2004 Wisconsin Film Festival
Holy crap. I managed to top my attendance this year, seeing a grand total of 17 programs (it works out to 16 features and 8 short films, though, to be fair, several of the documentaries that I saw were between the 50-60 minute range) and one lecture over the course of four days. I could of watched more, no problem, though my ass would have probably begged to differ. I’ve already told you about the first day, so I’ll give you the short and sweet of the rest (unfortunately, I don’t have time to write extended capsules or critiques of every film I saw; my friends had a baby boy on Saturday night, and I’m going over to their house this evening). Both Friday and Saturday were kind of a blur, as always, with lots of rushing to and fro; in line conversation was pretty much divided between the movies themselves and the weirdness that is the Audrey Seiler case (a kind of funny anecdote that I read in one of the local papers, apparently one of the visiting Danish filmmakers looked remarkably like the bogus kidnapper sketch, prompting several concerned looks in his hotel lobby). As for the films themselves, I didn’t see any real dogs this year, but as usual, the best films were screened on Sunday.
Friday began with a French-funded movie set in Tajikistan called Angel on the Right
(the title is in reference to a Muslim belief); I saw the film because Film Comment
ran an article on Central Asian film a few issues back, and it sounded interesting. Angel on the Right
was an interesting film about a thief returning to the village of his birth, having been tricked by his mother and the mayor so that he may repay his many debts. While in his village, he strikes up a relationship with a pretty nurse, meets the son he never knew existed, and, being the only one who knew how to run the film projector, resurrects the local cinema, showing scratchy prints of Bollywood movies. Angel on the Right
is quiet, sometimes bleak (though leavened by the film’s usage of deadpan humor), film dominated by long, observant takes and a meandering, deliberately paced storyline which culminates in a bit of magical realism that leaves the film’s main character, and the lives of those closest to him, in complete uncertainty.
That jolly good time was followed by another French-financed film, the racial/immigration comedy Me and My White Pal
, which finds an unlikely pair of Parisian friends, the white, French slacker Franck and the African student Mamadi, fleeing to Burkina Faso after some trouble with a pair of drug dealers. Me and My White Pal
was amusing and watchable, but too schematic; things that happened to Mamadi in France were pretty much repeated in Burkina Faso, though directed at Franck (example, in Paris, two old women gossip about Mamadi and his white date, in Ougadougou, two elderly African men gossip about Franck and his African girlfriend). Afterwards, I changed venues and proceeded to the Cinematheque for a screening of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s newest film Goodbye, Dragon Inn
, a plot-less film set in a decrepit movie house. It’s the theater’s last day of operation, and the film follows the patrons, who may or may not be ghosts, and the meager staff as the theater screens a print of King Hu’s Dragon Inn
. Not exactly something that should be seen at 9:30pm at night (though I was alert the entire time) or if you are unsympathetic to Tsai’s style (which was viciously mocked by several theatergoers after the screening), which again is dominated by extremely long-takes, repeated actions (you see the lame ticket seller/usher, Tsai favorite Chen Shiang-chyi, walk up several flights of stairs repeatedly), and almost complete complete lack of dialogue (I think the first lines actually spoken by a character not in the King Hu film, occurs around the hour mark in an 82 minute film). Not surprisingly, for anyone accustomed to Tsai’s film, it’s quite funny, in Tsai’s typical deadpan way, and beautifully shot; I personally thought it really captured the ambiance of the decaying theater, and the effect that film can have on some people (not that everyone in the film was even bothering to watch Dragon Inn
). The best sequence of shots, is a simple close-up of Chen Shiang-chyi’s face, as she stares up enraptured at the moving images, dominated by the fluid movements of one of Hu’s warrior women, the film cutting back and forth between the action onscreen and the inaction of the spectator. For anyone interested, Tsai’s alter-ego, Lee Kang-shang, is cast as the projectionist, though interestingly, he doesn’t not appear until the actual screening of Dragon Inn
Friday night ended with a midnight screening of Johnny To’s film PTU
. It wasn’t what I expected, though once I got into to all the brutal, corrupt characters and the film’s actual lack of action, I really enjoyed it, especially the extreme black humor that the film was peppered with.
My 14 hours of Saturday cinemagoing began with a pair of documentaries, the first being The Watershed
, a somewhat compelling video project that document’s the dissolution of the director’s family in the 1970s under the twin pressures of alcoholism and divorce. Neither parent comes off particularly well, though the father comes off the worst as a rationalizing SOB still living in self-denial; one can only say thank god for the kids aunt and uncle who took them in as their mother sobered up. After The Watershed
, the festival offered up a documentary that will air later this year on the PBS program The American Experience
; called Patriot’s Day
, the film is pretty much your typical entertaining, yet middle of the road, PBS documentary, this time following the yearly re-enactment of the Revolutionary War battle of Lexington and Concord. The best parts of the documentary were when the reenactors, in full dress, were talking on cellphones or riding around in Saabs.
Afterwards, I trekked down to the Memorial Union for my next two shows, a yearly retrospective program named after Madison film society luminary Mark Bergman, this year was a screening of George Franju’s brutal yet lyrical 1960 horror film Eyes Without a Face
(loved the ending with the dogs and the doves). Following the post-film panel discussion, I saw the happy-fun movie S21: Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
, a Cambodian version of Shoah
is a documentary, were two of the three survivors of the notorious Tuol Seng prison confront their former captors, who still continue to deny responsibility for their actions, yet reenact their daily activities in meticulous detail for the camera, easily, and scarily, slipping back into their former roles. S21
is very dry and austere, and is not easy to watch.
I had to race to my next screening, perhaps one of the more fascinating documentaries of the festival, Forget Baghdad
(I was late, so I missed the first 10 minutes), which follows four Iraqi Jews, all members of the Iraqi Communist Party, both before and after they were forced to flee to Israel, where they faced additional struggles, especially Ashkenazi racism towards the Sephardic Jews. Khorma
was the next film, set in Tunisia, it follows the titular social outcast (he’s an uneducated orphan with pale skin and red hair; “Khorma” translates into “blunder”) during both his rise (after his guardian goes mad, Khorma is granted half of his previous position, being allowed to announce the town’s deaths) and eventual fall after he becomes arrogant and alienates the people who put him in power. Khorma
was unfortunately one of the weaker entries in the entire festival.
Saturday ended with a screening of the Japanese horror film Ju-On: The Grudge
. Uh, hmm, well it was interesting; it was creepy and atmospheric, but the story was incomprehensible. A shiny nickel to anyone who can explain to me the film’s jumbled chronology. Basically, it’s a good idea and interesting effects in search of a narrative; unfortunately, as the film’s ghosts kill more and more people, the entire enterprise becomes kind of comical, the narrative spinning it’s wheels. Another disappointment, but I didn’t hate it. It will be interesting to see the American remake.
As I said before, for some reason, the final day of the film festival typically brings us the best films of the festival (last year it was The Son
, the year before that La Cienaga
, and the year before that it was Yi Yi
and the Gleaners and I
). Sunday began with two curiously matched documentaries, The Price of Freedom
, a traditional talking-heads/archival material documentary about WWII POWs, and Human Shield
, a short, murky video documentary about the human shields who went to Iraq last year in an attempt to halt the inevitable war. The POW stories were compelling, but I’ve seen plenty of films like this before; the second film was nice, since it actually took the human shields seriously (the guy who was lampooned on The Daily Show
had a cameo of sorts in one of the still pictures).
Since Otar Left
was easily the best film that I saw in the festival. A very touching, bittersweet tale about how adults are more than willing to live a lie instead of facing the painful truth (and that sometimes, lies are necessary to keep us going), Since Otar Left
follows three-generation of women living under the same roof in Tblisi, Georgia: the ninety year old Eka (Polish actress Esther Gorintin), her daughter Marina (Nino Khomasuridze), and granddaughter Ada (Dinara Drukarova). The entire film is structured around the absence of the family’s sole male member, Eka’s son Otar, a Moscow-trained doctor working as a laborer in Paris (the family is Francophile). After news arrives that Otar has died in an accident, Marina and Ada decide to deceive Eka into believing that Otar is still alive, enlisting other friends in the effort (the task of writing Otar’s letters falls on Ada, who gets to indulge her romantic fantasies, at least at first). Things comes to a head when Eka decides to visit her son in Paris, bringing her flummoxed family with her. The entire film is filled with brilliant scene after brilliant scene, and is anchored by the wonderful performance of Gorintin. (sure to top my Droogie nomination next year). I was nearly in tears at the conclusion.
Last Life in the Universe
, the next film that I saw, was the second best film that I saw in the festival. I really liked Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s last festival entry , Mon-Rak Transistor
, but I really loved this one, which is something of an aural/visual charmingly wistful romance between a fussy, obsessive-compulsive, comically suicidal Japanese librarian (with a dark secret) and a Thai bargirl/prostitute. Think Something Wild
cross-pollinated with Harold and Maude
, but better, more fanciful, yet even darker (yakuza, etc. one of which is played by Japanese director Takeshi Miike). It’s really something one has to see. Oh, yeah, it was also shot by ace DP Christopher Doyle.
The final film of the festival was a screening of the documentary Sumo East & West
(which will air on PBS on June 8th, check your local listings). The film is about the modern evolution of the ancient Japanese sport of sumo wrestling, with an influx of Polynesian-American wrestlers from Hawaii into the professional ranks, and the rise of a world amateur movement. Very funny and informative stuff. The screening was attended by one of the featured American wrestlers, Manny Yarborough, a 6’ 8” 740 lbs. behemoth of a man; it was probably the most lively post-screening Q&A that I attended. A great little bit of fluff to conclude the festival.
My Picks for the Best Film’s of the Festival
1. Since Otar Left
(d. Julie Bertuccelli)
2. Last Life in the Universe
(d. Pen-Ek Ratanruang)
3. Not Color Blind, Just Near-Sighted
(d. Aaron Greer)
4. Goodbye, Dragon Inn
(d. Tsai Ming-liang)
5. The Yes Men
(d. Chris Smith, Sarah Price, Dan Ollman)
6. Old Night
(d. Molly M. Mann)
7. S21 Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
(d. Rithy Panh)
8. I’m Bobby
(d. Xav Laplae)
(d. Johnny To)
10. Sumo East & West
(d. Ferne Pearlstein) and Forget Baghdad