SIFF 2015: Snow on the Blades (Setsurô Wakamatsu, 2014)

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.

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A measured, thoughtful samurai film set in the transition years between the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the rapidly modernizing Meiji period, in 1860s Japan, Snow on the Blades follows a lone samurai’s quest for redemption as the world changes around him. Sporting the glossy sheen that’s become the dominant visual style of historical epics in recent years, every snowflake a brilliant white, every earth tone deep and rich, every camellia a signifier, it presents a sharp ideological break with its forebears, the contemplative samurai epics of the 1950s and 60s, most especially Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (and its 2011 remake by Takashi Miike). Rejecting the simple one-to-one allegory of the samurai ethos as stand-in for the military dictatorship that so disastrously led Japan into World War II, director Setsurô Wakamatsu’s film seeks out a kind of middle ground, condemning the brutality at the heart of the code while extolling the heroism of the men and women who killed (themselves and others) to enforce it.

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SIFF 2015: Virtuosity (Christopher Wilkinson, 2014)

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.

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Every four years the best young pianists in the world descend upon Fort Worth, Texas for the Cliburn Competition, the World Series of people playing impossibly complex classical music. The eventual winner is bestowed with an instant career of studio recordings and global performances. The losers get by, biding their time before entering their name again 48 months later. Christopher Wilkinson’s serviceable if occasionally busy documentary tracks roughly a half dozen contestants at the 2013 competition.

Documentaries that shine a light on a specialized subset of society have become so commonplace that it feels as though every two-bit convention and cult oddity has already been unearthed and overexposed. With this saturation comes a familiarity with the narrative’s conventions. To Virtuosity‘s detriment, we can tell just by the camera’s focus who is going to make the finals, long before the names are announced. On the other hand, the film has a natural villain hanging out on the margins and it chooses to let him recede, sidestepping an easy angle. (It would have been a fun bit of schadenfreude to see this confident man fail, however, had he been given more opportunities to hang himself.)

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While the film is mostly focused on the performances and the personalities of the pianists (“artists” doesn’t feel like the right word for these technically impressive but creatively quiet individuals) the narrative does find time to wander down a few side avenues. The most interesting thread highlights two different critical analyses of the same performer that basically exposes the whole notion of competition at this expert level as a sham, dependent upon the fickle whims of an older generation the world has already passed by.

Speaking of getting passed by, the most tantalizing story here is the one left untold. What happens to these talented individuals once the competition ends? What paths do these kids follow once they’re considered simply the the sixth best pianist in the world? One character alludes to being dropped back on the street. That is a sequel worth paying to see. Call it Reality.

(Virtuosity plays 5/20 at SIFF Cinema Uptown, 5/21 at the Harvard Exit, 5/24 at Lincoln Square.) 

SIFF 2015: Seoul Searching (Benson Lee, 2015)

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.seoul searching ladies

Seoul Searching is set in 1986 at a summer camp created for foreign-born Korean teens to get reacquainted with the culture of their ancestors. Kids from all over the world are flown in to learn of Korean traditions and history. The opening voiceover explains that the program, which was indeed an actual project undertaken by the government, was ultimately abandoned because the unruly youth were too much to handle. Their counselors and teachers could not keep the kids in check. There’s a lot of potential here for comedy in the cultural clash and drama in the generational divide. Unfortunately, Seoul Searching chooses to rely on tired tropes instead of showing us something–frankly, anything–new. Continue reading

SIFF 2015: Temporary Family (Cheuk Wan-chi, 2014)

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.19912102

Reading the description for this comedy about people in the Hong Kong forced to share a luxury flat while they try to flip it in an over-competitive bubble market, I was hoping for a Hong Kong version of The More the Merrier, the 1943 George Stevens movie in which Jean Arthur and Joel McRea are forced to share an apartment in wartime Washington DC and are maneuvered into love by their third roommate, the portly, angelic goofball Charles Coburn. And my hopes were more or less fulfilled. Like the Stevens film, it’s a screwball but with a slower pace and deeper heart that its immediate generic predecessors (for the earlier film, the verbal anarchy of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges; for the new one, the tangled webs of Wai Ka-fai and Johnnie To’s consumerist rom-coms like The Shopaholics or the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart movies). Both movies have thin premises stretched almost farther than they can go, a delicate balance of cynical humor and dopey romanticism with a liberal amount of schmaltz.

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