SIFF 2016 Report #3: Disintegration (The Bitter Stems, Thithi, Trivisa, The Mobfathers, Tag)

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Proving once again that no film festival should ever last longer than an Olympic Games, the 2016 SIFF limped to its conclusion this weekend after a soul-crushing 25 days. While the festival had run impressively well over its first two weeks, organized and on time and with nothing in particular for a picky festival-goer like me to complain about, the last week saw an inexplicable series of outrages.

This began on Sunday night, when the programmer tasked with introducing the Johnnie To-produced film Trivisa managed to be both disrespectful, mildly offense and factually inaccurate when he claimed To was the “Roger Corman of Hong Kong”, a producer who would make any movie you had in mind as long as it had “guns or titties”. That same presenter ran the Q&A with actor/producer Chapman To the next night, which was largely unobjectionable (To was the one who mentioned “titties” at least), but the programmer did at one point refer to Mr. To as “Chapman Ho” and later, “Herman”.

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Next on my list is the archival presentation of King Hu’s action masterpiece Dragon Gate Inn. SIFF can’t rightly be blamed for the conduct of the audience during the screening, a crowd determined to laugh at the film whenever possible, particularly during the climactic scenes. Apparently everything star Pai Ying did was hilarious. To be fair, much of Dragon Inn is intentionally funny, but this was the behavior of a crowd trained to see every Chinese genre film as cheap, schlocky and stupid. It’s an attitude typical of audiences when confronted with martial arts films, not just at SIFF or even in Seattle, but the result of decades of marketing that has positioned these films as cheap exploitation material, unworthy of respectful consideration. It’s the mentality behind why Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network constantly shows their vast library of Shaw Brothers classics in terrible dubbed versions. But it’s also an attitude encouraged by the way the films are introduced here at the SIFF.

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In fact, the way the whole festival is presented is counter to what a traditionally cinephilic film festival is like. Take the opening ads for the festival. Three kids show up at a club and start dancing with figures from movies past to a driving techno beat. A montage of clips ensues, built around the beat of the music. It’s fine as far as it goes, the tune is catchy and the thing is very well-edited, and a few of the films probably even played at SIFF at some point in the past (I can’t confirm but I have my doubts about whether Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back played the festival). But the message conveyed is that SIFF is a party, we’re assembled to have our minds blown (or faces melted) by all the cinema. Contrast with the bumpers VIFF played two years in a row (another complaint entirely), which emphasize the social and artistic importance of the films being screened, the vitality of the arts in the culture and politics of the community, through a montage of serious films from around the world that played at the festival. Neither ad fully captures the spirit of what a film festival should be (there’s nothing wrong with fun, after all), but in eight years of attending the Vancouver Film Festival, I’ve never heard a pre-show presenter get heckled, and I’ve never heard an audience laugh at a movie.

Nor have I ever had a film cancelled (as happened here at SIFF with the 35mm presentation of The Red Shoes last year) or had a film play with the wrong soundtrack, which happened this morning. Buster Keaton’s The General, undoubtedly one of the greatest films of all-time, capped off the outstanding archival program at the festival, and was to play with a new score by genius Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi. This was one of the main points of advertising for the presentation, and was even hyped during the pre-show announcements. The General played, and it was great (it’s truly one of the best films to see with an audience), but the score was the old remix of American standards composed by Robert Israel. It’s a fine score, but, uh, what happened?

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Anyway, as for the films themselves, this was the best week of the festival for me, starting with Eddie Muller’s presentation of his Film Noir Foundation’s restoration of the 1956 Argentinian film The Bitter Stems (Los tallos amargos). Though it was another film which inspired inexplicable giggling from the Seattle elite, especially in its first half (I guess old foreign movies are inherently funny?), by the end director Fernando Ayala had quieted the titters with an audaciously clever ending, a blackly comic variation on Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. A deft and atmospheric film, fully internalizing noir aesthetics in its use of shadows, and canted angles, and structure (an enigmatic opening followed by lengthy flashback before rejoining the present halfway through for the collapse into inevitability of its denouement, much like Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, among other noir templates). This was my first time seeing Muller in person and he makes for an affable and insightful host. This week SIFF also announced the lineup for his Noir City Festival, coming to the Egyptian in July and it is going to be fantastic. More about that in the next month here on Seattle Screen Scene. It’s good to remember, in the meantime, that for all my complaints about SIFF’s imperfections, they’re still the only players in town with the wherewithal and the facilities to present a program like Noir City as it should be seen.

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The next night saw the pair of Thithi and Trivisa. The first comes from Southern India, and is a character study of a community and a family in the international festival film style. Directed by Raam Reddy and set in the southwestern province of Karnataka and in the Kannada language (“India is a nation with a wonderful diversity of languages”, the pre-show presenter helpfully informed us), it’s the story of three generations of a family in the wake of the death of their 101 year old foul-mouthed patriarch. The oldest man doesn’t seem to care too much about his father’s death, preferring to wander the countryside drinking and hanging out with shepherds (I mean, who wouldn’t?). The youngest is only interested in wooing the pretty daughter of the nomadic shepherd clan that has just arrived on the outskirts of town. The middle-aged one, a man of business, wants to inherit his grandfather’s land (ahead of his father, contrary to law and tradition) and goes to unsavory lengths in the attempt, which provides the structure of the film’s plot, such as it is. Far more important are the textures of small-town life, the rhythms of work collecting sand, watering the sugarcane, or walking with sheep, the communal gatherings around simple meals, the family television, and ancient funeral rites. Warm and funny (love the guy who’s always complaining that people aren’t following the rules of the ritual), it’s one of the low-key delights of this year’s festival.

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Trivisa is the latest product of Johnnie To’s Milkyway Image studio (at least, until his new film opens here on June 24th). Directed by the young trio of Jevons Au, Vicky Wong and Frank Hui, it’s a crime story set on the eve of Hong Kong’s handover to Mainland China in 1997. A trio of arch-criminals, the so-called “Kings of Thieves” try to make ends meet in the increasingly troublesome last days of the British imperium. Lam Ka-tung tries to keep a low-profile, going after small jewelry store scores, Richie Jen transitions from firearm-heavy bank robbery to business-like smuggling operations, sneaking electronics into the PRC with the full complicity of the local government (and necessitating a series of humiliating meetings in local restaurants (brokered by Lam Suet himself). Jordan Chan is a flamboyant kidnapper, bored with the ease of exploiting the colony’s uber-rich. Chan decides he wants to team-up with the other two, so the three of them can make one last stab at glory before the end times. But, rather than following through with the expected genre movements, the three directors keep extending the search process, such that we gradually realize that the film is not going to be about the Last Big Score, but about the desperation and disillusionment of three men in middle age, as the country they know is about to disappear forever. The three men’s stories play out individually, and gathering from the end credits, the directors split the work up by character, but I failed to note which director was responsible for which part. Regardless, the differences are seamless, the movie is expertly shot and composed to Milkyway’s typically high standards (no studio in the world makes films that look as good as they do: the aesthetic is about as far as one can get from Corman’s AIP, outside of maybe MGM and Paramount in the 1930s) and edited by To’s regular editor David Richardson. The film is an auspicious debut for the next generation of Hong Kong talent, joining Philip Yung’s Port of Call as a sign of good things to come. Of the three, only Jevons Au has yet made a name for himself, working on the scripts for To’s Romancing in Thin Air and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, and directing one part of the highly political and very successful Hong Kong omnibus Ten Years.

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The next night saw a pair of Chinese movies. First was Sylvia Chang’s soulful Murmur of the Hearts, which I caught last year at VIFF and which I’m happy to say gets even better on second viewing, when the various oblique strands of a plot spanning decades and weaving in and out of reality crystalize leaving only the warmth of reconciled heartbreaks. This was followed by the immensely fun The Mobfathers, directed by Herman Yau and starring Chapman To. To, Yau and legendary co-star Anthony Wong have made themselves personae non grata on the Mainland due to their outspoken support of 2014’s Umbrella protests, and the film is a thinly veiled political allegory in the guise of a zany and gory Triad comedy. To carries the film with one of his most gleefully amoral performances (a far cry from his ugly and unpalatable Black Comedy, but not as actorly as his fine work in Pang Ho-cheung’s 2006 film Isabella, in which he starred with Murmur star Isabella Leong). Anthony Wong dusts off his Ebola Syndrome voice to play the vampiric godfather at the center of the film, manipulating the local Triad election to his desired end (which is, of course, keeping all the power for himself) regardless of any standard of morality or tradition, while To attempts to lead a democratic insurgency: a call for universal Triad suffrage. Where a movie like Ten Years (which didn’t play SIFF), is so self-serious in its political critique that it moves past foundering bluntness into a kind of virtuous purity, Yau and To keep things light with a liberal amount of sex and violence, until the crushing ending, when dreams of a democratic future are quashed in an orgy of state-sanctioned violence. As To said during the Q&A when asked if democracy was possible in China (or Hong Kong), “Don’t think too much, this is just a movie. Don’t be too serious; go home and get drunk.”

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Rounding out the week, but for the two archival classics and tonight’s Creepy, the new Kiyoshi Kurosawa film that will mark my final SIFF movie of 2016, was Tag, one of six movies Sion Sono directed in 2015 (one was for television). Opening on a school bus full of girls laughing and playing on their way to a field trip and quickly descending into unnerving supernatural violence, and only getting weirder from there, the film isn’t quite as audacious as Sono’s hiphop musical Tokyo Tribe, but what it lacks in final act coherence and originality (like many an anime, it descends into philosophical abstraction as its characters becomes allegories for whatever pathologies in Japanese culture one wishes to interrogate, in this case misogyny, in general as well as specifically in gaming culture) it makes up for in momentum and a beautifully specific performance from Reina Triendl as the primary incarnation of the girl at the heart of the story. This girl leads several lives: aging into high school, a wedding ceremony and a road race, all of which end in disaster, as all the women around her (there are no men) are slaughtered, either by a terrifying wind or leather-clad, heavily-armed, middle-aged women. The closest comparison then might be The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, in which a young woman must travel through and defeat various incarnations of society’s idea of womanhood before she can become a fully-actualized super-heroine. Tag, however, settles for the easy (and deserved) target that is men in general, specifically embodied in a creepy old dude and a horny young man. Still, given that much of the audience for this genre of film deserves every indictment they can get (the trailer for the film cleverly plays on their desire to see pretty young girls hacked to pieces), the conclusion is nothing if not satisfying.

And that’s it for my SIFF reportage this year. We’ll have a festival recap episode of The Frances Farmer Show coming up in a couple of days, and then its back to our regularly scheduled coverage of local releases. It’s going to be a good summer, with Kaili Blues and Right Now, Wrong Then and Noir City and the return of several SIFF movies (Chimes at Midnight, Sunset Song) and much more on the horizon.

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