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SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) ended last month, but due to time constraints, I have not been able to post anything about it to my blog until now.

Last year, I included in-depth reviews of each film.  Since I saw almost double the number of films this time around, that is not possible. I will, however, include a short review of each film.

Also, I will be including my volunteering experience with my movie-going experience, instead of separating them out, like I did last year.

Okay, enough introduction. On with the show!

...and the back.

Thursday, May 19th: Opening Night    

Volunteer: Production Crew     McCaw Hall 7-9 pm

Thursday was beautiful in Seattle, which was lucky, since the Opening Night Gala includes the Red Carpet treatment. I wish I had brought my camera, but I didn’t this year. I did, however, ride with some excited college students (or maybe graduates) who were going to the opening night festivities. Women were in dresses and men were in suits.

I got off one stop too late, but I still got to where I had to go. I ran into Karl first (whom I had worked with on the census and SIFF last year) and then searched for Amy Poisson, the head of the Production Crew. Because she was busy inside, I ended up doing a lot of waiting, during which time I directed people to the correct lines and even took some Red Carpet photos for some moviegoers (though after the red carpet had been rolled up). I also got to eat a burrito, tell other volunteers about the burritos, talk to Karl, and wait some more. Since Karl was on the A team for volunteering (which included long volunteer shifts), he got a full series pass to the festival in lieu of vouchers.

Eventually, one of the crew members (Molly) started rolling up the red carpet, so the other volunteers and I began helping her. Amy came out after we had rolled up all of the carpets and had taken the rope stands (with the ropes) down to the bar area where the after party would be. She called Karl over to help, and then we had to remove the links on the banner in order to remove it from its stand, which would be taken down by professionals. I ended up rolling up the banner as the links were removed (along with Molly), and then we brought it down into SIFF Cinema’s lobby.

When we finished, it was only 8:30, and — as I said — much of that time had been spent waiting for Amy. The rest of the production crew said we could probably go, unless the people who signed us in knew of anything else we needed to do (Amy had left again by this point). This was when I saw one of my housemates walk by and offer me a ride, but only if I was leaving right then. Since I wasn’t sure, I told her to head on home without me while I checked with the people downstairs. I ended up waiting for about ten minutes while they checked to see if anything else needed to be done before they let me go. One of them mentioned how much of the time I had been there had consisted of waiting, but the other one pointed out that I had helped out during my down time. So, at about 8:40, I got my vouchers and left..and then had to wait for the bus.

Friday, May 20th: First Full Night of the Festival    

Venue Volunteer: Front Door Clicker    Neptune Theatre  8:15-9pm

The Neptune Theatre has been closed since last year, which meant that this was the first time I got to see the new theater — except that I didn’t really have time to see it. The first movie (3, by Tom Tykwer, director of Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior) was running late, which meant that there was a quick turnaround between films. We also, as sometimes happens, had a volunteer there who didn’t have a badge or a volunteer t-shirt, and spoke little English.

One thing that has changed is that no one seems to have a key for the front door anymore, which means that one has to make sure that people don’t just wander in. The venue manager was Beth, who I think I’ve worked with before, but the house coordinator changes for each showing. Even so, I got to work with most of them several times, as well. Another change is that STG had its own people clean the theater between shows, so the volunteers didn’t have to do that.

The second movie was High Road, and the director for that film was there. During a lull in the action, I talked with his driver (also a volunteer), but not with him.

*I originally was going to see Black Narcissus on Saturday, but was too tired after seeing Cave of Forgotten Dreams.*

Sunday, May 22nd: Week One Begins    

Venue Volunteer: Ticket Ripper        Neptune Theatre    10am-2pm

While I didn’t get to see the inside of the Neptune on Friday, I did get to see it on Sunday. The screen has been raised, which means that the bars in the balcony no longer cover the bottom of the screen, nor the subtitles. Also, except for the balcony, all of the old theater seats have been replaced with black folding chairs. Finally, instead of a steady incline sloping downwards, the cushiony folding chairs have been arranged on two levels. And, while it was not open for business, I had heard the previous night that there would be a bar at the back of the theater.

As I was volunteering for four hours, I got to see part of the first film, a coming-of-age story called Submarine. What I saw looked delightful, but the British accents made the dialogue difficult to understand from the balcony, which made me wonder if the sound system was at fault, even though a new one had supposedly been put in. In the film, the boy follows the logic of advice books over empathy for the people around him, and then can’t understand when his actions don’t lead to the desired results, particularly concerning his girlfriend.

The second film was called Mama Africa, and there were a lot of late seaters for that one. I know because, in addition to ripping tickets, I was one of the ushers who did late seating. Also, we were told after the first movie not to use the door next to the men’s room for late seating (even the bathrooms have been redone) probably because the light ends up pouring into the theater.

Week One ticket stubs and my volunteer badge and t-shirt

1.     Ex (Hong Kong, 2010: 96 min)     SIFF Cinema     9:15 pm

The first film I saw at the festival this year was the US premier of a 2010 film from Hong Kong about an ex-boyfriend and ex-girlfriend who end up sharing an apartment for a brief period of time with the ex-boyfriend’s current girlfriend. The line for this film was short at first, but got longer as we got closer to showtime. A Tribute to Ewan McGregor had been that afternoon, and I overheard some ladies in front of me say that he had been fantastic, especially in talking about all of the films he has done.

Ex (or Chin do in Cantonese) starts at the airport, with Zhou Yi (Gillian Chung) arguing with Woody (Lawrence Chou), her boyfriend, over who took a photo of Woody that she has discovered. Ping (William Chan Wai-Ting) and his girlfriend, Cee (Michelle Wai) sit at a table next to them, where it is revealed that Ping knows Yi. Cee ends up throwing water in Woody’s face because she thinks that Woody is about to hit Yi. Yi breaks up with Woody, but then discovers that she has no place to stay, since she was supposed to be traveling with Woody, and none of her friends and family are in Hong Kong. Cee says she can stay with Ping and her until Yi’s mother returns from her travels. As one might expect, Ping and Yi begin talking about their former relationship, and they realize that the love they felt for each other did not end when their relationship did (this is done in some very nice cut scenes back and forth between their current situation and their past relationship).

Unfortunately, after Cee, catching on to what is happening, tells Yi she must leave, the movie loses its focus and ends up meandering for the next thirty minutes until it reaches its conclusion. And this is only a 96 minute film. Worse, the supporting characters — particularly Woody and Cee — are never fully fleshed out.  That would be fine if the film had chosen to focus exclusively on Ping and Yi, but the director, Heiward Mak, throws these two characters, plus some others (Ping’s friend who drives a cab, Yi’s mother) into the movie in an attempt, I suppose, to add other dimensions to the story, but they aren’t given anything to do. Woody wants Yi back, but we can’t see why she should go back with him, and Cee has sex with Ping in order to keep control of him so that he won’t leave her, but is so needy that we don’t see why he started dating her in the first place. Perhaps both of them are just filling the hole that Ping and Yi have felt for each other since their breakup. As for the mother, her only role is to correct the quote that Yi attributes to her having said after Yi’s father died, which is, “You’re never with the one you love most.” The actual quote is, “The one I love most is no longer with me.” 2 out of 5

Monday, May 23rd

2.     Honey (Turkey/Germany, 2010: 108 min)     Harvard Exit Theatre     7 pm

We first see a forest.  Before we see the horse, we hear it walking through the woods. A man follows. It takes a long time before they reach the center of the shot. We hear the rope being thrown up in the tree, the catching of the weight, and the creaking of the limbs as the man climbs up the tree. But then, the branch begins to break.

This is the beginning to Honey (Bal in Turkish), a film that is more about sounds and senses than plot and story. Yusuf (Bora Altas), a young boy who stutters when he reads, only speaks with his father (Erdal Besikcioglu), and that in a whisper. He also has vivid dreams.  And then his father goes missing while setting up beehives.

This film is about life and loss as observed through the eyes of a child. The audience sees the family’s daily life, some of Yusuf’s dreams about his dad (which sadly turn prophetic), and his days at school, where he is frustrated in his attempts to read in order to get a pin (at one point, he memorizes the story one student has told, only to have the teacher choose another story for him to read). There is some laughter (such as when he switches his book with the student next to him so that the teacher will think he did his homework), much solemnity, and, ultimately, sadness.  The final scene is one of those perfect shots that is so rare in cinema. The third film of a trilogy by director Semih Kaplanoglu about Yusuf (the first two are Egg and Milk), it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. 4 out of 5

Note: While not sold out, the viewing I went to was pretty full. Unfortunately, the sound was too loud at the beginning of the film (later rectified), and at one point (about 2/3 of the way in), the film showed ten seconds of sound, but no picture.

Wednesday, May 25th 

3.     Apart Together (China, 2010: 93 min)     SIFF Cinema     9:30 pm

When I went in to get my ticket for this film, there was one person in line; when I came out, there were many people. I also didn’t get a ballot going in. Luckily, I brought an extra one.

Apart Together (Tuan yuan in Mandarin) deals with separated lovers. At the beginning of this film, words on the screen tell of how soldiers fighting for the Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949, after Mao Zedong announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China. These soldiers were not allowed to return to the mainland until 1987 (89?), when the first annual visits were set up.

The lovers in this film are old and grey. The man married a Taiwanese woman, who has died. The woman married another man and had two daughters with him. She also bore her lover’s son, and has a granddaughter. At the beginning of the film, the granddaughter reads them the letter from this man, pausing briefly to eat more soup (which got a laugh). The man arrives, and we soon find out that he wants to take the woman back to Taiwan with him. She initially agrees (as does her husband, since he has spent many decades with her, her lover only one), but reconsiders when her husband suffers a stroke.

What is most fascinating about this film, besides politeness that gives way to subtle displays of emotions and then emotional outbursts, is how both Liu (the lover, played by Feng Ling) and Lu (her husband, played by Xu Cai-gen) do what they do out of love for Qiao Yu-e (Lisa Lu). When Liu visits, the normally frugal Lu buys the best crabs for him. Only later do we realize that he does this because he fears losing his wife to her lover.

We also get a sense of the rivalry between China and Taiwan when the tour guide on a bus filled with returnees points out how new and modern Shanghai is, even reporting how one of the buildings in the city is taller than Taipei 101, while the bureaucracy of China is revealed in a very funny episode in which Lu and Yu-e try to annul their marriage, only to find out that they need to get married again in order to get the proper documentation before they can divorce. What’s also interesting is that this film mentions the Cultural Revolution.

There are two incredibly powerful scenes in the film, one of which occurs in an excellent long shot, in which Liu, Lu, and Yu-e sit around a table and sing old Chinese songs. The second one occurs near the end of the film, when the returnees must go back to Taiwan. We then skip ahead one year to see what has changed, but I’m not sure if this part was necessary, even if it parallels the granddaughter’s boyfriend going to America for two years and saying he’ll be back with Liu fleeing to Taiwan and saying he’ll take Yu-e with him. 4 out of 5

Friday, May 27th

Volunteer: Production Crew      Neptune Theatre        9-2 (signed out at noon)

I worked with Amy again (and Holden, who is the director of operations), along with many other volunteers. Our job was to remove the folding chairs in the theater and replace them with theater seats loaned to us from the Sundance Film Festival. They were all on a truck, so we had to first unload them from the truck (2-4 seats on a wooden board), put each group of seats on a dolly, wheel it into the theater, and unload it. Each step took two people to do. I pulled a back muscle unloading one of them at the point where it had to be taken off the dolly temporarily to clear the step.

Once all of the seats were unloaded, they then had to be cleaned with towels and buckets of warm water. When the water got too cloudy, one of us would take it up to the men’s or women’s restroom, dump out the water, and refill them. While trying to refill them in the sinks, despite the fact that they didn’t quite fit under the nozzles, a guy told me and another volunteer about the hoses that we could use under the sinks. That made the job a lot easier.

Once the seats were clean, we then had to arrange them so that they provided enough legroom and aisle space. Also, some of the seats were raised up higher than others, so those seats had to go in the back. It was during this move that someone said, “Nobody put seats in this corner,” referring to an area where we needed some space. Amy responded by saying, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” Since I was the only one to laugh at that, she turned to me and said, “Thank you for laughing,” and gave me a hi-five.

While this shifting was going on, I got to say hello to Molly again, and met Spencer, who made his name easy to remember by saying that it rhymed with “fencer.” We also talked about the sound issues and how they should put in some curtains to soak up some of the sound, though that issue may have been fixed, according to someone who saw a movie there yesterday.

Our final task was to sit in the seats (with really tall people sitting in front of short people) in order to make sure that everyone could see. Once a bunch of us (including me) had done this several times, we were allowed to leave and pick up our vouchers — two hours early. The good news? We got triple vouchers. Most of the movies I saw the second week of SIFF were due to the vouchers I got during this one shift.

Also, while I hadn’t brought my camera with me, I did take photos of the new seats when I saw Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame during week two:

4.     Littlerock (USA, 2010: 83 min)     Harvard Exit Theatre     9:30 pm

Actor Ryan Dillon introduces LITTLEROCK

I almost gave a 5 out of 5 for Apart Together, but it fell just short. Littlerock, on the other hand, gave me a 4 out of 5 for most of the film, and then scored the 5 at the end. It also was the first film I went to this year that had a Q&A afterwards.

Winner of the 2011 Independent Spirit Award, the film follows two siblings, Atsuko and Rintaro (which are also the first names of the actor and actress who portray them), who stop in a little town in California called Littlerock en route to San Francisco.  Awakened in the night by partying in the room next door, they end up meeting with some of the locals. While Rintaro can speak some English, Atsuko can only speak Japanese (during the film, she reads letters that she writes to their father, from which we understand that his relationship with Rintaro is somewhat strained, and also that he wished for them not to go on this trip). Though she can’t understand what the locals are saying without her brother nearby, she decides to stay in the town and hang out with them while Rintaro continues on to San Francisco, possibly because she has fallen in love with one of the guys she meets (Jordan, played by Brett L. Tinnes). And yet, it’s another guy, Cory (Cory Zacharia, in his first film role), who shows her around the town and wants her to be his girlfriend.

Eventually, the brother comes back, and they head to their second destination, which is a place called Manzanar. And that is when Littlerock changes from being a well-crafted film about two different cultures attempting to understand each other to a great film. By the time the movie has ended, we understand why the two of them are in America, why Atsuko stayed in Littlerock when her brother wanted to leave, why their father didn’t approve of their trip, and how — even when we don’t speak the same language as someone else — we can still understand them. When you watch this film (and you should), notice when the Japanese is subtitled and when it isn’t, and then ask yourself: do you need to subtitles to understand what Atsuko is trying to say? And is it any coincidence that a film about cultural tolerance is named for a place that brings echoes of a similarly named town that became one of the focal points for racial equality in America?

Only two things bothered me about this film: Atsuko’s accent and a predictable scene in which, through a window, she spots her lover with another woman.  Though the actor who stayed for the Q&A confirmed that she is from Japan, the accent sounds as if she isn’t used to speaking in Japanese (which is possible, since I found out she lives in America now, and has been living here for some time). Also, there’s another plot point in the film that I saw coming from a mile away, but that’s because it was the right decision to make. The camerawork is great (by being invisible), the directing is tight (by Mike Ott), and the script by Ott and Atsuko Okatsuka (Atsuko in the film) teaches a moral without being preachy. This is a great little film.  5 out of 5

Q&A with Ryan Dillon: Ryan Dillon played Brody, the “bad guy” of the film. The actor, however, is the complete opposite, and has roots in Seattle. During the Q&A, he said that he and the director, Mike Ott, had done a previous film together (Analog Days), and they were currently working on another film, with most of the same cast, called Teenage Wastleland. While Littlerock was scripted, the actors could adlib. Also, in real life, Atsuko can speak English very well, as can Rintaro. Like Cory, this is her first film.  Dillon also said that “Atsi” is a comedian, and a very funny one, too, as you can see here:

Dillon also mentioned that Rintaro had been in Japan when the earthquake and tsunami hit Sendai, but he’s fine. He also said that they were initially looking at someone else to play the role of Cory, but came across Zacharia on campus and decided they HAD to cast him (he’s very close in real life to what he is in this film).

As for one of the factors in telling this particular story, Dillon told us that, during the filming of Analog Days, Mike Ott fell in love with an Argentinian woman who couldn’t speak English.  Even though they couldn’t communicate via language, they became a couple, and could understand each other in other ways.

Once the Q&A was over, I went over to talk to Dillon (Ebertfest must have made me bolder). In front of me was a woman who was working on a multilingual script with a similar bent to Littlerock. She gave Dillon her business card to pass on to Atsuko. I later passed on my business card to her. When I talked to him, I mentioned (as the woman had before me) that I understood Japanese, so the experience was different for me than for someone who couldn’t understand what the non-subtitled Japanese meant. I asked him what other films he had been in of Ott’s. He said he’s been in two of the director’s films, and most of the people from this film (plus one from Analog Days) will be in Teenage Wastleland. I told him that maybe we’d see Teenage Wasteland at SIFF.

Saturday, May 28th

Venue Volunteer: Passholder Counter, Ballot Distributor      Neptune Theatre     3:15-7:45 pm

The house coordinator for the first shift was very stressed out, which in turn stressed out the volunteers. Normally, in the middle of a shift, volunteers are allowed to leave the theater (especially if the shift overlaps with mealtime) so long as they come back before the film ends, so as to collect ballots and prepare for the next movie. This house coordinator wouldn’t let us, in case a rush of Platinum Plus passholders descended on us halfway through the film (note: this never happens, and Platinum Plus passholders know where their seats are in the theater, since they pay to have them reserved). Luckily, she only covered the first part of our shift. The second house coordinator was much more relaxed, even though she hadn’t worked in the Neptune before.

The first film (which we collected ballots from) was Bruce Lee: My Brother. The second film (with the stressed-out house coordinator, and for which I counted passholders at the back door) was called Winds of Heaven, and was a documentary about Canadian impressionistic painter Emily Carr. Because it was so windy in Seattle that day, I told a joke about how the movie title was appropriate, since outside raged the winds of Seattle.

The director of Winds of Heaven, Michael Ostroff, was in attendance, so some of us talked to him once the film began, including one volunteer who knew who Emily Carr was, having studied her in art history. As he talked with us, he packaged DVDs of the film to sell afterwards.

I got to see some of the film, which looked beautiful (all hail 35 mm!). Carr was one of the first painters to paint the First Nations, and — like most great artists — was ignored for her contribution for most of her life. I also almost fell asleep on one of the chairs, since they were so comfy.

After the film, the director sold all of his DVD copies to an admiring crowd. That made traffic a bit tricky within the theater, but it meant that the ballots could be collected while people waited.

The last film was called Shanghai Fusion, which had an after party. Sadly, volunteers could not go to the after party unless we had purchased it as part of the ticket price, though we could stay for the film (I was tired and hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so I elected not to). I think the director was there for that, as well — a beautiful East Asian woman in a blue dress. Unfortunately, a photographer was talking to her, so I wasn’t able to strike up a conversation.

For this film, the balcony was off-limits (except to Platinum Plus passholders) until the bottom of the theater was full, and fill up it did. Of all the films I volunteered for, this film had the most Platinum Plus passholders in attendance (if one counts the friends they brought).

As I left the theater, the East Asian woman also crossed the street with her crew soon after me. As I was waiting for the crosswalk symbol to change, I had another opportunity to talk with her, but didn’t.

Click here for SIFF: Week Two (May 29-June 4, 2011), Part One