SIFF 2019: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Stanley Nelson, 2019)

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Whatever film festival I cover, I always like to find time for a movie about music and/or dance. This year’s music movie is a biodoc about Miles Davis, produced for the PBS American Masters TV series. As such, in no way does it attempt to explore the limits of the form, or give us anything more than an illustrated history of its subject (unlike previous festival favorite art docs like Ballet 422 or any random Frederick Wiseman film). But its limitations being what they are, it’s a solid enough piece of work. A kind of Miles 101 for a general audience, distinguished by wall-to-wall music and excellent use of archival photographs and home movies.

We follow Davis’s life from birth to death, hitting all the musical high points along the way, and making time for the low points of his personal life as well (mainly drug and spousal abuse). First person narration is read in an imitation of Davis’s distinctive rasp by actor Carl Lumbly, repeating Davis’s words from interviews conducted by Quincy Troupe during their writing of Davis’s autobiography. Musical luminaries serve as talking heads, along with a few of Davis’s friends and wives and children. The film is at its best when it gets lost in the music, highlighting with ease what made Davis’s tone and style so uniquely special, ably distinguishing him from his peers in bebop and charting his evolution from post-war New York all the way through the 1980s. As much time is devoted to the later work as the early hits, which is nice to see for once in a music doc. So many tend to focus on a small slice of an artist’s work, Birth of the Cool embraces the whole of Miles Davis though.

And that includes his personal life, the failings in which the film does not excuse, though some of the interviewees might seem to do so. His second wife, Frances Taylor Davis, is the most affecting interview, recalling with equal poignance the good times and the bad ones. The question underlying it all–what do we as fans, as a society, do with a genius artist who does unequivocally bad things–is never really answered. I don’t know that it can be. I do know that Miles Davis, flaws and all, is probably the greatest American composer of the second half of the 20th century.

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Friday May 24 – Thursday May 30

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Featured Film:

SIFF Week Two

The Seattle International Film Festival rolls into its second week, and highlights include: Ying Liang’s semi-autobiographical A Family Tour; Mrs. Purple, Justin Chon’s follow-up to his popular debut feature Gook; No. 1 Chung Ying Street, Derek Chiu’s excellent film about two generations of protestors in Hong Kong; Pauline Kael documentary What She Said; Ida Lupino’s melodrama The Bigamist and her classic noir The Hitch-Hiker; Peter Strickland’s In Fabric; and Olivier Assayas’s very funny satire of upper-class literary twits, Non-Fiction.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

The White Crow (Ralph Fiennes) Fri-Thurs  

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 
The 2019 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program 

Central Cinema:

Predator (John McTiernan, 1987) Fri-Tues
Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997) Fri-Weds Dubbed and Subtitled, Check Listings 
Tales from Earthsea (Gorō Miyazaki, 2006) Weds Only Subtitled

SIFF Egyptian:

The 2019 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program 

Century Federal Way:

Chandigarh Amritsar Chandigarh (Karan R Guliani) Fri-Thurs 
Muklawa (Simerjit Singh) Fri-Thurs 

Grand Cinema:

Meeting Gorbachev (Werner Herzog) Fri-Thurs  
The Serengeti Rules (Nicolas Brown) Fri-Thurs 
Nureyev (David Morris, Jacqui Morris) Fri-Thurs 
The White Crow (Ralph Fiennes) Fri-Thurs  
Red Joan (Trevor Nunn) Fri-Thurs 
Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004) Sat Only Subtitled
Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) Sat Only 
Ask Dr. Ruth (Ryan White) Tues Only 
Iyengar: The Man, Yoga, and The Student’s Journey (Jake Clennell) Weds Only 
Satan & Adam (V. Scott Balcerek) Thurs Only 

Grand Illusion Cinema:

The Man who Killed Don Quixote (Terry Gilliam) Fri-Thurs 
The Wind (Emma Tammi) Fri-Thurs 
SMUT SHOW II: Peace, Love, and Hardcore Tues Only 16mm

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Maharshi (Vamsi Paidipally) Fri-Thurs 
The Biggest Little Farm (John Chester) Fri-Thurs 
De De Pyaar De (Akiv Ali) Fri-Thurs 
India’s Most Wanted (Raj Kumar Gupta) Fri-Thurs 
PM Narendra Modi (Omung Kumar) Fri-Thurs 
Sita (Anup Rubens) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Meridian:

The White Crow (Ralph Fiennes) Fri-Thurs 
Photograph (Ritesh Batra) Fri-Thurs 

Northwest Film Forum:

The Serengeti Rules (Nicolas Brown) Fri-Sun, Tues 
Travessias Brazilian Film Festival – Short Film Program Fri & Sat Only 
Scott Walker: 30th Century Man (Stephen Kijak, 2008) Sun Only 
Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith (Stuart A. Staples) Weds & Thurs Only 
Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra) Thurs Only 

AMC Pacific Place:

The Biggest Little Farm (John Chester) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Student of the Year 2 (Punit Malhotra) Fri-Thurs 
De De Pyaar De (Akiv Ali) Fri-Thurs 
The White Crow (Ralph Fiennes) Fri-Thurs 

AMC Seattle:

Photograph (Ritesh Batra) Fri-Thurs 

SIFF Film Center:

The 2019 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program 

SIFF Uptown:

The 2019 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program 

Varsity Theatre:

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 

SIFF 2019: Week One Preview

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Here are some of the movies we’re looking forward to this first week of the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival:

The Third Wife – The debut feature from Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair has been making the festival rounds to some acclaim. This period drama, about a young girl who gets married off to a wealthy landlord looks to have some Raise the Red Lantern vibes. Could be the second good Vietnamese movie to hit Seattle Screens this year, after Furie.

The Phantom of the Opera – SIFF’s archival program is one of the highlights of this year’s festival, and it kicks off with this silent version of Phantom starring Lon Chaney. I last saw this more than 20 years ago, on Halloween, in a gothic-style Catholic church in Spokane, where it was accompanied by the church organ. It was pretty cool. It plays here at the Egyptian, with a live score by indie band The Invincible Czars.

A Family Tour – Ying Liang’s mostly autobiographical film about a director who is exiled from China after she directed a movie that looks exactly like Ying’s 2012 film When Night Falls, which got him exiled from China. The director hasn’t seen her mother in years, but they arrange a meet-up during a film festival in Taiwan. A quiet, deeply sad movie about the personal consequences of abstract repression.

3 Faces – The latest from Jafar Panahi promises to be a clever bit of meta filmmaking from the Iranian director mostly famous here in the US for continuing to make movies despite being officially banned from doing so.

The Nightingale – Babadook director Jennifer Kent’s new film is a Western set in 19th Century Tasmania. Her SIFF bio says “she was inspired to become a director after seeing Lars Von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer In The Dark and was able to assist the Danish director on his 2002 film Dogville.”

Storm in My Heart – The latest cinephile doc from Mark Cousins, whose very fine The Eyes of Orson Welles just finished its run at the Film Forum a couple of weeks ago. This one compares and contrasts Lena Horne and Susan Hayward via two of their musicals, Stormy Weather and With a Song in My Heart, respectively.

Ten Years Thailand – An omnibus of short films that imagine the future from four Thai directors, including Tears of the Black Tiger‘s Wisit Sasanatieng, Aditya Assarat (Wonderful Town) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Knife + Heart – A  giallo-inspired film, the second feature from Yann Gonzalez. The Grand Illusion is going to play this on 35mm in June, along with Gonzalez’s first film, You and the Night. I haven’t seen either of these, but Evan tells me they’re good and I’m inclined to believe him.

Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) – The SIFF description says that someone named “Norbert Pfaffenbichler pieced together clips from 160 James Mason films to examine the eternally urbane star’s career.” You sold me at “Norbert Pfaffenbichler”.

Between the Lines – A new restoration of Joan Micklin Silver’s 1977 film about an underground newspaper fighting to survive in Boston. Starring Jeff Goldblum and John Heard.

Spione – A revival of Fritz Lang’s 1928 silent film. The only time I saw this was very very late at night while taking care of a newborn, so I don’t really remember much about it. But Fritz Lang enthusiast Evan says it’s one of his very best.

A Faithful Man – Louis Garrel following in the footsteps of his father and every other French director in making a film about infidelity. Garrel also stars, along with his wife, Laetitia Casta, and Lily-Rose Depp, the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis (who is in Knife + Heart).

Friday May 17 – Thursday May 23

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Featured Film:

SIFF Week One

It’s time again for the marathon of movie-watching that is the Seattle International Film Festival. As usual we’ll be covering the festival with a variety of reviews, capsule reviews and probably a podcast. Some of the titles we’re looking forward to in this first week include: the Vietnamese drama The Third Wife, Mark Cousins’s new doc Storm in My Heart, Jafar Panahi’s latest 3 Faces, the neo-giallo Knife + Heart, omnibus film Ten Years Thailand, revivals of Fritz Lang’s Spione and Joan Micklin Silver’s Between the Lines, Louis Garrel’s A Faithful Man and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

Trial by Fire (Edward Zwick) Fri-Thurs 
Student of the Year 2 (Punit Malhotra) Fri-Thurs 

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 

Central Cinema:

Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991) Fri, Sat, Mon-Weds
Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008) Fri-Weds Dubbed and Subtitled, Check Listings 

SIFF Egyptian:

The 2019 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program 

Century Federal Way:

Steel Magnolias (Herbert Ross, 1989) Sun & Weds Only 

Grand Cinema:

The White Crow (Ralph Fiennes) Fri-Thurs  
Red Joan (Trevor Nunn) Fri-Thurs 
Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 
Kiki’s Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989) Sat Only Two Showings, Dubbed or Subtitled Our Review 
Nureyev (David Morris, Jacqui Morris) Sat & Sun Only 
Bad Black (Nabwana IGG, 2016) Sat Only Our Review 
The Crow (Alex Proyas, 1994) Mon Only 
The Most Dangerous Year (Vlada Knowlton) Tues Only 
The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr.) Weds Only Free Screening

Grand Illusion Cinema:

Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry) Fri-Sun Our Review 
Aniara (Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja) Fri-Thurs 
Instant Dreams (Willem Baptist) Sat-Sun, Tues-Weds 
Blood Lake (Tim Boggs, 1987) Mon Only Members Only, RSVP req.

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Maharshi (Vamsi Paidipally) Fri-Thurs 
Trial by Fire (Edward Zwick) Fri-Thurs 
Student of the Year 2 (Punit Malhotra) Fri-Thurs 
ABCD (Sanjeev Reddy) Fri-Thurs 
De De Pyaar De (Akiv Ali) Fri-Thurs 
Mr. Local (M. Rajesh) Fri-Thurs 
Steel Magnolias (Herbert Ross, 1989) Sun & Weds Only 

Regal Meridian:

Trial by Fire (Edward Zwick) Fri-Thurs 
The White Crow (Ralph Fiennes) Fri-Thurs 
Student of the Year 2 (Punit Malhotra) Fri-Thurs 

Northwest Film Forum:

The Most Dangerous Year (Vlada Knowlton) Fri-Tues 
The Feeling of being Watched (Assia Boundaoui) Fri-Sun 
Scott Walker: 30th Century Man (Stephen Kijak, 2008) Sun-Tues & Thurs Only 
A Tribute to Barbara Hammer: Making Movies out of Sex and Life Weds Only 
The Serengeti Rules (Nicolas Brown) Starts Weds 

AMC Pacific Place:

Shadow (Zhang Yimou) Fri-Thurs Our Review 

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Student of the Year 2 (Punit Malhotra) Fri-Thurs 
De De Pyaar De (Akiv Ali) Fri-Thurs 

AMC Seattle:

The Chaperone (Michael Engler) Fri-Thurs 
Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 

SIFF Film Center:

The 2019 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program 

AMC Southcenter:

The Chaperone (Michael Engler) Fri-Thurs 

SIFF Uptown:

The 2019 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program 

Varsity Theatre:

Red Joan (Trevor Nunn) Fri-Thurs 
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Stacie Passon) Fri-Thurs 
The Professor (Wayne Roberts) Fri-Thurs 
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984) Mon & Tues Only Our Podcast 
Steel Magnolias (Herbert Ross, 1989) Weds Only 

Friday May 10 – Thursday May 16

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Featured Film:

Shadow at the Grand Illusion and the Pacific Place

Zhang Yimou’s latest decorous wuxia opens this week at the Grand Illusion and the Pacific Place. It isn’t as great a film as Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but its black white and gray color palette, inspired by traditional ink wash painting, is certainly something we’ve never seen before, as is its impressive use of umbrellas. Set loosely in the Three Kingdoms era, Shadow spends a lot of time establishing a convoluted conspiracy the goal of which is to maneuver two states into war. Deng Chao plays a dual role as the evil general and his more honorable double, and his broad performances detract from whatever nuance there is to the movie. But the action is great and the whole thing looks pretty cool.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

Student of the Year 2 (Punit Malhotra) Fri-Thurs 

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 

Central Cinema:

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) Fri-Weds
Kiki’s Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989) Fri-Weds Dubbed and Subtitled, Check Listings Our Review

SIFF Egyptian:

Ask Dr. Ruth (Ryan White) Fri-Sun 

Century Federal Way:

Lukan Michi (M. Hundal) Fri-Thurs 

Grand Cinema:

Maze (Stephen Burke) Fri-Thurs 
Hail Satan? (Penny Lane) Fri-Thurs 
Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 
253 Short Film Party Fri Only 
Cowboy in Sweden (Torbjorn Axelman & Charlie Wallace, 1970) Sat Only 
Babylon (Franco Rosso, 1980) Tues Only 
Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962) Weds Only 
The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925) Thurs Only Live Score

Grand Illusion Cinema:

Shadow (Zhang Yimou) Fri-Thurs Our Review 

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Maharshi (Vamsi Paidipally) Fri-Thurs 
Kee (Kalees) Fri-Thurs 
Student of the Year 2 (Punit Malhotra) Fri-Thurs 
Uyare (Manu Ashokan) Fri-Thurs 
Vellaipookal (Vivek Elangovan) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Meridian:

Maharshi (Vamsi Paidipally) Fri-Thurs 
The White Crow (Ralph Fiennes) Fri-Thurs 
Student of the Year 2 (Punit Malhotra) Fri-Thurs 

Northwest Film Forum:

If the Dancer Dances (Maia Wechsler) Fri-Thurs 
Adventures of Aladdin (Glenn Campbell) Fri-Thurs 
Carmine Street Guitars (Ron Mann) Fri, Sun & Thurs Only 
Shelf Life (Paul Bartel, 1993) Sat Only Q&A with Writers and Stars
Take it Down! (Sabine Gruffat & Bill Brown) Weds Only 

AMC Pacific Place:

Shadow (Zhang Yimou) Fri-Thurs Our Review 

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Student of the Year 2 (Punit Malhotra) Fri-Thurs 
El Chicano (Ben Bray) Fri-Thurs 

AMC Seattle:

The Chaperone (Michael Engler) Fri-Thurs 
Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 

Seattle Art Museum:

The Wrong Box (Bryan Forbes, 1966) Thurs Only 

AMC Southcenter:

El Chicano (Ben Bray) Fri-Thurs 

SIFF Uptown:

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Sun
Hail Satan? (Penny Lane) Fri-Sun
High Life (Claire Denis) Fri-Sun Our Discussion 
Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry) Fri-Sun Our Review

Varsity Theatre:

Red Joan (Trevor Nunn) Fri-Thurs 
Charlie Says (Mary Harron) Fri-Thurs 

Her Smell (2018, Alex Ross Perry)

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Of all of the various American filmmakers who have emerged this century, one of the most fascinating, talented, and enormously polarizing is Alex Ross Perry. He first emerged a decade ago with Impolex (2009), a riff on Gravity’s Rainbow, which operated in a vein of surrealism and absurdism — featuring miniature V2 rockets, charmingly low-budget military uniforms, and a talking octopus — almost fully absent from the rest of his oeuvre. His next two films established his reputation for better and for worse: The Color Wheel (2011) is perhaps the most intensely unpleasant of his films, in some ways acting as an American cousin of Hong’s The Day He Arrives of the same year. Shot in a haze of 16mm black-and-white, it stars Perry himself and Carlen Altman (who also co-wrote) as siblings on a road trip to salvage the latter’s belongings from a nasty breakup with her former professor, and along the way skillfully excavates numerous hangups and issues. Perry’s finest film to date was his next work, Listen Up Philip (2014), which featured Jason Schwartzman as the eponymous moody author, who finds a mentor in an aging but intermittently brilliant writer played by Jonathan Pryce. Of all his films, it is perhaps the most covertly dynamic, in no small part due to a crucial interlude involving Philip’s girlfriend, radiantly played by Elisabeth Moss, and its trajectory is at once inevitable yet utterly surprising. From there, Perry’s career path has taken him to strange but often fruitful pathways, including the explicitly psychological framework of Queen of Earth (2015), which featured Moss and Katherine Waterston in a Persona-esque two-hander, and the gentler city film environs of Golden Exits (2017), a true ensemble cast featuring, among others, Emily Browning, Schwartzman, and Chloë Sevigny.

All of this has led to Her Smell, his most daring and expansive work yet, and easily his most impressive on a directorial level. Once again, it stars Moss, this time as Becky Something, the mercurial and explosive bandleader of the riot grrl band Something She, which enjoyed enormous success sometime in the early-’90s (becoming the first all-female band to score a platinum record) and which by the start of the film is playing to crowds half their previous capacity. What follows is a gloriously theatrical five-act narrative, moving relentlessly through two hours and fifteen minutes that span the better part of a decade, as Becky undergoes a severe, harrowing mental and professional decline and, ultimately, a genuine form of redemption.

Continue reading Her Smell (2018, Alex Ross Perry)”

Savage (Cui Siwei, 2019)

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Cui Siwei’s directorial debut is not, unfortunately, a remake of the classic blaxploitation film Savage (tagline: “On the streets, or in the sheets, he’s. . . SAVAGE!”). Instead, it’s another moody Chinese noir, this one headed by two excellent actors and set in a snowy mountain wilderness. Chang Chen plays a cop who stumbles across escaping gold thieves, led by Liao Fan. The bad guys shoot Chang and kill his partner. Chang suffers angst for a year, which even his friendship/romance with the pretty local doctor cannot cure. Then, he and another partner, in the course of chasing after some poachers hours before the biggest blizzard of the year, run into the very same gang of thieves who have returned for their stash of gold. Everyone shoots everyone with a seemingly endless supply of bullets and cartridges, until all the brilliant whites are stained with blood.

Given that Cui’s last credit was for the screenplay of The Island, a film which played here last year that I thought was quite well-constructed and clever, it’s a bit of a shock that Savage is so shoddy. Action thriller clichés abound: the dead partner, the pretty woman in peril, the double-crosses, the double deadlines of impending storm and the doctor leaving town. There’s a scene where the doctor watches Chang beat the hell out of three men in a restaurant and responds by making out with him, fully clothed, under a running shower. The plot collapses amidst a blizzard of coincidence, and very little in the final half hour or so makes much sense.

Chang and Liao are two of modern cinema’s finest serious face actors, they’re great at being sad and angry at the same time. But those are the only emotions they’re allowed. Still, Cui has a terrific eye, and in some alternate universe this could have been a solid elemental thriller along the lines of Track of the Cat, or at least Shoot to Kill. One stand-off takes place outdoors, in a field of tall grass covered by blinding snow, the score hinting at Morricone without the least bit of subtlety. And yes indeed two men do slide down a mountainside, firing rifles at each other as they go. Near the climax, someone drives a sno-cat into a building for no apparent reason other than it lets Cui backlight snow falling inside a room for the final showdown. But it does look pretty cool.

Suburban Birds (Qiu Sheng, 2018)

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The Northwest Film Forum’s commitment to rethinking the movie release calendar continues this week, and part of last week, with the oddball Wednesday-Tuesday run of Suburban Birds, the feature debut of director Qiu Sheng. That the film should play here at all is somewhat remarkable, contemporary Chinese cinema releases being almost entirely limited to the small runs of pop genre films that we like to highlight here at Seattle Screen Scene. Sure, festival blockbusters like Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White and Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night play too, but it’s exceedingly rare that a film by an unknown Chinese director gets an art house release. The film has been well-received at Locarno and the New York’s New Directors/New Films Festival, and has the backing of a solid distributor in Cinema Guild. That is likely because, like Bi Gan, who also had his debut feature released in one the art house circuit, Suburban Birds is heavily influenced by the works of established and well-known East Asian star directors. Audiences familiar with Jia and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang will have no trouble relating to this beautiful, dreamy, yet precise tour through the contradictions of modern China.

Set in an unnamed Chinese city, one of those meticulous and vast urban spaces that has cropped up over the past twenty years, where a surveying crew is attempting to account for the subsidence of various buildings. The new city is literally sinking into the ground. Exploring an abandoned elementary school, one of the crew, Xia Hao, discovers an old diary and the next hour or so of the film is an extended flashback, or dream, of his childhood, complete with title cards for the date and day of the week (but not the year), as if we too are reading the lost diary. There’s little forward momentum here: the middle school kids, almost entirely without adult presence, wander their town, in between forest and construction zones, exploring the city as the old is being demolished to make way for the new. The two timelines, past and future Xia Hao, intersect in minor ways, recalling more the temporal contradictions of Hong Sangsoo’s In Another Country than anything more serious (Bi Gan’s scrambling of time in Kaili Blues, for example). The middle section is less coming of age than slice of life, what plot direction it has is more toward a falling away than growing up, entropic rather than progressive.

Back in the present (or the future), Xia Hao is increasingly convinced that the whole city is resting on a groundwater leak, that its unstable foundations will eventually, possibly quite soon, lead the whole thing to collapse. The metaphor here is not the least bit subtle, but Qiu underplays it, relying on image and landscape and cityscape, captured in crystal clear and brightly colored 1.33 images, to build a mood of societal unease, of inevitable collapse. In this it recalls another recent Chinese film to have been released here (in the US, not Seattle, as far as I can tell), Zhao Liang’s 2015 documentary Behemoth, which ended its exploration of China’s coal industry in a vast, freshly-constructed ghost town, a space of cutting edge modernity that was nonetheless wholly empty of human habitation. The streets of Suburban Birds are similarly empty, we really only see Xia Hao and his companions, past and present, though the sounds of others are omnipresent. Birds chirp constantly in the past, but there’s only construction and traffic in the present, and the drip drip drip of the new city’s impending watery doom.

Friday May 3 – Thursday May 9

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Featured Film:

High Life at the SIFF Uptown

I’m either a week ahead or a week behind, having already reviewed the Chinese movie that’s opening here next week (Shadow) but not yet two of the ones that are playing this week (Suburban Birds and Savage). I’ll get to those in a couple of days, and I hope to catch up to Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (which opens on Sunday at the Uptown) soon as well. But I’m going with Claire Denis’s English-language sci-fi movie with Juliette Binoche and Robert Pattinson as the Featured Film this week, because it’s probably the last chance we’ll have to see it here in Seattle (yeah, I haven’t watched it yet either) and Evan and Lawrence had an excellent discussion about it a couple of weeks ago.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

El Chicano (Ben Bray) Fri-Thurs 

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 

Central Cinema:

Airplane! (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams & Jerry Zucker, 1980) Fri-Weds
Porco Rosso (Hayao Miyazaki, 1992) Fri-Weds Dubbed and Subtitled, Check Listings

SIFF Egyptian:

Ask Dr. Ruth (Ryan White) Fri-Thurs 

Century Federal Way:

Blackia (Sukhminder Dhanjal) Fri-Thurs 
True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969) Sun & Weds Only Our Podcast

Grand Cinema:

Wild Nights with Emily (Madeleine Olnek) Fri-Thurs 
Hail Satan? (Penny Lane) Fri-Thurs 
Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 
The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo Sánchez & Daniel Myrick, 1999) Sat Only 
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (Pamela B. Green) Tues Only 

Grand Illusion Cinema:

Dogman (Matteo Garrone) Fri-Thurs 
Hard Ticket to Hawaii (Andy Sidaris) Fri, Sat & Tues Only 

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Jersey (Gowtam Tinnanuri) Fri-Thurs 
Kalank (Abhishek Verman) Fri-Thurs 
Nuvvu Thopu Ra (Harinath Babu B) Fri & Sat Only 
Oru Yamandan Premakadha (B.C. Noufal) Fri-Thurs 
Vellaipookal (Vivek Elangovan) Fri-Thurs 
True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969) Sun & Weds Only Our Podcast

Regal Meridian:

Red Joan (Trevor Nunn) Fri-Thurs 

Northwest Film Forum:

Suburban Birds (Qiu Sheng) Fri-Tues Our Review
Arcadia (Paul Wright) Fri-Thurs 
Suburban Birds (Qiu Sheng) Starts Weds 

AMC Pacific Place:

Savage (Cui Siwei) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Always Miss You (Chen Hung-i) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Kalank (Abhishek Verman) Fri-Thurs 
El Chicano (Ben Bray) Fri-Thurs 

AMC Seattle:

Red Joan (Trevor Nunn) Fri-Thurs 
Maze (Stephen Burke) Fri-Thurs 
Family (Laura Steinel) Fri-Thurs 
Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 

Seattle Art Museum:

I’m All Right, Jack (John Boulting, 1959) Thurs Only 

SIFF Film Center:

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (Pamela B. Green) Fri-Sun 

AMC Southcenter:

El Chicano (Ben Bray) Fri-Thurs 

SIFF Uptown:

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 
Hail Satan? (Penny Lane) Fri-Thurs 
High Life (Claire Denis) Fri-Thurs Our Discussion 
Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry) Sun-Thurs 

Varsity Theatre:

Transit (Christian Petzold) Fri-Thurs Our Podcast
Hesburgh (Patrick Creadon) Fri-Thurs 
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Hotel by the River (Hong Sangsoo, 2018)

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Sean Gilman: You and I both saw Hotel by the River not long after it premiered late last summer at the Locarno Film Festival. But while in recent years we’ve found it difficult to stop talking and writing about Hong Sangsoo, as far as I know, neither of us has had much to say about this one. I mean, you once wrote a review of just the trailer for Yourself and Yours, I was crazy enough to watch, and write about, all of Hong’s movies in chronological order last year, and we’ve talked about him in every single episode of our podcast for the past two years. So what is it about Hotel by the River that we’ve gone six months without having anything to say about it, and why is it so hard, even now after rewatching it, for us to discuss it?

On its surface, it’s of a piece with Hong’s most recent films. It stars Kim Minhee and, like The Day After and Grass, it’s shot in an icy black and white. One of his winter films, it is also, like Grass, a movie haunted by death. An aged poet has been living in a hotel for the past two weeks. His sons come to visit him. Next door are a pair of women (sisters we assume but I don’t think it’s confirmed). The whole action takes place over about 24 hours. Everybody naps, a lot. All the Hong/Kim films, but one, have flaunted their narrative experiments: the short story construction of Grass with Kim as observer/writer; the temporal confusion of Claire’s Camera; the dreams and allusion to Hong and Kim’s own life in On the Beach at Night Alone; the duplications of Yourself and Yours; the mirror structure of Right Now, Wrong Then. The one that plays things basically straight is The Day After, which we also, at least initially, were somewhat underwhelmed by. That film grew on me in retrospect and with rewatching, as I found a precision in the filmmaking and earnestness in the performances that is often missing in Hong’s work.

But revisiting Hotel by the River, I remain as nonplussed as I was the first time. More than anything else, the movie is a mood, of loneliness, of regret, of resignation. It’s maybe the least funny movie he’s ever made. And I guess that’s probably it: it just doesn’t feel like my idea of a Hong Sangsoo movie. Despite the familiar character types and situations, conversations about love and failure, over-drinking and social awkwardness, it seems like something else entirely. This is the persistent danger of fandom, or auteurism, which is not the same thing but is in the same ballpark: our reaction to the film is intricately entwined with what we have come to believe about the filmmaker. And so when Hong Sangsoo makes a movie that doesn’t fit our idea of a Hong Sangsoo movie, we don’t know what to do with it.

Years from now, Hotel by the River could mark a step in an evolution of Hong’s work that we’ve come to recognize and understand. He’s had many different periods along the way, with certain films sticking out as transition points (Virgin Stripped Bare; Woman on the Beach; Right Now, Wrong Then), the effects of which are occasionally not felt until another two or three films down the line—Night and Day and Like You Know It All feel more like pre-Woman on the Beach films, with Woman pointing the way instead to the Jung Yumi movies (Oki’s MovieIn Another CountryOur Sunhi). Perhaps Hotel will improve when we’re able to see it in the broad context of the next phase in Hong’s career.

Grass and Hotel seem of a piece in that they present a more sober, austere Hong. One increasingly less concerned with the agony of finding love than with the dread of what comes after life. I had a theory about Grass that the characters in it were in a kind of purgatory, trapped in an in-between state after death. I’m tempted to read some kind of similar twist into the overtly simple narrative of Hotel, that Kim and her sister are (literally) angels, weeping over the folly of men; or that they are figments of the old man’s poetic imagination; or that he dreams them while they dream him; or something like that. I don’t know I can support this kind of wild speculation though. At least not as much as I can the time travel theory of Claire’s Camera. It just doesn’t seem complicated. It’s a cold film and I’m having trouble breaking through all the ice.

Evan Morgan: I’m glad you brought up the difficulty of writing about this film; I’m in the same boat. Words usually flow like so much soju when it comes to Hong, but this time around, my enthusiasms seem exhausted. You’ve hit on a number of possible explanations: the air of guilt and reproach that hangs over the film, which, though not alien to Hong’s world (the otherwise utopian Grass evinces an unnerving fixation on suicide, for example), refuses to abate, like a fog that won’t lift; the deadened comic sensibility, a key contributor to the oppressive tone; and the relative lack of narrative play. At the moment, it’s the last point that’s bugging me the most: I wonder if the fatigue I’m feeling is in fact attributable to a certain enervation on Hong’s part, an exhaustion with his current working method. For the first time since he abandoned pre-planned scripts and started writing his movies on the fly, I suspect that Hong conceived the final moments first and then worked backwards to lay the groundwork to get us there. That would account for the sorely missed spontaneity—so often a source of humor—and for the doomed tone. Do any other Hong films telegraph their final purpose like this does? Or, to put a finer point on it: Having a character state “I feel like I’m going to die” and then having the plot deliver on the premonition is beneath Hong, or so I thought.

But it’s little perverse to start here, at the ending, so let me backtrack a bit. Not long after the opening shot, which introduces Hotel’s handled camera and its correspondingly destabilized world, Younghwan, the poet at the film’s center, muses to himself that he’s “done something foolish again.” The nature of this foolish act is, I think, key to unlocking Hotel by the River’s meaning, if not its cold heart. Younghwan has made the mistake of allowing his two adult sons—played, pointedly, by Hong regulars Kwon Haehyo and Yu Junsang—to intrude on his (presumably) solitary existence, and their presence is a haunting as literal as your “angels of death” theory is figurative; these are not Nobody’s Sons. The old poet clearly deserves some blame for his offspring’s unfulfilled lives, and though Hong keeps Younghwan’s specific fatherly crimes cloaked in ambiguity, his ex-wife’s assessment of his character (“A total monster without any redeeming human value”) ought to give us some clues about life in his household. And so the hotel, which under other circumstances might promise a reunion and a reconstitution of the family unit—it’s named, not incidentally, after the German word for “home”—acts instead as an anteroom for one man’s sins, a kind of purgatory, to borrow your apt description. Though I might disagree with you in one respect: perhaps it’s not the dread of what comes after but the terror of living with what we’ve wrought in this life that is Hong’s recent obsession.

That would make Hotel less of an aberration in Hong’s career, I think, given his cinema’s myriad reckonings with male failure, though the focus on familial bonds, rather than romantic relationships, robs the film of a certain generative ambivalence. A son’s bond with his father is, it seems to me, necessarily more solidified than that same man’s relationship to a prospective lover. Hence the two women: they hang around the edge of the movie as if to promise the malleability, even the mystery, that we’ve come to expect from Hong’s cinema, but they’re so far removed from the drama that their effect on it can only be countenanced in metaphorical terms, as you imply. The ease with which one could boot Kim Minhee and Song Seonmi from Hotel and be left with more or less the same movie makes me dubious about their diegetic utility. Still, their presence provides the film with its single best image: when Hong drapes them in charcoal overcoats and frames them against a snowy landscape, it’s a genuinely painterly moment, all that frosty negative space suggesting untouched silk parchment, the dark figures of the women seeming to stand in for the spare strokes of an ink wash master—not a brush wasted. The severe beauty that Hong is seeking finds an expression there, if nowhere else.

Sean: It’s important that you highlight that image, it’s by far the best thing about the movie. In fact, I wonder if that idea, an old man overwhelmed by the beauty of two women clad in black surrounded by white, was Hong’s starting point for the film, rather than the ending. It’s certainly more hopeful than the ending, and more in keeping with Hong heroes of the past, men struck stupid by what the perceive as an all-powerful beauty, one that redefines, or at least makes irrelevant, all traditional ideas of fidelity. Repeatedly Hong’s men conflate beauty and morality, usually to comic effect. The poet does the same, I think, but Hong never really undercuts that belief. I guess it depends on how you read the poem he eventually writes, which he claims was inspired by the two women. I don’t think it particularly resembles them, but that too is nothing new for Hong–the idea of art failing to match the reality that inspired it. But like a lot of ideas that seem to float around the movie, I don’t think any of this ever really goes anywhere.

That’s probably what I find most frustrating about it: the decided lack of forward movement. As you say, the two women literally do nothing for the entire film–they sleep, they talk around whatever issue Kim is having (a breakup probably and a burn of some kind), they observe the men, they sleep again. Kim in Grass was in the observer role as well, but actively so, such that you could reasonably imagine her not just watching but creating all the little dramas around her. And those dramas progress, in the nature of short stories, little slices of life that, when combined together in the whole of the film, create myriad rhymes and resonances, all united by a mysterious central figure. There are a lot of rhymes in Hotel, between Kim and the poet (we can hear each of their thoughts, their stories begin with them alone in their rooms), and contrasts (the differences in their reaction to their guests bringing coffee), but they don’t really amount to anything. Why are these characters linked? What do they have in common aside from the fact that they’re characters in a Hong Sangsoo movie?

Writing all this out, I’m almost certain I’m taking the wrong approach to this film. I do think it’s Hong stretching himself out, trying something new. A movie unified not so much by cause and effect, or by the collision of infinite possible worlds, or even one driven by the basest cruelties of men and women in love, but simply, as I said earlier, by mood. It’s a movie about the feeling of being old, of being out of touch with youth, even the younger people who should, theoretically, be closest to you (your children). The feeling you get when you’re old and alone and miserable and you see two beautiful young people, glimpses of warmth and heat and vitality, and know that your world is now a much colder place.

Evan: I like the way you emphasize Younghwan’s response to the women, his genuine appreciation of their beauty in aesthetic rather than sexual terms. Is the poet exempt from the boorishness that typically afflicts Hong’s men? His rapture reads to me as honest, almost achingly so, rather than predatory or pathetic. And if that’s the case, does Hotel introduce the possibility of a new kind of happiness in Hong’s world, the contemplative repose of old age? Despite the pervasive loneliness and the untended wounds of family history, I do think the movie gestures in this direction, for a time anyways.

But really, there’s no escaping the predestined end. Hong doubles down on the entrapped atmosphere that we both sensed in Grass, nowhere more so than in Younghwan’s last poem, a bizarre tale that describes a secret society that raises a young gas station attendant in seclusion from the rest of the world. Although we both seem to prefer the moments where Hotel yearns for warmth and communion, I’ll admit to being sort of fascinated by this sequence, the premise of which is supremely Mabusian. Lang is not an obvious touchstone for Hong, but he is for me, and in some ways this scene has prompted me to measure Hong’s cruelties, which I find increasingly dull, against Lang’s, which are consistently exhilarating. The difference, I think, is where each locates pleasure: for Lang, the geometry of death, its axiomatic certainty, is itself a wondrous thing to behold. It will crush us, no doubt, but its movements produce a thrilling whir. Hong, on the other hand, seems not to enjoy the narrative and visual stratagems necessary to bring his work into confrontation with death. That is his prerogative, I suppose, but it means that whatever pleasure there is to be had in Hotel exists only in its detours from the terminal path, and not on it. That’s why so much of the film feels like a slog and the reason, I think, that Hong hesitates when depicting Younghwan’s demise, why he holds on the empty hallway outside the bedroom instead of bolting inside with the sons. The image is among the ugliest in his career and inarguably the most evasive. If Hotel is, finally, a trap, it’s one that springs only half-heartedly. Which is to say: all the pain, none of the thrill.