SIFF 2016: Long Way North (Rémi Chayé, 2015)

Sacha face on

In his feature debut, artist and director Rémi Chayé, with screenwriters  Claire Paoletti and Patricia Valeix, brings us the animated story of a 19th century Russian girl, the 14 year-old Sacha, whose aristocratic parents’ hopes for her are that she live up to her status as a “real young lady” and appease the political status quo with a suitable marriage. Sacha, however, her childhood imagination set fire by  the stories from her seafaring, explorer grandfather, hasn’t much use for the balls and gowns of fine ladies. Her heart is set on seeking out this same grandfather, declared to be lost at sea in an expedition to the North Pole, but who, she believes, is still waiting for rescue. The story follows her path after she runs away from parents and her St. Petersburg home, and, applying her wits, her navigational knowledge, and her courage in a societal context that doesn’t expect much self-sufficiency from any girl, much less an aristocratic one, she eventually finds a passage on a northbound ship, where Sacha and the crew face the dangerous cold, crushing ice floes, and their own fears and conflicts.

Sacha’s sturdy character is a delight in a film landscape where female characters rarely take center stage, and she recalls the vibrant characters my daughters and I love so much in the Ghibli studio oeuvre: Chihuro of Spirited Away; Satsuki of My Neighbor Totoro; Sheeta of Castle in the Sky; Kiki; Arrietty; Nausicaä. While there is a slight nod to a possible love interest in Sacha’s story, the primary focus has very little to do with her male peers and much more to do with the adventures her deep convictions and life passions bring her. Sacha grows up on her journey north, her understanding of the world, of herself and her capabilities deepening through what she encounters and through those she meets, boys, men, and women alike. In fact, Olga, a gruff and kindly innkeeper, is perhaps the character with whom Sacha has the deepest connection and from whom she learns the most.

Continue reading “SIFF 2016: Long Way North (Rémi Chayé, 2015)”

SIFF 2016: Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015)

measuring suzo

Our Little Sister tracks a gentle arc, where drama develops through quotidian domesticity, gradually deepening emotion, small personal revelations. Hirokazu Kore-eda dares, in an age of superheroes, to believe audiences want to see something as simple as sisters sharing a series of meals, making family recipes, scratching a height measurement in a door-frame. He trusts these things carry emotional weight that will wrap viewers into the film’s world and hold them. In this slow accumulation of delicate specificity, tastes, and textures, is a gift: a celebration of the very fabric of being.

Our Little Sister screens for the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival at SIFF Cinema Uptown on May 21 and May 22.  (Note: Full review to be published when Our Little Sister opens for its Seattle theatrical run in July.) 

Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier, 2015)


“The best weapons are the stories, and every time the story is told, something changes. There are no photographs to be introduced as evidence[.]”

“All we can depend on are slow-motion replays of our lives.”
                                                                          ~Sherman Alexie, “Captivity”

Joachim Trier, in his newest and third feature film, is interested in story-telling and in the peculiar power of stories, a theme he explores by way of a particular family, a man and his two sons, struggling with the loss of a wife and mother.  Each survivor constructs and reconstructs their memories of the dead woman, reconstructions that reveal the particular viewpoints and obsessions of each, perhaps more than they reveal the woman’s own story and identity, for each character, we see, is adrift in his own life, alienated and unsure, and the reach back to the past, to the memories of this woman, is a way of coping with the present, a way of constructing a sense of self.  Continue reading Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier, 2015)”

Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)

Bale stairs

Here, Sisyphus meets John Bunyan’s Christian.

Or something like that.

Terrence Malick, for me, is a bit like T. S. Eliot, a forager through resonant, mythic fragments, pieced together into something that, while offering a reader a whole Thing and an often intensely emotional experience, also spins that reader off into multiple directions at once.

With something like “The Hollow Men,” for example, I first trace the Fisher King threads, and then I follow a Dante and Beatrice path, and then I’m sent to re-think Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, and then to grasp at remnants from Julius Caesar. All of these literary references are in “The Hollow Men,” and knowing them enriches my experience of the poem. But then, I also find that the poem works on a level that doesn’t seem to need any particular literary knowledge. Many of my students who’ve never read any of those other works love Eliot’s wasteland vision, those hollow whispering men; they can take the line “not with a bang but a whimper” and savor it. Just for itself. That line reaches directly into the feelings.

And so there’s meaning and there’s meaning and there’s meaning. Eliot is someone I will read my whole life and still find dark corners – that will very suddenly light up. Even Eliot himself, when a reader noted that he must have taken the “shadow” lines in “Hollow Men” from a poem by Ernest Dowson, agreed, “This derivation had not occurred in my mind, but I believe it to be correct, because the lines… have always run in my head.” It delights me to understand that even an artist cannot know everything contained in their own work. Eliot was an artist who was a receptacle who then poured himself into his work, at a conscious and unconscious level.

Malick is like that, I think, an artist, giving himself to his work utterly, and the result is a rich work that grows only richer. It is a richness that will make watching and re-watching and re-watching his films a life-long pleasure.  Continue reading Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)”

Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

Mustang girls in car

“Are you afraid?” said the North Wind.

“No!” she wasn’t.

                –“East of the Sun and West of the Moon”

It might be tempting to read Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s beautifully confident feature film debut, Mustang (France’s official entry to the Academy Awards), exclusively as a portrait of the situation women face in Turkey today.  The situation, while it should  continue to concern those interested in in women’s rights , however, is too complex to be contained by a film that traces the story of one family of daughters in one part of Turkey, and I do not believe Erguven’s film should be, or is even intended to be, reduced to an examination of the particular issues faced just by women in the filmmaker’s own country, however much the story is, in fact, inspired by her experiences there and by her concern for Turkish women. She has noted  for example, that the inciting incident at the film’s beginning is one very similar to an episode in her own childhood, and she has also said that she “put many . . . stories that I heard in Turkey into the film.”

So while the film is, certainly, culturally specific in significant ways, it reads more as a fairy tale or a folk tale than as a slice of life story.  As such, its themes resonate as much for me, an American woman, as they might for anyone. Folk tales invite us to consider direct applications for the readers, and here, viewers might do the same, apply and identify. The five sisters at the center of the story and living at the edge of the Black Sea are very much like the sisters you might find in the Norwegian tales of East of the Sun and West of the Moon  collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe, a book, gorgeously illustrated by Kay Nielsen, that I grew up with and pored over, and, embracing any hints of fantastical Other, identified with.

Three Princesses of Blue Mountain

Continue reading Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)”

45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

Kate Geoff bathroom

(This review is a revised version of an earlier review for Seattle Screen Scene.)

Like his 2011 feature, Weekend, Andrew Haigh, in his newest film, 45 Years, places us inside the circle of intimacy of one particular couple. Here, though, it examines a long-standing relationship, a marriage of 45 years, rather than a new one. This couple is established, rooted in an easy routine of closeness, rooted in a shared identity. That identity, however, as the film begins, is suddenly in question, and over the course of one week, Haigh examines the assumptions about identity and relationship through the lens of the small, private gestures of domesticity.  Continue reading 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)”

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)

green dress mirrors

“I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
 Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet”
              ~John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”

Time shifts and slips, and the past is a thing of soft veils and refracted reflections, three of you, two of me, then none, only the round white face of the clock and the sound of your voice, my voice. I can’t reach you there, at the edges of my mind; you slip from view.

But in the now, a sudden scent presses the bright deep color of your dress, the shape of your hip, a white clasp at the dip in your neck, into my vision, filling it. A green dress with bright yellow daffodils, impossibly vivid. Could you have been so beautiful?

The streets of the teeming city were empty then, only you and I were there, there in the rain, under the bulb, there in the passage on the stairs. Our shadows pass along those walls, where paper notices tatter, fade, and are smoothly absorbed into the place on which they were glued. The rain soaks us, pounds the pavement; water seeps down into the earth, the water stands in clear pools. It disappears, leaving blackness; it reflects, leaving shimmers of light.

I can feel the press in the hallway, packed with furniture, movers. Was it there I first felt the press of your arm? Or in the cab? Your fingers slip out of my grasp, leaving their warm fading print.

I wait for you. You wait for me. Memory, shrouded and alive, floats in red, graceful curtains in the long deserted passage.

I whisper this fleeting, lingering thing into the ancient ruins, where boldly soaring arches and disintegrating figures in stone relief, settle into the earth, growing into the grass and mud.

grass muc

VIFF 2015: The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)

the assassin

Hou Hsiao-hsien structures his new film, The Assassin, as a sort of once upon a time tale. It begins with narration, a mix of the historical and the mythic, and I am at once immersed in a dream-like tale that will, indeed, haunt my memory, just as history and myth so often do, becoming reference points in my present, even when I am not consciously aware of their influence.

It is ninth century China, and political struggle infects the kingdom. The royal court fears a strong, militarized outer province, Weibo; too much delegated power is a threat to the court’s own strength. Weibo, with a century of nearly complete self-governance, fears a reduction in its autonomy. It is a struggle that absorbs everyone.

And yet within this kingdom, there is a mother who tells another story, the story of a single bird. Caged and alone, the bird sits silent, a small stranger in the human world around it, unable to sing to those so unlike itself. Its human keepers feel compassion for it and give it a mirror. Recognizing something like itself, it sings a song of sadness. It dances, and then it dies.

Continue reading “VIFF 2015: The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)”

VIFF 2015: Domestic Intimacies: Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, 2015) and 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

Maria and MotherGeoff sitting with Kate

Human, and faced with a sea of things, images, stories, characters, all bobbing this way and that, slipping and sliding away from me, I seek some rope to grasp, a line that might form for me a connection between the things. And if I can only pull that line taut, I might be able to stay above the waves and see a pattern in the flotsam.

It isn’t really flotsam, of course, that wave of films I found my fest-inexperienced self submerged beneath at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.  Each film in itself is a unique, individual thing, only forced, by necessity into a mass. And we should be used, in any case, to consuming art in the mass, collective form – in a museum, in an anthology – curated and then presented to us as somehow related objects.  Even if we pick our way through an anthology or skip rather guiltily past the 13th century wing of the museum and make straight for the Impressionists, we are still aware of all of these disparate things gathered together under an umbrella of a particular Thing, and, invited to do so, the pattern seeking mind all the more eagerly links themes, ideas, modes, shapes, colors.

Artists, of course, do not live in a vacuum, and their works may be, certainly, drawing from other works, even without conscious intent. Still, it would be difficult to say 8th century Chinese landscapes were drawing any influence from Byzantine frescoes. And yet, place such a set of landscapes next to a few frescoes, I’d surely spot a pattern. I can’t help it; I put them together, and the one will converse with the other.

And so, while yet understanding the potential folly of such conjunctions and conversations, I can’t help but make them and hope that such a convergence will illuminate the individual objects themselves.

Jayro Bustamante’s Guatemalan film, Ixcanul, has very little in common with Andrew Haigh’s thoroughly British film, 45 Years, and yet, as the VIFF programming gods would have it, I saw them back to back on a Saturday afternoon early this October, and they nestle comfortably together in my mind, chapter 1 and chapter 2 in a little anthology of Domestic Intimacies.   Continue reading “VIFF 2015: Domestic Intimacies: Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, 2015) and 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)”

Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

Moss laughing with finger in mouth

“My face hurts.”

“My face hurts all the time.”

Alex Ross Perry, in his new film, Queen of Earth, trains his camera on faces – and on interior and exterior spaces – in such a way that these faces and spaces take on an alien quality. The women’s faces are beautiful; the outdoor world location – shimmering water, sunlit leaves – is breathtaking; the rooms inside the film’s vacation home setting are spare and pleasing. But in the same way that a horror film might take a very mundane, ordinary space and fill it with inexplicable Otherness and dread, Perry’s efforts accomplish a similar effect. A lovely face, an ordinarily refreshing lake, a tastefully refined home – these all set my teeth on edge, or, at least, disrupt my usual sense of their essence. If horror is often a startling, unsettling defamiliarization of the everyday, then Perry’s film is that – and he uses discordant music, odd camera angles, and lingeringly long takes to achieve a sense of horror.  But comedy might be described in a similar way – for it sets something very ordinary in a new, surprising frame – and the thing becomes ridiculous, even hilarious. Queen of Earth straddles that line between horror and comedy delightfully, making it something like black comedy but evading that definition just enough – perhaps because there is a certain poignancy running through it all – to make it one of the most unique film experiences of the year. Continue reading Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)”