SIFF 2015 Report #3: Overheard 3, Dreams Rewired, The Apu Trilogy, Mistress America, Unexpected, A Matter of Interpretation, Dearest

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Overheard 3 – The third in a series of thrillers from Hong Kong, directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong and starring the powerhouse trio of Lau Ching-wan, Louis Koo and Daniel Wu. Each film follows a new set of characters in a crime story involving eavesdropping technology of some kind and nefarious financial transactions. Each one is overwritten, the kind of film in which characters speak in long monologues of exposition, explaining things to the audience that all the characters in the scene should already know. Each movie weaves a financial crime  (insider trading, real estate fraud) into traditional cop melodrama (read: problems with the wife/girlfriend), lending well-trod territory the shiny patina of contemporary relevance. Each movie delights in maiming Louis Koo in some horrible way. This is easily the worst entry in the series thus far, the plot overcomplicated (and not, as you’d expect, because Western audiences get confused by the nature of real estate deals in the New Territories, but rather just because the various schemes and revenge plots are far too complex to have ever been enacted by any actual humans), the characters thin and prone to radically irrational behavior. The first two managed to mitigate that with some clever suspense and action sequences, but there is hardly any of that here either. All of these people have done vastly superior work. It looks slick, like a lot of post-Infernal Affairs Hong Kong films (Mak was a co-director on that one as well), but it doesn’t have any depth, any soul.

Dreams Rewired – A documentary tracing the history of technology from the mid-19th to mid-20th century using nothing but obscure film clips and narrated by none other than Tilda Swinton can’t fail to be entertaining. Indeed, the bits of Swinton making up silent film dialogue are quite funny and the enterprise is generally well-constructed. It’s just missing something. A theory, an idea of history, a new way of looking at these machines that have successively been changing everything for so very long. It’s a tough standard to hold anyone too, but compare this to any random film by Adam Curtis, practitioner of the exact same documentary style, and you’ll see exactly what’s lacking.

The Apu Trilogy – For years Satyajit Ray’s debut film Pather Panchali has been the highest-rated film, by measures of general consensus like the Sight & Sound poll, that I hadn’t yet seen. The versions available on video here in the US had always been subpar, and there were always rumors that Criterion and Janus were just about to release restored versions of it and the next two films in the Apu Trilogy, Aparajito  and The World of Apu. And so I waited and waited and waited and now, thanks to SIFF, I got to see all three of the films, in glorious new restorations (albeit projected digitally). Of course, I was advised a couple of times that watching all three movies back to back would not be the ideal way to watch them, that they were better spread out over time in order to take in the full measure of their individual qualities. But I’m a sucker for a movie marathon and the prospect of seven hours in a sold-out multiplex watching three 60 year old Bengali films was far too good to pass up. I don’t know if they’d play better one at a time, of course, but I do know that they work great seen as one near-continuous film. After all, they are all each an adaptation of a single (albeit massive) book about one person (Apu, naturally) as he grows up from child to father. This is hardly the space for a detailed review of the films, and I don’t know that I’d have anything particularly insightful to say about them anyway. So suffice it to say that this was the highlight of the festival so far and undoubtedly one of the great Seattle film events of 2015.

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Mistress America – The third of Noah Baumbach’s collaborations with actress/writer Greta Gerwig, following 2010’s Greenberg and 2012’s Frances Ha, is the best one yet, and possibly the best work Baumbach has ever done, with or without her. For the first time in his career, he’s made a film that feels loose, free from the strained serious grasps at artistry that have plagued his career from the beginning, ranging from endearingly awkward in Kicking and Screaming to really kind of irritating in The Squid and the Whale. A pure screwball companion to While We’re Young, the 2014 film that only recently graced Seattle Screens, the pair form a hilarious portrait of our culture’s obsession with a certain kind of youth, a Manhattanite companion to Sylvia Chang’s brilliant exploration of Hong Kong womanhood, 20 30 40.. Where the first film followed an older couple’s attempts to match coolness with a much younger pair, while also somewhat clunkily exploring the interplay between authenticity in life and authenticity in art, this one focuses on a college freshman’s infatuation with her older future stepsister, a free spirit who makes New York seem as magical as it should be. Gerwig is a powerhouse as always (she’s already a three-time Endy Award winner) and Lola Kirke is excellent as the younger girl. There’s no fat in the film, it’s Baumbach’s tightest, most-focused work, for the first time he demonstrates the ease, the lack of apparent effort that marks a truly virtuosic film.

Unexpected – The second best Cobie Smulders film of the festival, thus far. Director Kris Swanberg’s story of a high school teacher who becomes pregnant and bonds with one of her students, just as surprisingly knocked up, is mostly successful at navigating a minefield of problematicism, as the two leads are developed and performed with enough nuance that neither ends up as the source of lesson-learning for the other. Still, there’s not enough depth to overcome plot contrivances (lack of understanding of the geography of Chicago-area colleges is kind of unforgivable), to make this much more than a nice movie.

A Matter of Interpretation – Mike covered this one earlier, and we’re going to talk about it at some length on this week’s SIIF episode of The George Sanders Show, but here too is my capsule review: Lee Kwangkuk, whose 2012 debut Romance Joe continues to be one of the great undistributed (in the US) films of the decade, returns with another romantic comedy lost amid a swirl of narrative experimentation. Rather than the nested flashbacks and films within films (or rather, ideas for films within films) of his first film, Lee here layers his story as a series of dreams (as in his 2013 short Hard to Say), related by the various characters to each other as they attempt to puzzle them out. A grumpy actress, her lost ex-boyfriend, a friendly detective and his damaged sister form the web of enchanted melancholy, with the help of a little soju.

Dearest – The wrenching true story of two parents who search for years for their abducted child, kidnapped out from under them on the streets of Shenzhen. Only a lunatic like Hong Kong director Peter Chan would make that story the only first half of his movie, while devoting the second to the desperation of the mother who was raising said abducted child to get her other kid back after she’s sent to an orphanage. Only a genius like Peter Chan could actually make it work. Dominated by three brilliant performances from the involved parents (Zhao Wei and Hao Lei as the two mothers, Huang Bo as the father), Chan opens the film up from a standard ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama to something more expansive, a portrait of a Chinese society breaking apart as the class divide grows between rich and poor, urban and rural, those who know how to navigate the country’s bureaucracy and those who do not. Hao and Huang lead a thoroughly modern middle class existence in Shenzhen, the scenes could be set in any city in the world, dominated by cars and wires, divorce and the internet. Zhao lives in a small farming village, doesn’t speak proper Mandarin and believes everything her (now-deceased) husband told her. As much as the first half of the film is about the precariousness of our lives (especially as parents), the second is about opening Zhao’s eyes to the modern world, to just how alien she is from it, and just how much she does not understand. She’s already racked up a handful of Best Actress awards for her performance, make-up free with bad hair and lots of anguished tears, but Hao (familiar from Lou Ye films like Summer Palace and Mystery) and Huang (who played The Monkey King in Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West) are just as good.

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