SIFF 2013 had some of the best films out of all of the festivals I attended. Part of that might’ve been due to the fact that my press screening schedule allowed me to attend most of the evening and weekend films, which were often the bigger movie offerings. I also got lucky. I almost didn’t see Wolf Children and I made room for Comrade Kim Goes Flying based on the buzz surrounding its press screening. By the way, I’ve since seen Summer Wars, and many other films by Mamoru Hosoda, and I still think Wolf Children is his masterpiece.
Thursday, May 30
Aloha Thursday started with a press screening of the weepiest film I’ve seen at the festival, the North American premiere of The Girl With Nine Wigs. This German/Belgium co-production is based on a best-selling novel, itself based on a true story, about a 21-year-old woman named Sophie (Lisa Tomaschewsky) who finds out she has cancer. After shaving off her remaining hair, she deals with her diagnosis by buying nine different wigs. Each night, she sneaks out of the hospital wearing one of the wigs, each one with a different name and personality attached to it. While there’s some element of fantasy involved (the head nurse gives in too easily to unplugging her IV each night so that she can go party), the saddest (and happiest) moments are the ones that ring the truest, such as when Sophie sees her father break down in the hallway after her diagnosis. A very good film.
The other two press screenings this morning were I Used to Be Darker and Comrade Kim Goes Flying. The latter film is “the first Western-financed fiction feature made entirely in North Korea” (to quote the SIFF Guide). Based on what people said after seeing this film (including one of my coworkers), I decided to do a little rearranging so that I could see it on Sunday. Even better, the director would be in attendance for the festival screenings.
That night, I saw two films at the Uptown: The Summit and Ludwig II. The first film is a documentary about the 11 climbers who perished while climbing K-2 in 2008, and what might have gone wrong. With beautiful scenery, interviews with some of the surviving climbers, and video and photos taken during the disastrous climb (as well as some reenactments), the film shows how several small errors in judgment, and some inexperienced climbers, led to such a horrible disaster, with most of the deaths occurring during the descent. I never had a desire to climb K-2 before, but I definitely do not now.
The North American premiere of Ludwig II, in the same theater, is director Peter Sehr’s last film, who was well-loved on the festival circuit with such films as Kaspar Hauser and The Anarchist’s Wife. The screening was dedicated to him. The film tells the story of Ludwig II, the “Mad King of Bavaria,” who financed Wagner’s operas and went on to build huge fairytale castles. Declared unfit to rule by reason of insanity, he eventually committed suicide (according to the movie, though some people think he may have been murdered). The film follows him from right before he ascends the throne until the end of his life. While it looks gorgeous and is sympathetic to the king, seeing him as someone who wanted to bring music and culture to Bavaria in place of war and politics, the film does not find enough drama, either internal or external, to sustain its 143 minute run time. It’s decent, but it never rises to something special.
Friday, May 31
I saw two films today. Inch’Allah (which means “God willing”) follows a Quebec doctor who works in Israel’s divided West Bank. It starts with a scene that the film will finish at the end of the film: a suicide bombing attack in a cafe. In between, we see the doctor (Evelyne Brochu) go from her home on the Israeli side of the West Bank to her practice on the Palestinian side. As well as show the absurdity of bureaucracy in the face of fear (one of her patients is not allowed into a hospital because of heightened security, even though she is about to give birth and is losing blood), the film gives a human face to all involved: Israelis, Palestinians, soldiers, and even suicide bombers. A movie about grey areas, and the people trapped in their shadows.
The second film was a bit more uplifting, even though it deals with a teenager wrongly accused of planning to gun down his classmates at school. Blackbird is one of the best films I saw at SIFF by not being the kind of film I thought it would be. The teenager in question, Sean Randall (Connor Jessup), is not a killer, but an outcast. Used to living in the city with his mother, he now lives with his father in a small town, where his goth clothing and taste in music makes him the target of some bullies at school. In order to deal with his angst, he writes about killing his classmates with guns his father owns. This brings the police to his door, and a stint in juvenile detention. Ordered by the judge to have no contact with any of the people he supposedly targeted, he can’t help himself from seeking out the one person who he really cared about, Deanna Roy (Alexia Fast). A perceptive, mature film about teenagers, the judicial system, and how misunderstandings between children and adults can lead to detrimental consequences that benefit no one.
Saturday, June 1
Throughout these two weeks, I had thought it impossible for any movie to affect me as deeply as The Act of Killing. What movie could reach that level of intensity? And, by reaching that level of intensity, outdo that film’s craftmanship?
The answer, of course, was its antithesis. A live-action documentary about death and killing became the second best movie of the festival behind an animated fictional film about life and birthing. Wolf Children is Mamoru Hosoda’s masterpiece, and I say that having not seen Summer Wars.
That is not to say that this film doesn’t have its darker moments, but they are gentle, human moments. The film (and it was actually on film) filled me with a warm glow for its entire run time. It starts with a woman meeting a man at her university whom she discovers to be half-wolf, half-man. It end with their children (daughter Yuki and son Ame) deciding whether to grow up as humans or as wolves. Narrated by Yuki, this is ultimately a film about family, the sacrifices parents make for their children, and the choices children have to make as they grow older. And did I mention the animation is gorgeous, and has a hand-drawn quality to much of it?
Following this was a restored DCP of Richard III, which looked like film minus the dirt and scratches. A great Shakespeare adaptation, minus some occasional overdramatic acting from Sir Laurence Olivier. Then I rushed with a friend to the Egyptian Theatre, where he and the rest of my friends went to see the Centerpiece Gala film, Twenty Feet from Stardom (which I saw during The Best of Fest and really enjoyed), while I went to the Harvard Exit to see The Wall. Having had a long and tiring day (Richard III was 2 hours and 41 minutes long), The Wall was probably the worst film I could’ve seen, as the voice-over narration is done by a women with a very soothing voice. Plus, the film is slow-paced and contemplative. It’s about a woman who is staying with some friends at their cabin. Her friends go into town that night for supplies, while she stays behind with their dog. When they haven’t come back by morning, she goes to investigate, only to discover that an invisible wall has sprung up, trapping her in the cabin and the surrounding woods. She eventually finds other companions beside the dog, but I felt that this was a more interesting idea on paper than it is on film, particularly concerning the ending, since it should have suggested to the heroine that there must be a break in the wall somewhere, and yet she is still trapped in the cabin at the end of the film. An interesting concept, and certainly the type of film that should be shown at festivals, but no more than decent in its handling of its theme.
After the film, it was party time at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Hall, which is where the Centerpiece Gala was held.
I didn’t get to go to the Centerpiece Gala last year because I had to work (and it ends early), so I was very excited to experience it this time. There was food, dancing, and drinks — all of which made for a great party-going experience. Plus, I was there with friends, which made the experience even more memorable.
Sunday, June 2
If Wolf Children was the best film I saw at SIFF, Comrade Kim Goes Flying was the guiltiest of pleasures. Nicholas Bonner, who was one of three people who directed this Belgium, North Korea, and United Kingdom joint production, was in attendance and told us before the film to try and watch it as a North Korean would, forgetting all our preconceived notions about North Korea.
The film is a fantasy, shot in bright colors and starry a plucky, likeable, and almost always smiling Han Jong Sim as Kim Yong Mi, a coal miner who is transferred from a small town to Pyongyang after her mine reaches its quota ahead-of-schedule. Having harbored dreams of becoming a trapeze artist, she attempts to achieve her goal in the city, but finds out it’s much more difficult than she expected, especially as she has a fear of heights. In the process of overcoming her fear, she must convince an arrogant trapeze artist, Pak Jang Phil (Pak Chung Gok), that a coal miner can fly. Starting with a ridiculous scene in a field that involves a white dove and visuals reminiscent of Super 8 footage, there is nothing political about this film, but there is a lot that is fun, charming, and goofy. I had a smile on my face the entire time.
After the film was over, Nicholas Bonner made sure to reiterate two things: 1.) this is a fantasy, and 2.) it’s not a propaganda film. Most North Korea films are blatant propaganda; they don’t make fiction films. Bonner has made three documentaries on North Korea and North Koreans, and he suggested that we check those out if we want realistic depictions of North Korea. Plus, I’ve seen many Japanese and South Korean films that are similar to this one, with plucky heroines who are chasing their dreams in the big city and must contend with male rivals. Can’t North Koreans make and enjoy the same kinds of movies? And in thinking that nobody is well-off in North Korea reminds me of the blog post by The Squeaky Robot about the fallacy of the single story, which is that one point-of-view, in regards to how people in a certain place and time lived, is never true. Finally, some scenes that a Westerner might interpret as portraying communism versus capitalism are seen in North Korea as the working class versus the intellectual class.
Some other highlights from the Q & A:
- There are actually three directors on this film. Every two years, there is an international film festival in Pyongyang, which is where Bonner met Anja Daelemans. I don’t remember how he said he met Kim Gwang Hun. Anyway, Bonner said we should see this film as the result of three friends who wanted to make a movie together, with one of them just happening to be North Korean.
- The actress who plays Comrade Kim is actually a trapeze artist, since it was easier to train a trapeze artist to be an actress than it would have been to train an actress to be a trapeze artist. Unlike many North Koreans, Han Jong Sim has traveled around the world, and yet she was still not sure how the film would be received outside of her home country. To reiterate this point, Bonner read a letter from her.
- North Koreans not only love the film, but also love that it’s playing outside their country. And while filming was done inside North Korea (with archival footage taking the place of wide shot pickups, since a North Korean audience would know where those locations are), post-production was done elsewhere.
- This is the first North Korean film to use synchronized sound, and the first North Korean film allowed to be shown outside North Korea.
- When they showed the film in South Korea, one man stood up afterwards and said it was nice to see that mother-in-laws in North Korea are the same as mother-in-laws in South Korea.
I did make sure to tell Bonner afterwards that I enjoyed the film and didn’t think it was propaganda, but if only I had not adjusted my camera after asking someone to take a photo of me with the director and movie poster! He said it was too bright, but the picture that came out was a little too dark, and adjusting it allowed some noise to creep in. Still, it’s a good photo.
The final film of the evening was a restored print of A Man Vanishes, a classic film by Shohei Imamura in black-and-white, which starts out by being a documentary about a Japanese man who vanished one day, to the wife’s growing interest in the director, to an exposé on what is and isn’t reality. It moves slowly in the beginning, as much of it involves interviewing subjects who knew the man, but once the director and crew start to become the subject, the film becomes interesting and stays that way until its end.