Columbus (Kogonada, 2017)

columbus 4

A man and a woman find meaning amidst the ruins of another age: the schematic proffered by Roberto Rossellini in his 1954 masterpiece, Voyage to Italy, remains as vital as ever, constantly spawning successors in that undefinable but all too recognizable strain of modern narrative cinema which makes tourists of disaffected men and women in settings richly endowed with history and forgotten culture. In these films, the setting and its adornments are given the weight of characters themselves, speaking silent truths to those gazing upon them, offering wisdom and comfort to those caught between the contented past and the uncertain future.

It’s a scenario that audiences (mostly festival ones) are by now used to seeing played out in European settings, among mostly European people – Certified Copy, La Sapienza, Museum Hours, and the Before trilogy, to name a few. Tension is often derived from the presence of an interloper from Britain or the U.S. – to say the least, a character containing, unknown to them, a multitude of historical baggage ranging anywhere from the English Reformation and its iconoclasm, to puritanism, capitalism and attendant barbarisms. By coming into contact and meditating upon long-rejected pagan and Catholic architecture, painting, sculpture, and ornamentation, a certain refreshment and cleansing takes place. At its most basic level, as introduced by Rossellini, a spiritual and emotional clarity is ushered in by contact with pre-modern art, and consequently, the sublime, and the cogs of the narrative rumble back into motion, taking our now reborn characters into a new future – a revitalized marriage, the starting of a family, a return to the boring old New World with fresh eyes. It has long been observed that Voyage set into motion a truly modern cinema – that is to say, a cinema of lost people unmoored from tradition, beauty, and community, searching for themselves while traveling – rarely living – amongst its jewels.

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SIFF 2017: Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman, 2017)

Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats seems unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge, the tensions that lie at the very heart of its premise. Abstracted images of abs, biceps, and one well-maintained Apollo’s belt open the film, each appearing on screen to the flashbulb rhythm of iPhone selfies. From the get-go, Hittman positions her film as ethnography; this body is anatomical subject first, person second. It happens to belong to Frankie, a closeted teenager charting the dawning realization of his sexuality, but more essential to Hitmann’s project is the material culture to which he and his corpus belong. Everything exists in the context of 21st century white youth culture. Nights start on the web but seamlessly extend into the streets, the same neon glow bathing both the bedroom and the boardwalk. Frankie and his friends exist to satiate their bodily hungers night after night, the fundamental corporeality of this subculture made manifest. Ditto the pervasive drug lust, which Hittman treats as both physiological need and social performance. Located quite specifically at Brooklyn’s dead-end—“Avenue Z”—and shot in blown out chiaroscuro that, at times, might make Philippe Grandieux flush with envy, Beach Rats checks itself constantly, a little like a vain teenager, to ensure that it signals thereness at every moment.

Aside from the fact that Spring Breakers already vivisected and laid bare this culture, Hittman’s ethnographic impulse is in and of itself benign. Tired perhaps, but harmless. More troubling are the narrative beats that pulse beneath the style. Frankie’s sexual awakening draws him to older men through the internet, each encounter laced with a hint of predatory danger. Intentionally or not, thanatos and eros are conjured up simultaneously, a fact underlined by the comatose presence of Frankie’s cancer-ridden father who literally functions as stumbling block en route to the bedroom. The film never draws an explicit parallel between Frankie’s fondness for virile middle-aged men and the bodily decay afflicting his father, but it’s an uncomfortably Freudian set-up for a queer film in 2017. Hittman’s conception of gay sexuality as death-tinged in some unconscious way gets compounded by the narrative jerry-rigging that traps Frankie and compels his most reprehensible actions. 

That the film finally reveals itself to be a morality play at core is, again, not a deal-breaker on its own terms. Like ethnography, moralism is an aesthetic (and ethical) choice. Mingling the two, however, makes for an unproductive tension: the here-and-now signifiers absolve Hittman of the burden of judgement, the narrative moralism requires it. It’s just too easy to play the middle against the sides and in the end commit to nothing. Beach Rats instructs Frankie about the dangers of living in the middle. Hittman should take her own advice.

SIFF 2017 Index

Here is an index of our coverage of SIFF 2017.


Festival Preview
Week One
Week Two
Week Three
Week Four


Yourself and Yours (Hong Sangsoo)
Cook Up a Storm (Raymond Yip)
Knife in the Clear Water (Wang Zuebo)
Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell)
Chronicles of Hari (Ananya Kasaravalli)
Finding Kukan (Robin Lung)
Bad Black (Nabwana IGG)
Vampire Cleanup Department (Yan Pak-wing & Chiu Sin-hang)
Mr. Long (Sabu)
Ma’ Rosa (Brillante Mendoza)
Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)

Capsule Reviews:

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison)
My Journey through French Cinema (Bertrand Tavernier)
The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
By the Time It Gets Dark (Anocha Suwichakornpong)
Manifesto (Julian Rosefeldt)
Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman)
God of War (Gordon Chan)
Person to Person (Dustin Guy Defa)
Landline (Gillian Robespierre)
Wind River (Taylor Sheridan)
The Little Hours (Jeff Baena)
Have a Nice Day (Liu Jian)
Columbus (Kogonada)
I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach)
Gook (Justin Chon)
A Ghost Story (David Lowery)


The Frances Farmer Show #12: SIFF 2017 Part One
The Frances Farmer Show #13: SIFF 2017 Part Two

The Frances Farmer Show #13: SIFF 2017 Part Two


The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival has come to an end and Sean, Evan and Ryan get together to talk about what they saw, what they liked and didn’t like among the festival’s archival presentations and new releases. Film discussed include: The Dumb Girl of Portici, Taste of Cherry, Love and Duty, Brainstorm, A Ghost Story, Nocturama, Columbus, Godspeed, Gook and Mr. Long.

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

SIFF 2017: Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, 2016)


Like a not-so-metaphorical bomb, one of the only truly exceptional films that played at the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival landed in the final weekend. That film was Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, the controversial and highly touted “thriller” (for lack of a better term) about a group of young terrorists who plan and execute a highly coordinated series of bombings around the City of Light. Bonello more or less eschews a concrete and obvious stab at relevancy – the group’s ideology is almost totally ambiguous, save for a likely anti-capitalist bent – in favor of something much more oblique, frightening, and ultimately powerful.

Bonello, who came to prominence for his acclaimed films House of Tolerance (2011) and Saint Laurent (2014), continues his penchant for stylish and meticulous direction, choreographing both the actual terrorist acts and the second half, a long unraveling of both team and sanity in a massive, labyrinthine department store, with the utmost precision. His Steadicam shots have a genuine sense of motion, snaking through subways and seemingly infinite hallways and watching intently for the slightest change in expression on a character’s face. These faces are key in a way; built from a group of relatively new actors, the diverse ensemble has a freshness and uncertainty about them that fits spectacularly well with the ambiguity about their personas and motives, even being conflated with store mannequins at several points. Nocturama has, as might be expected, a certain sort of cold-blooded brutality to it, but it also has vitality, driven forward relentlessly by a pulsing soundtrack and the vividly clear vision of Bonello.

SIFF 2017: A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)


Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Kudos to David Lowery for attempting to introduce fairly mainstream audiences to Weerasethakul, Tsai, Hou, etc. Unfortunately, his coopting of the slow cinema aesthetic has some of the outlines, especially when it comes to the picturesque settings and highly muted performances, but very little of the feeling and passion behind the great works of that style. Well-mounted and occasionally rather involving, A Ghost Story nevertheless ends up with a muddled, unclear sense of purpose.

SIFF 2017: Gook (Justin Chon, 2017)


Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Centering on the first day of the Rodney King riots in LA, Gook turns its eye to an underseen perspective on that monumental event: the Korean-American shop owners. The riot is used mostly as a backdrop to a small-scale story of familial bonds, a feint which works for better and worse. Writer-director-star Chon excels in the more comedic and subdued moments, but his film seems to escape his grasp in the self-consciously “lyrical” moments.

SIFF 2017: I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach)

daniel blake

Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

The unexpected recipient of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes, I, Daniel Blake is a shotgun marriage of the social critique and character study. It is an often funny, sometimes touching, occasionally intensely preachy affair, following the eponymous character and a young single mother caught in a catch-22 relating to the government’s healthcare benefits. The film finds its footing in the little, earnest interactions, while stumbling somewhat with the larger issues at stake.

SIFF 2017: Ma’ Rosa (Brillante Mendoza, 2016)

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Amid the kerfuffle over the generally baffling awards given by the jury headed by George Miller at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, a fair bit of attention was paid to the award for Best Actress, which was given to Jaclyn Jose, the ostensible lead of Ma’ Rosa, the film directed by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza. This arose for relatively transparent reasons: among the unusually crowded field vying for the award were a plentitude of truly astonishing performances from the likes of Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Sonia Braga (Aquarius), Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann), Adele Haenel (The Unknown Girl), and Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden), all of which were films that ultimately went home empty-handed. Of course, tearing down a film based on what it beat for fairly ephemeral awards is usually unfair, provided of course that said film is worthwhile in its own right.

Unfortunately, Ma’ Rosa is something less than a mixed bag, although there are certain elements that transfix in a way that the whole is unable to sustain. Mendoza’s film concerns itself with a family which owns a convenience store in the depths of Manila headed by the eponymous matriarch, who acts as a third-level crystal meth dealer. Early in the film, she and her husband are arrested for drug dealing on an anonymous tip by clearly corrupt cops, who take them to a back-alley police station and proceed to offer deals to let the couple go. They are forced to first give up their immediate superior and then raise 50,000 pesos ($1000 in US money), a task which is delegated to their three teenage children roughly halfway through the film. They each adopt different tactics, some more drastic than others: begging relatives and friends, selling household items, and even (in the case of the teenage son) prostituting themselves for ambiguous reasons.

Ma’ Rosa takes place in this highly compressed span of roughly 24 hours, which in this instance seems to act more as a stumbling block than anything else. Mendoza and company’s characterization of these people ultimately feels paper-thin, existing more as cogs in the machine that drives what is apparently a hellhole of a city. For her part, Jose appears in what feels like little more than half of the film, and her presence is only slightly less flattened than the rest of the cast.

An additional issue is the frankly ugly cinematography, which almost looks as if it hadn’t been color-corrected at all. This clearly digital look occasionally produces some striking effects, but otherwise is headache-inducing, as the camera careens through crowds and relentlessly tracks one anonymous figure after another.

Perhaps inevitably, there is a slight bit of pathos and interest to be found in Mendoza’s journey through hell. Such single-minded focus, however misguided and unintentionally voyeuristic it feels at times, has a certain amount of merit, and when Mendoza settles down completely (notably in the final scene) something deeper than the surface instinct to survive is conjured. These moments are few and far between, buried among the muddy characterizations and even muddier camerawork, but they are there. Whether that is enough is difficult to judge.

SIFF 2017: Mr. Long (Sabu, 2017)


The SIFF program describes this as “Yojimbo meets Tampopo“, which definitely has an “I can only think of two Japanese movies” vibe, in that it isn’t really like either of those movies except its main character is a man who slices up people for hire and also sometimes makes noodles. It’s more akin to Johnnie To’s Where a Good Man Goes, but I’m probably only saying that because I’m the kind of person who compares everything to a Johnnie To movie.

Chang Chen’s a hitman in Kaohsiang who gets sent to Japan to kill someone. The job gets botched and he barely escapes. Recovering in a dilapidated slum, he’s befriended by a young boy (whose mom is a junkie) and eventually a whole community of locals, who figure out that he’s an excellent cook and, in like two days, build him an apartment and a noodle cart, while at the same time he helps the mom kick her heroin habit. It’s a story of rebirth fostered by community, and its portrait of the unity of people living on the margins recalls the spirit of no less than Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons. The fairy tale approach is leavened by a harder edge, but director Sabu (last seen here as Samurai #1 in Scorsese’s Silence) keeps things brisk and light, with long wordless stretches scored jauntily by Junichi Matsumoto. Chang’s deadpan performance is a delight, even as his hair comes perilously close to “Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element”. Befuddled as to why the locals seem to like him, the kid explains “it’s because you keep cool and don’t say anything”. Taiwanese actress Yao Yiti is unconvincing as a junkie (she cleans up into super-adorable way too quickly), but shines in her extended flashback, providing the unlikely link between her and Chang. That that link should go undiscovered by the characters involved is one of the many small idiosyncrasies of Sabu’s storytelling, one which defies both Hollywood notions of causality and Hong Kong traditions of cosmic coincidence.