My last anniversary post is, ironically, about the future. While I’m of the opinion that VR isn’t the future of film, I also believe that we’re just beginning to discover its applications and its potential. Note: there was no VR at SIFF this year, so if it’s the future, the future will have to wait.
In 2016, SIFF dedicated a part of its festival to emerging virtual reality work. Held at Seattle Center, the event was a mini-festival-within-the-festival dubbed SIFFX. Last year, it transformed into 360 Storytelling, which was offered by WonderTek labs every weekend of the festival, and a “PlayTank” at the Film Center the last day of fest. This year, the virtual reality experience was rebranded as the SIFF VR Zone and was housed on the ground floor of Pacific Place. On the last day of SIFF 2018, I decided to investigate this emerging medium and what it means (or doesn’t mean) for the future of film in particular and visual media in general.
The VR Zone was open for 90 minutes at a time, followed by 30 minutes where the exhibit was closed. During those 30 minutes, people lined up in the waiting room. Once the exhibit was ready for ticket holders and passholders, a staff member came out and explained what’s about to happen. Basically, the room we were about to go into would be filled with individual stations. Each station would be equipped with a Samsung Gear VR headset. Some exhibits would sport interactive controllers, as well. Swivel chairs would be provided for the features so as to fully experience the 360 degree visuals and sound. The features would involve sitting, while some of the interactive exhibits would involve standing. We were also warned to take breaks, as people prone to motion-sickness might be affected by the VR (I was warned in advance about one called Uplift VR: Maiden Flight, which takes place in a hot air balloon, but I didn’t have time to try it). Each exhibit would have the name of the exhibit and its run time written near the exhibit, usually on the wall.
With that, the blacks curtains were opened and we were let loose on a long, black-lined room that narrowed near the back (and shifted a bit to the right). Near the walls rested several swivel chairs with headsets and headphones (in other exhibits, the headsets and headphones were combined). Toward the middle of the space was a balloon basket (for Maiden Flight). Past it were more interactive exhibits, then a hallway perpendicular to the rest of the room. If you took a right, the hallway led past two exhibits into Where Thoughts Go. To the left were two more exhibits on the way to the restrooms.
The Zone included different VR experiences. Interactive VR involved more of the viewer, 360 Out of Africa and 360 Out of Space are what they sound like in their respective focuses, while 360 Experimental jettisoned narrative for different uses of the medium. Youth 360 were projects created by youth, while 360 Narrative, 360 Documentary, and 360 Art & Music are self-explanatory. In all, there were 28 exhibits of varying length, with most exhibits lasting under 15 minutes in length.
Since I had limited time, I went on my coworkers’ recommendations, with one exception. My first VR experience was Rone, an 8-9 minute documentary about the street artist by Lester Francois. This man paints huge portraits of women in buildings and other spaces designated for destruction. I used the swivel chair to good effect on this one.
The next exhibit was not recommended to me, nor would I recommend it to others. That was the experimental The Cabiri: Anubis by Bogdan Darev and Fred Beahm. Taking the shape of a play and coming after the true 360 world of Rone, this 180 staged work didn’t utilize all that VR could offer. Plus, it was boring in its telling of a man in ancient Egypt traveling to the Underworld to await judgement. Much of that had to do with the choreography, which wasn’t that impressive. Titles over the visuals were the only dialog included; music and gestures told the rest.
Then came the calming and wonderful Where Thoughts Go by Lucas Rizzotto, the first of two interactive exhibits I was able to experience. The exhibit, complete with a gauzy entrance and cushions to sit on, utilized controllers that allowed me to manipulate tiny spheres of light. In each “level”, you’d be asked a personal question, usually having to do with love, loss, or memories. You could manipulate the spheres to hear how other people answered, but the only way to move to the next question was to record an answer, then send your “answer sphere” to join the other spheres. It says something when an employee had to come in and tell me to wrap it up (due to people waiting for the exhibit outside), but I answered at least three of the questions and heard multiple answers to them. If it’s back next year, I may just spend all my time there.
The final exhibit (and final interactive exhibit) I experienced, I had to wait for. Called Queerskins: A Love Story (by Illya Szilac and Cyril Tsiboulski), the exhibit space was filled with mementos and testimonials of gay people who’d been rejected by their parents. The exhibit also had controllers that allowed me to manipulate items in a box as I sat in the back seat of a car. In the front were parents of a son who has died of AIDS. The box contained items that belonged to their son. The items changed every so often, depending on what was happening in the story at the time. While the narrative was powerful, I wondered if the VR Experience was necessary. Sure, you see the son as a person through interacting with the items in the back seat, but you aren’t holding physical items, which would create more of an impact. Also, the story is meant to make a point (which it does), but a short film could delve deeper into the subject with more complexity.
Overall, I’m glad I went to the exhibit. Just like 3D, however, the forced perspective gave me a headache, even after just one exhibit. Imagine if the exhibits were feature-length! If anyone figures out how to make the holodeck a reality, I’m there, but for now, virtual reality will remain a novelty, or one confined to the shortest of run-times.
This is the fourth year that SIFF is showing films at Shoreline Community College. While I didn’t go to any films there this year (I’ve moved since last year, and not closer to Shoreline — which is unfortunate, since I love the venue), I’d encourage anyone who can go to check it out. It’s away from city traffic, the screenings tend not to be as crowded (though they had at least one screening on standby this year), and they have free parking.
For the third straight year, Shoreline Community College (SCC) was one of the satellite venues for SIFF. This year, however, was the first year I attended a screening there, and the screening I attended launched the first-ever Episodic Content category: WebFest at Shoreline (this was the only screening of this content during the festival).
Besides having ample parking for people with cars, SCC boasts a leisurely bus ride for people who rely on public transportation. Of course, sometimes the buses don’t cooperate:
Being out-of-the-way means that there isn’t a fight for seats, like can sometimes happen at other venues. For example, I saw no lines outside by the time I arrived. Inside, I saw few passholders and plenty of empty seats. If I’d stayed for Virus Tropical, the only line I would’ve seen is a short one for ticket holders. And the campus has a quiet, relaxed atmosphere to it. One feels they’ve escaped the city for the countryside.
The theater reminded me of the one SIFF used for years at McCaw Hall, in that there’s no middle aisle and the rows are long. Being a bit hungry, I hit the snack bar, where I was happy to discover that they had Reese’s Peanut Butter cups. Also, their popcorn bags are guaranteed not to make noise during the screening.
While Shoreline upgraded their theater in 2017 to include a digital 4K projector and 7.1 surround sound, one of the trailers before WebFest sounded screechy in the high treble range, either meaning that the sound stretched the capacity of the speakers, or the volume was too high (there’s a possible third option: that the audio wasn’t formatted right). During the shorts (a mixture of pilots and webisodes), however, both sound and image quality weren’t a problem. Still, I’d love to see how the space handles a movie meant to be shown in theaters, rather than on a laptop.
Before the shorts began, Beth Barrett, Artistic Director at SIFF, introduced the 95-minute program and told us that multiple people involved in these episodes would be appearing afterward for a Q&A. In addition, Randi Kleiner (Chief Executive Officer) and Caleb Ward (Late Night Programmer), who run SeriesFest in Denver, would be joining them. Before the exclusive content of this program, we got to see a wonderfully amateurish promotional video for Shoreline, which looked like it was made by students at the college.
You can check out my capsule reviews for my thoughts about specific webisodes (unlike the feature films listed, they are listed in order of viewing, not alphabetically). In general, I enjoyed all of them, as they covered a diverse range of topics and genres, from slice-of-life humor (Apartment) to drama (Otis) to sci-fi (The Big Nothing, Strowlers) to thriller (Unspeakable). The Passage had the longest episode at 22 minutes, while Arun Considers had the shortest at 2 minutes.
The Q&A revealed interesting details. For example, the reasons behind developing these projects as web series were varied. Burgers (The Passage) said they just wanted to tell a story, born out of director Kitao Sakurai’s connection with various communities, while Narayanan (Arun Considers) said they did it as a web series for practical reasons (the series originally started as stand-up), as they needed to make it cheaply. For Otis, Etseyatse said the series was originally conceived as a movie. He thought about making it into a short, but then decided to do a web series, instead. With Strowlers, the creators want to make an entire universe that encourages audience participation, which allows them to set stories in different places and different times (one of them pitched a story set in Nigeria). It also allows them to expand into different media, such as literature and comics. Finally, Chamuris said Unspeakable director Milena Govich wanted to do a series centered around an anti-hero.
Some of these series have multiple episodes up already (Arun Considers, Unspeakable), while others have only one episode shot (The Passage) or don’t have them online yet (Strowlers, which will have episodes up in the fall).
Then it was time for Kleiner and Ward to take the stage and explain what SeriesFest is. Basically, it’s a film festival that only shows web pilots, but they also bring network execs in to watch the pilots so that these series can receive financial backing. This year, the fest runs from June 22-27. Unbeknownst to the filmmakers in WebFest, Kleiner and Ward were judging their pilots, and Unspeakable won the honor of appearing at their festival.
Next year, I hope to visit this gem of the north more often when the 45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival begins. And I hope more people will join me.
A very special thanks to Beth Barrett for furnishing me with the names of all the guests for Strowlers.
Since moving to Seattle, the only SIFF festival I didn’t cover was in 2017. You can read my reasons for that here. A celebration of my ten festivals wouldn’t be complete without a recollection from that festival, however, so here — for the first time — is a post from SIFF 2017.
Kore-eda Hirokazu is my favorite living director. I haven’t watched everything he’s made, but I’ve come close, and since I Wish, I’ve seen everything he’s directed (including that film), all of it in theaters.
In 2016, SIFF programmed Our Little Sister, Kore-eda’s best movie since Nobody Knows (though, like Ozu, he seems to be immune from making bad films). The next year, I heard he was going to be a guest at SIFF with his new film, After the Storm.
Since I was working the day it was playing, in the place where it was playing, I made sure to see the press screening ahead of time, hoping to duck into the back of the auditorium for at least part of his Q&A during my shift.
Despite having seen and loved so many of his films, I own none of them. One of my co-workers does, however, and got him to sign a DVD copy of After Life. I ran outside soon after and got several photos, one of which is at the top of this post. While I didn’t have anything for him to sign, I was more interested in welcoming him to Seattle (in Japanese) and telling him that I love his films.
Staff ushered him in before the screening, and then he left the building for a little bit. I was heading upstairs to restock something in concessions when I saw him return.
Now, most of the festival guests are flanked by several people at all times, so trying to talk to them requires dealing with more than one person. Kore-eda, however, came back alone. Since he entered near the door where the supplies were located, I should’ve just stopped for a second, said my piece, and then gotten the supplies. Instead, I did my job and thought how no one else in the lobby suspected that this regular-looking Japanese man was one of the greatest directors in the world.
So, the Q&A occurs, and I get permission to sneak in the back and watch some of it. Once it’s over, Kore-eda comes out, followed by a bunch of people — mostly Japanese women — who want to talk to him. I patiently wait my turn to talk, and then, when everyone else has gone, I take one step toward him…and he turns and walks with his translator out the door.
And that, my friends, is how I almost met Kore-eda.
I only wrote two posts for SIFF 2016: the one below, and my highlights post, which is the only one that includes information about the films I saw. The reason I decided to repost this one is because it’s unlike any other post I wrote about the festival. More of an exercise in writing style than a substantive article.
SIFF 2016 was notable for two reasons. One was the best trailer SIFF’s put together in all the festivals I’ve attended (which you can see if you click on the link above). The second (which we didn’t know at the time) was that it was Carl Spence’s last festival as Artistic Director, which means it also was his last year as programmer of the Secret Festival. Sadly, I missed Secret #3 due to illness — which, of course, was supposedly the best of the bunch. And no, I still can’t tell you what I saw. 🙂
Secret Festival. None dare speak of what goes on within this four-day festival-within-a-festival. Those who mention the creations which screen in shadow are never heard from again. What happens in the dark stays in the dark.
This year I shall be attending this adumbral ritual. I can never disclose the names of the films I see; they are referred to in the guide as Secret 1, Secret 2, Secret 3, and Secret 4. Within this hidden world I may find a masterpiece, or a film unworthy to be called a film. No plots revealed, cast lists mentioned, or directors lauded. Just generic praise, or generic cursing. Unless my transmissions cease. Then you shall know I am among the damned.
Of all the posts I’ve written for the Seattle International Film Festival, this is the one I’m most proud of.
At the end of last year, the Varsity Theatre became the latest Landmark Theatre to close (it reopened earlier this year under the same management as the Admiral Theatre in West Seattle). In January, the Harvard Exit followed suit. Unlike past theaters to close (The Uptown, the Neptune, the Metro, the Egyptian, the Varsity), this one will not reopen as a movie theater under new management nor — like the Neptune — will it be reopened as a live show venue. But, for the 25-day run of the 41st Seattle International Film Festival, it becomes a movie venue once again, using the downstairs screen (the only one that’s handicap accessible — historical building status prevents an elevator from being put in for the top floor). And I am lucky enough to have worked there on Tuesdays.
First, let me tell you what’s not at the Harvard Exit. There’s no employee fridge, microwave, floor mats, espresso machine, alcohol, syrup, Vitamin Water, popcorn seasonings, or cash drawer. Gone is the cool old projector in the lobby and the water pitcher (the water pitcher returned the final week I worked there). Ice is bought from the gas station; other supplies from QFC. Restock comes from the Egyptian.
What is there are two comfy couches that make an L-shape just past concessions and a lot more room, as the table that used to be in the center of the lobby now hugs the wall opposite concessions. There’s still a bathroom downstairs, though locking it is a mystery (in multiple attempts, I managed to lock it once, and then couldn’t repeat the feat), and the bathrooms upstairs are usable, as well. Old pictures on the walls and soft lighting from electric wall brackets in the shape of candles adds a funereal effect to the proceedings, and indeed, for all intents and purposes, we are holding a wake for the place.
My first Tuesday at “the Harvy” was slow. Cleaning and restocking don’t take long when there’s only one movie playing at a time, which left me with lots of downtime. I took advantage of this downtime to explore the Exit and document it before it’s turned into a restaurant or condos or whatever the heck it’s going to become.
First, here is how the lobby looks. The couches had people sitting in them all day, so I couldn’t get a photo of them until nighttime….and then the ballot box became part of the picture. So be it.
Next, I headed up to the third floor, where the second theater sits in the dark.
Across from the entrance to this theater is this empty alcove on the right, probably a second concessions stand (though never used when Landmark ran the building) and a lounge.
Past that door is this weird-looking contraption, a “hidden” women’s restroom, and a rather nice, but rarely seen, lounge.
I then headed back downstairs, pausing to take photos of the second theater and documenting my journey back to the first floor.
The theater was dark, so I used a flash. I took better photos on the third day.
In black and white.
After my sojourn upstairs, it was time to take photos of the box office and our tiny office. Upon entering from the outside, the office is the first door on the left, before the stairs.
Then, outside. I also got a good photo of the DAR Hall from here, which is where the Centerpiece Gala is held.
My final photos were of the small area which leads to the main theater and the balcony.
Looking toward the lobby (doors are to the outside).
This little window is never used, but leads into the theater.
Today, in between shows and cleaning and restocking (we were a little busier this Tuesday than last) and eating crepes from Joe Bar (delicious!), I explored the back staircase and the basement. But first, I got another chance to photograph the couches, this time with only a rubber band on the table.
Both the back staircase and the basement are reachable through a door down a small flight of stairs and to the left of the box office (on the same side as the office and the main stairs). The door to the basement was locked, so I headed upstairs first, where there are apartments and — apparently — one tenant.
Once you head through the door, this poster greets you on the right.
The entrance to the basement is on the left, across from the door next to the poster.
There are two doors on the right after you head through the door leading to these stairs. The first one leads to a supply closet, though I didn’t enter it until my final Tuesday. The second one is past a short flight of stairs and leads to the stage. You don’t want to open that one while a movie is being shown, or a beam of light will flash across the screen. Unlike the other doors, that one is painted gray.
Here’s what I saw going up the stairs.
Not sure when this happened, but there used to be a room back here. This is on the third landing.
These lead to the roof. Fifth landing.
At the end of hall, sixth landing.
Looking toward the stairs. The doors to the apartments are behind me.
Once I had some more downtime, I got the manager to unlock the basement door. Here is where the soda boxes are kept, as well as some old posters, though I had to make a second trip down there to see them, as I missed them the first time.
Past the door, down a flight of stairs, then a landing, then another flight of stairs at about a 90 degree angle to the first, then the soda boxes.
Looking away from the entrance to the basement.
Looking toward the entrance to the basement.
The entrance to the furnace room.
The furnace room is on the right as you enter the basement.
These vintage posters were to the right of the soda.
My final Tuesday at the Harvy was spent double-checking the location of some of the photos from the previous days’ shoots and taking photos of places I hadn’t shot before. Here’s the front hall:
The doors leading outside.
Outside, the office door, and the stairs to the bathrooms.
To the back stairs.
The box office.
I then checked out the back stairs again for details on which landings I’d taken the previous photos. Unlike before, each odd landing had trash piled up on it. Maybe the lone tenant was moving. The mattress was still in the hall, and with trash blocking my path, I didn’t feel like finding out which apartments were empty so that I could see what they looked like. I was, however, able to look in the supply closet and take a photo from the stage door, as well as a couple of the main theater.
This door leads to a supply closet, where I found volunteer-sized popcorn bags (the old member size).
On the first landing, the door to the stage.
Photo from backstage.
The main theater, taken from the stage.
The main theater, taken from the back of the theater.
I had to wait until the projectionist arrived before I could take the last three photos, so in the meantime, I went upstairs. An exhibit called James Dean’s Lost Slideshow, displaying photos the famous actor took, was on the third floor. I remember two people coming by the first Tuesday and measuring for the exhibit (though they measured downstairs). I got there before the man dressed up as an old-time movie usher stopped by (he comes with the exhibit), as it doesn’t officially open until 4 pm each day. It was at this time that I decided to take a photo of the men’s bathroom, so for the curious…
This was on the second floor.
Also on the second floor. I didn’t get to see what’s behind this door, but one of the managers did.
The first room of the men’s bathroom, third floor.
Farewells in chalk.
Concession nook on the right, theater on the left.
As mentioned on day one, I got another shot at the upstairs theater. Someone turned the lights on and opened the door, giving me better photos of the theater than when all had been dark.
On the door to the theater.
And while I didn’t enter the main women’s restroom for photos (because I’m not a pervert), I did check out the “hidden” women’s restroom on the third floor, past the lounge, which has a unique feature.
Yup, that’s a shower.
There’s the shower head…
…and two urinals.
I then headed downstairs…
…and took some photos outside (one of them is at the beginning of this post).
The front of the building. You can sell tickets from the office, though that hasn’t been done since several festivals back.
The highest window may belong to one of the apartments.
My final shots of the night were, appropriately, the view I’ve had the entire time I’ve worked here.
That door leads to the impossible-to-lock bathroom.
Water was kept at the other end of the counter from the popcorn machine.
Could I have taken more photos? I suppose. I don’t have any of the inside of the projection booth, and I didn’t get the key to unlock the employees-only area on the second floor, though I do have a photo of what’s behind that door….
Still, there is such a thing as overkill, and for patrons of this theater, these photos will adequately serve as reminders of a time when Capitol Hill was home to two theaters, one of which was haunted.
As for me, I’m glad I got an opportunity to work there, and to see movies on its screen, one last time.
The final movie playing at the Harvard Exit is the appropriately titled All Things Must Pass. The final movie I’ll be seeing there is a silent film version of Sherlock Holmes, which plays in the afternoon. The first film I saw there was Precious, which was only the second movie I saw after moving to Seattle.
I didn’t receive a press pass for the 2015 festival, though I applied for one. Since I covered most of the festivals without one, that didn’t stop me from covering the 2015 festival, where I saw a record-number of films (48). I also set a record for the most films seen in one day (with five) — and then topped it a day later, with six. What makes the number of films I saw even more impressive is that I decided not to work press screenings that year — the final year they showed at the Uptown.
At Ebertfest, I once saw four films in one day. During the fourth film, time vanished, reality regressed to dreams, and I left the theater unsure where I was. During SIFF this year, I saw five films last Wednesday (and am planning on seeing five today). The next day, I did one better. Somehow, the films remained distinct, though the press screenings did some time-bending.
Sugarcane Shadows showed promise in its first hour, but petered out in its last 30 minutes. The film deals with residents living in Mauritius who must deal with a sugar plant closing and the coming of modernity to their traditional way of life. After the film ended, I grabbed food prepared at home, which I’d stashed in the staff fridge.
According to the press screening email: “You wouldn’t want to run into Mimmo in a dark alley — especially if you owed his boss money. His loyalty is tested when a violent confrontation sends him on the run with a beautiful young escort, and we realize his lumbering size is matched only by the size of his heart.” We also realize that this movie is like scores of gangster movies before it, except with a handheld camera. It’s not bad, but it’s not special, either.
2:00 pm, Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 98 mins, USA 2015)
The best of the three press screenings, Cartel Land is a documentary that follows vigilante groups on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border combating drug cartels — one to keep drugs and illegal immigrants out of the country, the other to reclaim their towns from violence.
As Bus 8 made its way through rush hour traffic, I debated sitting down and eating dinner instead of seeing this film, since I calculated that my arrival would occur around the time the movie was scheduled to begin. I thought, in particular, of going to La Cochina & Cantina, which has a buffet option. As I walked by the restaurant, however, I decided dinner could wait, arriving at the Harvard Exit almost exactly at 4:30. Unlike the two non-press screening films I saw the previous day, I got in before the presenter began talking. Even before the film ended, I knew I had made the right choice.
This excellent film covers the 2013 Van Cliburn Piano Competition, held every four years in Fort Worth, TX. Focusing on several of the contestants, we also hear from the newspaper reporters who cover the competition and the judges who decide the winner. A brief history of the competition and of Van Cliburn is also included (for those who don’t know, Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 in Moscow, making him an international celebrity at age 23). Afterwards, director Christopher Wilkinson joined us for a Q&A. When asked how he knew which contestants to follow, he said, “Usually the most interesting contestants make the most interesting music” — his personal favorites being Steve Lin and Alessandro Deljavan. The film plays after the festival on July 31st on PBS. In addition, there’s a YouTube Channel with clips from the 2013 competition: https://www.youtube.com/user/VanCliburnFoundation
7:00 pm, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (Roger Allers, Gaetan Brizzi, Paul Brizzi, Joan C. Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Tomm Moore, Nina Paley, Bill Plympton, Joann Sfar, Michal Socha, 84 mins, Canada 2014) — AMC Pacific Place
If I’d known how bad Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet was going to be, I would’ve skipped it and sat down for a meal, instead of grabbing food on the way. Since I didn’t know, I walked from the Harvard Exit to Pacific Place, buying a Dick’s burger, fries, and a vanilla milkshake en route. I also bought a mustard packet, though how I was planning to put mustard on the burger while carrying a milkshake in one hand and the bag in the other wasn’t thought out ahead of time. Somehow, I timed it all perfectly, so that while I arrived after passholders were let in, this was the first festival screening — minus opening night and press screenings — at which I arrived early.
The main problem with this movie is its presentation. The book is supposedly full of profound essays on life, love, children, marriage, work, and play, but the movie makes the mistake of over-emoting, either through the visual presentation for each segment (most of the directors above are independent artists, who each were responsible for one segment), the music (in one of the worst ideas, the texts are made into songs, with no attempt to make them sound like workable lyrics, or workable music), or pauses in Mustafa’s (Liam Neeson’s) telling of these life lessons, with the result that they sound like sanctimonious crap. In a weird twist, the version I saw included English subtitles (even though it’s in English), so at times I tried to tune out Aslan and read the words on the screen to see if the truths they espoused still sounded like bad Hallmark greeting cards. It doesn’t help that after the “song” segments, Neeson repeats the last two lines of the text — as if this is supposed to punctuate the phrase, instead of puncturing its balloon.
While the visuals during the essay portions are at least beautiful, the regular animation is only slightly better than that of a Saturday morning cartoon, though the final scene with the seagulls rises above that mediocrity. Also, while the essay portions were the main offenders of the film, the sections in between featured flat characters with no personality in trite situations — a waste of a talented voice cast (besides Neeson, there’s Selma Hayek, Quvenzhané Wallis, Alfred Molina, and Frank Langella — with Langella being the only one who made me feel something besides disgust). No need to see this film, unless you’re a masochist. I would’ve walked out, but I had one more movie to see and nothing to do in between, so I enjoyed the visuals during the essay portions and pretended I was deaf and illiterate for the duration.
Update 5/29: Forgot to include this photo, which I took between the two screenings at Pacific Place. Happy Red Nose Day!
9:30 pm, Cherry Tobacco (Andres Maimik, Katrin Maimik, 93 mins, Estonia 2014) — AMC Pacific Place
After wasting 84 minutes of existence on the previous film, Cherry Tobacco reminded me that some filmmakers know how to make movies. One could argue that the film has no resolution, but it’s more concerned with the journey that teenage Laura (Maris Nõlvak) goes through than what she learns from it. The humor is funny, the situations are based in honesty, and the older man whom Laura develops a crush on is not portrayed as a monster, but as someone who may enjoy the company of younger women because of the argumentative existence he shares with his wife. Ultimately, however, the success of the film is due to Nõlvak’s portrayal of Laura. Young, fresh-faced, and comfortable with her physicality, she inhabits her character effortlessly, a highlight being an early scene where she dances alone with a confidence that refreshed after the stilted nature of the previous film. A gem.
My last anniversary post from 2014 is bittersweet. Seeing The Whole Wide World on 35mm (at a time when 35mm was getting rarer and rarer) is one of my fondest memories from any of the festivals, and yet just two years later, SIFF would be mourning the loss of the film’s director (and SIFF co-founder), Dan Ireland.Also, like many of the links to SIFF’s old web page, one of the ones I cite below is no longer active, so I’ve removed the link, but kept the text.
The first Seattle International Film Festival began on May 14, 1976, at the Moore Egyptian Theatre and ended on May 31 (there was no 13th Seattle International Film Festival, which is why this year is the 40th Seattle International Film Festival). Dan Ireland and Darryl Macdonald (which I’ve also seen spelled MacDonald) started the festival a year after taking over the Moore Theatre and renaming it the Moore Egyptian Theatre. The first festival showed 18 films. In 1985, the festival moved to the Egyptian Theatre on Capitol Hill, which was renovated (as was the Moore) by Ireland and Macdonald. (Sources: Historylink.org and SIFF History) Therefore, it’s appropriate that not only would the 40th festival show one of Ireland’s films (his first feature), but that they would show it at the newly opened Egyptian Theatre.
Before the feature film, however, there was a short, and before the short, there was a wait period, as Carl Spence, Ireland, and Macdonald were all on hand to fiddle with the equipment after the previous screening in order to make sure that Ireland’s screening went off flawlessly. That meant that passholders were put in a “holding area” in the lobby before being allowed to enter the theater. Our passes were all prescanned, as well.
Once all was well, we took our seats, the ticketholders took their seats, and we were treated to an introduction by Spence. Besides mentioning that Ireland and Macdonald started the Seattle International Film Festival, he thanked the sponsors (as the presenters always do), which in this case were board member Aron Michael Thompson, who underwrote the screening, and the always awesome Scarecrow Video, who has sponsored several of the screenings I’ve gone to at the festival.
Then Dan Ireland came out, thanking Carl for opening four screens that had been closed (three at the Uptown, one at the Egyptian). He said his and Darryl’s hearts had hurt when the Egyptian had closed. After that, he introduced the world premiere of his short, “Hate from a Distance.” The story had originally come to him from Dennis Yares while Ireland was filming Jolene with Jessica Chastain (Yares wrote the screenplay). The film coincides with the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act and centers around an image that horrified Ireland when he first saw it: that of a mother dressing her son in a KKK outfit (the photo appears onscreen at the end of the film). Ireland then introduced the cast and crew members in the audience and had them stand, which were Yares (writer, producer), Kate Krieger (actress), and Harry Gregson-Williams (composer). He also thanked Darryl for continuing the festival after he left to pursue directing.
“Hate from a Distance” is an excellent short film that tells of racism as seen through the eyes of a child. Danny Baker (Asher Angel) is a young white boy whose father Ned (Brendan Bradley) is forever at odds with his black neighbor, Clyde (Rashawn Underdue), despite the fact that they used to be friends when boys. Danny traces the animosity back to when Clyde tried to prove that he had a claim on the land that Ned owned, only to have the deed ripped up before his face by the judge. The current dispute is that Clyde’s children steal potatoes from Ned’s property. The film ties in the Biblical story of King Nebuchadnezzar and the three men in the furnace with the house that is set on fire near the end of the short. The film is dedicated to the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing, an act that helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The dedication is preceded by a quote from Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
When the short ended, Spence and Ireland were joined onstage by Yares, Krieger, and Gregson-Williams for a short Q & A. Having come from Canada, Ireland noticed a difference in how blacks were treated in the U.S. He said we shouldn’t look at “how far we’ve come, but how far we have to go.” Spence asked if Ireland was worried the film was too dark. “Of course!” Ireland said, but he wanted to make a statement. Spence then wanted to talk about the music. For that, Gregson-Williams (who has scored all of Ireland’s films) had written a gospel-like piece prior to being asked, which Ireland decided to use.
Then Ireland talked about Krieger and her character. Even though Krieger is the most talented actress (or actor) he’s mentored, when he came to her with this character (who plays Danny’s mother), he told her, “This is the most constipated character you’ll ever play.” Krieger wasn’t the only person acting in the film who Ireland has mentored; he also mentored Bradley. As for Angel, there’s a different connection: he’s Yares’s grandson. Though child actors can be “terrifying,” Ireland said, “Working with Asher is a dream.”
The Whole Wide World (Dan Ireland, 111 mins, USA 1996)
Before The Whole Wide World was screened, Ireland shared a message that D’Onofrio had sent him (he couldn’t be there because he was shooting elsewhere). In it, he said the film will always be close to his heart. “I consider The Whole Wide World a classic,” he continued. Also, there is a scene in the movie where he is swinging a sword, which had to be sharp enough to cut blades of grass. At the end of the scene, he plunges the blade into the ground. When he looked down, he noticed that the blade had only missed his foot by centimeters, and he thought, “Only for Dan. Only for Dan.”
Zellweger also couldn’t be there, as she was attending her mom’s birthday on the East Coast (“That’s what I love about her, ” Ireland said). Ireland had Spence read her message, in which she wrote, “Hi Danny boy!” and gave instructions to embarrass the brilliant composer (Gregson-Williams), but to embarrass Vinny (D’Onofrio) even more. She also thanked D’Onofrio for helping her act (by putting it all out there).
We then learned that we would be seeing a print, and not just any print, but Ireland’s personal print (according to Ireland, it’s the only print out there, which is a shame)! Spence also mentioned that they rigged the speaker system from McCaw Hall so that the movies at the Egyptian would sound better than they had in the past.
The Whole Wide World opened SIFF 22 in 1996. People who saw it back then recall it with fondness, and indeed, it is a wonderful film about the relationship between Texas schoolteacher Novalyne Price and Conan the Barbarian author Robert Howard. Howard is uncouth, doesn’t like others, and isn’t respectable, but he has a good heart, is a good writer, and has a great imagination. There is much made about his closeness to his mother, which might have prevented him from having any sort of romantic relationship, but the movie is really about two people who cared deeply for each other, even when they wouldn’t admit it. The script is well-written, the acting is great, the Texas sunsets sumptuous (colors really pop more on film than they do on DCP–especially reds), and to watch a print, despite a few frames that had a bit of dust in them, was such a treat. Sweet and sad, this is a lovely piece of work.
Like most of his criticism, Roger Ebert’s review of this film really gets to its heart. If my review doesn’t convince you to see this movie, I hope his more detailed review does.
One of the great things about film festivals is not just all the new films you can see, but also all the old ones. In the case of silent films, they’re often shown with new scores performed live. Though it’s more often the case that a new film you see at a festival will never play again, some of the old films can be quite rare, too. This was the case for SIFF 2014, where one of the films I saw is so rare, even Scarecrow Video doesn’t own a copy.
Though not planned, my Sunday consisted entirely of silent films, accompanied by Donald Sosin and introduced by SIFF board member (and silent movie scholar) Richie Meyer, who was himself introduced by artistic director Carl Spence. To add a little silent film zaniness to my morning, the bus I was on blew out one of its tires. Luckily, it was able to crawl to the next stop, which was only one stop away from mine. And then, on the way back home that night, the bus I was on stalled right before the last stop!
First came the Chaplin Shorts, consisting of “The Kid Auto Races at Venice” (1914-which includes a rare walk-on appearance by Chaplin, as an early incarnation of his Tramp character), “One A.M.” (1916), “Easy Street” (1917), and “The Immigrant” (1917). Meyer mentioned that this year is the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s first appearance on film. He was signed by Keystone in December 1913 and made his first film with them in January the following year. By the spring of 1914, he was directing his own films, as he hated being directed by others. In 1915 (late 1914, according to Wikipedia), he was signed by the Essanay Company, and in 1916 he was signed by Mutual to a $700,000 a year contract (with a $100,000 a year signing bonus), making him the highest paid person in the world.
Meyer went on to talk a bit about Chaplin’s upbringing. His mother was committed to an insane asylum and his father was a drunk, so he was mostly brought up by his older brother. Chaplin’s early life experiences permeate the 81 films that he made. Of the films we saw, the first one was made while Chaplin was at Keystone, while the last three were made at Mutual. “One A.M.” includes Chaplin as an inebriate; “Easy Street” is where the word “heavy” comes from (as used to denote a bad guy), as the villain in the film is quite large; and “The Immigrant” includes social commentary (and is also the short that the boys see in Au Revoir, Les Enfants). Meyer then introduced Donald Sosin, who had just come from Russia. Coincidentally, he had just played accompaniment for “The Immigrant” there. Then, Meyer called out different themes used in silent films: the hero, the villain, the heroine, the chase, the sad ending, the Hollywood ending. Sosin played a bit of each theme before being cut off by Meyer.
The accompaniment to all of the shorts was excellent, though I’m not sure if Sosin played the original scores for each work or his own (UPDATE 6/1: Sosin played all original compositions, though he did make use of some of the themes in SONG OF THE FISHERMEN). In any case, the shorts improved as they went on. In “The Kid Auto Races at Venice,” Chaplin does little more than come into and out of the shot and hog the scenery. Funny improvisation, but nothing spectacular. “One A.M.,” which he directed (unlike the first short) has some hilarious gags, including an extended one where he tries to reach the second floor of his house, only to be thwarted by the stairs, then the pendulum on a clock, and even a stuffed bear. That sequence, however, goes on for too long. While the gags show off Chaplin’s inventiveness, he hadn’t yet learned how to tell a story in film form. That changes with the next two shorts, both considered among his best work. “Easy Street” sees Chaplin as a man who reforms from a life of criminality and becomes a police officer, only to be assigned the most difficult beat in the city. In “The Immigrant” he plays an immigrant, coming to America with other immigrants on board a sea vessel. Both two-reelers include love interests and are better at balancing the comedy with story elements than the first two, which really have no story. My favorite part of the shorts, however, was seeing young kids approaching Sosin after the shorts were over, and him asking if they liked them.
Without Meyer, SIFF wouldn’t have been able to show the next film, so we were very lucky to see it. Song of the Fishermen is a 1934 Shanghai film making its American premiere. The Stamford Alumni Society was in the audience to see this film, as was a guest from the Beijing Film Institute. Meyer told us it was a pristine restoration (and it was!) and that Shanghai in the 1930s made more movies than Hollywood. This particular film was made by Niwa Studios, which was the leading film studio in Asia, and was directed by Chusheng Cai.
Silent Chinese cinema is a specialty of Meyer’s (which is how he got a copy of the film). In fact, he was selling a book and DVD combo in the lobby after the film was over, which celebrate the star of the film.
Wang Renmei is a fascinating person. She was born right after the fall of the Qing Dynasty and lived through the Communist Revolution. In fact, her father was Mao’s teacher when younger, and Renmei was a favorite of Mao’s. While this is Renmei’s most famous role, she was fired by the studio after making this film for getting pregnant, as the studio felt their audience wouldn’t want to see a pregnant woman onscreen. And yet, she continued to make films, even after the communists took over.
One of the most interesting things about this film is that the studio recorded Renmei singing the “Song of the Fishermen,” and while crude, it was played three times during the film, during which Sosin stopped playing. The effect was a bit eerie, for here is a garbled voice from 80 years ago being heard for the first time in an American theater. This was actually the first time the attempt was made to show it with the movie. In the final scene in the film, it is even matched to the lips.
Before having Sosin play different themes, as he did for the Chaplin Shorts, Meyer had people call out a year, country, director, and genre. Sosin then had to make up an original composition incorporating all of those elements. The first one was 1939, Romania, Kurosawa, Western. The second one was 1972, Russia, Scorsese, porn. He did well with both themes. For the film itself, he played the score composed by Nie Er, who later wrote the national anthem for the People’s Republic of China.
At the beginning of the film, there is a dedication to Jin Chuasong, who died during filming. Meyer explained that it took four weeks to shoot the film, and several crew members got seasick while filming on the boats. There also appeared to be some sections and frames missing, though what was there looked fantastic. While not a great film, it still holds up, including some not-so-subtle jabs at the hypocrisy of the religious. In addition, the suffering of Kitty (Renmei) and her brother, Little Monkey (Han Langen), as well as her entire family, is poignant, if melodramatic (the father dies at sea, the grandmother dies at home, the mother becomes blind, and the children cannot find work).
Afterwards, I bought the book/DVD combo and had Meyer sign it for me. The price was $30 — all of which goes to SIFF. While the book isn’t that long, there are some wonderful photos in it, and Sosin plays accompaniment on the DVD.
SIFF 2014 was the first year I applied for and received a press pass. Nowadays, the press launch is squeezed together with Donor Night, but back then, it was a separate event, took place in the afternoon, and occurred at the Uptown, rather than the Egyptian.To help with my reporting, I replaced my point-and-shoot camera with a DSLR that my parents had bought me the previous Christmas.This was a good year to upgrade my camera, for it also was SIFF’s 40th Festival (though there was no 13th festival), which meant that the programming (and guests) would be extra special that year.
Wednesday, April 30
Today I went to my first ever press launch. I came directly from getting a small cavity filled, so there was still some sensitivity when snacking on the Continental Breakfast. And, although I reached for an orange juice, one of my fellow staff members traded it for a Mimosa. “It’s your birthday,” he said, though that had been last week. I have to say, the Mimosa was the better choice.
Once we had our fill of food, we moved down the hall to Uptown 2, where the official press launch began.
It began with Carl Spence, Artistic Director at SIFF, who mentioned that the Closing Night film this year will be The One I Love, starring Mark Duplass. He also mentioned that the Centerpiece Gala will be Boyhood (Richard Linklater), which I already knew, but then we got to see a trailer for it, and I’m even more excited to see it than I was before, if that’s possible. Slacker had its World Premiere at SIFF, and while Boyhood isn’t a World Premiere or even a North American Premiere, it’s appropriate that it’s making its Seattle premiere here. And in case you want the breakdown of films at SIFF 2014:
(Note: in my press packet it says the festival is comprised of 435 films, but the press release I received corresponds with the numbers here, so I’m going with 440 films.)
Then Mary Bacarella, Managing Director at SIFF, took the microphone to thank the staff and sponsors, as well as the caterers, Il Fornaio.
The tribute guests were once again mentioned (Laura Dern, Chiwetel Ojiofor), with an addition: A Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented this year to Quincy Jones. As part of the celebrations, SIFF will be showing Pawnbroker, which featured Jones’s first film score. Carl went on to say that one of the midnight films this year will be the king of all midnight films: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which premiered at the first festival). Other films celebrating SIFF’s 40th include The Stunt Man (which had a record-breaking 52-week run at the Guild 45th after playing at the 8th Seattle International Film Festival) and Dan Ireland’s The Whole Wide World. Films with parties attached include Dior and I, I Origins (from Mike Cahill, director of Another Earth), and They Came Together (a romcom spoof from David Wain, the director of Wet Hot American Summer). Also, the moods are back in the catalog to help people decide what films to see.
The rest of the presentation included Beth Barrett talking about Northwest Connections films, Archival films, Docs, and Shorts; Dustin Kaspar talking about the Forums, African films, and Futurewave films; and Clinton McClung talking about Face the Music and Midnight Adrenaline films. After each section, a trailer from one of the films featured was played.
We then had a break, where we each got a copy of the free guide for the festival.
Jimi: All Is By My Side played after the break. André Benjamin channels Hendrix’s looks and mannerisms for the film, if not quite his onstage presence, but the movie has two serious flaws: a lack of emotion and little use for developing secondary characters. Some nice touches (like the visual representations of drug trips), great costuming, and Hendrix’s cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” are the bright spots. It’s interesting, but the EMP exhibit is better.
Thursday, May 1
Today was the first day of press screenings. Press screenings are open to the press and anyone who has a full series pass or higher. Traditionally, press screenings start on the last Monday of April and play Monday through Thursday until the end of festival. This year, festival organizers decided to start screenings on May 1 (a Thursday). In addition, there were press screenings scheduled on May 2. While there have been press-only screenings on Fridays before, to have general press screenings on a Friday is unusual.
Last year, I remember a lot of scrambling and busy-ness on the first press screening day. This year, not so much. Of the three films shown (Mood Indigo, DamNation, Dear White People), DamNation received the most critical praise from the people who watched it. It deals with dam removal, including the Elwha Dams on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
Friday, May 2
Our rare Friday press screenings began with #Chicagogirl-The Social Network Takes on a Dictator and continued with The Skeleton Twins before concluding with The Congress, which I am very much looking forward to seeing. Since I got to leave early, I don’t know how The Congress was received, but I do know a few people were disappointed with the ending of The Skeleton Twins.
SIFF 2013 had some of the best films out of all of the festivals I attended. Part of that might’ve been due to the fact that my press screening schedule allowed me to attend most of the evening and weekend films, which were often the bigger movie offerings. I also got lucky. I almost didn’t see Wolf Children and I made room for Comrade Kim Goes Flying based on the buzz surrounding its press screening.By the way, I’ve since seen Summer Wars, and many other films by Mamoru Hosoda, and I still think Wolf Children is his masterpiece.
Thursday, May 30
Aloha Thursday started with a press screening of the weepiest film I’ve seen at the festival, the North American premiere of The Girl With Nine Wigs. This German/Belgium co-production is based on a best-selling novel, itself based on a true story, about a 21-year-old woman named Sophie (Lisa Tomaschewsky) who finds out she has cancer. After shaving off her remaining hair, she deals with her diagnosis by buying nine different wigs. Each night, she sneaks out of the hospital wearing one of the wigs, each one with a different name and personality attached to it. While there’s some element of fantasy involved (the head nurse gives in too easily to unplugging her IV each night so that she can go party), the saddest (and happiest) moments are the ones that ring the truest, such as when Sophie sees her father break down in the hallway after her diagnosis. A very good film.
The other two press screenings this morning were I Used to Be Darker and Comrade Kim Goes Flying. The latter film is “the first Western-financed fiction feature made entirely in North Korea” (to quote the SIFF Guide). Based on what people said after seeing this film (including one of my coworkers), I decided to do a little rearranging so that I could see it on Sunday. Even better, the director would be in attendance for the festival screenings.
That night, I saw two films at the Uptown: The Summit and Ludwig II. The first film is a documentary about the 11 climbers who perished while climbing K-2 in 2008, and what might have gone wrong. With beautiful scenery, interviews with some of the surviving climbers, and video and photos taken during the disastrous climb (as well as some reenactments), the film shows how several small errors in judgment, and some inexperienced climbers, led to such a horrible disaster, with most of the deaths occurring during the descent. I never had a desire to climb K-2 before, but I definitely do not now.
The North American premiere of Ludwig II, in the same theater, is director Peter Sehr’s last film, who was well-loved on the festival circuit with such films as Kaspar Hauser and The Anarchist’s Wife. The screening was dedicated to him. The film tells the story of Ludwig II, the “Mad King of Bavaria,” who financed Wagner’s operas and went on to build huge fairytale castles. Declared unfit to rule by reason of insanity, he eventually committed suicide (according to the movie, though some people think he may have been murdered). The film follows him from right before he ascends the throne until the end of his life. While it looks gorgeous and is sympathetic to the king, seeing him as someone who wanted to bring music and culture to Bavaria in place of war and politics, the film does not find enough drama, either internal or external, to sustain its 143 minute run time. It’s decent, but it never rises to something special.
Friday, May 31
I saw two films today. Inch’Allah (which means “God willing”) follows a Quebec doctor who works in Israel’s divided West Bank. It starts with a scene that the film will finish at the end of the film: a suicide bombing attack in a cafe. In between, we see the doctor (Evelyne Brochu) go from her home on the Israeli side of the West Bank to her practice on the Palestinian side. As well as show the absurdity of bureaucracy in the face of fear (one of her patients is not allowed into a hospital because of heightened security, even though she is about to give birth and is losing blood), the film gives a human face to all involved: Israelis, Palestinians, soldiers, and even suicide bombers. A movie about grey areas, and the people trapped in their shadows.
The second film was a bit more uplifting, even though it deals with a teenager wrongly accused of planning to gun down his classmates at school. Blackbird is one of the best films I saw at SIFF by not being the kind of film I thought it would be. The teenager in question, Sean Randall (Connor Jessup), is not a killer, but an outcast. Used to living in the city with his mother, he now lives with his father in a small town, where his goth clothing and taste in music makes him the target of some bullies at school. In order to deal with his angst, he writes about killing his classmates with guns his father owns. This brings the police to his door, and a stint in juvenile detention. Ordered by the judge to have no contact with any of the people he supposedly targeted, he can’t help himself from seeking out the one person who he really cared about, Deanna Roy (Alexia Fast). A perceptive, mature film about teenagers, the judicial system, and how misunderstandings between children and adults can lead to detrimental consequences that benefit no one.
Saturday, June 1
Throughout these two weeks, I had thought it impossible for any movie to affect me as deeply as The Act of Killing. What movie could reach that level of intensity? And, by reaching that level of intensity, outdo that film’s craftmanship?
The answer, of course, was its antithesis. A live-action documentary about death and killing became the second best movie of the festival behind an animated fictional film about life and birthing. Wolf Children is Mamoru Hosoda’s masterpiece, and I say that having not seen Summer Wars.
That is not to say that this film doesn’t have its darker moments, but they are gentle, human moments. The film (and it was actually on film) filled me with a warm glow for its entire run time. It starts with a woman meeting a man at her university whom she discovers to be half-wolf, half-man. It end with their children (daughter Yuki and son Ame) deciding whether to grow up as humans or as wolves. Narrated by Yuki, this is ultimately a film about family, the sacrifices parents make for their children, and the choices children have to make as they grow older. And did I mention the animation is gorgeous, and has a hand-drawn quality to much of it?
Following this was a restored DCP of Richard III, which looked like film minus the dirt and scratches. A great Shakespeare adaptation, minus some occasional overdramatic acting from Sir Laurence Olivier. Then I rushed with a friend to the Egyptian Theatre, where he and the rest of my friends went to see the Centerpiece Gala film, Twenty Feet from Stardom (which I saw during The Best of Fest and really enjoyed), while I went to the Harvard Exit to see The Wall. Having had a long and tiring day (Richard III was 2 hours and 41 minutes long), The Wall was probably the worst film I could’ve seen, as the voice-over narration is done by a women with a very soothing voice. Plus, the film is slow-paced and contemplative. It’s about a woman who is staying with some friends at their cabin. Her friends go into town that night for supplies, while she stays behind with their dog. When they haven’t come back by morning, she goes to investigate, only to discover that an invisible wall has sprung up, trapping her in the cabin and the surrounding woods. She eventually finds other companions beside the dog, but I felt that this was a more interesting idea on paper than it is on film, particularly concerning the ending, since it should have suggested to the heroine that there must be a break in the wall somewhere, and yet she is still trapped in the cabin at the end of the film. An interesting concept, and certainly the type of film that should be shown at festivals, but no more than decent in its handling of its theme.
After the film, it was party time at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Hall, which is where the Centerpiece Gala was held.
I didn’t get to go to the Centerpiece Gala last year because I had to work (and it ends early), so I was very excited to experience it this time. There was food, dancing, and drinks — all of which made for a great party-going experience. Plus, I was there with friends, which made the experience even more memorable.
Sunday, June 2
If Wolf Children was the best film I saw at SIFF, Comrade Kim Goes Flying was the guiltiest of pleasures. Nicholas Bonner, who was one of three people who directed this Belgium, North Korea, and United Kingdom joint production, was in attendance and told us before the film to try and watch it as a North Korean would, forgetting all our preconceived notions about North Korea.
The film is a fantasy, shot in bright colors and starry a plucky, likeable, and almost always smiling Han Jong Sim as Kim Yong Mi, a coal miner who is transferred from a small town to Pyongyang after her mine reaches its quota ahead-of-schedule. Having harbored dreams of becoming a trapeze artist, she attempts to achieve her goal in the city, but finds out it’s much more difficult than she expected, especially as she has a fear of heights. In the process of overcoming her fear, she must convince an arrogant trapeze artist, Pak Jang Phil (Pak Chung Gok), that a coal miner can fly. Starting with a ridiculous scene in a field that involves a white dove and visuals reminiscent of Super 8 footage, there is nothing political about this film, but there is a lot that is fun, charming, and goofy. I had a smile on my face the entire time.
After the film was over, Nicholas Bonner made sure to reiterate two things: 1.) this is a fantasy, and 2.) it’s not a propaganda film. Most North Korea films are blatant propaganda; they don’t make fiction films. Bonner has made three documentaries on North Korea and North Koreans, and he suggested that we check those out if we want realistic depictions of North Korea. Plus, I’ve seen many Japanese and South Korean films that are similar to this one, with plucky heroines who are chasing their dreams in the big city and must contend with male rivals. Can’t North Koreans make and enjoy the same kinds of movies? And in thinking that nobody is well-off in North Korea reminds me of the blog post by The Squeaky Robot about the fallacy of the single story, which is that one point-of-view, in regards to how people in a certain place and time lived, is never true. Finally, some scenes that a Westerner might interpret as portraying communism versus capitalism are seen in North Korea as the working class versus the intellectual class.
Some other highlights from the Q & A:
There are actually three directors on this film. Every two years, there is an international film festival in Pyongyang, which is where Bonner met Anja Daelemans. I don’t remember how he said he met Kim Gwang Hun. Anyway, Bonner said we should see this film as the result of three friends who wanted to make a movie together, with one of them just happening to be North Korean.
The actress who plays Comrade Kim is actually a trapeze artist, since it was easier to train a trapeze artist to be an actress than it would have been to train an actress to be a trapeze artist. Unlike many North Koreans, Han Jong Sim has traveled around the world, and yet she was still not sure how the film would be received outside of her home country. To reiterate this point, Bonner read a letter from her.
North Koreans not only love the film, but also love that it’s playing outside their country. And while filming was done inside North Korea (with archival footage taking the place of wide shot pickups, since a North Korean audience would know where those locations are), post-production was done elsewhere.
This is the first North Korean film to use synchronized sound, and the first North Korean film allowed to be shown outside North Korea.
When they showed the film in South Korea, one man stood up afterwards and said it was nice to see that mother-in-laws in North Korea are the same as mother-in-laws in South Korea.
I did make sure to tell Bonner afterwards that I enjoyed the film and didn’t think it was propaganda, but if only I had not adjusted my camera after asking someone to take a photo of me with the director and movie poster! He said it was too bright, but the picture that came out was a little too dark, and adjusting it allowed some noise to creep in. Still, it’s a good photo.
The final film of the evening was a restored print of A Man Vanishes, a classic film by Shohei Imamura in black-and-white, which starts out by being a documentary about a Japanese man who vanished one day, to the wife’s growing interest in the director, to an exposé on what is and isn’t reality. It moves slowly in the beginning, as much of it involves interviewing subjects who knew the man, but once the director and crew start to become the subject, the film becomes interesting and stays that way until its end.