inReview: Vancouver International Film Festival
by Barbara Stowe
Director: Tengan Daisuke, Japan, 2011 (119 minutes)
This ambitious drama takes up where Imamura Shohei’s acclaimed 1983 feature The Ballad of Narayama left off. In a small village, tradition dictates that the elderly are taken up a mountain and left there to die at age 70, but suppose the women of the village defy their fate? “No one really wants to die,” says one, thriving in the secret community they’ve named “Dendera,” high in the mountains above their village. Helmed by Imamura’s eldest son, Tengan Daisuke, Dendera is a musing on three age-old conflicts: tradition versus modernity, self-sacrifice versus self-preservation, and pacifism versus militarism. Throw a bear into the mix, and the result, while failing to scale the artistic heights of The Ballad of Narayama, is thought-provoking.
Our Future (Boku-ra no Mirai)
Director: Iizuka Kashou, Japan, 2011 (75 minutes)
Sensitive, heartfelt autobiographical first feature about GLBT teens struggling with gender identity issues and bullying. Yu feels out of place in her own body, and relies on a transgendered dancer and a closeted gay boy for emotional support. When a girl Yu loves reciprocates her feelings, Yu becomes unable to believe the two of them can have a happy future, and rejects her. Nominated for the Dragon & Tigers Award for Young Cinema. Spoiler alert: the ending is more hopeful.
Director: Nagano Yoshihiro, Japan, 2011 (78 minutes)
Nagano Yoshihiro’s believable rendering of the nihilistic world of juvenile delinquents won this film Honourable Mention at this year’s VIFF Dragon & Tigers Awards for Young Cinema. Four teens thrive on vandalism, thievery and forging report cards, but are too inept to form a real gang. When they decide to add a fifth member to their group, they pick the wrong guy, and things take a twisted turn for the worse. The climax comes a little too soon and too bloodily, but the director and his cast manage to create empathy for all the characters, and it will be interesting to follow the careers of this talented ensemble.
Mitsuko Delivers (Hara-ga Kore Nande)
Director: Ischii Yuya, Japan, 2011 (109 minutes)
This dramedy—screened at this year’s VIFF Dragon & Tigers Awards Gala—bears more than a passing resemblance to writer/director Ischii Yuya’s 2010 feature Sawako Decides, but this is not a bad thing. Both films feature a vulnerable female protagonist who seizes control of her destiny, with satisfyingly comic results. Yuya creates an unusual rhythmn, starting slowly and building to an extended, uplifting climax. Underlying Mitsuko Delivers’ humour is a serious message about living an honourable life. Outstanding performance by lead actor Naka Riisa.
I Wish (Kiseki)
Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2011 (125 minutes)
Two brothers and their broken family form the core of this tender meditation on childhood. Former Dragons & Tigers winner Kore-eda wrangles his young actors with an impressive skill, especially in scenes when the brothers and their friends escape from school to travel by bullet-train to what they believe is a magical destination. Kore-eda lets his camera linger too long on his young subjects with no plot advancement at times, but overall he has fashioned a film that will linger in the viewer’s mind long after leaving the cinema.
Life Above the Clouds
Directors: Titus Faschina, Carmen Butta, Anuschka Seifert, Stelios Apostolopoulos, Reinhard Kungel, Germany/Italy, 2011 (4 x 52 minutes)
Made for European TV series takes filmgoers to the remotest reaches of the planet, where humans live in almost unimaginably inhospitable conditions. One episode, In The White Mountains of Crete, documents a lone shepherd’s return to land abandoned by his family after his cousin’s murder. He is determined to save his sheep and continue the tradition of cheese-making pioneered by his ancestors. A sympathetic protagonist, Yiannis must milk 200 sheep twice daily, rising at 5am and falling into bed in a sparsely furnished cave long after the sun has gone down. Meanwhile, his wife and young son pine for him back in Athens. Wistful, gripping, and visually arresting.
Journey on the Wild Coast
Director: Greg Cheney, USA, 2010 (119 minutes)
Newlyweds Erin McKittrick and Bretwood Higman hike and paddle over land and sea from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands on a yearlong nature trek that tests their mettle at every turn. Shouldering light knapsacks and with only one toothbrush between the two of them, they scare off bears, paddle through water strewn with chunks of ice by the light of the moon, and scale basalt cliffs, all the while documenting their journey with a handheld camera. Along the way they bemoan the clear-cuts they shoot, and discover their maps no longer correspond to a shoreline eroded by glacial retreat. Images of the couple toasting their frozen feet by campfires on deserted beaches and eating stew from steaming pots while skinny dipping in hot springs will haunt urban film buffs. Of special interest to environmental activists, nature enthusiasts and Survivor fans.
A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)
Director: Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 2011 (123 minutes)
This compelling, morally provocative multi-generational drama took top honours at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, snagging Farhadi a Golden Bear and winning leads Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi Best Actress and Best Actor awards, respectively. A secular middle class family and a poor religious family become entangled in a legal battle that highlights issues of economic disparity, women’s rights and the administration of justice in present-day Iran. Asked if he could tell that his chador-clad housekeeper was pregnant, the secular householder responds with exasperation, “How could I know?”, indicating her cloth-shrouded body. The storyline can be seen as a metaphorical musing by Farhadi—who also wrote and produced A Separation—on the tug-of-war between ancient and modern world views that mark a rapidly changing Middle East.
Waking the Green Tiger
Director: Gary Marcuse, Canada, 2011 (78 minutes)
“A bundle of chopsticks is hard to break, but a single chopstick can be easily broken.” So says a farmer and burgeoning environmentalist in this trenchant documentary—coproduced by director Gary Marcuse and Betsy Carson—that examines the rise of eco-activism in China. A grassroots uprising by farmers whose fields are threatened by a new hydroelectric project quickly follows a familiar route, as protesters realize they must attract media attention in order to get their message out. The passage of an environmental assessment act—the first law to accord citizens the right to question official policy in China—is seen as a step towards democracy, although, as the film makes clear, protest is still a risky business under a regime where dissent is generally not tolerated. With global NGOs like Greenpeace opening offices in Beijing however, the Green Tiger is poised to spring.
The Student (El estudiante)
Director: Santiago Mitre, Argentina, 2011 (110 minutes)
Roque (Esteban Lamothe), a serial dropout, makes a third attempt at college. His requited crush on a professor (Romina Paula, believably brilliant and hot to boot) ignites a romance that ends with an unexpected betrayal. All “A” plot, the script (written by Mitre) suffers from a too-simple storyline that focuses on Roque to the exclusion of all others. Annoying voiceovers delineate the obvious. Despite these flaws however, The Student is a fairly engaging portrayal of realpolitik in Buenos Aires.