SIFF: Week Three (June 5-11, 2011) — Anniversary Post

Besides watching great movies you may never see again, one of the main reasons for attending a film festival — rather than seeing movies during their theatrical runs — is to get the chance to hear from people who worked on the film or — in the case of documentaries — its subjects. One of the most memorable moments of SIFF 2011 came from one of these “guests” — except that she wasn’t invited! Scroll down to my review of Tabloid to read more. But first, read my take on The Whisperer in Darkness, one of the best H.P. Lovecraft adaptations I’ve seen. Unlike Tabloid, the guests associated with that screening were invited.

In front of Boom Noodle with SIFF, Week Three tickets

Sunday, June 5th

Volunteer: Line Greeter     Neptune Theatre     10am-2pm

I worked with the same house coordinator as yesterday, though I don’t remember if I worked with any of the same volunteers.

The first movie was a Ken Loach film called Route Irish, which deals with a contractor in Iraq whose friend is killed under mysterious circumstances.  The film looked great, but it’s one of those movies that must be seen from the beginning.  I saw George from Seattle Cinema Club there, as well as Craig, who I met last year while volunteering. Craig asked me what movie I would recommend; I told him he should see The White Meadows.

The next film was Killing Bono.  Yes, that Bono.  As I was going down the line outside to make sure that everyone had the right tickets, I recognized one of the people in line, also from Seattle Cinema Club.  After I talked to her, someone else called out to me, but I didn’t recognize her.  And yet….

Then, she said, “It’s Marianne!”

Yes, that’s right; I had finally met the elusive Eastsider @mariannesp. I gave her a big hug once I realized who she was, and then was introduced to her husband.

Once I got to the end of the line, I doubled back to the front entrance, where Marianne asked if I were seeing this film.  Unfortunately, it was lunchtime for me (as well as the end of my shift), though I wish I had come back when the movie had finished so that I could hang out with her more. 20/20 hindsight.  Anyway, she asked me for the best films I had seen so far, so I told her The White Meadows, Littlerock, and Project Nim.

14.     Snow White (France 2010: 90 min)     Neptune Theatre     6:30 pm

Snow White (Le Blanche Neige) is a ballet based on the classic fairy tale, which received its US Premiere on Thursday at SIFF.  Before it began, I listened to the conversations between the people around me, many of whom seemed to be in the ballet world.  In fact, the people who sat to my left looked like VIPs.  As to the group of young women in front of me, they were passing around a photo of an ultrasound, as one of them was pregnant, which the others were celebrating.  This creates a neat segway into the film, which was introduced by Justine Borden, as the first shot is of Snow White’s mother, pregnant and alone, giving birth to her daughter in the forest.

Then Snow White grows up, disappearing behind a set of panes to reappear as an older version of herself.  The familiar elements of the story are here (though the Queen gets two rat henchmen), set to the music of Mahler.  The music greatly matches the mood of each scene it portrays, especially music from the 10th (Snow White dances alone at the ball), 8th (the apple sequence), and 5th (the Adagietto, when the Prince grieves over Snow White, dead from the poison apple).  The apple sequence, in fact, was a passionate highlight of the film.

Unfortunately, most of the dance numbers lack passion.  There is some nice footwork, to be sure, but the dances are too angular (particular in the arms) to convey the full emotional impact of the score (though Céline Galli, who plays Snow White, is excellent).  This in spite of the dwarves dressed as miners scaling a wall, and one sequence between Snow White and the Prince, where they first dance without any music, then with music.  This brings up another point: the duets are better than the group dances.

One final note: the costumes are good, on the whole (including one of a deer in the forest), but Snow White’s dress at the end of the film is bizarre. 3 out of 5

15.     The Whisperer in Darkness (USA 2011: 103 min)     Neptune Theatre        9 pm

In what may be the strangest double-feature I’ve done at SIFF, I followed Snow White, a ballet, with The Whisperer in Darkness, a horror movie shot in black-and-white.  For this film I had to exit and then re-enter the theater, except that the people in charge of allowing the re-entry pass people in first were not paying attention.  Still, I grabbed a good seat, in exactly the same row that I sat in for Snow White, but more toward the center.  I had just started reading H.P. Lovecraft at this point, and so had not gotten to this particular short story of his, which is one of the longer ones in my collection.

The film version is a faithful adaptation of the short story, in which a professor at Arkham University begins a correspondence with a man who says that he has seen crab-like creatures on his premises, located near the hills of Vermont.  Made to look and feel like an old horror movie from the 30s, it also shares the format’s penchant for building suspense slowly, rather than shocking us with loud noises, CGI monsters, and things that jump out at us.  The same group adapted The Call of Cthulhu as a silent horror film, which up until this film’s release was hailed as the best adaptation of a Lovecraft story to date (source: Necronomicron: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft).  This one should share in that praise. 5 out of 5

SIFF Programmer, David Robertson, Andrew Leman, Sean Branney

Q&A: For this film, David Robertson (producer, sound & lighting), Andrew Leman (producer), and Sean Branney (director) went onstage during the end credits to talk about the film.  There had been a few glitches in the picture with the digital medium, but the guests said they would not be on the DVD release, which would be available in the fall (and indeed is available on Amazon).  For their next Lovecraft adaptation, they are looking at either The Thing on the Doorstep or The Shadow Out of Time.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, Nosferatu, The Lady Vanishes, Universal monster movies, and film noir influenced the look of the film, and most of it was shot in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.  Some interesting tidbits: the antique plane used in the film was found on eBay, where someone had built a 3/4 size model of it in his garage, and the cave sequences were shot in the Batcave.  Yes, that Batcave.

After the Q&A ended, I went over to David and asked him, “What’s the key to making a great Lovecraftian film?”

He said no one’s really asked them that question (score one, me!), but mentioned that Lovecraft is a master of mood, so you have to get the mood right.  The other trick is to follow the story.  Since he had talked earlier about how people weren’t eager to fund a film shot in black-and-white, with no stars, no violence, and no scantily-clad women, at that point Sean joked that they were going to make At the Mountains of Madness in Maui with three girls in bikinis.  I said Guillermo del Toro’s not doing it now, so he could, to which he replied, “We’ll steal it from him!”

Tuesday, June 7th

16.      My Afternoons with Margueritte (France 2010: 86 min)      SIFF Cinema     7 pm

Incredibly, this movie sold out.  Maybe not incredibly, for it stars Gerard Dépardieu, who shows that he doesn’t even have to act in order to act.  He is the character, and that’s that.  Here, he plays a uneducated handyman named Germain who meets an elderly woman, named Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus), on a park bench.  The woman reads to him from classic novels and shows him the kindness that his own mother never did.  What I love about this film is that all of the characters are well-drawn,  including Germain’s girlfriend Francine (who is beautiful and kind, but you believe that she could fall for a man like Germain).  While the ending is preposterous, a regular ending would not do.  My favorite scene is when Francine thinks that Germain is cheating on her because he has bought flowers, but not for her.  When she discovers that they are for a little old woman, however, all is forgiven. 4 out of 5 (though I’d probably give it a 3 now)

Thursday, June 9th

17.     Tabloid     (USA 2010: 87 min)     SIFF Cinema     9:30 pm

Now we come to the funniest film of the festival, with the most bizarre postscript.  Claire programmed this movie about a former beauty queen named Joyce McKinney who, along with an accomplice and a fake gun, kidnapped/rescued her husband-to-be from the Mormons in England, and then had sex with/raped him for three days while he was tied/shackled to a bed.  The man’s name was Kirk Anderson, and the story broke in the tabloids as “The Manacled Mormon.”  The Daily Express told the story from her perspective, the Daily Mirror dug up dirt on her as an adult escort into S&M, including tons of photos of her in bondage gear (which McKinney denies are her).  Then, McKinney faded into the background, only to reappear when she had her late dog, Booger, cloned five times by a scientist in South Korea, making the headlines yet again.

The point of this film is to show how the truth is much more complicated that people realize.  Everyone in the movie thinks that they know what really happened during those three days.  For McKinney, she had liberated her future husband.  For Anderson, he had been kidnapped and forced to have sex with McKinney.  For the tabloids, she was either a victim of her own misguided attempts at love or a manipulative woman with a thirst for kinky sex.  The evidence in the film supports both views.  For example, while the Daily Mirror had all of the negatives of the photos, they were lost during a reshuffling, leaving that evidence in doubt.  What isn’t in doubt is that McKinney is a natural performer, and Morris has fun with this material, lightly poking fun at all of the participants involved.  He even includes a former Mormon minister to explain what McKinney doesn’t know about Mormonism, especially concerning sex and their calling, while religious cartoons play in the background. 4 out of 5

Postscript: After leaving the theater, I noticed that there was a group of people surrounding a woman outside.  I looked quickly and thought, “That looks like Joyce McKinney,” but then thought, “It must be someone that looks like her,” before heading off to my bus stop.  Still, I kept looking up the street, and seeing that my bus was not going to arrive for a while, I felt it my journalistic (blogeristic?) duty to find out what was going on.

Well, it was Joyce McKinney.  As most of you know by now, she followed this film around from festival to festival, opening night to opening night, decrying the way that Morris has portrayed her in the film.  At first, I thought this was an Errol Morris joke, and a part of me still thinks that it might have been.  After all, where did she get the money to fly to all of these places?

In a rant that went all over the place, she explained why she was suing Mark Lipson (one of the producers of the film) and Errol Morris.  Included in her diatribe was that it had to do with a dog that she had to put down that Morris had said he would save, and with baby pictures that Lipson took from her and never gave back.  She then grew teary-eyed talking about how her mother was in a coma.  In her hand was a box that said, “This film is a hoax,” which you can see in the photo above.  She said that she came out to show that she’s a human being, too, but what she mainly showed is that Morris got her right.  She put on a bravura performance for us, one filled with words that matched that half-truths spoken in the film, and tears.

I eventually had to catch my bus, but Joyce McKinney continued to perform.

McKinney in full-tear mode

Friday, June 10th

Venue Volunteer: Ticket Ripper, Late Seater     Neptune Theatre     3:30-7:30 pm

Lots of traffic on 45th, due to the UW graduation.  One of the advantages of walking to work is that this didn’t affect me at all.

For my final volunteering gig of SIFF 2011, I worked with a house manager whom I had never worked with before.  The main film, at 4 pm, was called PressPausePlay, and dealt with how new technology has changed the medium in music, books, and film.  While the subject was interesting, and some of its interview subjects (like Moby and Lena Dunham) made some interesting points, the execution was not good.  Random images were shown in between each topic, and the film seemed as scatter-brained as social networking sites are supposed to make you.

The second film was Gandu at 7 pm.  I have no idea what that film is about, and I don’t feel like looking it up.  So instead, I’ll talk about the people I saw while I was volunteering.  First, I saw my housemate and his girlfriend walk by, his girlfriend having just graduated from the pharmacy program at UW.  I also saw Craig (again) and two Platinum Plus holders whom I had recommended Detective Dee to.  They had seen it and liked it.  Finally, my encyclopedic knowledge of film got me recognition from one of the volunteers, who thought I should be on one of the juries since I’m “an expert on film.” (her words)

Saturday, June 11th

18.     Norwegian Wood (Japan 2010: 133 min)     Egyptian Theatre     6 pm

The last film I saw at SIFF was the U.S. premier of Norwegian Wood, based on the book by the same name by Haruki Murakami (or Murakami Haruki, if you want to be properly Japanese).  Not surprisingly, it was sold out.  Carl Spence, the artistic director at SIFF, introduced the film.  Fortissimo Films, the company that–I’m assuming–distributed the film, gave SIFF permission to host the first U.S. screening.  Better yet, my parents were visiting, so I got to see it with them, along with several people from the Japanese Meetup Group.

This was one of the most highly anticipated films for me, despite its mixed reaction at the Toronto Film Festival from people whose blogs and tweets I follow, and my own mixed reaction upon reading the book.  In particular, I was curious to see how the film would match the brilliance of the book’s opening, which uses language so skillfully in creating the mood one feels when a painful memory enters one’s consciousness.  Perhaps realizing that he couldn’t, Tran Ahn Hung, the director and screenwriter, decided to start by showing us when Naoko, Kizuki, and (Watanabe) Toru used to hang out with each other.  Then, Kizuki kills himself.  Toru and Naoko reconnect before Toru goes to college, and he ends up having sex with her on her birthday.  Naoko, who was never able to get wet with Kizuki, even though she loved him, goes to live at a retreat in the countryside, in an attempt to heal her fragile psyche.  Toru goes to school in Tokyo, during the student protests.  There, he meets Midori, a sexually aware woman.  The year is 1969.

The first half hour of this film is a bit of a jumble, as minor characters are introduced and then vanish, such as Toru’s roommate.  Even Nagasawa, who becomes an important character for one of the subplots in the book, has a rushed entrance. Then the film settles down, and one notices the great acting, lighting, and cinematography.  Kikuchi Rinko, so great in Babel, plays Naoko, while Natsuyama Kenichi plays Toru.  The minor parts, such as Nagasawa, Hatsumi (Nagasawa’s girlfriend), and Reiko (Naoko’s friend at the retreat) are all well-taken.  Besides the changed beginning, the other main changes are the exclusion of Reiko’s back story and [SPOILER ALERT TILL THE END OF THE PARAGRAPH] the lines that come after the voiceover concerning Hatsumi’s future suicide, one of the most beautiful and moving parts of the novel.  On the other hand, I felt Naoko’s loss more here than I did when reading the novel.  As she explains to Toru, she and Kizuki had a special bond.  One cannot live without the other.

One more thing I should mention: while Kikuchi is fantastic, and Natsuyama plays Toru well, the one to watch here is Mizuhara Kiko, who plays Midori.  She illuminates every scene she’s in.  Naoko may look like the tougher role to play, but Midori is just as difficult.  I put her down as my choice for Best Supporting Actress. 4 out of 5

SIFF: Opening Night and Weekend, and Week One (May 19-28, 2011) — Anniversary Post

Welcome to a recurring theme of my SIFF posts: posts that are late (in this case, I originally published this post on July 13 — over a month after the festival ended!). The main reason for this repost is for a review of one of those “gems” I talked about earlier: a small movie called Littlerock.

Check out the nifty t-shirt!

SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) ended last month, but due to time constraints, I have not been able to post anything about it to my blog until now.

Last year, I included in-depth reviews of each film.  Since I saw almost double the number of films this time around, that is not possible. I will, however, include a short review of each film.

Also, I will be including my volunteering experience with my movie-going experience, instead of separating them out, like I did last year.

Okay, enough introduction. On with the show!

…and the back.

Thursday, May 19th: Opening Night    

Volunteer: Production Crew     McCaw Hall 7-9 pm

Thursday was beautiful in Seattle, which was lucky, since the Opening Night Gala includes the Red Carpet treatment. I wish I had brought my camera, but I didn’t this year. I did, however, ride with some excited college students (or maybe graduates) who were going to the opening night festivities. Women were in dresses and men were in suits.

I got off one stop too late, but I still got to where I had to go. I ran into Karl first (whom I had worked with on the census and SIFF last year) and then searched for Amy Poisson, the head of the Production Crew. Because she was busy inside, I ended up doing a lot of waiting, during which time I directed people to the correct lines and even took some Red Carpet photos for some moviegoers (though after the red carpet had been rolled up). I also got to eat a burrito, tell other volunteers about the burritos, talk to Karl, and wait some more. Since Karl was on the A team for volunteering (which included long volunteer shifts), he got a full series pass to the festival in lieu of vouchers.

Eventually, one of the crew members (Molly) started rolling up the red carpet, so the other volunteers and I began helping her. Amy came out after we had rolled up all of the carpets and had taken the rope stands (with the ropes) down to the bar area where the after party would be. She called Karl over to help, and then we had to remove the links on the banner in order to remove it from its stand, which would be taken down by professionals. I ended up rolling up the banner as the links were removed (along with Molly), and then we brought it down into SIFF Cinema’s lobby.

When we finished, it was only 8:30, and — as I said — much of that time had been spent waiting for Amy. The rest of the production crew said we could probably go, unless the people who signed us in knew of anything else we needed to do (Amy had left again by this point). This was when I saw one of my housemates walk by and offer me a ride, but only if I was leaving right then. Since I wasn’t sure, I told her to head on home without me while I checked with the people downstairs. I ended up waiting for about ten minutes while they checked to see if anything else needed to be done before they let me go. One of them mentioned how much of the time I had been there had consisted of waiting, but the other one pointed out that I had helped out during my down time. So, at about 8:40, I got my vouchers and left..and then had to wait for the bus.

Friday, May 20th: First Full Night of the Festival    

Venue Volunteer: Front Door Clicker    Neptune Theatre  8:15-9pm

The Neptune Theatre has been closed since last year, which meant that this was the first time I got to see the new theater — except that I didn’t really have time to see it. The first movie (3, by Tom Tykwer, director of Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior) was running late, which meant that there was a quick turnaround between films. We also, as sometimes happens, had a volunteer there who didn’t have a badge or a volunteer t-shirt, and spoke little English.

One thing that has changed is that no one seems to have a key for the front door anymore, which means that one has to make sure that people don’t just wander in. The venue manager was Beth, who I think I’ve worked with before, but the house coordinator changes for each showing. Even so, I got to work with most of them several times, as well. Another change is that STG had its own people clean the theater between shows, so the volunteers didn’t have to do that.

The second movie was High Road, and the director for that film was there. During a lull in the action, I talked with his driver (also a volunteer), but not with him.

I originally was going to see Black Narcissus on Saturday, but was too tired after seeing Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Sunday, May 22nd: Week One Begins    

Venue Volunteer: Ticket Ripper        Neptune Theatre    10am-2pm

While I didn’t get to see the inside of the Neptune on Friday, I did get to see it on Sunday. The screen has been raised, which means that the bars in the balcony no longer cover the bottom of the screen, nor the subtitles. Also, except for the balcony, all of the old theater seats have been replaced with black folding chairs. Finally, instead of a steady incline sloping downwards, the cushiony folding chairs have been arranged on two levels. And, while it was not open for business, I had heard the previous night that there would be a bar at the back of the theater.

As I was volunteering for four hours, I got to see part of the first film, a coming-of-age story called Submarine. What I saw looked delightful, but the British accents made the dialogue difficult to understand from the balcony, which made me wonder if the sound system was at fault, even though a new one had supposedly been put in. In the film, the boy follows the logic of advice books over empathy for the people around him, and then can’t understand when his actions don’t lead to the desired results, particularly concerning his girlfriend.

The second film was called Mama Africa, and there were a lot of late seaters for that one. I know because, in addition to ripping tickets, I was one of the ushers who did late seating. Also, we were told after the first movie not to use the door next to the men’s room for late seating (even the bathrooms have been redone) probably because the light ends up pouring into the theater.

Week One ticket stubs and my volunteer badge and t-shirt

1.     Ex (Hong Kong, 2010: 96 min)     SIFF Cinema     9:15 pm

The first film I saw at the festival this year was the US premier of a 2010 film from Hong Kong about an ex-boyfriend and ex-girlfriend who end up sharing an apartment for a brief period of time with the ex-boyfriend’s current girlfriend. The line for this film was short at first, but got longer as we got closer to showtime. A Tribute to Ewan McGregor had been that afternoon, and I overheard some ladies in front of me say that he had been fantastic, especially in talking about all of the films he has done.

Ex (or Chin do in Cantonese) starts at the airport, with Zhou Yi (Gillian Chung) arguing with Woody (Lawrence Chou), her boyfriend, over who took a photo of Woody that she has discovered. Ping (William Chan Wai-Ting) and his girlfriend, Cee (Michelle Wai) sit at a table next to them, where it is revealed that Ping knows Yi. Cee ends up throwing water in Woody’s face because she thinks that Woody is about to hit Yi. Yi breaks up with Woody, but then discovers that she has no place to stay, since she was supposed to be traveling with Woody, and none of her friends and family are in Hong Kong. Cee says she can stay with Ping and her until Yi’s mother returns from her travels. As one might expect, Ping and Yi begin talking about their former relationship, and they realize that the love they felt for each other did not end when their relationship did (this is done in some very nice cut scenes back and forth between their current situation and their past relationship).

Unfortunately, after Cee, catching on to what is happening, tells Yi she must leave, the movie loses its focus and ends up meandering for the next thirty minutes until it reaches its conclusion. And this is only a 96 minute film. Worse, the supporting characters — particularly Woody and Cee — are never fully fleshed out.  That would be fine if the film had chosen to focus exclusively on Ping and Yi, but the director, Heiward Mak, throws these two characters, plus some others (Ping’s friend who drives a cab, Yi’s mother) into the movie in an attempt, I suppose, to add other dimensions to the story, but they aren’t given anything to do. Woody wants Yi back, but we can’t see why she should go back with him, and Cee has sex with Ping in order to keep control of him so that he won’t leave her, but is so needy that we don’t see why he started dating her in the first place. Perhaps both of them are just filling the hole that Ping and Yi have felt for each other since their breakup. As for the mother, her only role is to correct the quote that Yi attributes to her having said after Yi’s father died, which is, “You’re never with the one you love most.” The actual quote is, “The one I love most is no longer with me.” 2 out of 5

Monday, May 23rd

2.     Honey (Turkey/Germany, 2010: 108 min)     Harvard Exit Theatre     7 pm

We first see a forest.  Before we see the horse, we hear it walking through the woods. A man follows. It takes a long time before they reach the center of the shot. We hear the rope being thrown up in the tree, the catching of the weight, and the creaking of the limbs as the man climbs up the tree. But then, the branch begins to break.

This is the beginning to Honey (Bal in Turkish), a film that is more about sounds and senses than plot and story. Yusuf (Bora Altas), a young boy who stutters when he reads, only speaks with his father (Erdal Besikcioglu), and that in a whisper. He also has vivid dreams.  And then his father goes missing while setting up beehives.

This film is about life and loss as observed through the eyes of a child. The audience sees the family’s daily life, some of Yusuf’s dreams about his dad (which sadly turn prophetic), and his days at school, where he is frustrated in his attempts to read in order to get a pin (at one point, he memorizes the story one student has told, only to have the teacher choose another story for him to read). There is some laughter (such as when he switches his book with the student next to him so that the teacher will think he did his homework), much solemnity, and, ultimately, sadness.  The final scene is one of those perfect shots that is so rare in cinema. The third film of a trilogy by director Semih Kaplanoglu about Yusuf (the first two are Egg and Milk), it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. 4 out of 5

Note: While not sold out, the viewing I went to was pretty full. Unfortunately, the sound was too loud at the beginning of the film (later rectified), and at one point (about 2/3 of the way in), the film showed ten seconds of sound, but no picture.

Wednesday, May 25th 

3.     Apart Together (China, 2010: 93 min)     SIFF Cinema     9:30 pm

When I went in to get my ticket for this film, there was one person in line; when I came out, there were many people. I also didn’t get a ballot going in. Luckily, I brought an extra one.

Apart Together (Tuan yuan in Mandarin) deals with separated lovers. At the beginning of this film, words on the screen tell of how soldiers fighting for the Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949, after Mao Zedong announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China. These soldiers were not allowed to return to the mainland until 1987 (89?), when the first annual visits were set up.

The lovers in this film are old and grey. The man married a Taiwanese woman, who has died. The woman married another man and had two daughters with him. She also bore her lover’s son, and has a granddaughter. At the beginning of the film, the granddaughter reads them the letter from this man, pausing briefly to eat more soup (which got a laugh). The man arrives, and we soon find out that he wants to take the woman back to Taiwan with him. She initially agrees (as does her husband, since he has spent many decades with her, her lover only one), but reconsiders when her husband suffers a stroke.

What is most fascinating about this film, besides politeness that gives way to subtle displays of emotions and then emotional outbursts, is how both Liu (the lover, played by Feng Ling) and Lu (her husband, played by Xu Cai-gen) do what they do out of love for Qiao Yu-e (Lisa Lu). When Liu visits, the normally frugal Lu buys the best crabs for him. Only later do we realize that he does this because he fears losing his wife to her lover.

We also get a sense of the rivalry between China and Taiwan when the tour guide on a bus filled with returnees points out how new and modern Shanghai is, even reporting how one of the buildings in the city is taller than Taipei 101, while the bureaucracy of China is revealed in a very funny episode in which Lu and Yu-e try to annul their marriage, only to find out that they need to get married again in order to get the proper documentation before they can divorce. What’s also interesting is that this film mentions the Cultural Revolution.

There are two incredibly powerful scenes in the film, one of which occurs in an excellent long shot, in which Liu, Lu, and Yu-e sit around a table and sing old Chinese songs. The second one occurs near the end of the film, when the returnees must go back to Taiwan. We then skip ahead one year to see what has changed, but I’m not sure if this part was necessary, even if it parallels the granddaughter’s boyfriend going to America for two years and saying he’ll be back with Liu fleeing to Taiwan and saying he’ll take Yu-e with him. 4 out of 5

Friday, May 27th

Volunteer: Production Crew      Neptune Theatre        9-2 (signed out at noon)

I worked with Amy again (and Holden, who is the director of operations), along with many other volunteers. Our job was to remove the folding chairs in the theater and replace them with theater seats loaned to us from the Sundance Film Festival. They were all on a truck, so we had to first unload them from the truck (2-4 seats on a wooden board), put each group of seats on a dolly, wheel it into the theater, and unload it. Each step took two people to do. I pulled a back muscle unloading one of them at the point where it had to be taken off the dolly temporarily to clear the step.

Once all of the seats were unloaded, they then had to be cleaned with towels and buckets of warm water. When the water got too cloudy, one of us would take it up to the men’s or women’s restroom, dump out the water, and refill them. While trying to refill them in the sinks, despite the fact that they didn’t quite fit under the nozzles, a guy told me and another volunteer about the hoses that we could use under the sinks. That made the job a lot easier.

Once the seats were clean, we then had to arrange them so that they provided enough legroom and aisle space. Also, some of the seats were raised up higher than others, so those seats had to go in the back. It was during this move that someone said, “Nobody put seats in this corner,” referring to an area where we needed some space. Amy responded by saying, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” Since I was the only one to laugh at that, she turned to me and said, “Thank you for laughing,” and gave me a hi-five.

While this shifting was going on, I got to say hello to Molly again, and met Spencer, who made his name easy to remember by saying that it rhymed with “fencer.” We also talked about the sound issues and how they should put in some curtains to soak up some of the sound, though that issue may have been fixed, according to someone who saw a movie there yesterday.

Our final task was to sit in the seats (with really tall people sitting in front of short people) in order to make sure that everyone could see. Once a bunch of us (including me) had done this several times, we were allowed to leave and pick up our vouchers — two hours early. The good news? We got triple vouchers. Most of the movies I saw the second week of SIFF were due to the vouchers I got during this one shift.

Also, while I hadn’t brought my camera with me, I did take photos of the new seats when I saw Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame during week two:

4.     Littlerock (USA, 2010: 83 min)     Harvard Exit Theatre     9:30 pm

Actor Ryan Dillon introduces LITTLEROCK

I almost gave a 5 out of 5 for Apart Together, but it fell just short. Littlerock, on the other hand, gave me a 4 out of 5 for most of the film, and then scored the 5 at the end. It also was the first film I went to this year that had a Q&A afterwards.

Winner of the 2011 Independent Spirit Award, the film follows two siblings, Atsuko and Rintaro (which are also the first names of the actor and actress who portray them), who stop in a little town in California called Littlerock en route to San Francisco.  Awakened in the night by partying in the room next door, they end up meeting with some of the locals. While Rintaro can speak some English, Atsuko can only speak Japanese (during the film, she reads letters that she writes to their father, from which we understand that his relationship with Rintaro is somewhat strained, and also that he wished for them not to go on this trip). Though she can’t understand what the locals are saying without her brother nearby, she decides to stay in the town and hang out with them while Rintaro continues on to San Francisco, possibly because she has fallen in love with one of the guys she meets (Jordan, played by Brett L. Tinnes). And yet, it’s another guy, Cory (Cory Zacharia, in his first film role), who shows her around the town and wants her to be his girlfriend.

Eventually, the brother comes back, and they head to their second destination, which is a place called Manzanar. And that is when Littlerock changes from being a well-crafted film about two different cultures attempting to understand each other to a great film. By the time the movie has ended, we understand why the two of them are in America, why Atsuko stayed in Littlerock when her brother wanted to leave, why their father didn’t approve of their trip, and how — even when we don’t speak the same language as someone else — we can still understand them. When you watch this film (and you should), notice when the Japanese is subtitled and when it isn’t, and then ask yourself: do you need to subtitles to understand what Atsuko is trying to say? And is it any coincidence that a film about cultural tolerance is named for a place that brings echoes of a similarly named town that became one of the focal points for racial equality in America?

Only two things bothered me about this film: Atsuko’s accent and a predictable scene in which, through a window, she spots her lover with another woman.  Though the actor who stayed for the Q&A confirmed that she is from Japan, the accent sounds as if she isn’t used to speaking in Japanese (which is possible, since I found out she lives in America now, and has been living here for some time). Also, there’s another plot point in the film that I saw coming from a mile away, but that’s because it was the right decision to make. The camerawork is great (by being invisible), the directing is tight (by Mike Ott), and the script by Ott and Atsuko Okatsuka (Atsuko in the film) teaches a moral without being preachy. This is a great little film.  5 out of 5

Q&A with Ryan Dillon: Ryan Dillon played Brody, the “bad guy” of the film. The actor, however, is the complete opposite, and has roots in Seattle. During the Q&A, he said that he and the director, Mike Ott, had done a previous film together (Analog Days), and they were currently working on another film, with most of the same cast, called Teenage Wastleland. While Littlerock was scripted, the actors could adlib. Also, in real life, Atsuko can speak English very well, as can Rintaro. Like Cory, this is her first film.  Dillon also said that “Atsi” is a comedian, and a very funny one, too, as you can see here:

Dillon also mentioned that Rintaro had been in Japan when the earthquake and tsunami hit Sendai, but he’s fine. He also said that they were initially looking at someone else to play the role of Cory, but came across Zacharia on campus and decided they HAD to cast him (he’s very close in real life to what he is in this film).

As for one of the factors in telling this particular story, Dillon told us that, during the filming of Analog Days, Mike Ott fell in love with an Argentinian woman who couldn’t speak English.  Even though they couldn’t communicate via language, they became a couple, and could understand each other in other ways.

Once the Q&A was over, I went over to talk to Dillon (Ebertfest must have made me bolder). In front of me was a woman who was working on a multilingual script with a similar bent to Littlerock. She gave Dillon her business card to pass on to Atsuko. I later passed on my business card to her. When I talked to him, I mentioned (as the woman had before me) that I understood Japanese, so the experience was different for me than for someone who couldn’t understand what the non-subtitled Japanese meant. I asked him what other films he had been in of Ott’s. He said he’s been in two of the director’s films, and most of the people from this film (plus one from Analog Days) will be in Teenage Wastleland. I told him that maybe we’d see Teenage Wasteland at SIFF.

Saturday, May 28th

Venue Volunteer: Passholder Counter, Ballot Distributor      Neptune Theatre     3:15-7:45 pm

The house coordinator for the first shift was very stressed out, which in turn stressed out the volunteers. Normally, in the middle of a shift, volunteers are allowed to leave the theater (especially if the shift overlaps with mealtime) so long as they come back before the film ends, so as to collect ballots and prepare for the next movie. This house coordinator wouldn’t let us, in case a rush of Platinum Plus passholders descended on us halfway through the film (note: this never happens, and Platinum Plus passholders know where their seats are in the theater, since they pay to have them reserved). Luckily, she only covered the first part of our shift. The second house coordinator was much more relaxed, even though she hadn’t worked in the Neptune before.

The first film (which we collected ballots from) was Bruce Lee: My Brother. The second film (with the stressed-out house coordinator, and for which I counted passholders at the back door) was called Winds of Heaven, and was a documentary about Canadian impressionistic painter Emily Carr. Because it was so windy in Seattle that day, I told a joke about how the movie title was appropriate, since outside raged the winds of Seattle.

The director of Winds of Heaven, Michael Ostroff, was in attendance, so some of us talked to him once the film began, including one volunteer who knew who Emily Carr was, having studied her in art history. As he talked with us, he packaged DVDs of the film to sell afterwards.

I got to see some of the film, which looked beautiful (all hail 35 mm!). Carr was one of the first painters to paint the First Nations, and — like most great artists — was ignored for her contribution for most of her life. I also almost fell asleep on one of the chairs, since they were so comfy.

After the film, the director sold all of his DVD copies to an admiring crowd. That made traffic a bit tricky within the theater, but it meant that the ballots could be collected while people waited.

The last film was called Shanghai Fusion, which had an after party. Sadly, volunteers could not go to the after party unless we had purchased it as part of the ticket price, though we could stay for the film (I was tired and hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so I elected not to). I think the director was there for that, as well — a beautiful East Asian woman in a blue dress. Unfortunately, a photographer was talking to her, so I wasn’t able to strike up a conversation.

For this film, the balcony was off-limits (except to Platinum Plus passholders) until the bottom of the theater was full, and fill up it did. Of all the films I volunteered for, this film had the most Platinum Plus passholders in attendance (if one counts the friends they brought).

As I left the theater, the East Asian woman also crossed the street with her crew soon after me. As I was waiting for the crosswalk symbol to change, I had another opportunity to talk with her, but didn’t.

SIFF 2011: Volunteer Appreciation Event and Closing Thoughts

In front of Boom Noodle

Click here for SIFF: Opening Night and Weekend, and Week One (May 19-28, 2011)

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

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

Click here for SIFF: Week Three (June 5-11, 2011)

Unlike the previous year, volunteers at SIFF 2011 got a movie, but no dinner.  We did, however, get free popcorn (in bags with the SIFF logo on the side), free dessert from Dilettante, and free soda.

Held on Wednesday, June 15, the awards ceremony started at 7:30 at McCaw Hall, while the film started at 8.  I sat with a volunteer I had worked with a couple of times (the one who knew three of my Japanese friends-see June 4th).

During the ceremony, two special awards were given out, followed by awards for the most hours, and awards to those volunteers who worked over 100 hours.  We were also informed that SIFF 2011 had 600 showings of 450 movies, and the volunteers logged in just over 1800 hours.

This year, the audience award for Best Film went to Paper Birds, which is the movie we saw that night.  Similar to last year’s The Hedgehog in that it is a sad, somewhat sentimental film, Paper Birds is about a boy, dead parents, and the traveling performers who take him in.  The film is set in Spain, mostly during the Franco years.  The first shock one receives is two deaths early in the film, but those shocking images are balanced out by a coda that is very sweet.  I can see why it won the audience award, as it makes you feel.  Plus, the kid is cute.  Though not as good as The Hedgehog, it’s close. 4 out of 5

And now for my thoughts on the festival itself.  Certainly, I got to see more films this year than last year, and I also learned that writing about eighteen movies is incredibly time-consuming.  Perhaps next year, I will only write about the best films I saw.

Below are my picks for Golden Space Needle Awards for films that were eligible (for a list of the winners, click here).

Best Film: The White Meadows

Best Documentary: Project Nim

Best Actor: Gerard Depardieu (Germain), My Afternoons with Margueritte 

Best Actress (tie): Gisèle Casadesus (Margueritte), My Afternoons with Margueritte; Céline Galli (Snow White), Snow White

Best Supporting Actor: Xu Cai-gen (Lu), Apart Together

Best Supporting Actress: Mizuhara Kiko (Midori), Norwegian Wood

Best Director (tie): Wang Quan’an, Apart Together; Mohammad Rasoulof, The White Meadows

And now for some achievements of my own making:

Movie with the Best Theater Audience: Tabloid

Funniest Film: Tabloid

Most Disappointing Film: Late Autumn

Most Depressing Film (tie): Black Venus and Dance Town

Best Use of Black and White: The Whisperer in Darkness

Best Cinematography (tie): The White Meadows and Norwegian Wood

Best Popcorn Movie: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Best Classic Film: La Dolce Vita

Best Find: Littlerock

Best Use of Sound: Honey

And that about does it for me.  See you at SIFF 2012!

SIFF: Week Three (June 5-11, 2011)

In front of Boom Noodle with SIFF, Week Three tickets

Sunday, June 5th

Volunteer: Line Greeter     Neptune Theatre     10am-2pm

I worked with the same house coordinator as yesterday, though I don’t remember if I worked with any of the same volunteers.

The first movie was a Ken Loach film called Route Irish, which deals with a contractor in Iraq whose friend is killed under mysterious circumstances.  The film looked great, but it’s one of those movies that must be seen from the beginning.  I saw George from Seattle Cinema Club there, as well as Craig, who I met last year while volunteering. Craig asked me what movie I would recommend; I told him he should see The White Meadows.

The next film was Killing Bono.  Yes, that Bono.  As I was going down the line outside to make sure that everyone had the right tickets, I recognized one of the people in line, also from Seattle Cinema Club.  After I talked to her, someone else called out to me, but I didn’t recognize her.  And yet….

Then, she said, “It’s Marianne!”

Yes, that’s right; I had finally met the elusive Eastsider @mariannesp. I gave her a big hug once I realized who she was, and then was introduced to her husband.

Once I got to the end of the line, I doubled back to the front entrance, where Marianne asked if I were seeing this film.  Unfortunately, it was lunchtime for me (as well as the end of my shift), though I wish I had come back when the movie had finished so that I could hang out with her more. 20/20 hindsight.  Anyway, she asked me for the best films I had seen so far, so I told her The White Meadows, Littlerock, and Project Nim.

14.     Snow White (France 2010: 90 min)     Neptune Theatre     6:30 pm

Snow White (Le Blanche Neige) is a ballet based on the classic fairy tale, which received its US Premiere on Thursday at SIFF.  Before it began, I listened to the conversations between the people around me, many of whom seemed to be in the ballet world.  In fact, the people who sat to my left looked like VIPs.  As to the group of young women in front of me, they were passing around a photo of an ultrasound, as one of them was pregnant, which the others were celebrating.  This creates a neat segway into the film, which was introduced by Justine Borden, as the first shot is of Snow White’s mother, pregnant and alone, giving birth to her daughter in the forest.

Then Snow White grows up, disappearing behind a set of panes to reappear as an older version of herself.  The familiar elements of the story are here (though the Queen gets two rat henchmen), set to the music of Mahler.  The music greatly matches the mood of each scene it portrays, especially music from the 10th (Snow White dances alone at the ball), 8th (the apple sequence), and 5th (the Adagietto, when the Prince grieves over Snow White, dead from the poison apple).  The apple sequence, in fact, was a passionate highlight of the film.

Unfortunately, most of the dance numbers lack passion.  There is some nice footwork, to be sure, but the dances are too angular (particular in the arms) to convey the full emotional impact of the score (though Céline Galli, who plays Snow White, is excellent).  This in spite of the dwarves dressed as miners scaling a wall, and one sequence between Snow White and the Prince, where they first dance without any music, then with music.  This brings up another point: the duets are better than the group dances.

One final note: the costumes are good, on the whole (including one of a deer in the forest), but Snow White’s dress at the end of the film is bizarre. 3 out of 5

15.     The Whisperer in Darkness (USA 2011: 103 min)     Neptune Theatre        9 pm

In what may be the strangest double-feature I’ve done at SIFF, I followed Snow White, a ballet, with The Whisperer in Darkness, a horror movie shot in black-and-white.  For this film I had to exit and then re-enter the theater, except that the people in charge of allowing the re-entry pass people in first were not paying attention.  Still, I grabbed a good seat, in exactly the same row that I sat in for Snow White, but more toward the center.  I had just started reading H.P. Lovecraft at this point, and so had not gotten to this particular short story of his, which is one of the longer ones in my collection.

The film version is a faithful adaptation of the short story, in which a professor at Arkham University begins a correspondence with a man who says that he has seen crab-like creatures on his premises, located near the hills of Vermont.  Made to look and feel like an old horror movie from the 30s, it also shares the format’s penchant for building suspense slowly, rather than shocking us with loud noises, CGI monsters, and things that jump out at us.  The same group adapted The Call of Cthulhu as a silent horror film, which up until this film’s release was hailed as the best adaptation of a Lovecraft story to date (source: Necronomicron: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft).  This one should share in that praise. 5 out of 5

SIFF Programmer, David Robertson, Andrew Leman, Sean Branney

Q&A: For this film, David Robertson (producer, sound & lighting), Andrew Leman (producer), and Sean Branney (director) went onstage during the end credits to talk about the film.  There had been a few glitches in the picture with the digital medium, but the guests said they would not be on the DVD release, which would be available in the fall (and indeed is available on Amazon).  For their next Lovecraft adaptation, they are looking at either The Thing on the Doorstep or The Shadow Out of Time.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, Nosferatu, The Lady Vanishes, Universal monster movies, and film noir influenced the look of the film, and most of it was shot in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.  Some interesting tidbits: the antique plane used in the film was found on eBay, where someone had built a 3/4 size model of it in his garage, and the cave sequences were shot in the Batcave.  Yes, that Batcave.

After the Q&A ended, I went over to David and asked him, “What’s the key to making a great Lovecraftian film?”

He said no one’s really asked them that question (score one, me!), but mentioned that Lovecraft is a master of mood, so you have to get the mood right.  The other trick is to follow the story.  Since he had talked earlier about how people weren’t eager to fund a film shot in black-and-white, with no stars, no violence, and no scantily-clad women, at that point Sean joked that they were going to make At the Mountains of Madness in Maui with three girls in bikinis.  I said Guillermo del Toro’s not doing it now, so he could, to which he replied, “We’ll steal it from him!”

Tuesday, June 7th

16.      My Afternoons with Margueritte (France 2010: 86 min)      SIFF Cinema     7 pm

Incredibly, this movie sold out.  Maybe not incredibly, for it stars Gerard Dépardieu, who shows that he doesn’t even have to act in order to act.  He is the character, and that’s that.  Here, he plays a uneducated handyman named Germain who meets an elderly woman, named Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus), on a park bench.  The woman reads to him from classic novels and shows him the kindness that his own mother never did.  What I love about this film is that all of the characters are well-drawn,  including Germain’s girlfriend Francine (who is beautiful and kind, but you believe that she could fall for a man like Germain).  While the ending is preposterous, a regular ending would not do.  My favorite scene is when Francine thinks that Germain is cheating on her because he has bought flowers, but not for her.  When she discovers that they are for a little old woman, however, all is forgiven. 4 out of 5 (though I’d probably give it a 3 now)

Thursday, June 9th

17.     Tabloid     (USA 2010: 87 min)     SIFF Cinema     9:30 pm

Now we come to the funniest film of the festival, with the most bizarre postscript.  Claire programmed this movie about a former beauty queen named Joyce McKinney who, along with an accomplice and a fake gun, kidnapped/rescued her husband-to-be from the Mormons in England, and then had sex with/raped him for three days while he was tied/shackled to a bed.  The man’s name was Kirk Anderson, and the story broke in the tabloids as “The Manacled Mormon.”  The Daily Express told the story from her perspective, the Daily Mirror dug up dirt on her as an adult escort into S&M, including tons of photos of her in bondage gear (which McKinney denies are her).  Then, McKinney faded into the background, only to reappear when she had her late dog, Booger, cloned five times by a scientist in South Korea, making the headlines yet again.

The point of this film is to show how the truth is much more complicated that people realize.  Everyone in the movie thinks that they know what really happened during those three days.  For McKinney, she had liberated her future husband.  For Anderson, he had been kidnapped and forced to have sex with McKinney.  For the tabloids, she was either a victim of her own misguided attempts at love or a manipulative woman with a thirst for kinky sex.  The evidence in the film supports both views.  For example, while the Daily Mirror had all of the negatives of the photos, they were lost during a reshuffling, leaving that evidence in doubt.  What isn’t in doubt is that McKinney is a natural performer, and Morris has fun with this material, lightly poking fun at all of the participants involved.  He even includes a former Mormon minister to explain what McKinney doesn’t know about Mormonism, especially concerning sex and their calling, while religious cartoons play in the background. 4 out of 5

Postscript: After leaving the theater, I noticed that there was a group of people surrounding a woman outside.  I looked quickly and thought, “That looks like Joyce McKinney,” but then thought, “It must be someone that looks like her,” before heading off to my bus stop.  Still, I kept looking up the street, and seeing that my bus was not going to arrive for a while, I felt it my journalistic (blogeristic?) duty to find out what was going on.

Well, it was Joyce McKinney.  As most of you know by now, she followed this film around from festival to festival, opening night to opening night, decrying the way that Morris has portrayed her in the film.  At first, I thought this was an Errol Morris joke, and a part of me still thinks that it might have been.  After all, where did she get the money to fly to all of these places?

In a rant that went all over the place, she explained why she was suing Mark Lipson (one of the producers of the film) and Errol Morris.  Included in her diatribe was that it had to do with a dog that she had to put down that Morris had said he would save, and with baby pictures that Lipson took from her and never gave back.  She then grew teary-eyed talking about how her mother was in a coma.  In her hand was a box that said, “This film is a hoax,” which you can see in the photo above.  She said that she came out to show that she’s a human being, too, but what she mainly showed is that Morris got her right.  She put on a bravura performance for us, one filled with words that matched that half-truths spoken in the film, and tears.

I eventually had to catch my bus, but Joyce McKinney continued to perform.

McKinney in full-tear mode

Friday, June 10th

Venue Volunteer: Ticket Ripper, Late Seater     Neptune Theatre     3:30-7:30 pm

Lots of traffic on 45th, due to the UW graduation.  One of the advantages of walking to work is that this didn’t affect me at all.

For my final volunteering gig of SIFF 2011, I worked with a house manager whom I had never worked with before.  The main film, at 4 pm, was called PressPausePlay, and dealt with how new technology has changed the medium in music, books, and film.  While the subject was interesting, and some of its interview subjects (like Moby and Lena Dunham) made some interesting points, the execution was not good.  Random images were shown in between each topic, and the film seemed as scatter-brained as social networking sites are supposed to make you.

The second film was Gandu at 7 pm.  I have no idea what that film is about, and I don’t feel like looking it up.  So instead, I’ll talk about the people I saw while I was volunteering.  First, I saw my housemate and his girlfriend walk by, his girlfriend having just graduated from the pharmacy program at UW.  I also saw Craig (again) and two Platinum Plus holders whom I had recommended Detective Dee to.  They had seen it and liked it.  Finally, my encyclopedic knowledge of film got me recognition from one of the volunteers, who thought I should be on one of the juries since I’m “an expert on film.” (her words)

Saturday, June 11th

18.     Norwegian Wood (Japan 2010: 133 min)     Egyptian Theatre     6 pm

The last film I saw at SIFF was the U.S. premier of Norwegian Wood, based on the book by the same name by Haruki Murakami (or Murakami Haruki, if you want to be properly Japanese).  Not surprisingly, it was sold out.  Carl Spence, the artistic director at SIFF, introduced the film.  Fortissimo Films, the company that–I’m assuming–distributed the film, gave SIFF permission to host the first U.S. screening.  Better yet, my parents were visiting, so I got to see it with them, along with several people from the Japanese Meetup Group.

This was one of the most highly anticipated films for me, despite its mixed reaction at the Toronto Film Festival from people whose blogs and tweets I follow, and my own mixed reaction upon reading the book.  In particular, I was curious to see how the film would match the brilliance of the book’s opening, which uses language so skillfully in creating the mood one feels when a painful memory enters one’s consciousness.  Perhaps realizing that he couldn’t, Tran Ahn Hung, the director and screenwriter, decided to start by showing us when Naoko, Kizuki, and (Watanabe) Toru used to hang out with each other.  Then, Kizuki kills himself.  Toru and Naoko reconnect before Toru goes to college, and he ends up having sex with her on her birthday.  Naoko, who was never able to get wet with Kizuki, even though she loved him, goes to live at a retreat in the countryside, in an attempt to heal her fragile psyche.  Toru goes to school in Tokyo, during the student protests.  There, he meets Midori, a sexually aware woman.  The year is 1969.

The first half hour of this film is a bit of a jumble, as minor characters are introduced and then vanish, such as Toru’s roommate.  Even Nagasawa, who becomes an important character for one of the subplots in the book, has a rushed entrance. Then the film settles down, and one notices the great acting, lighting, and cinematography.  Kikuchi Rinko, so great in Babel, plays Naoko, while Natsuyama Kenichi plays Toru.  The minor parts, such as Nagasawa, Hatsumi (Nagasawa’s girlfriend), and Reiko (Naoko’s friend at the retreat) are all well-taken.  Besides the changed beginning, the other main changes are the exclusion of Reiko’s back story and [SPOILER ALERT TILL THE END OF THE PARAGRAPH] the lines that come after the voiceover concerning Hatsumi’s future suicide, one of the most beautiful and moving parts of the novel.  On the other hand, I felt Naoko’s loss more here than I did when reading the novel.  As she explains to Toru, she and Kizuki had a special bond.  One cannot live without the other.

One more thing I should mention: while Kikuchi is fantastic, and Natsuyama plays Toru well, the one to watch here is Mizuhara Kiko, who plays Midori.  She illuminates every scene she’s in.  Naoko may look like the tougher role to play, but Midori is just as difficult.  I put her down as my choice for Best Supporting Actress. 4 out of 5

Note: Norwegian Wood is currently playing at SIFF Cinema.

Next time: My SIFF 2011 wrap-up, including the volunteer appreciation event.

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

Tickets for SIFF, Week Two

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

Wednesday, June 1st

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 2nd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 3rd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some interesting facts from the Q&A:

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

Saturday, June 4th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 29th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 30th: Memorial Day    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 31st

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yup, it’s the same programmer from last night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIFF: Opening Night and Weekend, and Week One (May 19-28, 2011)

Check out the nifty t-shirt!

SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) ended last month, but due to time constraints, I have not been able to post anything about it to my blog until now.

Last year, I included in-depth reviews of each film.  Since I saw almost double the number of films this time around, that is not possible. I will, however, include a short review of each film.

Also, I will be including my volunteering experience with my movie-going experience, instead of separating them out, like I did last year.

Okay, enough introduction. On with the show!

…and the back.

Thursday, May 19th: Opening Night    

Volunteer: Production Crew     McCaw Hall 7-9 pm

Thursday was beautiful in Seattle, which was lucky, since the Opening Night Gala includes the Red Carpet treatment. I wish I had brought my camera, but I didn’t this year. I did, however, ride with some excited college students (or maybe graduates) who were going to the opening night festivities. Women were in dresses and men were in suits.

I got off one stop too late, but I still got to where I had to go. I ran into Karl first (whom I had worked with on the census and SIFF last year) and then searched for Amy Poisson, the head of the Production Crew. Because she was busy inside, I ended up doing a lot of waiting, during which time I directed people to the correct lines and even took some Red Carpet photos for some moviegoers (though after the red carpet had been rolled up). I also got to eat a burrito, tell other volunteers about the burritos, talk to Karl, and wait some more. Since Karl was on the A team for volunteering (which included long volunteer shifts), he got a full series pass to the festival in lieu of vouchers.

Eventually, one of the crew members (Molly) started rolling up the red carpet, so the other volunteers and I began helping her. Amy came out after we had rolled up all of the carpets and had taken the rope stands (with the ropes) down to the bar area where the after party would be. She called Karl over to help, and then we had to remove the links on the banner in order to remove it from its stand, which would be taken down by professionals. I ended up rolling up the banner as the links were removed (along with Molly), and then we brought it down into SIFF Cinema’s lobby.

When we finished, it was only 8:30, and — as I said — much of that time had been spent waiting for Amy. The rest of the production crew said we could probably go, unless the people who signed us in knew of anything else we needed to do (Amy had left again by this point). This was when I saw one of my housemates walk by and offer me a ride, but only if I was leaving right then. Since I wasn’t sure, I told her to head on home without me while I checked with the people downstairs. I ended up waiting for about ten minutes while they checked to see if anything else needed to be done before they let me go. One of them mentioned how much of the time I had been there had consisted of waiting, but the other one pointed out that I had helped out during my down time. So, at about 8:40, I got my vouchers and left..and then had to wait for the bus.

Friday, May 20th: First Full Night of the Festival    

Venue Volunteer: Front Door Clicker    Neptune Theatre  8:15-9pm

The Neptune Theatre has been closed since last year, which meant that this was the first time I got to see the new theater — except that I didn’t really have time to see it. The first movie (3, by Tom Tykwer, director of Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior) was running late, which meant that there was a quick turnaround between films. We also, as sometimes happens, had a volunteer there who didn’t have a badge or a volunteer t-shirt, and spoke little English.

One thing that has changed is that no one seems to have a key for the front door anymore, which means that one has to make sure that people don’t just wander in. The venue manager was Beth, who I think I’ve worked with before, but the house coordinator changes for each showing. Even so, I got to work with most of them several times, as well. Another change is that STG had its own people clean the theater between shows, so the volunteers didn’t have to do that.

The second movie was High Road, and the director for that film was there. During a lull in the action, I talked with his driver (also a volunteer), but not with him.

*I originally was going to see Black Narcissus on Saturday, but was too tired after seeing Cave of Forgotten Dreams.*

Sunday, May 22nd: Week One Begins    

Venue Volunteer: Ticket Ripper        Neptune Theatre    10am-2pm

While I didn’t get to see the inside of the Neptune on Friday, I did get to see it on Sunday. The screen has been raised, which means that the bars in the balcony no longer cover the bottom of the screen, nor the subtitles. Also, except for the balcony, all of the old theater seats have been replaced with black folding chairs. Finally, instead of a steady incline sloping downwards, the cushiony folding chairs have been arranged on two levels. And, while it was not open for business, I had heard the previous night that there would be a bar at the back of the theater.

As I was volunteering for four hours, I got to see part of the first film, a coming-of-age story called Submarine. What I saw looked delightful, but the British accents made the dialogue difficult to understand from the balcony, which made me wonder if the sound system was at fault, even though a new one had supposedly been put in. In the film, the boy follows the logic of advice books over empathy for the people around him, and then can’t understand when his actions don’t lead to the desired results, particularly concerning his girlfriend.

The second film was called Mama Africa, and there were a lot of late seaters for that one. I know because, in addition to ripping tickets, I was one of the ushers who did late seating. Also, we were told after the first movie not to use the door next to the men’s room for late seating (even the bathrooms have been redone) probably because the light ends up pouring into the theater.

Week One ticket stubs and my volunteer badge and t-shirt

1.     Ex (Hong Kong, 2010: 96 min)     SIFF Cinema     9:15 pm

The first film I saw at the festival this year was the US premier of a 2010 film from Hong Kong about an ex-boyfriend and ex-girlfriend who end up sharing an apartment for a brief period of time with the ex-boyfriend’s current girlfriend. The line for this film was short at first, but got longer as we got closer to showtime. A Tribute to Ewan McGregor had been that afternoon, and I overheard some ladies in front of me say that he had been fantastic, especially in talking about all of the films he has done.

Ex (or Chin do in Cantonese) starts at the airport, with Zhou Yi (Gillian Chung) arguing with Woody (Lawrence Chou), her boyfriend, over who took a photo of Woody that she has discovered. Ping (William Chan Wai-Ting) and his girlfriend, Cee (Michelle Wai) sit at a table next to them, where it is revealed that Ping knows Yi. Cee ends up throwing water in Woody’s face because she thinks that Woody is about to hit Yi. Yi breaks up with Woody, but then discovers that she has no place to stay, since she was supposed to be traveling with Woody, and none of her friends and family are in Hong Kong. Cee says she can stay with Ping and her until Yi’s mother returns from her travels. As one might expect, Ping and Yi begin talking about their former relationship, and they realize that the love they felt for each other did not end when their relationship did (this is done in some very nice cut scenes back and forth between their current situation and their past relationship).

Unfortunately, after Cee, catching on to what is happening, tells Yi she must leave, the movie loses its focus and ends up meandering for the next thirty minutes until it reaches its conclusion. And this is only a 96 minute film. Worse, the supporting characters — particularly Woody and Cee — are never fully fleshed out.  That would be fine if the film had chosen to focus exclusively on Ping and Yi, but the director, Heiward Mak, throws these two characters, plus some others (Ping’s friend who drives a cab, Yi’s mother) into the movie in an attempt, I suppose, to add other dimensions to the story, but they aren’t given anything to do. Woody wants Yi back, but we can’t see why she should go back with him, and Cee has sex with Ping in order to keep control of him so that he won’t leave her, but is so needy that we don’t see why he started dating her in the first place. Perhaps both of them are just filling the hole that Ping and Yi have felt for each other since their breakup. As for the mother, her only role is to correct the quote that Yi attributes to her having said after Yi’s father died, which is, “You’re never with the one you love most.” The actual quote is, “The one I love most is no longer with me.” 2 out of 5

Monday, May 23rd

2.     Honey (Turkey/Germany, 2010: 108 min)     Harvard Exit Theatre     7 pm

We first see a forest.  Before we see the horse, we hear it walking through the woods. A man follows. It takes a long time before they reach the center of the shot. We hear the rope being thrown up in the tree, the catching of the weight, and the creaking of the limbs as the man climbs up the tree. But then, the branch begins to break.

This is the beginning to Honey (Bal in Turkish), a film that is more about sounds and senses than plot and story. Yusuf (Bora Altas), a young boy who stutters when he reads, only speaks with his father (Erdal Besikcioglu), and that in a whisper. He also has vivid dreams.  And then his father goes missing while setting up beehives.

This film is about life and loss as observed through the eyes of a child. The audience sees the family’s daily life, some of Yusuf’s dreams about his dad (which sadly turn prophetic), and his days at school, where he is frustrated in his attempts to read in order to get a pin (at one point, he memorizes the story one student has told, only to have the teacher choose another story for him to read). There is some laughter (such as when he switches his book with the student next to him so that the teacher will think he did his homework), much solemnity, and, ultimately, sadness.  The final scene is one of those perfect shots that is so rare in cinema. The third film of a trilogy by director Semih Kaplanoglu about Yusuf (the first two are Egg and Milk), it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. 4 out of 5

Note: While not sold out, the viewing I went to was pretty full. Unfortunately, the sound was too loud at the beginning of the film (later rectified), and at one point (about 2/3 of the way in), the film showed ten seconds of sound, but no picture.

Wednesday, May 25th 

3.     Apart Together (China, 2010: 93 min)     SIFF Cinema     9:30 pm

When I went in to get my ticket for this film, there was one person in line; when I came out, there were many people. I also didn’t get a ballot going in. Luckily, I brought an extra one.

Apart Together (Tuan yuan in Mandarin) deals with separated lovers. At the beginning of this film, words on the screen tell of how soldiers fighting for the Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949, after Mao Zedong announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China. These soldiers were not allowed to return to the mainland until 1987 (89?), when the first annual visits were set up.

The lovers in this film are old and grey. The man married a Taiwanese woman, who has died. The woman married another man and had two daughters with him. She also bore her lover’s son, and has a granddaughter. At the beginning of the film, the granddaughter reads them the letter from this man, pausing briefly to eat more soup (which got a laugh). The man arrives, and we soon find out that he wants to take the woman back to Taiwan with him. She initially agrees (as does her husband, since he has spent many decades with her, her lover only one), but reconsiders when her husband suffers a stroke.

What is most fascinating about this film, besides politeness that gives way to subtle displays of emotions and then emotional outbursts, is how both Liu (the lover, played by Feng Ling) and Lu (her husband, played by Xu Cai-gen) do what they do out of love for Qiao Yu-e (Lisa Lu). When Liu visits, the normally frugal Lu buys the best crabs for him. Only later do we realize that he does this because he fears losing his wife to her lover.

We also get a sense of the rivalry between China and Taiwan when the tour guide on a bus filled with returnees points out how new and modern Shanghai is, even reporting how one of the buildings in the city is taller than Taipei 101, while the bureaucracy of China is revealed in a very funny episode in which Lu and Yu-e try to annul their marriage, only to find out that they need to get married again in order to get the proper documentation before they can divorce. What’s also interesting is that this film mentions the Cultural Revolution.

There are two incredibly powerful scenes in the film, one of which occurs in an excellent long shot, in which Liu, Lu, and Yu-e sit around a table and sing old Chinese songs. The second one occurs near the end of the film, when the returnees must go back to Taiwan. We then skip ahead one year to see what has changed, but I’m not sure if this part was necessary, even if it parallels the granddaughter’s boyfriend going to America for two years and saying he’ll be back with Liu fleeing to Taiwan and saying he’ll take Yu-e with him. 4 out of 5

Friday, May 27th

Volunteer: Production Crew      Neptune Theatre        9-2 (signed out at noon)

I worked with Amy again (and Holden, who is the director of operations), along with many other volunteers. Our job was to remove the folding chairs in the theater and replace them with theater seats loaned to us from the Sundance Film Festival. They were all on a truck, so we had to first unload them from the truck (2-4 seats on a wooden board), put each group of seats on a dolly, wheel it into the theater, and unload it. Each step took two people to do. I pulled a back muscle unloading one of them at the point where it had to be taken off the dolly temporarily to clear the step.

Once all of the seats were unloaded, they then had to be cleaned with towels and buckets of warm water. When the water got too cloudy, one of us would take it up to the men’s or women’s restroom, dump out the water, and refill them. While trying to refill them in the sinks, despite the fact that they didn’t quite fit under the nozzles, a guy told me and another volunteer about the hoses that we could use under the sinks. That made the job a lot easier.

Once the seats were clean, we then had to arrange them so that they provided enough legroom and aisle space. Also, some of the seats were raised up higher than others, so those seats had to go in the back. It was during this move that someone said, “Nobody put seats in this corner,” referring to an area where we needed some space. Amy responded by saying, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” Since I was the only one to laugh at that, she turned to me and said, “Thank you for laughing,” and gave me a hi-five.

While this shifting was going on, I got to say hello to Molly again, and met Spencer, who made his name easy to remember by saying that it rhymed with “fencer.” We also talked about the sound issues and how they should put in some curtains to soak up some of the sound, though that issue may have been fixed, according to someone who saw a movie there yesterday.

Our final task was to sit in the seats (with really tall people sitting in front of short people) in order to make sure that everyone could see. Once a bunch of us (including me) had done this several times, we were allowed to leave and pick up our vouchers — two hours early. The good news? We got triple vouchers. Most of the movies I saw the second week of SIFF were due to the vouchers I got during this one shift.

Also, while I hadn’t brought my camera with me, I did take photos of the new seats when I saw Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame during week two:

4.     Littlerock (USA, 2010: 83 min)     Harvard Exit Theatre     9:30 pm

Actor Ryan Dillon introduces LITTLEROCK

I almost gave a 5 out of 5 for Apart Together, but it fell just short. Littlerock, on the other hand, gave me a 4 out of 5 for most of the film, and then scored the 5 at the end. It also was the first film I went to this year that had a Q&A afterwards.

Winner of the 2011 Independent Spirit Award, the film follows two siblings, Atsuko and Rintaro (which are also the first names of the actor and actress who portray them), who stop in a little town in California called Littlerock en route to San Francisco.  Awakened in the night by partying in the room next door, they end up meeting with some of the locals. While Rintaro can speak some English, Atsuko can only speak Japanese (during the film, she reads letters that she writes to their father, from which we understand that his relationship with Rintaro is somewhat strained, and also that he wished for them not to go on this trip). Though she can’t understand what the locals are saying without her brother nearby, she decides to stay in the town and hang out with them while Rintaro continues on to San Francisco, possibly because she has fallen in love with one of the guys she meets (Jordan, played by Brett L. Tinnes). And yet, it’s another guy, Cory (Cory Zacharia, in his first film role), who shows her around the town and wants her to be his girlfriend.

Eventually, the brother comes back, and they head to their second destination, which is a place called Manzanar. And that is when Littlerock changes from being a well-crafted film about two different cultures attempting to understand each other to a great film. By the time the movie has ended, we understand why the two of them are in America, why Atsuko stayed in Littlerock when her brother wanted to leave, why their father didn’t approve of their trip, and how — even when we don’t speak the same language as someone else — we can still understand them. When you watch this film (and you should), notice when the Japanese is subtitled and when it isn’t, and then ask yourself: do you need to subtitles to understand what Atsuko is trying to say? And is it any coincidence that a film about cultural tolerance is named for a place that brings echoes of a similarly named town that became one of the focal points for racial equality in America?

Only two things bothered me about this film: Atsuko’s accent and a predictable scene in which, through a window, she spots her lover with another woman.  Though the actor who stayed for the Q&A confirmed that she is from Japan, the accent sounds as if she isn’t used to speaking in Japanese (which is possible, since I found out she lives in America now, and has been living here for some time). Also, there’s another plot point in the film that I saw coming from a mile away, but that’s because it was the right decision to make. The camerawork is great (by being invisible), the directing is tight (by Mike Ott), and the script by Ott and Atsuko Okatsuka (Atsuko in the film) teaches a moral without being preachy. This is a great little film.  5 out of 5

Q&A with Ryan Dillon: Ryan Dillon played Brody, the “bad guy” of the film. The actor, however, is the complete opposite, and has roots in Seattle. During the Q&A, he said that he and the director, Mike Ott, had done a previous film together (Analog Days), and they were currently working on another film, with most of the same cast, called Teenage Wastleland. While Littlerock was scripted, the actors could adlib. Also, in real life, Atsuko can speak English very well, as can Rintaro. Like Cory, this is her first film.  Dillon also said that “Atsi” is a comedian, and a very funny one, too, as you can see here:

Dillon also mentioned that Rintaro had been in Japan when the earthquake and tsunami hit Sendai, but he’s fine. He also said that they were initially looking at someone else to play the role of Cory, but came across Zacharia on campus and decided they HAD to cast him (he’s very close in real life to what he is in this film).

As for one of the factors in telling this particular story, Dillon told us that, during the filming of Analog Days, Mike Ott fell in love with an Argentinian woman who couldn’t speak English.  Even though they couldn’t communicate via language, they became a couple, and could understand each other in other ways.

Once the Q&A was over, I went over to talk to Dillon (Ebertfest must have made me bolder). In front of me was a woman who was working on a multilingual script with a similar bent to Littlerock. She gave Dillon her business card to pass on to Atsuko. I later passed on my business card to her. When I talked to him, I mentioned (as the woman had before me) that I understood Japanese, so the experience was different for me than for someone who couldn’t understand what the non-subtitled Japanese meant. I asked him what other films he had been in of Ott’s. He said he’s been in two of the director’s films, and most of the people from this film (plus one from Analog Days) will be in Teenage Wastleland. I told him that maybe we’d see Teenage Wasteland at SIFF.

Saturday, May 28th

Venue Volunteer: Passholder Counter, Ballot Distributor      Neptune Theatre     3:15-7:45 pm

The house coordinator for the first shift was very stressed out, which in turn stressed out the volunteers. Normally, in the middle of a shift, volunteers are allowed to leave the theater (especially if the shift overlaps with mealtime) so long as they come back before the film ends, so as to collect ballots and prepare for the next movie. This house coordinator wouldn’t let us, in case a rush of Platinum Plus passholders descended on us halfway through the film (note: this never happens, and Platinum Plus passholders know where their seats are in the theater, since they pay to have them reserved). Luckily, she only covered the first part of our shift. The second house coordinator was much more relaxed, even though she hadn’t worked in the Neptune before.

The first film (which we collected ballots from) was Bruce Lee: My Brother. The second film (with the stressed-out house coordinator, and for which I counted passholders at the back door) was called Winds of Heaven, and was a documentary about Canadian impressionistic painter Emily Carr. Because it was so windy in Seattle that day, I told a joke about how the movie title was appropriate, since outside raged the winds of Seattle.

The director of Winds of Heaven, Michael Ostroff, was in attendance, so some of us talked to him once the film began, including one volunteer who knew who Emily Carr was, having studied her in art history. As he talked with us, he packaged DVDs of the film to sell afterwards.

I got to see some of the film, which looked beautiful (all hail 35 mm!). Carr was one of the first painters to paint the First Nations, and — like most great artists — was ignored for her contribution for most of her life. I also almost fell asleep on one of the chairs, since they were so comfy.

After the film, the director sold all of his DVD copies to an admiring crowd. That made traffic a bit tricky within the theater, but it meant that the ballots could be collected while people waited.

The last film was called Shanghai Fusion, which had an after party. Sadly, volunteers could not go to the after party unless we had purchased it as part of the ticket price, though we could stay for the film (I was tired and hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so I elected not to). I think the director was there for that, as well — a beautiful East Asian woman in a blue dress. Unfortunately, a photographer was talking to her, so I wasn’t able to strike up a conversation.

For this film, the balcony was off-limits (except to Platinum Plus passholders) until the bottom of the theater was full, and fill up it did. Of all the films I volunteered for, this film had the most Platinum Plus passholders in attendance (if one counts the friends they brought).

As I left the theater, the East Asian woman also crossed the street with her crew soon after me. As I was waiting for the crosswalk symbol to change, I had another opportunity to talk with her, but didn’t.