SIFF 2017: Finding Kukan (Robin Lung, 2016)

Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott

Finding Kukan, a feature film debut from Robin Lung, is a documentary that tells the story of one of the first documentaries to win an Academy Award, Kukan: The Battle Cry of China (1941). Positioned in China and operating from a Chinese perspective, a perspective unknown to most white Americans at the time, Kukan aimed at documenting the Chinese experience of World War II and was noted on its initial release for its stunning ground level footage of the devastating bombing of Chungking (now Chongqing). Photojournalist Rey Scott received the Oscar for the film -“For his extraordinary achievement in producing Kukan, the film record of China’s struggle, including its photography with a 16mm camera under the most difficult and dangerous conditions” – but Lung, as she tells us in her documentary, discovered another person central to the creation of Kukan, a person who had gone essentially overlooked: a Chinese-American woman named Li Ling-Ai.

Li Ling-Ai is credited only as “technical advisor” to Kukan, but, as Lung discovers from a 1993 TV interview, Li Ling-Ai seemed to regard the film as her own, a story she herself, not Rey Scott, needed to tell: “I wanted to tell the story of China, the battle cry of the people of China, heroic under suffering.” It’s a curious way to speak about a film for which one is only “technical advisor.” Was she, in fact, more than the technical advisor?

For Lung, the mystery of Li Ling-Ai’s involvement demanded solving, and it set her on what would be a seven year journey. The content of Kukan, Lung quickly found, too, promised to be, in itself, extraordinary, and its print history made the content all the more tantalizing, for, as documentary curator Ed Carter notes, it is the only academy award winning documentary without an extant print. Consequently, Lung’s film and the search her film documents is guided by two questions: 1) who is Li Ling-Ai and why is she so little known, and 2) is there, in fact, some surviving print of Kukan yet to be discovered that might be restored and shown to the world?   Continue reading

SIFF 2017: Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell, 2016)

Outsider status in gymnI long for the land that isn’t
For all that is I’m tired of wanting

Sami Blood, Sami-Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell’s debut feature, opens on a black screen and the sound of a lonely, whistling wind. Then, a knocking, as the introductory credits, white on black, appear, and a man’s voice: “Mom?” More knocking. The same voice: “Christina?” The first image appears, an elderly woman, alone, in close-up profile, lighting a cigarette, looking out a window, ignoring the voice. It’s a haunted space with that blackness, the wind, the disembodied voice, and the woman, turned away, hiding from both the voice of her son and our public prying eyes. It’s a space that sets the stage for the film to follow, the story of the girl who becomes that woman, a woman who is, indeed, haunted, hiding, and alienated from those closest to her and from the larger world, too, a world, she fears, might stare at her too much and too long.

Christina

In the opening scenes, the elderly Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), reluctantly guided by her son and accompanied by her granddaughter, attends the funeral of her long estranged sister. It is a Sámi funeral, following the traditions of that complex and internally diverse people group indigenous to Sweden, and it is clear that Christina, living in Swedish dress and speaking the Swedish language, feels deeply uncomfortable within the Sámi community. She speaks to no one and even shields her face with her hand while she sits silently at the post-funeral meal, away from her son and granddaughter, who are eating and talking with ease with those around them. The intimacy of family-community bonds juxtaposed with the individual isolation of Christina, separate and silent, is what strikes us most immediately. It is one thing to feel alone among strangers, wholly another to be alone among kin. Continue reading

The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

the-lure-club

“What is that fishy smell?”

Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature film functions as a pastiche of “The Little Mermaid,” but it comes to us by way of smoky cabaret clubs of a Warsaw in the 80’s, New Wave synthpop music videos, and the queasy glamour of capitalistic excess. It’s a gritty fairy tale of slyly telepathic sister-mermaids whose siren calls satisfy carnivorous tastes – until one sister falls in love with her prey, and their world and their sisterly bond begins to disintegrate.

It’s more grim Grimm than gentle Hans Christian Andersen: no swift and bloodless magic here, just buzzing grinding surgeon’s tools, human legs and mermaid tails on beds of ice. But the surgeon drunkenly dances and the mermaid sings until her voice wheezes dry, and I remember I always did prefer the intoxicating horror of Grimm to Andersen anyway.

Does it all add up to a fairy tale moral or even a thematically cohesive whole? I’m not sure it does, but it does fully commit to its individual scenes: carnal, sordid, crunchy, or sexy, and like the immersive quality of a vivid dream, its overall sensations linger, far into the waking hours.

 mermaid-on-ice

The Lure plays at Grand Cinema on February 24 and 25. 

(Note: This review is adapted from my notes on 5/25/16 on Letterboxd.) 

Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, 2015)

ixcanul_01

(This review was originally published in 2015 as a part of the Vancouver Film Festival coverage.)

Ixacanul opens on a young woman’s passive form and impassive face. Her name is Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), and her mother (María Telón) dresses her and then smooths, parts, and plaits her hair, securing a crown-like garland upon her head. The two Mayan women, alone together in their home, near a volcano, an ixcanul, in a remote region of Guatemala, both absorbed and silent in the exclusive intimacy of their shared activity, indicate that they inhabit a world with which they are familiar, and I am not. I guess, as I first look at them, that Maria is not quite happy to be so taken in hand by her mother – or perhaps she is not quite happy with the event, unknown as yet to me, for which she is being prepared. Continue reading

Kensho at the Bedfellow (Brad Raider, 2016)

bedfellow

Kensho at the Bedfellow, the feature debut film, starring, and written and directed by, Brad Raider, opens with a bang. A literal bang. And a cat. A towering, talking puppet cat, who, when the man we will come to know as our main character, Dan (Raider), staggering, asks, “Is this a dream?”, answers, “It’s an opportunity – to know thyself.”  It seems preposterous, of course: what can an over-sized puppet with whiskers have to say about the ontological questions of the self? And on another, more meta, level, a cinema-goer, in the age of slickly immersive computer graphics and special effects, might ask, why am I sitting here looking at a stuffed animal, creakily moving its pretend mouth? Something like Falkor, the Luckdragon, from The Neverending Story, certainly has its place in a children’s movie, in fondly nostalgic memory, or in the evolution of visual effects, but now? This kind of thing in 2016 in a film for adults?

The very audaciousness and seeming ridiculousness of such an opening prepares us for the journey and tone of the film, winding as it does down unexpected paths and embracing both playfulness and seriousness. Even further, the opening gets at the heart the film’s central questions: who am I and why am I here, and how can art – which might not look like life but like only a crude, perhaps silly, representation of life – have anything to say to those fundamental questions of self?

The film explores these questions as it follows a few days in the New York City life of Dan, a one-hit wonder playwright turned Bedfellow hotel doorman, an appropriate career for a man who cannot decide where he belongs and who does not really have a home but co-opts the bed  and apartment of a long-suffering friend who gets only promises, not rent-money.   Dan’s habit of taking freely from his friends extends into other parts of his life as well: borrowing from his own body’s health, he consumes diet pills and gorges on desserts; carelessly using the women around him – a woman staying at the Bedfellow, a troubled ex-girlfriend – he takes sex and the women’s emotional investment as his right, leaving them behind when convenient. Continue reading

Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015)

vlcsnap-2016-05-13-13h45m07s90

At the center of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister is a house, and in the garden of the house is a plum tree. It is an old tree; generations of the family have seen it blossom and bear fruit, season by season. It is a tree at the heart of a house tradition, too, the making, storing, and consuming of umeshu, a sweet and sour green plum liqueur that is allowed to ripen to perfection over nine months beneath the floorboards. The family members prick their initials into the plums and these sit, soaking, as uniquely individual parts of the collective brew.

A family. A messy, powerful organism and a thing that Kore-eda, over the course of his film career, has continued to explore and expose, its raw bitternesses and its loving tendernesses. In earlier films, like Nobody Knows, heartbreak and tragedy are the centers of feeling; in more recent films, like I Wish, buoyant, infectious hope permeates. Our Little Sister tends towards the warmth of these latter films, and like the joyous, crucial moment of the speeding train in I Wish, there is a similarly ebullient defining moment in Our Little Sister, where two children on a bike fly through an avenue of blooming cherries.

Continue reading

Swiss Army Man (Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, 2016)

hank and manny on beach

(NOTE: I also reviewed this film with Adam Kempenaar on the Filmspotting podcast, when I was a guest host for the show. You can take a listen here.) 

It isn’t a new idea, the idea that mental health and happiness are related to accepting yourself as you are. We could reference Free To Be You and Me, that album of the 70’s that challenged gender norms and promoted a celebration of individuality –

Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll run
To a land where the river runs free
To a land through the green country
 . . .
 To a land where the children are free
 And you and me are free to be

Don’t be afraid, the song encourages children. There’s no shame in anything that you are. Just be yourself. Celebrate that.

It’s a message that you can find everywhere now.  Children’s movies, in particular, often contain some version of this idea. If you have short term memory loss like Dory in Finding Dory, if you’re a bunny like Judy Hopps in Zootopia, you are still just as important, just as valuable as anybody else.

In Swiss Army Man, the debut feature film from Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, we have a return to this essential kind of story and these themes. It centers on a man called Hank (Paul Dano), who can’t live with himself anymore. He’s alone, literally and figuratively. He feels bad about life, he feels bad about himself. He feels like “broken,” “dirty,” “trash.” He lacks the courage to seek out a relationship with the woman he admires. He’s ashamed of his desires and his own corporeal reality. And that’s his basic problem. He can’t stand himself and his disgusting body and “weird,” disgusting self.  The film’s journey is, then, about the way he struggles with coming to terms with himself and all of the weird, gross, socially unacceptable bits.

So far, so good.  And so far, a lot like something we’ve seen or heard before.

The film has received attention though for the conceit it employs to tell its story. You’ve probably heard about it already: it’s the farting corpse movie.  The story isolates Hank in the wilderness and gives him a dead body for a companion (Daniel Radcliffe), a companion whose most socially uncomfortable bodily functions take center stage. It is through his interactions with this embarrassing corpse, whose name is Manny, and a very literal dealing with bodily functions, that Hank has to face himself. In Manny, he sees his corporeal, death-fated human reality, and ultimately, must decide, whether or not he will reject it or embrace it. Continue reading

Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

 women in underwear

“You ever have a girl screw you out of a job?”
“Yes.”
“What did you do?”
“I ate her.”

Early in Nicholas Winding Refn’s new film, Neon Demon, Jesse (Elle Fanning), a pretty young hopeful from the Midwest and a new arrival to L.A, walks back to her room, down the long balcony corridor of the seedy Pasadena motel where she’s staying. The lighting is lurid, the corridor horribly dark, and when Jesse arrives at her door and the grungy looking lock sticks, an initial feeling of unease rises to panic. Finally force opening the door, she feels for the light, switches it on. Only it doesn’t switch on, and we sense Something is waiting for her in her room. It thuds and moves, and Jesse screams and flees, back down the dark passage. She arrives at a hotel manager’s metal-mesh screen door and cries out for help. A dark, indiscernible figure appears behind the screen, and instead of the relief of the presence of another human being, here, it seems, is another threat. Even when the manager’s figure shifts into the light and we see his face, the menace does not lessen. Hank (Keanu Reeves) leers at Jesse, and when he finally yells for a friend, and the two men escort Jesse back to her room, we fear for her. The men hem her in as they walk, one going before her, one behind. The one in front casually rips away what looks like “Police Do Not Cross” tape. There’s a creeping horror, as we think, Jesse, this naïve innocent, must get out, must get away – and yet she walks on.

Jesse’s room, the three discover when they arrive, has been ransacked by a mountain lion; as the men beat the door open, breaking that sticking lock, the cat looms out of the darkness, a prowling lithe presence. Hank, infuriated, blames Jesse for the destruction of her room. She, he insists, brought the thing into the room. It’s a charge that is horribly unfair; Jesse, surely obviously, didn’t bring the cat into her room. She’s simply an unsophisticated Midwest girl who didn’t realize wild animals roam the hills around L.A., sometimes eating house cats or small pets left outside for the night. Maybe they even enter one’s home at times if a screen door is left open.  Poor Jesse. She doesn’t get it. Continue reading

SIFF 2016: Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015)

Chris's wedding song

I’ve heard the liltin at oor yowe-milkin,
Lassies a-liltin before break o day
Now there’s a moanin on ilka green loanin –
The Flooers o the Forest are a’ wede awa
 . . .
We hear nae mair liltin at oor yowe-milkin
Women and bairnies are heartless and wae
Sighin and moanin on ilka green loanin –
The Flooers of the Forest are a’ wede awa
            From “The Flooers of the Forest” (read in full and/or listen to the song here.)

At the center of Terence Davies’s new film, Sunset Song, adapted from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 book of the same title, is a wedding. It is a modest affair, a barn for its stage, humble farming folk its participants. It is a celebration of love, a communal joyful gathering, a candle-bright warm pocket in the middle of a dark, snowy New Year’s Eve. And when the bride, Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), sees the barn, prepared by her friends, she says, delighted, “It is like a picture book.” And it is.

In the midst of the merriment, the company calls for a song from the bride, and she sits at their center and sings. It is a sunset song, glowing in the deep colors of grief for the day that has gone, a song for the dead, a song of mourners. It is “Flooers of the Forest,” traditionally a tune played by pipers to commemorate those Scots lost in battle.  A strange choice, it might seem at first, for a wedding, but a choice that gets at the heart of this story, this place, this people, and at the heart of Chris herself. A mournful song is itself a thing of intrinsic paradox: the beauty of its words or music sit, impossibly, within the grief. The song might seem, to a strictly literal mind, to devalue the grief by the very beauty, and yet it is not a devaluation. The grief itself is more grievous, the deeper the beauty of the song. And so such a song defies the intellect, bowing to mystery. Continue reading

SIFF 2016: Under the Sun (Vitaly Mansky, 2015)

flags

“My father says Korea is the most beautiful country in the eastern part of the globe. Korea is the land of the Rising Sun.”

Granted rare access to North Korea, documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky follows the story of a young girl who joins the Children’s Union and prepares for the Day of the Sun, birthday of Kim Il-Sung, conqueror of the “American scoundrels.” Working around Korean handlers by filming before “Action!” is called or by lingering on drooping eyelids and fidgeting fingers, the camera captures extraordinary, unscripted moments. Such spontaneity, juxtaposed with the official Korean script that demands its subjects act “with joy” and “patriotism,” offers a complex, poignant portrait of life in a rigid regime.

fingers

Under the Sun screened at the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival.