The Frances Farmer Show #7: SIFF 2016 Midpoint Report

Almost halfway through the marathon that is the Seattle International Film Festival, we take a break to talk about some of the films we’ve seen so far. Movies discussed include: Chimes at Midnight, Sunset Song, Love & Friendship, Long Way North, Our Little Sister, Alone, The Island Funeral, Concerto, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, Cameraperson, Women He’s Undressed, In a Valley of Violence, The Final Master, Lo and Behold, The Lure, Tiny, The Seasons in Quincy and Scandal in Paris.

You can listen to the show by downloading it directly, or by subscribing on iTunes or the podcast player of your choice.

Some corrections:

The woman in The Island Funeral takes a trip with her brother, not her sister.
The Seasons in Quincy starts in the winter and ends in the autumn, not summer, because that’s how seasons work.

SIFF 2016: Alone (Park Hong-min, 2015)

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The Korean psychological thriller Alone begins with an enticing update on Rear Window. On a rooftop across the street from his apartment, a photographer named Su-min witnesses a woman being attacked by three masked men. He snaps a few shots of the crime but betrays his presence to the perpetrators, who come rushing off the roof and toward his building. Su-min tries to hide but the men soon find him and just as they are about to bash in his head with a hammer, the camera cuts and he wakes up naked in the alleyways that surround his apartment.

At this point–and all the way to its conclusion an interminable 90 minutes later–these labyrinthine alleyways act as purgatory for Su-min. He bumps into his ex-girlfriend and they get into an argument, he finds a childhood facsimile of himself, who brandishes a kitchen knife which he literally uses to kill his father. Each time a scene reaches a traumatic crescendo, Su-min wakes up again, back at the beginning of the alley, before stumbling off into another dream. Or is it memory?

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Memories of the Sword (Park Heung-shik, 2015)

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Opening this week at the Century Cinemas in Federal Way is this Korean wuxia film, a revenge tale bearing more than a little resemblance to a certain sic-fi trilogy and filled with striking sunsets, lovely fields, elaborate sets and digitally-enhanced swordfighting. Directed by Park Heung-shik, the man behind such award-winning films as 2001’s I Wish I Had a Wife and 2004’s My Mother, the MermaidMemories of the Sword follows in the footsteps of Zhang Yimou’s martial arts films Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower in that it is a highly melodramatic tale told in sumptuous, gorgeously photographed settings. Beginning with a young woman walking through a field of sunflowers, she puts down her basket and takes a flying leap over a giant stalk, soaring weightlessly through the air. Her joy as she lands safely, accomplishing what must have been a task she’d set herself for weeks if not years, is palpable. Unfortunately it’s the last bit of happiness in what becomes an unremittingly grim tragedy. Like Zhang’s films, the tastefulness of the enterprise undermines any life the genre film within might have possessed.

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A Hard Day (Kim Seonghun, 2014) & Unexpected (Kris Swanberg, 2015)

Opening this week on Seattle Screens are two fine features that played at this past Seattle International Film Festival. I reviewed them briefly when they played then, and here are some expanded versions of those short reviews.

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A Hard Day – Somewhere the dominant strain of the crime movie genre morphed from Woovian tales of moral codes in unjust societies (ala A Better Tomorrow) to Rube Goldberg narratives driven by slapstick escalations of violence. I suspect it was somewhere around the time of Infernal Affairs, as Alan Mak and Andrew Lau’s crime thriller adopted the speed and rhythm of Johnnie To’s Milkyway thrillers, matched it with Lau’s bright, digitally slick blues, grays and blacks, and neglected to add To and his vast team of writers’ depth of purpose to their ingeniously wicked plot schematics. Thus suspense and drama comes not from characters or ideals, but from complications in plot, driving the protagonists into ever more desperate and implausible actions and unlikely camera angles. A world of shifting, impenetrable surfaces, as superficial as it is mutable. Laurel & Hardy, Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Big Clock are the reference points for Kim Seonghun’s thriller, about a cop who accidentally runs over a man on an empty street at night and goes to great lengths to cover it up. And when it turns out that he wasn’t alone on that street, and that maybe the guy he thought he killed was already dead, he finds himself lost in an ever escalating spiral of darkly comic suspense sequences, moving from mere moral corruption to unbelievably, but no less thrillingly, wild cacophonies of destruction.

A Hard Day opens Friday, July 24 at the Grand Illusion.

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Unexpected – The second-best Cobie Smulders film of the year so far, falling well behind Andrew Bujalski’s romantic comedy Results. Director Kris Swanberg’s story is about a high school teacher (Smulders) who becomes pregnant and bonds with one of her students, an African-American girl with dreams of going to college and who is just-as-surprisingly knocked-up. Swanberg is mostly successful at navigating a minefield of problematicism, as the two leads are developed and performed with just enough nuance that neither ends up as the source of lesson-learning for the other. The dangers in such a scenario should be obvious – this is as eyeroll-inducing a premise for an American indie film as I’ve seen in a while (and that includes Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). Still, despite exceeding expectations, there isn’t enough depth to the characters (everyone outside the two leads is broadly painted and either inexplicable or pointless) to overcome cheap plot contrivances (a key point in the film requires both women to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the geography of Chicago-area colleges, which is pretty much unforgivable). It’s an OK movie with a couple of fine performances. Its success lies in eliciting a shrug rather than a wince.

Unexpected open Friday July 24 at the Sundance Cinemas.

SIFF 2015 Report #2: The Coffin in the Mountain, Haemoo, The Color of Pomegranates, A Hard Day

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The Coffin in the Mountain – This first film from Chinese writer-director Xin Yukun presents an impressive and quite funny narrative tangle that builds slowly through three interconnected stories, sparked by a death in the woods. A young couple on the run, an older couple cheating on their spouses, and the village mayor all think the corpse is their responsibility and act accordingly to cover it up or avoid being discovered, with cosmically winky results.

Before settling down in the later sections, the opening third is shot in what has seemingly become the new international style. In recent years it seems we’ve moved away from the “Asian Minimalist” style of long shots and long takes to a more flowing style. Handheld cameras wandering freely around a space, usually too close to the actors. I’m hereby dubbing it “Dardennean Motion”. The first section effectively uses this style to emphasize the desperation and claustrophobia of the young lovers trapped together and on the run, only two open up as the film goes on as Xin’s whimsical blackness grows to encompass a whole universe.

Haemoo – Impressively bleak thriller construction in which everything that can go wrong with a fishing boat smuggling immigrants does. Like Titanic but the iceberg is the captain. Directed by another first-timer, Shim Sungbo, from a screenplay by Shim and superstar director Bong Joonho (Shim was a writer on Bong’s celebrated 2003 film Memories of Murder), the atmosphere is tense from the beginning, as Captain Kang (Kim Yunseok) finds himself with mounting marital and financial difficulties. He takes on the illegal immigration job, but when  both he, his crew and his boat prove disastrously inadequate to the task, the film’s vague sense of dread turns increasingly violent. What stands out most in its perspective is the matter of fact ruthlessness of the tragedy at the center of the film, and even more so, the ending, which I won’t spoil, but suffice it to say it is one no Hollywood movie would have attempted.

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The Color of Pomegranates – I was a bit concerned as I sat down in the resurrected Harvard Exit for this showing of Sergei Parajanov’s 1968 experimental biopic. The auditorium was packed, essentially sold out, and given the audience reactions to the Bill Morrison and James Benning experiments earlier in the festival, I wondered how many in the audience knew what they were getting themselves into. A mass stampede to the exits would surely prove disruptive. Well, I don’t know if they were especially into it, I can usually tell how much an audience likes a film just by sitting in the auditorium with them, but this crowd was hard to read. There was some scattered laughter, but this is not an unfunny movie. But only a couple of people that I saw walked out, so I’ll take it as a victory.

The restoration, part of the series celebrating Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, is lovely, putting the old faded DVD to shame, as one would expect. The film is one of those rare great biopics, telling the life of Armenian poet Sayat Nova through a series of iconographic images, oblique and weird but no less meaningful for it. After the disaster that was SIFF’s failed screening of The Red Shoes, I’m glad to see the archival program back on track.

A Hard Day – Somewhere the dominant strain of the crime movie genre morphed from Woovian tales of moral codes in unjust societies to Rube Goldberg narratives driven by slapstick escalations of violence. Suspense and drama comes not from characters or ideals, but from complications in plot, driving the protagonists into ever more desperate and implausible actions and unlikely camera angles. Laurel & Hardy and Infernal Affairs, Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Big Clock are the reference points for Kim Seonghun’s thriller, about a cop who accidentally runs over a man on an empty street at night and goes to great lengths to cover it up. Things get even more audaciously complicated when it turns out, in shades of The Coffin in the Mountain, that he wasn’t alone and maybe the guy was already dead.

As an aside: star Lee Sunkyun is instantly recognizable from many Hong Sangsoo films. His Oki’s Movie co-star Moon Sunkeun is in Haemoo and Hong’s former assistant Lee Kwangkuk has a movie here at SIFF, A Matter of Interpretation. Even when he doesn’t have a movie playing, Hong Sangsoo dominates film festivals.