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 Report #3: Disintegration (The Bitter Stems, Thithi, Trivisa, The Mobfathers, Tag)

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Proving once again that no film festival should ever last longer than an Olympic Games, the 2016 SIFF limped to its conclusion this weekend after a soul-crushing 25 days. While the festival had run impressively well over its first two weeks, organized and on time and with nothing in particular for a picky festival-goer like me to complain about, the last week saw an inexplicable series of outrages.

This began on Sunday night, when the programmer tasked with introducing the Johnnie To-produced film Trivisa managed to be both disrespectful, mildly offense and factually inaccurate when he claimed To was the “Roger Corman of Hong Kong”, a producer who would make any movie you had in mind as long as it had “guns or titties”. That same presenter ran the Q&A with actor/producer Chapman To the next night, which was largely unobjectionable (To was the one who mentioned “titties” at least), but the programmer did at one point refer to Mr. To as “Chapman Ho” and later, “Herman”.

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

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“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.

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

SIFF 2016 Preview Week Three and Beyond

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The Seattle International Film Festival races into it’s third week (has it really only been fifteen days? With only a mere ten to go?) and here we have some titles you won’t want to miss. We’ll link to our reviews of the titles listed here as we write them, as we’ve been doing with our Week One and Week Two Previews. We previewed the festival back on Frances Farmer Show #6 and discussed it at its midway point on Frances Farmer #7. We’ll have a complete wrap-up of the SIFF just as soon as it ends.

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SIFF 2016 Report #2: The Big Road, The Island Funeral, Heaven Can Wait, The Final Master and My Beloved Bodyguard

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Brief accounts of a handful of films from the SIFF’s second week as it rolls into its third.

The Big Road (Sun Yu, 1935) – Something like an amalgam of Our Daily Bread and Mrs. Miniver for the Anti-Japanese War, by which I mean it’s a propaganda film celebrating first the communal virtues of collectivist rural life (the hard work of uniting the nation through literal road-building) and then the bold heroism of that collective as it stands against Imperialist aggression, in the form of the traitorous land-owning, but not land-working, class (relics of Old China, these rulers wear 19th Century clothes, and live in Qing mansions, the feudal system in opposition to the power of the Modern Industrial Worker). It ambles, plotless for most of its length, but it’s accumulated enough power that by the end, as its hero (eight characters combine to form one hero, a communist Voltron) is smashed to bits by advanced machines of war, it resembles nothing less than “Guernica” in its devastation.

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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: Rainbow (Nakesh Kukunoor, 2015)

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Dhanak (English title Rainbow), the latest film from director Nagesh Kukunoor, concerns a pair of siblings traveling the deserts of Rajasthan in order to meet Shah Rukh Khan. The reason is sentimental: older sister Pari (the wonderful Hetal Gadda) wishes to help her blind little brother Chotu (Krrish Chhabria) get his eyesight back. Inspired by a poster in her village that has SRK asking for eye donations, and learning that he’s shooting a film 300 km away, she takes her brother and hits the road.

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

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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.

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