SIFF 2017: Finding Kukan (Robin Lung, 2016)

Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott

Finding Kukan, a feature film debut from Robin Lung, is a documentary that tells the story of one of the first documentaries to win an Academy Award, Kukan: The Battle Cry of China (1941). Positioned in China and operating from a Chinese perspective, a perspective unknown to most white Americans at the time, Kukan aimed at documenting the Chinese experience of World War II and was noted on its initial release for its stunning ground level footage of the devastating bombing of Chungking (now Chongqing). Photojournalist Rey Scott received the Oscar for the film -“For his extraordinary achievement in producing Kukan, the film record of China’s struggle, including its photography with a 16mm camera under the most difficult and dangerous conditions” – but Lung, as she tells us in her documentary, discovered another person central to the creation of Kukan, a person who had gone essentially overlooked: a Chinese-American woman named Li Ling-Ai.

Li Ling-Ai is credited only as “technical advisor” to Kukan, but, as Lung discovers from a 1993 TV interview, Li Ling-Ai seemed to regard the film as her own, a story she herself, not Rey Scott, needed to tell: “I wanted to tell the story of China, the battle cry of the people of China, heroic under suffering.” It’s a curious way to speak about a film for which one is only “technical advisor.” Was she, in fact, more than the technical advisor?

For Lung, the mystery of Li Ling-Ai’s involvement demanded solving, and it set her on what would be a seven year journey. The content of Kukan, Lung quickly found, too, promised to be, in itself, extraordinary, and its print history made the content all the more tantalizing, for, as documentary curator Ed Carter notes, it is the only academy award winning documentary without an extant print. Consequently, Lung’s film and the search her film documents is guided by two questions: 1) who is Li Ling-Ai and why is she so little known, and 2) is there, in fact, some surviving print of Kukan yet to be discovered that might be restored and shown to the world?   Continue reading

SIFF 2017: Manifesto (Julian Rosefeldt, 2015)

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

Cate Blanchett plays 13 characters reciting dozens of artistic manifestos, from Marx to Dogma ’95 and everything in-between. It isn’t literally watching a favorite actor read the phone book, but the spliced-together manifestos are too many, too jumbled and too contextless to pull any kind of coherent meaning from the project. Instead, it’s at its best when Blanchett plumbs humor from the (necessarily) self-important and incandescent material, as with her Dada funeral oration and diction-perfect Conceptualist/Minimalist newscasters.

SIFF 2017: By the Time It Gets Dark (Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2016)

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

Boundaries are under attack in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thailand. The 1976 Thammasat University massacre infiltrates past and present, people and personhood, eating away at the tissue that divides. What’s left over is anyone’s guess: By the Time It Gets Dark shape-shifts into a unclassifiable design, the root contagion ultimately wreaking havoc beyond Suwichakornpong’s control. A kaleidoscopic final shot throws acid, though it seems that the film might spore on, finding forms both banal and beautiful forever.

SIFF 2017: Chronicles of Hari ( Ananya Kasaravalli, 2016)

The film begins with a series of Yakshagana artists readying themselves for the show. They sit still and silent as makeup is applied to their faces, and rituals are performed to bless their performances. In an interview, a man backstage explains that in a Yakshagana performance, men play the female roles. He extols that some performers’ movements are so feminine that they are mistaken for women. He is questioned off-camera about a particular performer who might or might not have worn women’s clothing at all times, and committed suicide. After a few more questions, the camera gives us the reverse shot, showing two young filmmakers huddled over a camera, listening to the interview subject.

These early sequences depict the film’s strengths and also its limitations: its fascination with these performers and their pathologies is earnest and often illuminating, but the film layers on a critical distance which feels unproductive and tacked on, rather than organic in approach. It posits the main character, Hari (Shrunga Vasudevan), as a sort of enigma – the film’s narrative does a great job of shading in the detail of this particular person, but the film’s conception casts him as a host of contradicting details and stories, reduced to what might or might not have happened to him.

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Hari is a young star in his rural theater troupe who specializes in playing female roles. However, after his request to play male roles is rebuffed, he becomes more unsure about who he is. He begins to wear a skirt which causes trouble at home (his younger’s brother marriage proposal is laughed off because of Hari’s reputation). He finds himself sharing a house with another man so the neighbors threaten to take them to the authorities. His struggles with his identity haunt him and Vasudevan’s performance is wonderfully mopey, but more often than not the film sits there on the screen, its dynamics and conclusions set in stone.

This is the first film of  Ananya Kasaravalli, the daughter of famous Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli, and she acquits herself well for the most part. Most of the interest here is in Vasudevan’s performance, the slow rhythms of the rural villages of Karnataka, and the strange, stylized rituals of the Yakshagana art. But the film truly sabotages itself with the frankly useless conceit of the filmmakers trying to find out more about Hari and his life. The ending is as ill-judged as I’ve seen in a long time, essentially commenting on the film’s emotional high point (a long shot of a character walking into the middle of a lake, followed by a stunning look at the camera) and rendering the emotional fallout of these images as meaningless. The film’s failures are crystallized in its final image: two useless characters stare out at the ocean, deflating the drama, and putting the whole thing in quotation marks. Why wasn’t Hari’s story enough?

 

SIFF 2017: The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2016)

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

Unfairly dismissed last year at Cannes, the latest Dardenne Brothers movie is another iteration of their fiercely humanistic, engrossing filmmaking, for once wrapped in a more conventional mystery. Adèle Haenel stars as a doctor who becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of a young woman found dead near her practice. The Dardennes’ style is as keenly focused as ever, and if the emotions are slightly muted this time around, the film pulls no punches nonetheless.

My Journey through French Cinema (Bertrand Tavernier, 2016)

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

Director and critic Tavernier amiably narrates, with ample clips and sharp insights, a history of his cinephilia. After a formative encounter with Becker, we circle magically from Renoir through Gabin, Carné and Prévert, Jaubert and Kosma, then outward to find Constantine, Berry, Gréville and more. Each discovery leading to a new object of obsession. The last hour (Melville-Godard-Sautet) is more scattershot, reflecting the happy chaos of a young adulthood spent haunting Paris’s ciné-clubs and journals.

SIFF 2017: Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016)

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

Superficially more conventional than Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 and Back to the Soil, in its clear and direct narrative about the discovery of buried nitrate film in the Yukon. But in circling back to tell the simultaneous stories of cinema, Gold Rush, and the rise and fall of a western town, it contains multitudes. Dawson City is either a remarkable locus point of history or it’s not: who knows what forgotten histories lurk beneath our swimming pools.

SIFF 2017: Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell, 2016)

Outsider status in gymnI long for the land that isn’t
For all that is I’m tired of wanting

Sami Blood, Sami-Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell’s debut feature, opens on a black screen and the sound of a lonely, whistling wind. Then, a knocking, as the introductory credits, white on black, appear, and a man’s voice: “Mom?” More knocking. The same voice: “Christina?” The first image appears, an elderly woman, alone, in close-up profile, lighting a cigarette, looking out a window, ignoring the voice. It’s a haunted space with that blackness, the wind, the disembodied voice, and the woman, turned away, hiding from both the voice of her son and our public prying eyes. It’s a space that sets the stage for the film to follow, the story of the girl who becomes that woman, a woman who is, indeed, haunted, hiding, and alienated from those closest to her and from the larger world, too, a world, she fears, might stare at her too much and too long.

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In the opening scenes, the elderly Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), reluctantly guided by her son and accompanied by her granddaughter, attends the funeral of her long estranged sister. It is a Sámi funeral, following the traditions of that complex and internally diverse people group indigenous to Sweden, and it is clear that Christina, living in Swedish dress and speaking the Swedish language, feels deeply uncomfortable within the Sámi community. She speaks to no one and even shields her face with her hand while she sits silently at the post-funeral meal, away from her son and granddaughter, who are eating and talking with ease with those around them. The intimacy of family-community bonds juxtaposed with the individual isolation of Christina, separate and silent, is what strikes us most immediately. It is one thing to feel alone among strangers, wholly another to be alone among kin. Continue reading

SIFF 2017: Knife in the Clear Water (Wang Zuebo, 2016)

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What does it mean to program a film like Knife in the Clear Water in 2017? And lest there be any confusion, Wang Xuebo’s film is not, as the title suggests, a Polanskian exercise in triangulated sexual tension. There aren’t even enough points here to form a triangle; the only relationship of note is between man and cow. I’ll resist the flippant impulse to label the movie itself as bovine, but suffice it to say that if you’ve been to a film festival in the last 30 years, you’ve encountered Wang’s chosen mode: the lumbering, slow, dull art movie, the kind of cinema constructed around underrepresented peasant classes, devoid of incident save the barest whisper of conflict, composed exclusively in long take, and, bonus points, in 4:3.

The film follows a farmer who resists sacrificing his beloved beast of burden in order to fulfill the burial rites initiated by his wife’s death. Shot in China’s harsh mountain region Ningxia, Knife in the Clear Water understands itself to be a hard-eyed glimpse into the lives of the Hui people who call this place their home. At least in terms of texture, the film does manage to capture something: the way that atmosphere, earth, and skin mingle together as if cut from the same ashen cloth suggests the bond shared between the landscape and its inhabitants. On the other hand, I wonder the extent to which any of the filmmaking choices here emerge from lived experience. I cannot presume to know how the Hui community in the film would choose to depict themselves, either collectively or through the peculiar eye of a homegrown artist, and for all I know what’s on display here is that vision, but the fealty with which Knife in the Clear Water adheres to every stylistic cliche of the festival circuit, its total alignment with the demands of the market (and let’s be clear, it is a market), raises some doubts. Hou Hsiao-hsien and co.—inarguably the progenitors of the style—can count many sons and daughters among the filmmakers most favored by programmers worldwide, which must be considered a coup given the initial modesty of their project, and yet by transforming an economic limitation into an aesthetic they bequeathed to a generation of cash-strapped artists a safe, bankable blueprint. The blame for slow cinema’s status as a lazy generic default can’t be laid at their feet or even Wang’s, really. But après Hou, le déluge; year after year the market is flooded.

A film like Knife in the Clear Water exists because filmmakers and festivals lack a vision of the future. Both ran the numbers, looked at what got slotted before, and traded in the danger of artistic risk for the well-worn laws of supply and demand. There’s a reasonable hope that, like any economy, the glut of product might be cut short if we stopped consuming it. But alas: to program Knife in the Clear Water in 2017 means programming it, under a different and presumably less tantalizing title, again and again and again.

2017 SIFF Preview

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The time has come once again for the month-long extravaganza across this city known as the Seattle International Film Festival. This is my second time attending but the first covering it as a member of the press, and while I can’t say that there is an overflowing multitude of films I am absolutely dying to see, there are enough curiosities to satisfy.

As a means of organization, I will be listing out many of the most notable titles roughly by order of interest. It should be noted that my views (based solely on a fairly light perusal of the film guide) on what are the most noteworthy films may diverge wildly from yours, and should thus be take with a grain of salt – The Big Sick, tonight’s opening gala film, isn’t on this list for instance. But otherwise, on to the films.

Almost certainly the most noteworthy and delightful inclusion is one of the latest works from the South Korean auteur and master filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, entitled Yourself and Yours. His wholly idiosyncratic and hilarious style, filmed in long takes with obtrusive zooms and bountiful amounts of soju, typifies some of the best and most intelligent films of world cinema. Equally noteworthy is his quick working method: since Yourself and Yours premiered last year at the Toronto Film Festival he has completed three films, including two that are set to debut at Cannes in the next few days. It should be noted that this particular incarnation of Hong’s pet obsession, the fraught relationship between men and women, has been reported to be more abtruse than much of his previous work, so a prior immersion in his work is recommended, something like his great film last year Right Now, Wrong Then.

Nocturama is the latest film by French director Bertrand Bonello, who has garnered much praise for his meticulous, hypnotic brand of direction. This film in particular has been received with a great deal of controversy, as it deals with a terrorist attack perpetuated by a group of teenagers, who spend the second half of the film hiding out in a mazelike shopping mall in the heart of Paris. Also very noteworthy are João Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist, a Portugese jungle exploration into the erotic and the spiritual, A Ghost Story, David Lowery’s tale of semi-supernatural romance starring returning collaborators Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, and Person to Person, a New York multiple-storyline “network film” starring, among many, Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, and Phillip Baker Hall.

On the repertory side of things, the most noteworthy inclusion is Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. The film for which the late director, perhaps the greatest of all modern artists, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, it attracted strongly divided critical responses and has emerged as one of his most definitive works, an immensely contemplative work on suicide and the human condition that takes place, as with many of Kiarostami’s works, mostly over a series of car rides. Other intriguing repertory titles include The Marseille Trilogy, a series of films about a love triangle written and conceived by Marcel Pagnol, Maurice, a gay Merchant-Ivory romance, and Love and Duty, a silent drama starring Chinese film icon Ruan Lingyu.

There are, of course, other notable films showing during the next month, and here are just a few more.

  • After the Storm, the latest film by Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda
  • By the Time It Gets Dark, a Thai film that plays with notions of reality and cinema
  • Columbus, the debut film of noted video essayist kogonada
  • The Unknown Girl, the new Dardennes Brothers movie
  • Beach Rats, an exploration of sexuality on the beaches of Brooklyn
  • Bad Black, an explosive, crazed no-budged action film from Wakaliwood in Uganda
  • Afterimage, the final film by Polish direct Andrzej Wajda
  • I, Daniel Blake, the second Palme d’Or winning film by Ken Loach
  • Manifesto, a series of monologues performed by Cate Blanchett in 13 different roles
  • Wind River, the directorial debut of Taylor Sheridan, script writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water
  • Searchers, a Canadian Inuit film based partly on the legendary John Ford movie

This list forms a good portion of the truly noteworthy and worthwhile works showing at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, but it is naturally incomplete. The rest is up to the viewer.