inReview: Vancouver International Film Festival
Vancouver International Film Festival
September 30-October 15, 2010
by Barbara Stowe
Good Morning to the World!
Director: Hirohara Saturo, 2010 (81 mins)
This ambitious and highly polished (especially for a first feature) exploration of youthful alienation links family breakdown and the disturbingly common phenomenon of teenage suicide in Japan. Sixteen-year-old Takahashi Yuta is a boy without a social safety net. With an absent father, a mother away on business much of the time and no extended family on hand, Yuta is free to go walkabout when a homeless man dies and the troubled teen decides to find the man’s relatives. The movie veers into road movie territory at this point (with a refreshingly comic turn from the charismatic Izumi Mitsunori as a truck driver), but there is none of the careless and haphazard spontaneity of that genre. Saturo retains a firm grip on his material, as every crisp shot reveals. The director garnered a Dragons & Tigers nomination for this film and it will be interesting to watch how the 23-year-old helmer’s career unfolds after this promising oeuvre.
Director: Soda Kazuhiro, 2010 (75 mins)
Soda Kazuhiro usually works without a theme in mind when he shoots, finding his premise only later in the editing room. Hence, he almost rejected a commission from a Korean film festival to shoot a short film about peace and coexistence. Fortunately, he accepted the challenge, and what emerged was not a short but an intriguing and delicate feature. Peace was named after the brand of cigarettes smoked by 91-year-old Hashimoto Shiro, a gentleman who dresses in suit and tie even while dying of lung cancer. He receives compassionate care at home from welfare workers (the director’s in-laws), whose pay is so meager that they’re basically working as volunteers. After work, the director’s father-in-law cares for his five cats and one “thief cat” who steals the others’ food and encroaches on their territory. As the stranger cat gains acceptance among the cat community, war is averted and conflict neatly resolved. The matter of resolving human conflict is more complicated, and Kazuhiro’s enduring images leave a haunting resonance and many questions.
Director: Ishii Yuya, 2010 (112 mins)
Delightful feel-good comedy about a young woman with low self-esteem—favourite saying, “I’m nothing special, I’m only a lower-middling woman”—who is faced with the challenge of saving the family business when her father is hospitalized with cirrhosis of the liver. The script sparkles with comically brilliant moments that director Ishii Yuya knows just how to handle (spoiler alert), as when the protagonist rewrites the company song sung by sullen workers at her family’s factory each day, to reflect the truth: “Our job is tedious and boring.” In another laugh-out-loud scene, Sawako tells her loser boyfriend, who has quit his job with the rationalization that he wants to save the planet: “You’re like our planet, you’re only getting worse! And don’t use ecology as an excuse, it’s insulting to our Earth.” Since exploding out of the indie gate five short years ago Yuya has charted an impressive course that one can only help will continue.
The Red Chapel
Director: Mads Brugger, 2009, (88 minutes)
Riveting, subversive documentary that is equal parts political exposé and hilarious comedy. A Danish journalist (Mads Brugger) arranges for a Korean-born Danish comedy duo to tour North Korea. The tour is a pretext, a Trojan horse in Mads’ scheme to lay bare the dark heart of North Korea. It’s hard not to shiver watching thousands of Koreans march across the screen in a robotic parade, arms lifted in a fisted salute. The ethical dilemmas in this gutsy documentary are writ both small and large, including the possible exploitation by Brugger (which he makes no effort to hide) of one member of the comedy duo, Jacob, a self-proclaimed “spastic” in a wheelchair. Jacob is the artistic heart of the film, brave, witty, soulful, and unable to compromise his principles. When he refuses to raise his arm in the ubiquitous salute, to the troupe’s Korean government watcher’s dismay, the terrified director (fearing reprisals) begs him to cooperate. For its multi-layered journey, The Red Chapel is hard to top.
Director: Feng Xiaogang, 2010 (135 mins)
This epic blockbuster has broken all box office records in China. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake which killed more than a quarter of a million Chinese is only the inciting incident in this wonderfully rendered classical melodrama of an agonized mother, who is forced to decide which of her two twins should live, when rescue workers can only save one. She chooses the boy, but the girl—who ends up miraculously surviving— overhears her mother’s choice, and can neither forgive, nor forget. What ensues is the story of a tormented and broken family’s journey over the course of several decades, shadowed by the larger historical context of the growing pains of late twentieth century China. The propaganda machine intrudes at times but this, too, is instructive in this journey into the heart of modern China. Bring at least four hankies.
Director: Olivier Assayas, 2010 (330 mins)
Once the initial suspense wears off, about thirty minutes in, the repetitive a, b, c rhyming scheme of this blushing homage to PLO terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez starts to wear thin. Terrorists plot; terrorists commit murder; terrorist honcho has sex (with whoever is at hand). Ho hum. Pretty as the hair-tossing blue-jeaned boys with guns and mini-skirted girls with grenades may be, even beauty can’t forestall the boredom that ensues due to the absence of an overall dramatic build. Like a child playing with a favourite toy, director Olivier Assayas seems to want to have his cake and eat it too, taking Sanchez down a peg from time to time, then reinstating him to a vaunted pedestal for further hero worship. As terrorist porn the film succeeds admirably. Leave your moral compass at home.
Director: Kim Longinotto, 2010 (96 mins)
Change will not come overnight, Gulabi Gang leader Sampat Pal Devi (the star of the film) admits. But as this bold documentary about female empowerment in Uttar Pradesh’s Banda District reveals, Sampat has become an agent of change with her stick-wielding gang of women in bright pink saris, who thump through towns and villages, boldly demanding better treatment of women and intimidating abusers. Director Kim Longinotto (Rough Aunties) has fashioned a nuanced portrayal of the charismatic and fiery Sampat who is shown alternately using the edge of her sari to dry the tears of teens trying to elope, and boasting of being the Messiah. Will her growing arrogance blunt her compassion? Like all good documentaries, this one asks more questions than it answers. A fascinating film.
Icarus Under the Sun
Co-Directors: Saori Abe, Nazuki Takahashi, 2010 (83 mins)
Indie directors Abe and Takahashi not only co-directed, co-produced, and acted in this movie, but Abe wrote the script and played the lead (the troubled Haruo) while Takahashi shot and edited the footage. While some scenes suffer from a lack of lighting, there is also the occasional breathtaking shot, such as shoulders-up shots of the photogenic Haruo lying in the grass in sparkling sunlight, or silhouetted against the sky on a rooftop at dusk. Takahashi brings a fresh and lively energy to her performance and the script is ambitious in its portrayal of a female protagonist who struggles with inner demons and aggressive tendencies while maintaining an otherwise passive exterior. A Dragons and Tigers nominee.
Director: Sion Sono, 2010 (144 mins)
You may want to take a shower after this blood and gore spattered horror/black comedy, apparently inspired by a real life case of serial murder in the cutthroat tropical pet industry. It all starts innocently enough with a family eating a quiet dinner, but soon father, mother and daughter are drawn into charismatic and controlling businessman Murata Yukio’s perverted world where sex and violence are inextricably linked. As Murata and his girlfriend slice and dice one hapless victim after another, the violence becomes ubiquitous and only Sono’s deft and unexpected reversals make it hard to look away. Comedy is key. “I’m trying to lighten the mood here,” Murata (comedian Denden, in an over-the-top yet somehow believable performance) says to quaking tropical-fish shop owner Shamoto, trying to convince him that murder is nothing to be ashamed of. Although the movie goes on too long, deft direction, committed performances and a complicated and intriguing score by Harada Tomohide raise Sono’s work—previously only popular in fanboy and J-Horror circles—to a new level. Does Sono’s artful portrait of psychopathy excuse the exploitation involved in dramatizing real-life serial murders? You be the judge.
Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden
Director: Carol Black, 2010 (66 mins)
This documentary asks interesting questions. Is a traditional western education of reading, writing and arithmetic always a good thing? Who is promoting this mono-culture of learning worldwide, and why? And, what happens to traditional cultures when children no longer learn the skills necessary to survive in their native villages? Interviews with ethnobotanist Wade Davis, linguist Helena Norberg Hodge and other luminaries provide insight, but the film suffers from a crude propagandist slant with its heavy-handed montages of boys in baggy pants and girls with tattoos (evidence, apparently, of the evils of western culture) scored to pounding music. Such elements only serve to weaken, rather than advance the filmmaker’s cause. Too bad.
To read interviews with Soda Kazuhiro (Peace), Hirohara Satoru (Good Morning to the World! ) and Saori Abe and Nazuki Takahashi (Icarus Under the Sun) please visit www.jccabulletin-geppo.ca.