shutter, but after going through eight assistants, Merritt confided to Toyo, “You know, I’m basically blind out of my left side,” which led Toyo to understand that he could take the photos himself.

While the film focuses on Toyo (mainly through remembrances by his son, Archie, as well as people he photographed around the neighborhood) — while building a more complete societal portrait of those times — there is a detour into a generational issue that arises between the Issei (first generation Japanese-Americans) and the Nisei over questions 27 and 28 of the loyalty questionnaire, which detainees were forced to answer in 1942.  Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?  Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization? Never mind that no one else had to answer this questionnaire, or that two-thirds of the 110,000 people held at the camps were American citizens, or that these questions were asked of both men and women, boys and girls, regardless of age or circumstances.  Many of the Nisei agreed to fight, while those who answered “no” to either question were sent to Tule Lake, another concentration camp (and coincidentally, the last incarceration camp operated by the War Relocation Authority to close).  And yet this segue makes sense, after which we find ourselves back in Manzanar with Toyo, during its final days.  When the camps closed, everyone got $25 ($330 in today’s money) and a bus ticket back home, where vandalized houses and missing property greeted its former owners.  Toyo stayed till the end, taking photos almost up until the point where they closed the gates (in fact, he wanted to be the one to close them).

Then we jump to years later, when President Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which gave payment and official apologies to the survivors of the camps; and to today, where many people (particularly Japanese people living in Japan) don’t know that Japanese and Japanese-Americans were put in concentration camps during the war.  My only criticism of the film, in fact, is that when people leave the concentration camps, George Takei’s voiceover makes it sound like their troubles ended, a view that former concentration camp incarceree Cho Shimizu corrected during the Q&A which followed the movie.  He was joined by President-Elect Eileen Yamada Lamphere of the Puyallup Valley JACL and Seattle JACL President Paul Tashima, who MC’d.  For Cho’s family, the post-war (and post-concentration camp) years included overcoming homelessness and racism (“we were still considered the enemy”). People threw rocks at him when he went to school, which led to him taking different routes there each day, and he got into many fights.  One time, when he came home with his shirt torn, his mother went into her room, shut the door, and cried.  At that point, he realized how hard camp life and post-camp life had been on his mom, too.

Cho explained that before they were sent to the concentration camps, Japanese and Japanese-Americans were sent to assembly centers.  In Seattle, people were sent to Pullayup to a place called Camp Harmony.  Eileen mentioned that 2017 is the anniversary of its closure.  Cho said that the assembly centers were even worse than the concentration camps: Camp Harmony (for example) had plywood with holes cut into them for toilets, where each person would be touching each other when they sat.  The rumor was that food at the assembly centers (where detainees waited to be relocated to concentration camps) came from World War I.  From there, Cho and his family were sent to Minidoka.

One of his brothers joined the 442nd division, a legendary group of soldiers made up entirely of Nisei (according to Wikipedia, “The 442nd Regiment was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare”).  He remembers finding a German POW camp and noticing it looked exactly like Minidoka.  The other brother joined a platoon that operated in a small village in Tokyo after the war.  He was told by his commanding officer,  “Some of them don’t know the war is over yet, so don’t tell ’em you’re American or you’ll be shot.”  Though things were difficult for Cho after the war, he said his parents and older brothers had it worse, as the Issei at least made sure there was some sort of social structure for the Nisei in the camps.  And yet, while millions of dollars poured into Japan after the war, detainees only got a bus ticket.

After their internment, Cho and his family moved to Renton, which had low-income housing.  Eileen mentioned that another place many Japanese-Americans went was to 14th and Weller, where a Japanese school was located (later dubbed the Hunt Hotel).  Partitions were put up and many families moved in.

Then came time for questions from the audience, the first two written by students.  The first questioner wondered if those detainees who answered “yes” to question 27 and 28 felt more American, while those who had answered “no” felt more Japanese.  Cho mentioned there were other factors behind saying “no” to those two questions, one being “to let the government know [the internment]’s unjust.”  Eileen mentioned that one or two “no”s landed detainees at Tule Lake, but there was another group at Heart Mountain who answered “yes” to both questions, but resisted the draft as long as their families were in the concentration camps.

The second questioner wondered if, in the absence of the relocation to concentration camps, it would’ve been risky for families to stay, due to increased racism. Cho said they “would still do what they did” and mentioned a case where a Caucasian woman, married to a Japanese man, was allowed to stay out of the concentration camps, with neither her Caucasian nor Japanese neighbors feeling resentful about it.  What I am not sure about is if the whole family was allowed to stay, or just the mother.

Then we got a question from the audience.  The film mentioned that Japanese women had an easier time in the camps than they would have at home, since they didn’t have to cook, clean, or keep up social engagements.  The woman asking the question wondered if the camps really offered relief for them.  Cho said it was, in a way, as “wives were basically slaves to their husbands” and might bear them ten kids, aged 2-18.  In this way, camp life was more convenient.  On the other hand, they didn’t know what would happen to the families.  In Japan, the Emperor would exile people by sending them to the desert.  The concentration camps were in the desert.  Wasn’t sending them there like exile?  And while mothers could handle the responsibilities of everyday life, they had a harder time dealing with prejudice and injustice.  Eileen mentioned that there was a breakdown of the family unit in the camps, as the Issei hung out together and the teens hung out together, as opposed to families hanging out together.  Often, the mothers were left to themselves.

One might reasonably ask why they should watch a film about something that happened 70 years ago.  My answer is because fear brings out the worst in how we treat each other, and only by understanding that we’re capable of doing such things can we prevent ourselves from doing them in the future. Plus, it’s a really good film.

442-Live With Honor, Die With Dignity plays on Saturday, June 27 at 6:30 at NVC Memorial Hall. MIS: Human Secret Weapon plays on Sunday, June 28 at noon at SIFF Uptown (click on the locations for ticket information).  Director Junichi Suzuki and his wife are scheduled to attend both performances.

The Restored Apu Trilogy

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At the beginning of each film in the Apu Trilogy, text describes how a 1993 fire destroyed the original negatives (two reels from the last film survived, but were in such bad condition that they couldn’t be used), and how duplicate negatives and superior print sources were used for this 4K restoration.

All three films — particularly the first one — are the best example I’ve seen of a film capturing life in all its complexities — from happiness and joy to sadness and tragedy, from the bustle of youth to the infirmaries of old age, from married life’s disappointments to its triumphs.

Song of the Little Road (Pather Panchali) — 125 mins, 1955

The first film is the most raw of the three films, and the most powerful.  It begins with Apu’s older sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta), before his birth, stealing food in the orchard for her great-aunt, Indir (the wonderful Chunibala Devi).  Apu’s birth is introduced when the daughter retrieves the aunt, who has left due to shabby treatment by the mother (Karuna Bandopadhyay, who blames her for her daughter’s stealing habit), in order to see the child.  In the first film, we witness this poor family, with its dilapidated house, its impossibly optimistic dad, its realistic mother, its squatting elderly aunt, its lively daughter, and its precocious son, as Apu (Subir Banerjee) grows into early adolescence.

That raw energy does mean that occasionally the pacing drags, but you never doubt that you are seeing the film of a master.  It also contains some of the most beautiful shots in the trilogy, such as framing the mother and daughter on either side of the door after she throws her out, so that the viewer can see both of them weeping, or the incredible scene of bugs dancing on leaves on the water.

For emotional impact, notice the scene where the mother throws her daughter out for stealing, and then watch Apu’s face later, when she tells him to call his sister to dinner.  Or when Indir comes back, tries to make nice with the mother, realizes she won’t forgive her this time, and goes off to die (the emotional journey that her face goes through in this small scene — from warmth and acceptance to realization and despair — is the best acting done in the entire trilogy).  Or the shot in the fields before the train appears.  But, most of all, the night when the furies seem intent on taking the life of Durga, with their mother furiously trying to prevent her from catching a chill.  And then, the sadness of the end, when the father (Kanu Bandyopadhyay), who has been traveling in an attempt to make money, comes home.  Not realizing his daughter has died, he starts doling out presents.  When he gives a sari for Durga to the mother — who has remained unmoving as he describes his travels — she touches it and bursts into tears.  And then the father realizes what has happened, and he weeps for his daughter.

The Unvanquished (Aparajito) — 109 mins, 1957

The previous film ended with the family moving.  An intertitle in the next film gives a time and place: Bengali, 1930.  This film is technically more assured.  There are no hiccups in the pacing, but that raw energy is lost, as well, only returning in a powerful final scene, when Apu (now played as an adolescent by Smaran Ghosal) decides to leave the village where he and his mother lived with her great-uncle (Ramani Ranjan Sen) and return to school in the city.

Just as there were two deaths in the first film, so there are two in this one.  Apu’s father’s death is much more poetic than his sister’s was, as Ray cuts between shots of his death and birds in flight, but it’s not as powerful.  More powerful is the death of the mother.  Apu, hearing she is seriously ill, returns from his studies and walks through the property, looking for her.  In a scene reminiscent of Bambi, he doesn’t find her, but he sees his great-uncle, and one look from him tells him the truth he feared to learn.

The World of Apu (Apur Sansar) — 105 mins, 1959

The last film of the trilogy manages to balance the technical assurance of the second film with the power of the first film, though to say one film is better than another is to ignore how good the other two films are.

Apu graduates from school but is unable to afford a university education.  His great passion is to write a novel about his life, but he has a hard enough time paying the rent, which is some months overdue.  One day, he runs into one of his friends from school, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), which sets up what Roger Ebert calls “the most extraordinary passage in the three films” (The Great Movies, 44).  Apu (played as an adult by Soumitra Chatterjee) goes with Pulu to the wedding of his cousin.  Unfortunately, when the bridegroom arrives, they discover that he is mad.  To make matters worse, according to the superstitions of the village, if the cousin isn’t married that night, she will never be able to marry.  In these extraordinary circumstances, Apu is asked to marry the girl, whose name is Aparna (played by 14-year-old! Sharmila Tagore).  At first he resists, but eventually he consents, and ends up returning to his apartment a married man.

The best scenes in the film are those between him and his new bride.  He asks her if she would give up everything to live a life of poverty with him.  Her answers reveal a beautiful soul, and while she cries when she first sees his apartment, she nevertheless adapts to her new circumstances.  Watching them fall in love after they get married is one of the supreme joys of the cinema.

Sadly, we the audience spend far too little time with her, as does Apu.  She goes back to her hometown to have their baby, but dies during childbirth.  Apu is devastated, and even contemplates suicide (by throwing himself in front of a train  — notice how the train motif runs through all three films).  He gives up on his novel, gives up on his son, and even seems to give up on life.  The son is named Kajal (Alok Chakravarty) and grows up with his maternal grandparents.  While the grandmother knew how to control him, the grandfather does not, and when she dies, he is unable to parent his willful grandson.  That is when Pulu goes searching for Apu and confronts him about taking responsibility for his son.  Apu says he cannot, because his son reminds him why his wife is no longer with him.

Finally, though, Apu travels to the village to bring his son back to live with him.  Kajal initially rejects Apu as his father, as his father lives in Calcutta and can’t be this poor man.  And yet, despite all the tragedy that has occurred in the three films, the trilogy ends on a hopeful, quiet, and powerful note.

*     *     *

To see all three films is to see the best that cinema has to offer.  To quote Ebert again, “The great, sad, gentle sweep of the Apu Trilogy remains in the mind of the moviegoer as a promise of what film can be” (The Great Movies, 43).

The Apu Trilogy played at the Seattle International Film Festival and opens June 26th at SIFF Cinema.  For complete listings, click here.

Wishin’ and Hopin’ (Colin Theys, USA, 2014)

Wishin’ and Hopin’ is the first of Wally Lamb’s books to be turned into a movie.  Done by a local Connecticut company (Synthetic Cinema International of Rocky Hill) and filmed partly at Norwich Free Academy, where Lamb taught for 25 years, it premiered at the Garde Arts Center on November 23.  My dad, who was an extra in the film (and gets ample screen time at the Christmas pageant), got to see the world premiere; I had to settle for its TV premier on Lifetime.

The movie and film focus on Felix Funicello (Wyatt Ralff), distant cousin of Annette Funicello (Krysta Rodriguez), during his fifth grade year at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School, culminating in the school’s Christmas pageant.  Felix sets the movie in motion by disturbing a bat with a pee-shooter during Sister Dymphna’s (Cheri Oteri’s) class.  The teacher goes crazy and a lay teacher from Quebec replaces her as a permanent sub.  Her name is Madame Frechette (Molly Ringwald).  With a theater background, she is given permission to put on a tableaux vivant for the school’s Christmas pageant.  In the meantime, we witness a confession from Felix to Monsignor Muldoon (Meat Loaf) of French-kissing a poster of Annette, Felix’s disastrous TV appearance on the Ranger Andy show, and the arrival of a new student at the school from Russia.  Classmates of Felix include Marion (Christopher Bogomas), a boy who’s the only black kid at school; Rosalie Twerski (Quinn McColgan), a top-of-the-class goody-two-shoes; Felix’s friend Lonny (Shawn Ervin), who is a few years older than the other boys in his class; and Zhenya Kabakova (Siobhan Cohen, in her feature film debut), the Russian student who becomes Rosalie’s nemesis and competitor for the coveted role of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Because the film was made with the knowledge that it would be shown on Lifetime, the movie is uncut and unedited for television.  It also means that the film does not include the curse words found in the book, nor the use of the world “colored” to denote African-Americans (it takes place in 1964, after all).  From page to screen, however, there is only one major exclusion: in the book, Felix’s mother has a similarly embarrassing episode in a bake-off; in the movie, some of those details are incorporated into the Ranger Andy storyline. On the plus side, the film adds more funny lines. There’s also a scene with a color wheel and a Christmas tree that isn’t in the novella, which neither added nor detracted from the story.

Did I mention that it’s funny?  Much of this has to do with the delivery of the material, especially by the innocent Felix and the feisty Zhenya.  While the big names are the adults (including voice-over narration by Chevy Chase as the adult Felix), the kids are the stars, from Felix and his sisters Frances (Sosie Bacon) and Simone (Camila Banus), to Rosalie, Lonny, and Zhenya.  And, of course, there’s Marion and his famous line, “Wait’ll the NAACP hears about this!”

If there’s a fault with the film, it’s the same fault found in the book: because he skips lightly over the material, Lamb is not adept at hinting at the depth of these characters, and the film cuts scenes that hint at that depth even shorter.  There’s the scene where Felix makes a joke about robbing “from the rich to give to the poor” when he gives Lonny back his whoopie cushion, only to have Lonny get angry and ask him, “What makes you think I’m poor?”  In the film, once Felix clarifies that he meant the teachers are the bad guys and the students are the good guys, Lonny suddenly acts like nothing’s happened; in the book, he says, “Okay, then,” and then asks Felix, “You gonna eat that Almond Joy or can I have it?” (p. 85) which doesn’t seem as abrupt.  The film also shortens the scene between Zhenya and Felix, where Felix asks her several questions, including why she left Russia.  In the movie, only that last question is asked, so we lose the build-up and some details about her family that aren’t revealed until the epilogue.  The scene that works best is when Madame Frechette is pressured by Rosalie’s parents (Ian Lyons and Deborah Puette) and Mother Filomina (Blanche Baker) to cast Rosalie as the Virgin Mary, when she has given it to someone else. Felix, who is serving detention, interrupts them to say what a great teacher Madame Frechette is.  It’s heartwarming, and at least adds a little to Felix’s and Madame Frechette’s character development.

While I don’t think Wishin’ and Hopin’ will become a major holiday classic like A Christmas Story, it is charming and sweet enough to become a minor one.  Unlike other movies that routinely show on Lifetime, you’ll actually want to see this one.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002, 111 minutes)

I saw Gone Girl last Friday and enjoyed the film up until I realized what horrible people it centered around.  Not flawed human beings, but monsters.  One of the authors I felt like reading afterwards as a corrective was Balzac.  Instead, I saw the charming Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, about two Chinese boys send to the countryside for re-education during the Cultural Revolution.  The novel upon which the film is based is autobiographical, and the writer of the book co-wrote and directed the film.

That is not to say the film understands people as well as Balzac did (for that, see the films of Ozu and Rohmer), but it errs on the side of goodness, and unlike Gone Girl, there is a character arc for the little Chinese seamstress, though it is so subtle that we (and she) do not notice it until it compels her to a decision that gives this film poignancy during its closing minutes.

“I first climbed these steps in 1971.”  So begins Ma’s (Ye Liu) narration, as he and Luo (Kun Chen) are led on a narrow mountain path to a small village in the Phoenix Mountains.  Once there, the boys’ bags are searched by the Head of the Village (Shuangbao Wang), who is illiterate.  When he thumbs through Luo’s cookbook, Luo tells him, “You’re holding it upside-down.”  The cookbook is burned after he has Luo read from it and decides it’s too bourgeois.  “On our mountain, you’ll work hard and you’ll eat cabbage and corn!” he says.  Ma’s violin is spared a similar fate when he plays a Mozart sonata on it.  Luo says it’s called, “Mozart is thinking of Chairman Mao.”

After finding out where the local girls go to wash themselves, the two friends sneak off to watch.  While trying to get a closer look, Luo falls into a ravine.  Ma runs and hides, while the girls look over the edge and make fun of Luo.  Later, an old tailor (Zhijun Cong) and his granddaughter (Xun Zhou) come to visit.  The granddaughter introduces herself as The Little Seamstress.  Luo recognizes her as one of the girls who laughed at him.

She is as simple and ignorant as the rest of the townspeople.  When Ma tells her that there is a real rooster inside Luo’s clock that “sings every morning,” she and the other girls take it apart in an attempt to find it.  While putting it back together, Luo finds out that the Little Seamstress can’t read.  He promises to teach her.

Soon after, a North Korean film plays in town.  The Head of the Village tells Luo and Ma to watch the film, then report back to the village.  The Little Seamstress is captivated by their retelling, as is the town.  Later, she asks if they can tell her other stories.  When they say they only know socialist stories, she tells them that another re-educated youth, Four-Eyes (Hongwei Wang), told her he has forbidden books.  They manage to steal the books from him and hide them in a cave, promising to only take one book out at a time, in case they are caught.

From that point on, the movie is about the Little Seamstress’s re-education, through these books and through her budding romance with Luo and friendship with Ma.  She particularly loves Balzac, and it is Balzac’s influence which leads to her pivotal decision.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “All ideas are dangerous.” Indeed they are, for they make people dissatisfied and wish for better lives.  The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) tried to purge China of ideas, both traditional and Western, that clashed with Mao’s communist ideology, and it says something about the current state of China that Dai Sijie’s book has been translated into 25 languages — but not Chinese.  For ultimately Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is about the power these ideas have.

After reading Ursule Mirouet, Ma says, “I feel the world has changed.  The sky, the stars, the sounds, light, even the smell of pigs, nothing is the same anymore.”

So it becomes for the Little Seamstress.  Through her, so it becomes for Luo and Ma.  And perhaps, after watching this film, so it becomes for you.

Postscript: I saw this film on October 18th, which I later found out is the birthday of lead actress Xun Zhou (she turned 40).  A strange coincidence, if one ignores the fact that the evening of October 18th in Seattle is October 19th in China.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 164 mins, USA, 2014)

Photo Courtesy of SIFF

Ellar Coltrane as Mason in Boyhood (Photo Courtesy of SIFF)

Boyhood may be director Richard Linklater’s best film.  It’s certainly his most ambitious, shot over 12 years using the same principle actors to cover a 12-year-period in the main character’s life. That main character is Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane).  He lives with his mother Olivia ( Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater).   Mason is six when the film starts; his sister two years older.  The children’s father (Ethan Hawke) is no longer with their mother, but is allowed to visit them on weekends.  While he loves his kids, we get the sense that he is too irresponsible to care for them as their mother wants, and an argument between them is intentionally overheard by the children from an upstairs window. Throughout the course of the film, the family moves several times, their mother marries and divorces, their father remarries and has a kid, and Mason gets into photography.  Elementary school gives way to middle school, which gives way to high school, and then college.  Department store magazines with women in bras and panties progress to Internet porn and talking about sex with high schoolers.  Olivia reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to Mason and Samantha progresses to them going to a launch party for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  Mason’s hair style goes from long to longer to short to long back to short again.  In high school, he pierces his ears and lets girls paint his nails.  Both siblings go from not-so-serious relationships with the opposite sex to serious ones.  Flip phones give way to smart phones.  Coldplay’s “Yellow” gives way to Arcade Fire’s “Deep Blue.”

(Photo Courtesy of SIFF)

(Photo Courtesy of SIFF)

And yet, despite all the changes in their outward lives, the characters remain who they are at their core, even as they continue to grow and mature as people.  The boy looking up at the sky from his front yard is the same young man looking out over the landscape at the end.  The girl waking up her brother with her performance of “Oops, I Did It Again” is the same young woman who toasts her brother at his high school graduation by saying, “Good luck?”  The father who is much of a child himself at the beginning of the film is still the same one who has matured to the point where he can thank their mother for raising them, but doesn’t have any cash on him to help her pay for Mason’s tuition.  Finally, their mother is the same woman who got swept up with their father, and yet constantly sacrificed so that her kids could have the lives they deserved.  When Mason is packing up for college and she says, “This is the worst day of my life,” we know why.  She has lived for her kids, and now they will be living for themselves. I found myself drifting off at moments in this film, remembering scenes from my childhood.  The ones that came back most vividly were from high school and my freshman year of college.  I felt surrounded by these memories, memories that I didn’t know were so vivid.  Maybe, as one character remarks at the end of the film, we don’t seize the moment; the moment seizes us.  This film is about those moments.  Following them leads us to who we were and who we will be, as they make a path that leads both forward, and back.

This film played as the Centerpiece Gala at the 40th Seattle International Film Festival. It opens Friday at the Harvard Exit Theatre.

Lucky Them (Megan Griffiths, 96 mins, USA 2013)

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Thomas Haden Church and Toni Collette (Photo courtesy of SIFF)

Two years ago, Megan Griffiths wrote and directed Eden, a film that deals with human trafficking in America.  Now she had directed a comedy, using a script written by Emily Wachtel and Huck Botko (from an original idea by Caroline Sherman).  While I admired the first film, I find myself loving the second.

It starts 10 years ago, when Matthew Smith, the greatest singer-songwriter in Seattle, doesn’t show up for his last gig.  The event is narrated in voiceover by Collette’s character, Ellie Klug.  We then switch to the present day, where Collette is a rock critic who seems more interested in bedding new talent than meeting her deadlines.  Her boss Giles (Oliver Platt) warns her that he can’t keep her on if she keeps producing sub par work.  He then assigns her a story on Smith, who vanished that night and is presumed dead, but like Elvis, is still sighted everywhere.  He even gives her company money in order to follow-up on a claimed sighting on the Internet, complete with a video that could be of anyone.

In the meantime, she has found another fresh talent, the baby-faced Lucas Stone (Ryan Eggold).  Though she promises him a feature article, she shelves in it favor of the Smith article.  Lucas won’t be easily deterred, in both the article and his affections for Ellie.  In one of her confrontations with him, she leaves the money Giles gave her behind.  Though he tries to give it back to her, she won’t answer his phone calls.  Then she realizes the money is gone.

Enter Charlie (Thomas Haden Church), an old, rich friend of Ellie’s.  He is actually introduced a bit earlier in the movie, so that we can see why Ellie would be hesitant in asking him for a loan.  He’s a bit annoying and a bit odd.   Still, she is desperate, so he loans her the money on the condition that he can come along and film a documentary about her search for Smith.  This is a neat plot device, as it allows Ellie to talk about her past with Smith, and it shows that she’s never gotten over him.

(Photo courtesy of SIFF)

(Photo courtesy of SIFF)

If Collette brings heart to this movie, Church brings laughs.  I have never seen him better than I have in this film.  His dry delivery steals every scene he’s in, while he also manages to give Charlie some humanity.

What makes this film special, though, is its combination of excellent dialog, great chemistry between Collette and Church, a sense of humor, and heart.  And the acting!  There is a scene late in the film that is one of the most poignant I’ve seen all year, and it’s due entirely to acting.  In fact, besides the dialog, the acting is the best thing about Lucky Them.  That is a credit not just to the actors and actresses, but to Griffiths.  I sincerely hope this is the film that introduces her to the mainstream.

And make sure you stay for the credits.

Lucky Them played at the 40th Seattle International Film Festival. It’s currently available on video on demand and plays for two weeks at the Northwest Film Forum starting tonight.

You can also read my post on the film from SIFF 2014.