Friday March 30 – Thursday April 5

Featured Film:

Fail to Appear at the Northwest Film Forum

The Film Forum kicks off a month of amazing programming this week with a miniseries devoted to New Canadian cinema, some of the most exciting independent films being made anywhere in the world right now. We’ve been following the Future//Present series at the Vancouver International Film Festival since its inception, and the NWFF is playing several of its best films, starting this Wednesday with Fail to Appear, a fascinating drama about a young social worker and her client. It’s paired with the excellent short film Scaffold, which follows a pair of construction workers (or, more specifically their hands and feet) as they work on someone’s home. The series continues on Thursday with the off-beat and beguiling The Intestine, and runs through Sunday, April 8th.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci) Fri-Thurs Our Review
The Leisure Seeker (Paolo Virzì) Fri-Thurs

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004) Fri-Thurs
Vampire Hunter D (Toyoo Ashida, 1985) Fri-Thurs

Central Cinema:

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004) Fri-Mon Subtitled Sat & Mon Only
Raising Arizona (The Coen Brothers, 1987) Fri-Mon

SIFF Egyptian:

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci) Fri-Thurs Our Review

Century Federal Way:

Sajjan Singh Rangroot (Pankaj Batra) Fri-Thurs

Grand Cinema:

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev) Fri-Thurs
Oh, Lucy! (Atsuko Hirayanagi) Fri-Thurs
The Big Lebowski (The Coen Brothers, 1998) Sat Only
The Rape of Recy Taylor (Nancy Buirski) Tues Only
Love (Doze Niu, 2012) Thurs Only

Grand Illusion Cinema:

The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926) Fri-Sun, Tues & Thurs
Steamboat Bill, Jr (Buster Keaton & Charles Reiser, 1928) Fri-Sun, Tues & Thurs
Three Ages (Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline, 1923) Sat, Sun, Mon & Weds
College (Buster Keaton & James W. Horne, 1927) Sat, Sun, Mon & Weds

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Baaghi 2 (Ahmed Khan) Fri-Thurs
Rangasthalam (Sukumar) Fri-Thurs
Hichki (Siddharth Malhotra) Fri-Thurs
Raid (Raj Kumar Gupta) Fri-Thurs
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008) Sun, Mon & Weds Only Subtitled Mon Only

Regal Meridian:

Flower (Max Winkler) Fri-Thurs
Goldstone (Ivan Sen) Fri-Thurs

Northwest Film Forum:

Leaning into the Wind (Thomas Riedelsheimer) Fri Only
Fail to Appear (Antoine Bourges) with Scaffold (Kazik Radwanski) Weds Only Our Review/Our Review
The Intestine (Lev Lewis) Thurs Only Our Review Lead Actress in Attendance

AMC Pacific Place:

Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) Fri-Thurs Our Review

Regal Parkway Plaza:

My Perfect You (Cathy Garcia-Molina) Fri-Thurs

AMC Seattle:

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci) Fri-Thurs Our Review
The Leisure Seeker (Paolo Virzì) Fri-Thurs

Seattle Art Museum:

The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935) Thurs Only

SIFF Film Center:

Beauty and the Dogs (Khaled Walid Barsaoui & Kaouther Ben Hania) Fri-Sun

Regal Thornton Place:

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) Fri-Thurs Our Review

SIFF Uptown:

Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Ramen Heads (Koki Shigeno) Fri-Thurs
Ernest & Celestine (Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar & Benjamin Renner, 2012) Sat Only

In Wide Release:

Annihilation (Alex Garland) Our Review
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler) Our Review
The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson) Our Review Our Podcast
The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro) Our Review
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig) Our Review
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh) Our Review
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Isle of Dogs (2018, Wes Anderson)

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Wes Anderson’s films have always hewed closely to the intertwined strands of the fantastical and the storybook. But this essential impulse, evident in his trademark aesthetic, has never been more apparent than in his latest effort, Isle of Dogs. The opening is only the first sign: a prologue told by a monk that closely parallels the events to come. This time, however, the setting is markedly different from his heretofore Western-centric films: Japan, sometime in the future, specifically in the fictional city of Megasaki. After the mayor (Kunichi Nomura, who also co-conceived the story) orders the exile of all dogs to the neighboring isle of Trash Island on the grounds of an infectious “dog flu”, his distant nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to the island in an attempt to rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Upon landing, he is joined by a gang of dogs, whose most prominent member is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray fiercely opposed to domestication. What follows is in essence a men-on-a-mission film, interwoven with student-led investigations into the possible governmental suppression of a cure for the virus.

Isle of Dogs thrives upon this fairly straightforward premise, stringing together a fleet series of encounters by imbuing with a sense of weight, either comedic or emotional, through the careful building of a constellation of distinctive characters. Anderson’s films have long had an off-kilter balance between arcs and individual moments, and this movie is largely tilted towards the latter: to name just one of the most piercing examples, the first flashback (of many), which shows Spots and Atari’s first meeting, has enough emotional heft to sustain a full half of a lesser film. Ironically, despite the enormous cast, the heart of the film ultimately feels as if it belongs to two or three figures (Atari, Chief, and Spots), but the ways in which they affect those around them consistently prove to be thrilling and, often, more than a little moving.

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Friday March 23 – Thursday March 29

Featured Film:

Operation Red Sea at the Pacific Place

The coolest thing on Seattle Screens this week is probably Police Beat on Tuesday at the Film Forum, a tie-in with FilmStruck’s Art House America series. But since I haven’t seen either of those before, I’m going with Operation Red Sea, the biggest hit of this past Lunar New Year. It’s one fo the best war films in recent memory, with top-notch action and slightly less Chinese jingoism than last year’s Wolf Warrior 2. I wrote about it a few weeks ago in my survey of Lunar New Year films.

Playing This Week:

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

King of Hearts (Philippe de Broca, 1966) Fri-Weds
Harold & Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971) Fri-Weds
The Road Movie (Dmitrii Kalashnikov) Thurs Only

Central Cinema:

The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming 1939) Fri-Mon
Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990) Fri-Mon
Waiting for Waldemar (Eric B. Spoeth) Fri Only Director Q&A

SIFF Egyptian:

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci) Fri-Thurs Our Review
The IF Project (Kathlyn Horan) Sun Only

Century Federal Way:

Sajjan Singh Rangroot (Pankaj Batra) Fri-Thurs
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008) Sun, Mon & Weds Only Subtitled Mon Only

Grand Cinema:

Oh, Lucy! (Atsuko Hirayanagi) Fri-Thurs
A Fantastic Woman (Sebastian Lelio) Fri-Thurs
Leaning into the Wind (Thomas Riedelsheimer) Fri-Thurs
A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris, 1991) Fri & Sat Only
120 Beats per Minute (Robin Campillo) Tues Only Our Review Our Other Review
Noticias Lejanas (Ricardo Benet, 2005) Thurs Only

Grand Illusion Cinema:

Tehran Taboo (Ali Soozandeh) Fri-Thurs
November (Rainer Sarnet) Sun, Weds & Thurs
Saturday Secret Matinee: Widescreen Thrills Sat Only 16mm
They Remain (Phillip Gelatt) Sat & Sun Only
Untitled (Just Kidding) (Jesse Malmed) Mon Only
The Spaces Between Countries: Mexico & USA Tues Only

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Rajaratha (Anup Bhandari) Fri-Thurs In Kannada or Telugu, Check Listings
Needi Naadi Oke Katha (Udugula Venu) Fri-Thurs
MLA (Upendra Madhav) Fri-Thurs
Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety (Luv Ranjan) Fri-Thurs
Hichki (Siddharth Malhotra) Fri-Thurs
Raid (Raj Kumar Gupta) Fri-Thurs
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008) Sun, Mon & Weds Only Subtitled Mon Only

Regal Meridian:

Flower (Max Winkler) Fri-Thurs
Needi Naadi Oke Katha (Udugula Venu) Fri-Thurs
Goldstone (Ivan Sen) Fri-Thurs
The Leisure Seeker (Paolo Virzì) Fri-Thurs

Northwest Film Forum:

Leaning into the Wind (Thomas Riedelsheimer) Fri-Thurs
After Louie (Vincent Gagliostro) Fri-Sun, Thurs
CFFS 2018 Indigenous Showcase Shorts Sat Only
FilmStruck Art House America: Police Beat (Robinson Devor, 2005) Tues Only Writer and Producer in Attendance
Dark Matters Weds Only

AMC Pacific Place:

Operation Red Sea (Dante Lam) Fri-Thurs  Our Review

Regal Parkway Plaza:

My Perfect You (Cathy Garcia-Molina) Fri-Thurs

AMC Seattle:

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci) Fri-Thurs Our Review
The Leisure Seeker (Paolo Virzì) Fri-Thurs
Flower (Max Winkler) Fri-Thurs

Seattle Art Museum:

Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936) Thurs Only

SIFF Film Center:

Souvenir (Bavo Defurne) Fri-Sun

Regal Thornton Place:

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008) Sun, Mon & Weds Only

SIFF Uptown:

A Fantastic Woman (Sebastian Lelio) Fri-Tues
Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev) Fri-Tues
Oh, Lucy! (Atsuko Hirayanagi) Fri-Tues
Back to Burgundy (Cédric Klapisch) Fri-Thurs
SFFSFF Encore Program Sun Only
Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) Starts Tues

Varsity Theatre:

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008) Weds Only

In Wide Release:

Annihilation (Alex Garland) Our Review
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler) Our Review
Fifty Shades Freed (James Foley) Our Review
The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson) Our Review Our Podcast
The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro) Our Review
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig) Our Review
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh) Our Review

Friday March 16 – Thursday March 22

Featured Film:

Metropolis at the Ark Lodge

There’s a bunch of cool new stuff on Seattle Screens this week, including The Death of Stalin and Did You Winder Who Fired the Gun?, along with older movies like the launch of SAM’s new Hitchcock series focusing on his films set in Britain, and of course, at long last, the arrival of the restoration of Edward Yang’s masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day, which of course would have been our Featured Film this week if I hadn’t already expanded our reach a few months ago to highlight its screening in Bellingham. Instead, I’m going with the Ark Lodge, which has quietly been playing some interesting repertory as part of their Dark Lodge and Ark Lodge Rewind series. This week they’re playing Fritz Lang’s monumental, iconic Metropolis, a visionary sci-fi epic before such adjectives were debased by lazy critics to describe genre films that have shadows and/or lens flares. They’re playing what they’re calling “The Complete Version” which includes 25 minutes of new footage, probably those bits unearthed in Argentina several years ago. In any version, Lang’s film, about a mad scientist who builds a robot to co-opt a proletarian revolution and the bourgeois man who must stop her and save the people and the woman he loves, is a must-see.

Playing This Week:

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) Fri-Thurs

Central Cinema:

Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) Fri-Mon
Step Brothers (Adam McKay, 2008) Fri-Tues

SIFF Egyptian:

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci) Fri-Weds Our Review

Century Federal Way:

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) Sun & Weds Only

Grand Cinema:

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Paul McGuigan) Fri-Thurs
A Fantastic Woman (Sebastian Lelio) Fri-Thurs
The Party (Sally Potter) Fri-Thurs
The Last Starfighter (Nick Castle, 1984) Sat Only Free
Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982) Sat Only
In Between (Maysaloun Hamoud) Tues Only
Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979) Weds Only
Never Give Up! MINORU YASUI and the Fight for Justice (Holly Yasui & Will Doolittle) Thurs Only Free
Atlantic. (Jan-Willem van Ewijk) Thurs Only

Grand Illusion Cinema:

Before We Vanish (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) Sat-Mon, Weds Our Review
November (Rainer Sarnet) Fri, Sun, Tues & Thurs
Pushing Dead (Tom E. Brown) Fri-Thurs Director in Attendance for the Weekend
Saturday Secret Matinee: Widescreen Thrills Sat Only 16mm

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety (Luv Ranjan) Fri-Thurs
Kirrak Party (Sharan Koppisetty) Fri-Thurs
Raid (Raj Kumar Gupta) Fri-Thurs
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) Sun & Weds Only

Northwest Film Forum:

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson) Fri-Sun Our Review
Leaning into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy (Thomas Riedelsheimer) Fri-Thurs
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991) Sun & Mon Only Our Review Our Podcast
12 Days (Raymond Depardon) Weds Only

AMC Pacific Place:

Operation Red Sea (Dante Lam) Fri-Thurs  Our Review

Seattle Art Museum:

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1934) Thurs Only

SIFF Film Center:

The Party (Sally Potter) Fri-Sun

Regal Thornton Place:

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) Sun & Weds Only

SIFF Uptown:

A Fantastic Woman (Sebastian Lelio) Fri-Thurs
Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev) Fri-Thurs
Oh, Lucy! (Atsuko Hirayanagi) Fri-Thurs
Tales from Earthsea (Gorô Miyazaki, 2006) Sun Only

Varsity Theatre:

The Forgiven (Roland Joffé) Fri-Thurs
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) Weds Only

In Wide Release:

Annihilation (Alex Garland) Our Review
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler) Our Review
Fifty Shades Freed (James Foley) Our Review
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson) Our Review
The Post (Steven Spielberg) Our Review
The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson) Our Review Our Podcast
The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro) Our Review
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig) Our Review
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh) Our Review

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson, 2017)

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Opening Thursday and playing through the weekend at the Northwest Film Forum is Travis Wilkerson’s first-person documentary about the murder of a black man in Alabama. The victim, Bill Spann, was killed in a grocery store in Dothan by Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, who was initially charged with murder for the crime but the charges quickly disappeared. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Wilkerson heads home for the first time in a long while to investigate his ancestor, his victim, the town, and the history and mechanics of white supremacy and its persistence into the present day.

At just about every stop in his investigation, Wilkerson is stymied. The environment of Dothan, along with neighboring towns that may have some connection to the events, has changed over the past 70 years, although not as much one might expect (at least where I’m from, in the West, change is a constant: the parts of Spokane I grew up in are unrecognizable today, let alone how the city would have looked to my grandparents in the 1940s). The physical persistence of the past is captured in black and white static images: old houses, ominous streets, blossoming yet menacing trees, a strip mall city hall, a fateful store counter. These constitute tangible evidence of more spectral ideological hauntings: a great aunt who has become a Southern Nationalist, creepy teens in cars following nosy outsiders, and a conspiracy of silence over a long-forgotten crime: witnesses who refuse to speak, government documents disappeared, the town hospital gone to ruin, a cemetery of unmarked graves. What Wilkerson does find is disturbing in its banality: old home movies of his great-grandfather, looking no more sinister than anyone else and a death certificate horrifying in its stark, uninquisitive language.

Wilkerson narrates with a deep voice hinting at contained rage and only occasionally do any other voices enter the film. His mother and aunts write him letters about his great-granfather, revealing new, undiscovered crimes, but he reads them himself. The current neighbor of the family’s old store (since sold and resold and now a kind of speakeasy) speaks on camera for a bit, and Wilkerson gives over ten minutes or so to a rambling, fascinating monologue by Ed Vaughn, a civil rights leader and resident of Dothan, who nonetheless can provide few details on the crime itself. Instead Vaughn helps bring to life a period of American history the feeling of which we have willfully forgotten in favor of belief in our own (that is to say, White America’s) heroic progress, while the terror of racism, along with the identities of its victims and the activists who worked to upend it, are conveniently shuttered away (there’s an interesting side story about Rosa Parks and her activism long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott with victims of racist and sexual violence in Alabama, work which is usually left out of the standard narrative about Parks). The story is framed by a discussion of Atticus Finch, with clips from To Kill a Mockingbird, standard images int he beginning, describing Harper Lee’s character for what he has become, a “secular saint”. The film ends with red-tinged negatives of that same footage, as Wilkerson describes Lee’s revision of her character in Go Tell a Watchman, the private, racist face of Finch (of America) exposed underneath the public virtue. Punctuating the narrative are names of victims of white brutality: Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Bill Spann, accompanied by Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout”. It isn’t as effective as Raoul Peck’s insertion of modern protest footage into his James Baldwin doc I Am Not You Negro, but it makes the point. What Wilkerson discovers, what we probably have always known, but rarely have acknowledged, is that that past hasn’t passed, that the legacy of white supremacy lives on and its effects are still being felt. That the very fact that S.E. Branch has a great grandson and Bill Spann does not is proof.

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)

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Armando Iannucci is, if nothing else, the defining political comedian of our era. The anti-Aaron Sorkin, he understands that politics is about power, and nothing else. His lying, manipulative, vulgar, grasping, venal, and above all stupid bureaucrats, officials, advisors and other governing detritus barely even pay lip service to the ideals and ideology valorized in the word of the last era’s most celebrated propagandist, Aaron Sorkin, and Iannucci, with his television series The Thick of It and Veep and his film In the Loop, seems to have dedicated himself to undermining and unraveling all the myths and delusions of propriety, fair play and principled centrism that The West Wing perpetuated. I don’t know that the functionaries of Iannucci’s work are any more “accurate” than Sorkin’s heroes and heroines, but they seem like it. And in their degradation they certainly speak more to the present moment than the earnest ideologues of neo-liberal technocracy. That Iannucci can so deftly translate his style from the world of contemporary American politics to that of Soviet Russia should tell us a lot about what politics truly is: games of manipulation performed by the vile, the scheming and the moronic for the sake of self-preservation and, above all, power.

The Death of Stalin, based on a French graphic novel, begins on the last day of the Russian dictator’s life. He eats a big meal with his closest advisors: Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), watches a Western (I couldn’t tell which one, but they toast Wayne and John Ford at the end of their boozy night) and, left alone in his room, suffers a cerebral hemorrhage. He’s not discovered until the next morning and, because he’d recently killed or exiled all the best doctors in Moscow, he’s unable to receive medical attention until it’s too late. The delay is exacerbated by the scheming of his advisors, most of whom are more than willing to let the man die: as soon as his condition is discovered Beria and Khrushchev begin their plotting, a race to secure the support of the various other members of the inner circle and the various state security forces. Beria, as head of the secret police (called the NKVD at this point), has the initial advantage, and is able to manipulate Malenkov (a fool in most things and especially devoted to Stalin: a pointed reminder that in a totalitarian state the only officials who survive long enough to attain any kind of importance are either evil or stupid or both), who as Stalin’s deputy becomes the titular ruler in his absence.

The scramble for control between Khrushchev and Beria is greatly accelerated in time: events that here transpire over only a few days in fact took about six months, but while the film certainly takes liberties with historical fact, in its essence it is accurate. A host of fascinating side characters fill out the world, the overwhelming sense of terror and irrationality and double-thinking inherent in the Stalinist state. Olga Kurylenko plays the pianist Maria Yudina, whose defiant note to Stalin (included in a concert recording, the apocryphal story of which opens the film) may have killed him. Michael Palin plays Molotov, a longtime Stalin ally who had been marked for death but is rescued by the dictator’s demise, who nonetheless sticks to the Stalinist party line (Palin gives maybe the best performance in the film, and Molotov is its most dizzying character, a cruel man driven mad by even greater cruelties). Jason Isaacs appears late in the film as General Zhukov, bedecked in a lunatic assembly of medals, who comes to Khrushchev’s aid. But the Beria/Khrushchev conflict is at the film’s core: Beria tries to consolidate power by appearing to overthrow the “excesses” of Stalinism, positioning himself as a reformer while merely switching out one list of enemies for another. Khrushchev, on the other hand, actually is a reformer (well, relatively speaking), and while he (apparently) lacks Beria’s most vile qualities (in addition to all the murders, Beria was a perpetrator of just about every sex crime you can imagine) he has no qualms about exercising any means necessary to achieve his goals.

The Death of Stalin is deeply, darkly funny at almost every moment, like all of Iannucci’s work. Whether in the petty infighting and reversals of the Soviet leaders, to minor side-plots like the comic opening sequence with the fear and panic of the Radio Moscow technicians when Stalin requests a recording of a concert that was broadcast live, forcing them (led by Paddy Considine) to regather the audience and musicians to play the whole thing again, or the desperate scrambling of Stalin’s children, suddenly pawns in a greater game they are wholly unequipped to play (the son’s coaching of the state hockey team is especially funny), or more terrifying background action, like the cold brutal efficiency in which everyone in Stalin’s household is rounded up and shot by the NKVD. It’s an absurdist world where there are literally no moral or ideological values, and only the people who actually understand that truth are able to achieve power.

Grass (Hong Sangsoo, 2018)

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Evan Morgan: Let’s start with the title. Hong arguably crafts the best titles of any filmmaker working today; something like On the Beach at Night Alone is tinged with mystery, poetical and allusive. Grass, on the other hand, sounds quite atypical: earthy, prosaic, direct. Critical writing on Hong often runs the risk of devolving into a game of spot-the-differences (full disclosure: it’s a game I like to play) but this title, which initially seems uncharacteristic, continues a certain tendency of Hong’s: to telegraph to his audience, quite literally, which objects might exercise a totemic effect on the film, objects that can shape and reshape the narrative. Claire’s Camera, Oki’s Movie, On the Occasion of Remembering Turning Gate. So why, then, Grass? The film does open with some kind of potted shrub, though it quickly moves to the interior space of nearby café. At one point, a few characters wander over to crouch down near the plant and it does make one final appearance after the credits roll, but it never takes center stage quite like those other objects. Whatever power it exerts over Hong’s narrative is merely suggestive, lacking the obvious metaphorical potential of, say, Huppert’s camera. The title speaks, rather modestly, of things that grow, of fecundity and naturalness and finally—dare I say—of a kind of utopia.

We’ll get to where Grass ultimately ends up, I’m sure, but let’s linger on the road for a while—and a verdant lane it is not. The film is haunted by at least two deaths (more on that later too), and, for much of its short runtime, a rather cruel work.

Sean Gilman: I do think there’s something to the title. Initially I thought of Whitman, the source as well of the title for On the Beach at Night Alone, especially when you mentioned to me that the Korean version of the title more directly translates to “Grass Leaves”. Whitman apparently chose Leaves of Grass as the title of his life’s work, continuously revised, as a pun. Quoting wikipedia quoting someone else: “”Grass” was a term given by publishers to works of minor value, and “leaves” is another name for the pages on which they were printed.” Hong’s Grass too is made up of stories of seemingly minor value, exchanges and conversations that are variations on theme Hong has been working with for over twenty years now, losing some value perhaps in their repetition.

But I also think about the title in relation to Carl Sandberg and his poem of the same name. That poem is specifically about death, about the dead men of Austerlitz, Waterloo, Gettysburg and Verdun, shoveled under and covered by grass.  The final lines I think give a new perspective to our Hongian short stories, perhaps shedding some light on Kim Minhee’s role in the film:

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Kim sits in her café, like us overhearing various Hongian conversations, about love gone wrong and suicide and horny actors trying to convince women to let them stay with them for a few days. She takes in the stories and writes. . . something. We don’t know what. She could be writing the characters themselves (twenty years of Hong has taught us to expect that kind of thing) or she could just be writing what she thinks about them. Or she could be inspired by their stories to create new ones of her own. She covers them all, if they’d just let her work.

I suppose I’m getting ahead of where we should be in trying to review this film, but it’s such an unusual work that it’s hard to talk about it as a linearly progressing narrative. It has that, a story of a day in the life of a café and the people who hang around there, each with their own little story arc and unique interaction with Kim’s own. It’s basically a network narrative, along the lines of Robert Altman, but Altman’s cynical coldness (which Hong adopted frequently, especially in his early work) is leavened by the film’s raw emotionality and its omnipresent score, dominated by long stretches of the lush romanticism of Schubert and Wagner. In its circularity, an essential feature of Altman’s network stories (and as opposed to, say, Richard Linklater’s), the film invites increasingly mystical readings. The café could be a way station in the afterlife, it could be a fictional construct of a writer dealing with her own issues (perhaps she had a friend or lover recently commit suicide?), or it could just be an ordinary café. As is usual with Hong, I end up deciding that it is all those things (and more) at the same time.

EM: I like the idea of the café as afterlife—and in that way your citation of Sandberg might not be so far off. There’s one telling line of dialogue that really stuck out to me. The oldest actor, who appears to be recovering from a deep bout of depression, mentions an attempt to take his own life: “after my suicide I didn’t drink much.” It might be a consequence of translation, but to me that particular phrasing implies that the man who speaks the line may already be dead. But, as you suggest, Hong is too protean an artist, too resistant to metaphor, to allow for a reading that thuddingly literary. To allude to Whitman again, there are always multitudes.

In a great interview that CinemaScope ran a few years back, Hong drew a weird little sketch with the caption “infinite worlds possible,” and though he’s played with repetition and narrative branching before, I do wonder if Grass realizes that principle most fully: instead of his oft-used this-then-that structure, which is multivalent but still fundamentally linear, Grass seems to hover between worlds, never committing to one or the other. The overwhelming sense here is one of simultaneity. I’m thinking of something as simple as that first pan from a couple in the café to Kim, who is also in the café but near the window, just off-screen. The way Hong shoots the interior of the café prevents us from obtaining a complete understanding of the space: it’s always segmented into this table or that table, this couple or that couple. So when he initially cuts from Kim contemplating her writing to a man and a woman speaking, one naturally assumes that these are her fictional creations, that we’ve moved onto a different narrative plane. But after a few minutes of chatter, Hong casually tracks over to Kim, and two worlds, previously understood to be apart, are fused together. When taken in combination with the wall-to-wall music (which I’m glad you mentioned; it’s integral to the emotional texture of the film) moments like this create a sense of the film rising and converging, a crescendo effect prolonged until the final moments.

That effect is also an essential feature of the network film; the movements of a dozen roundelays suddenly click together. Though I wasn’t thinking of Altman. The Rivette of Haut bas fragile and Va savoir came to mind: actors swirling around a central location, lives bleeding into fiction, and the bar or café transformed into a theater (what is a writer doing in a café if not performing the act of writing?). And there’s nothing more Rivettian in Hong’s body of work than that sequence which comes about halfway through Grass, where one of the women appears to achieve some kind of breakthrough (or maybe it’s a breakfrom: from the network of couples, from the café, from the fiction) by traversing a staircase over and over again. She begins the scene frustrated but ends, after much physical exertion, elated and smiling. In its trajectory from anger to some kind of bliss, it functions as a perfect synecdoche for the film.

SG: You know I love that sequence, one of the most singular in all of Hong’s work. Like the piggyback ride in Hahaha it’s a wholly unexpected physical expression of an unnameable feeling, but even more abstract, because we know so little about that woman. We’d met her earlier: she’s a writer with whom the director from Claire’s Camera is hoping to work. They form the third of the three couples we meet in the café. She rebuffs his advances, and he moves on to make a similar offer to Kim herself (the first character to actually interact with her), while the writer goes away (she says she has to meet. . . her boyfriend? I forget). We don’t see her again until sometime later, after the events in the restaurant, right? In that strange interlude after the mood of the film has turned its sourest (the interrogation scene and Kim’s fight with her brother)? But then, with her repeated climbing and descending, as her mood changes so does that of the film. Kim undergoes something similar: walking back to the café she hears a song, some kind of folk pop song coming from somewhere. She walks past and it diminishes, then she walks back toward it and it grows louder. We don’t know what happens next, Hong elides it, but when we’re back in the café everything has changed. It’s like the movie is wholly uninterested in traditional narrative trajectory (the this-then-that you refer to), rather trying to capture the rising and falling (and vice versa) feeling of music itself. Never has a Hong film been so structured by mood.

At the same time, its building blocks are the typical Hongian games of repetition. All three men in the café are actors, though at different stages of life and career. Three women are asked by a man if he can live with them for awhile. There are three suicides, two successful (or maybe three, if this is the afterlife). There are three writers (counting Kim). All the conversations are standard Hong table shots, except one. That one, what I’ve been calling the “interrogation scene”, is one of the more intense conversations of Hong’s career, as raw as the opening fight in Yourself and Yours but much more cruel. It’s not a table shot, but rather a long over-the-shoulder one of a man questioning a woman he thinks contributed to their mutual friend’s suicide (by inducing him to drink too much). The camera holds on her face for a long time, we never see his. But the most unusual thing is when it pans away from them to the wall, where we see the man’s shadow speaking while any trace of the woman has been erased. It may be the most horrifying thing Hong has ever shot, and that’s including the bloody finale of The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well.

EM: Why is that “interrogation scene” so upsetting? The narrative material is well-trod ground, so it must be a consequence of that pan to the wall that you highlight, which is almost a mirror image of the earlier pan to Kim in the café: instead of fusing two worlds, it tears them apart. A form of erasure, as you suggest. Or maybe it’s that over-the-shoulder framing: at some point in the movie one of the actors jokes that “it feels like we’re being observed” and there’s a way in which Hong’s constricted compositions throughout amplify the general air of surveillance. The “standard table shot” you refer to typically balances the performers across the center of the frame. Hong isn’t aiming for Premingerian objectivity, I don’t think, but his customary approach deploys none of the film grammar which typically signals perspective. But this film does. Given Kim’s role as outsider looking in, as a potential artificer weaving fiction from what she sees, the film’s attention to the act of watching—and being watched—seems essential to its final purpose.

Which brings me back to my claim that Grass arrives, ultimately, at a place of renewal. The network of couples end up back in the café—or just outside, in the case of Kim’s brother and his girlfriend—for another night of reminisces. Kim initially hovers back, as she has done throughout, apart and alone, but after sharing a smoke outside with one of the men she finally joins the group. The writer brought back into the fold of life. Grass features, arguably, more plot than any Hong since the ‘90s. But all the incident is there just to bring us to this one moment: inviting Kim to join in on a classic Hong table shot. Only Hong could conceive of a movie in which something as simple as sitting down at a café table seems to lighten the weight of all the world’s loneliness.

Friday March 9 – Thursday March 15

Featured Film:

Before We Vanish at the Grand Illusion

We didn’t get the great Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s last feature, the moody French mystery Daguerrotype, which only came out on DVD. But the Grand Illusion has his latest, an alien invasion film about an advance team of extra-terrestrials taking human form and attempting to learn all they can about people by telepathically removing certain concepts from our brains. Genuinely weird and off-beat, it’s equal parts satire and sap, and a lot more besides.

Playing This Week:

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

Terrifier (Damien Leone) Thurs Only

Central Cinema:

The Great Muppet Caper (Jim Henson, 1981) Fri-Tues
Set It Off (F. Gary Gray, 1996) Fri-Tues

SIFF Egyptian:

A Fantastic Woman (Sebastian Lelio) Fri-Mon, Weds & Thurs

Century Federal Way:

Laung Laachi (Amberdeep Singh) Fri-Thurs

Grand Cinema:

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Paul McGuigan) Fri-Thurs
The Party (Sally Potter) Fri-Thurs
Animation Show of Shows (Various) Tues Only
The Women’s Balcony (Emil Ben-Shimon) Thurs Only

Grand Illusion Cinema:

Before We Vanish (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) Fri-Thurs Our Review
November (Rainer Sarnet) Fri-Thurs
Blond Fury (Various) Sat Only VHS
Saturday Secret Matinee: Atomic Monsters Sat Only 16mm

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety (Luv Ranjan) Fri-Thurs
Ye Mantram Vesave (Shridhar Marri) Fri-Thurs
Pari (Prosit Roy) Fri-Thurs
Aamhi Doghi (Pratima Joshi) Sun Only
Tagaru (Duniya Soori) Sat & Sun Only

Northwest Film Forum:

Western (Valeska Grisebach) Fri-Sun Our Review
Above & Beyond: Giving Up the Day Job (Paul Dugdale) Fri-Sun
Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980) Sat Only 35mm, Members Only
Vintage: Families of Value (Thomas Allen Harris, 1995) Sat Only
12 Days (Raymond Depardon) Weds & Thurs Only
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson) Starts Thurs

AMC Oak Tree:

Operation Red Sea (Dante Lam) Fri-Thurs Our Review

AMC Pacific Place:

Detective Chinatown 2 (Chen Sicheng) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Operation Red Sea (Dante Lam) Fri-Thurs  Our Review

AMC Seattle:

The Party (Sally Potter) Fri-Thurs

Seattle Art Museum:

Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966) Thurs Only

SIFF Film Center:

Big Time (Kaspar Astrup Schröder) Fri Only
Step Up to the Plate (Paul Lacoste, 2011) Weds Only

SIFF Uptown:

Animation Show of Shows (Various) Fri-Thurs
2018 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts (Various) Fri-Thurs
2018 Oscar Nominated Live-Action Shorts (Various) Fri-Thurs
The Party (Sally Potter) Fri-Thurs

Varsity Theatre:

Submission (Richard Levine) Fri-Thurs

In Wide Release:

Annihilation (Alex Garland) Our Review
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler) Our Review
Fifty Shades Freed (James Foley) Our Review
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson) Our Review
The Post (Steven Spielberg) Our Review
The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson) Our Review Our Podcast
The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro) Our Review
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig) Our Review
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh) Our Review

Before We Vanish (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2017)

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The latest film from one of the most interesting directors in the world right now is playing at the Grand Illusion for week starting this Friday. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of such key Japanese horror films as Pulse and Cure, as well as award-winning dramas like Tokyo Sonatawas last seen here at SIFF in 2016 with Creepy, though his Daguerrotype was also released on VOD last fall. The new one is a science-fiction film about an alien invasion, and while its conclusion veers dangerously close to sappy, the path it takes to get there is anything but.

The aliens’ scout team consists of three “people” who take over the bodies of a trio of Japanese people: a teenage girl, a young man and an older married man. Before the invasion can begin, they have to learn everything they can about the people of Earth, but language gets in the way so the aliens have figured out a way to steal “conceptions”, the preverbal ideas which are the Platonic forms of things like “family”, “work”, “ownership”, etc, directly out of human’s heads. This has the unfortunate side-effect of completely removing the concept from the victim, leaving them forever without any conception of self or otherness or what have you.

In theory this amount to a kind of philosophical state of nature experiment, wherein you remove these basic ideas from our understanding of the world to see how we behave and what kind of society we’d build. The aliens have no understanding of these concepts until they take them, and we can see their behavior change when they learn what family is, for example, which ultimately contributes to their downfall. They enlist two “guides” along their way: the married man’s wife, who honestly likes him a lot better once he’s possessed by a malevolent creature from beyond the stars, and a tabloid journalist from a weekly news magazine, who agrees to help the aliens in hopes of staying alive long enough to thwart their plans, though his run-ins with the government forces pursuing the same goal and reexamination of his own life see him wavering in his loyalty to humanity.

Kurosawa’s direction is crisp and fluid, with snaking long takes, eerily upbeat music and unexpected cuts giving everything a comic, off-kilter vibe that meshes nicely with the film’s not quite satirical, not quiet earnest message. There’s even a healthy dose of violence and mayhem to keep things moving. A genuinely weird, light, and funny movie, a perfect tonic after all the dreary self-importance of recent Hollywood science-fiction.

I Was Born, But: Nobuhiko Obayashi and Japan’s Lost Children

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Nobuhiko Obayashi is most famous in this country for a film about a house that eats the young.

In Japan, Obayashi is known for his films that celebrate the laze and haze and promise of youth in its natural season, summer. These are his furusato—or hometown—movies, as he calls them: films conceived in close consultation with their locales, suffused with the particular light of a place or its singular air, where the action is as much determined by the ungainly curve of an ancient street as it is by the generic demands of the youth film. Familiar adolescent conflicts are there, and occasionally inflected with a touch of the supernatural—as in his great body swap comedy Exchange Students—but they are always enveloped and nurtured by the real communities in which these young people live. Summer is, then, Obayashi’s natural season too: when the heat ticks up childhood spills out into the streets, all the better for detailing the public spaces where communities educate their children through performance, ritual, and, importantly for Obayashi, festivals. In His Motorbike, Her Island a young man falls in love on summer vacation, with an island first, a young woman second. When she takes him home, the joyous dancing at a local festival puzzles him. Isn’t this festival to honor the dead? Yes, she tells him. They dance for the people who were born, lived, and died on this island.

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