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This is yet another incarnation of my personal blog. Here's where you can read about what I do when I'm not at work: hiking, seeing plays and other shows, eating, traveling, etc.

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SIFF 2012: Second Weekend

Posted by gck Tuesday, May 29, 2012 0 comments

Finally worked my first real usher shift, a fun weekend one at the Egyptian. The Invisible War was the film that let out at the beginning of my shift, a pretty harsh documentary about sexual assault in the military. The other films on my shift were Wonder Women! and The Eye of the Storm. I opted out of watching Wonder Women! because I didn’t want to get filmed out. It was fun seeing costumes and lots of little girls in attendance. Eye of the Storm was not on my film radar at all, but it was extremely well-attended (as were the other two). So far this SIFF, I have attended only one screening that sold out, proving once again that I have no idea what other people like. Film Count: 9. Volunteer vouchers: 8.

Paul Williams Still Alive
USA, 2011
Genre: Documentary
Watched: SIFF 2012, Uptown
Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)

I blatantly ignored every SIFF film about a cultural icon that I didn’t recognize (in other words, all of them). But Alexis mentioned that she was really excited about this one. I watched the trailer, and I was sold. While I think people who grew up listening to Paul Williams’s music and remember him on television would get even more out of this documentary, it still has universal appeal. It works to have the director, Stephen Kessler, in the film to demonstrate the relationship between the filmmaker and his childhood idol, the delightfully cranky Paul Williams. But between all the comedy, there’s a genuine story about the transformation of a pop icon into a good husband and father with a happier life. Paul himself was supposed to attend both screenings, but unfortunately, his flight ended up leaving too early for him to attend mine. However, Stephen Kessler was there, and he gave a very entertaining Q&A.

Any Day Now
USA, 2012
Genre: Drama, Social Issues
Watched: SIFF 2012, Harvard Exit Upstairs
Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)

This one proves once again that I have no idea what people like. I thought it would sell out one of the bigger screens. It’s an American film with recognizable actors, extremely well reviewed, touching story, good show times. But it was quite the opposite – the film ended up being switched to the small Harvard Exit upstairs theater, and there were even free tickets offered to the screening. It was a great movie, though, and I’m glad I watched it. It tells the story of a gay couple trying to adopt an abandoned child with Down Syndrome in the 1970s. While people in the audience were definitely interested in the prejudice against homosexuals and the portrayal of Down Syndrome, the director, Travis Fine, said in the Q&A that how he connected to the story wasn’t through these things. He saw the theme to be something universal, the pain of being forcefully separated from someone you love through circumstances beyond your control. Lots of great actors. Alan Cumming really steals the show, and apparently he’s quite a character in real life as well. The director said he was currently in a production of Macbeth playing all of the roles in the play. He originally wanted to play Lady Macbeth, but then he decided he might as well just be everyone.

King Curling
(also: Kong Curling)
Norway, 2011
Genre: Comedy
Watched: SIFF 2012, Egyptian
Rating: *** (out of 5)

One of the most hyped films of the festival that it had to be pretty freaking funny not to be a letdown. I mean, it’s pretty hard to live up to being branded the Norwegian Big Lebowski (but with curling). It’s was super quirky and the funny parts were funny, but there was too much of it where no one was laughing. Still worth watching, though, and I know there were others who found it funnier than I did. I did find it extremely amusing that they played the Klown trailer (video is NSFW, link is okay) as a preview before the movie.

Pakistan, 2011
Genre: Drama, Social Issues
Watched: SIFF 2012, Uptown
Rating: **** (out of 5)

This movie interested me because it was a strong film coming out of Pakistan, something that isn’t that common right now. It was long – almost 3 hours – but I didn’t get bored. Beautifully shot with really nice music that didn’t distract me in the way that some of the Bollywood music does. I thought the title song was beautiful and haunting, and it set the mood appropriately for the beginning. (The subtitle translation for “Bol” is “speak up”) It’s pretty clear from the description that the women are in for some rough treatment in this film, and that’s true. It’s nice to see the main character, Zainab, have a voice against her oppressive father instead of just being a silent victim. I did find it odd that at the end of the movie, the moral of the story seemed to be “don’t have more kids than you can afford” when to me, the honor killings and oppression of women were bigger issues.

Singapore, 2011
Genre: Documentary, Animation
Watched: SIFF 2012, Uptown
Rating: *** (out of 5)

An untraditional, animated documentary combining information from the life of Tatsumi Yoshihiro, the inventor of gekiga, a mature, adult type of Japanese animation, with stories from his works. It was well done and it certainly grabbed my attention, but it just wasn’t really my thing. I probably could have seen it coming. Japanese stuff can get really weird, and it’s weird in a disturbing way, not a quirky way. The stories are supposed to depict the darker side of human nature, I guess, but it isn’t something I can or want to personally identify with.

SIFF 2012: First Week

Posted by gck Saturday, May 26, 2012 1 comments

First week of SIFF is over. In a way, it feels like my SIFF experience hasn’t fully begun because of how little I have seen and volunteered, but that should fix itself up quickly over Memorial Day weekend. Film count: 4. Volunteer vouchers: 6.

(also: Bé Omid E Didar)
Iran, 2011
Genre: Drama
Watched: SIFF 2012, Pacific Place
Rating: N/A (walked out)

Mohammad Rasoulof directed the beautiful movie The White Meadows that screened at SIFF 2011 (my review) that I was so enthralled by that I was excited to see his newest film, Goodbye, which reflected some of his own experiences through the story of a lonely by determined woman named Noora. Visuals were depressing but beautiful, at least the part I saw. That’s right, this officially marks my first walkout from a SIFF movie. Not because the movie was bad, but because the viewing circumstances made it impossible to watch the movie. In this case, there was a technical issue that caused the subtitles to be displayed 10-40 seconds before the actual speech occurred. They didn’t do a whole lot of talking at the beginning of the film so it was just annoying, but once conversations started happening more quickly, it was just too difficult to remember so many lines and figure out who was saying what. The artistic director did respond to my e-mail about this, apologizing and explaining about the nature of the film format that caused this to happen and that it would have required an hour to reload. I definitely understand that it can be challenging to deal with so many different formats moving between theaters and projectors, but I also remember my first film last year at SIFF, also at Pacific Place, and also with technical issues. Le sigh. They gave us vouchers for compensation, but the other screening time of this film isn’t going to work for me, so hopefully it comes back in some form some other time.

Canada, 2011
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Drama, Road Trip
Watched: SIFF 2012, Egyptian
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

Tuesday was a good SIFF day. I was excited about my two romantic-drama-comedy films, each from a very different culture and stage of life. I’ve noticed, with a bit of sadness, that this year at SIFF, many of the most popular movies have been from the US and Canada, most looking like they had a decent budget and well-known actors and/or directors. This film definitely fits into that category. Brenda Fricker plays an aptly named Dot, a blind woman whose granddaughter has decided to take her out of her house and put her into a nursing home. Olivia Dukakis is her foul-mouthed protector/lover who protests this plan by kidnapping Dot and driving her up to Canada to get married. It’s a bit formulaic, some of the supporting actors weren’t great, but overall, the mix of sentimentalism and comedy worked for me. The cinematography was also surprisingly beautiful.

Starry, Starry Night
Taiwan, 2011
Genre: Coming of Age, Romance, Fantasy
Watched: SIFF 2012, Pacific Place
Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)

Reviews were a little mixed on this film, but I knew I was going to see it as soon as I saw the trailer and read the description. It was another subtitled one at Pacific Place, but at least with this one, I’d be able to understand the dialogue if the subtitles were messed up. But they weren’t. This isn’t a film for everyone – the pacing is pretty slow, and if I was to describe the plot, it would sound like nothing interesting happened. But for people who like this sort of thing, it is a five star movie. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous. My friend who watched this with me wanted to know where in Taiwan it was filmed so I looked it up. No luck. The director said it was filmed in locations that were “less popular for filmmaking” and that “we wanted to show a unique side and were careful and strict about every frame and lighting. We wanted perfection.” This effort comes through very clearly. I’ll be very interested to see other things that Tom Lin directs. The one thing I didn’t like about this movie was the epilogue. I thought it was unnecessary, dragged the film out too long, and didn’t work well in general. The story was based on an illustrated novel by the same name, and they showed some of the illustrations in the credits sequence, and those were beautiful as well. Also, what’s up with Taiwanese people and France? The main character’s mom speaks French and has a thing for the country and culture, and that gave me a flashback to Au Revoir Taipei (SIFF 2010).

Lost Years
Canada, 2011
Genre: Documentary
Watched: SIFF 2012, Harvard Exit Upstairs
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

While everyone else in the world was crowding into the Uptown to see Safety Not Guaranteed, I fought ridiculous downtown traffic to make it to the small upstairs theater at the Harvard Exit for Lost Years, an award-winning documentary originally broadcast on Canadian television. It tells the story of the challenges faced by Chinese immigrants to Canada and other countries around the world. This is a subject that I feel passionate about spreading information about because of several reasons: 1) it is my heritage, 2) it is not well known, 3) it is inspiring how an impoverished, ill-treated group has now become what people think of as a model minority, and 4) hopefully the knowledge will prevent this treatment of other groups in the future. There were a lot of things I didn’t know that were presented in this documentary, like the head tax in Canada and other countries, the fact that the US pressured Canada and Mexico to adopt the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Anti-Chinese Riots in Seattle and Tacoma where mobs rounded up Chinese people and forced them to leave by ship.

The documentary itself was okay. It was a little slow, and I felt like there could have been more content or more informative interviews. I was looking forward to the Q&A with the director Kenda Gee at the end, but I found it very strange that he turned his answers to all of the questions into a way to brag about the film’s accomplishments. For example, one woman told him that her mother was very touched by some of the scenes in the film, but she didn’t really understand English. She wanted to know if there was a Chinese version of the film for people like her mother to watch. He said that they had broadcast at film festivals in China and won awards, and they also had screenings in Vancouver, and they were so full that they were turning people away, and then they ended up doing another screening in Richmond, and again they were full… blah blah… did not answer the question. Really odd. Maybe he felt like a not-quite-full upstairs at the Harvard Exit was a little too humble for his film?

5 Broken Cameras
Palestine, 2011
Genre: Documentary
Watched: SIFF 2012, Uptown
Rating: **** (out of 5)

I mentioned this film to Mike and asked if he was interested. His response basically was that he had seen enough pro-Palestinian propaganda and wasn’t really interested in seeing more. I didn’t push it, but it felt to me like this was going to be more than that. For one thing, Emad Burnat teamed up with Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi to make the film. Both of them worried about the criticism they would face for working together, but Davidi said something that fits this film very well: “I hope that the people that come to see the film will do it with open hearts and minimum pre-judgments. I think when watching a film that deals with such a painful controversy, people tend to shut down. Most people divide the world into right and wrong, good and bad, Palestinians and Israelis. They immediately take a side and that corresponds to their identities, life experience, ideology... but whatever reason it is these loyalties are many times at the expense of experiencing the world emotionally and openly, while understanding the true impact of actions. The reality is wonderfully complex and this is beautiful. I am frustrated when people fight so much to narrow it down and put the film into a box and choose to look at it with one or two filters.” I feel like this is incredibly relevant in many two-sided battles today.

The film is not about all of the violence on the Gaza Strip. It is a story about a family – we get to see Burnat’s youngest son, Gibreel, grow from a baby into a boy. It is a story about a peasant village that watches their land disappear as settlements move closer and closer. But instead of big corporations doing this, it is the Israeli military, which responds to non-violent protests with guns and smoke bombs. The Palestinian villagers don’t oppose the settlements themselves. What they protest is the barrier – they want the land to be open. It seems so simple, and it leaves me with the cliched but appropriate thought, “Why can’t everyone just get along?”

SIFF 2012: Opening Weekend

Posted by gck Wednesday, May 23, 2012 0 comments

It’s SIFF time again! SIFFtacular, as the intro trailers remind us again and again. Once again, I have good intentions of recording my SIFF experience, but in reality I know I’ll probably only get so far and the rest will be lost. Better than nothing!

SIFF starts before SIFF starts
That’s right. Even though opening night was May 17th, things start before then. Generally, the first thing that demands my attention is when they announce the schedules. This year, I started my research a day ahead when I got a hold of a press release with the titles (without schedules) and instantly got excited about The Art of Love, directed by Emmanuel Mouret, the same guy who directed Please, Please Me! from SIFF 2010. When the schedule went live, I obsessively pored over reviews and trailers, putting together a list of my picks to send out to my friends. I think my actual SIFF schedule may end up being pretty different from that original list, though.

Full series passholders and people with press credentials get to start SIFF a few weeks early with press screenings. Of course, I don’t get into those, but that means reviews start coming in, so I’ve been reading and anticipating since that began. One of these days, I’ll have to try the full series experience. It tempts me more and more each year.

Finally, volunteer stuff starts before opening night as well. There are promo shifts to distribute posters and such, training sessions for all the different positions, etc. I skipped usher training this year, but I did opening night training, participated as a fake passholder in a house simulation for the venue managers and house coordinators, and drove a box of programs from the Film Center to Bellevue. With this and opening night usher volunteering, I had six vouchers in hand before even seeing a film!

Opening night volunteering wasn’t as exciting as it seemed like it would be, but I’m still glad I did it. During the training, Alexis and I wanted to take one of the doors leading to the dress circle for maximum important-guest-viewing potential, but we weren’t quick enough and instead got assigned to the boxes. However, a bunch of people who showed up for training didn’t show up for the event itself, so we ended up getting the dress circle after all. This actually had several implications we hadn’t anticipated:
1. Since we were assigned to one of the only reserved seating sections, we didn’t get busy at all until right before the movie started.
2. There weren’t that many people in our section.
3. We had to constantly turn other people away because general admission wasn’t allowed to go through our door. Not everyone was thrilled about this.

It was definitely fun people watching. I recognized Shanghai Pearl immediately (a local performer, as well as the person featured in this year’s SIFF trailer), and Alexis thought she got a glimpse of Lynn Shelton. A lot of people were pretty well dressed for the event (not common for Seattle), though a few were wearing shorts (common for Seattle). Definitely some, umm, unique outfits. The Stranger noticed all of this and wasn’t so nice about it. Will call downstairs was totally slammed, with a line that went down the side of McCaw and then back, but miraculously things started almost on time. Our main job, other than handing out ballots, was to distribute free tickets to everyone in our section once they made the announcement on stage that everyone in the audience was getting a free gift. Very nice gesture to SIFF in thanks for all of the donations that made the Film Center a reality.

For opening weekend, I didn’t volunteer or see any movies at all! It was sad to miss out on so much good stuff, but instead, I ran the Portland Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon – my first!

kashgarA Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar: A Novel by Suzanne Joinson

Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: *** (out of 5)
Recommended for: historical fiction fans, people who want a glimpse at a lesser-known part of China
Received ARC copy through NetGalley.

Book 7 of 52 in the “Around the World” Challenge

Back-cover summary:
It is 1923. Evangeline (Eva) English and her sister Lizzie are missionaries heading for the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar. Though Lizzie is on fire with her religious calling, Eva’s motives are not quite as noble, but with her green bicycle and a commission from a publisher to write A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, she is ready for adventure.

In present day London, a young woman, Frieda, returns from a long trip abroad to find a man sleeping outside her front door. She gives him a blanket and a pillow, and in the morning finds the bedding neatly folded and an exquisite drawing of a bird with a long feathery tail, some delicate Arabic writing, and a boat made out of a flock of seagulls on her wall. Tayeb, in flight from his Yemeni homeland, befriends Frieda and, when she learns she has inherited the contents of an apartment belonging to a dead woman she has never heard of, they embark on an unexpected journey together.

My review:
Lovely cover, exotic-sounding story… this sounded like it was going to be a beautiful adventure. In some ways, it was. Kashgar is located in the Uyghur region of China, an area that I wasn’t at all familiar with until I started researching places to visit in China. It was definitely a treat to visit a book that was (half) set there and get a glimpse into a city that mixed Chinese and Muslim influences. The descriptions of the food made my mouth water (“flatbreads, rose yoghurt and tomatoes sprinkles with sugar”) and I happily let the book carry me away to the busy bazaars and sweltering heat of the desert. In the modern narrative, the location was less exotic, but there were still plenty of images for the mind to feast on – Tayeb’s artwork, a bohemian commune, and an owl expecting its owner to engage in a hoot-fest during mating season.

Overall, readers seem to dislike the alternating narrative form of storytelling. I’m not ready to commit myself to that opinion just yet, but I definitely understand the reasons for it. It’s hard enough for an author to come up with one point of view that readers love, and it’s even harder to come up with two. A lot of the time, I’ll strongly prefer one to the other and angrily skim past the less likeable character’s portion to get to what I want to read (like in One Day). With this book, I didn’t favor one character’s sections overall, but at various sections in the book, I definitely favored one narrative to the other. This was often because the two plotlines alternated in when they were more suspenseful, and I would be tempted to skip one narrator’s section to find out what was happening in the other. However, another reason why I didn’t have a strong preference for Eva or Frieda was because the characters weren’t very accessible. I’d describe both of them as independent and modern (for their respective times), but that’s about all I would come up with.

Another thing about having dual narratives is that they have to somehow connect to each other. In some novels, that connection is apparent from the beginning. In this one, it’s not. It isn’t revealed until pretty far into the book, and that revelation wasn’t particularly impactful. I kept reading past that, thinking that a stronger connection would materialize, but it never did. It seemed like the ending of the book could have been fleshed out a lot more.

I’m not an expert by any means, but a few details stood out to me as being inaccurate, which makes me wonder what else might be wrong. There’s a reference to women “looking through the slits of their hijabs,” but typically hijab refers to a head covering. A niqab or something like that would have a slit. There’s also a place where they eat “jiaozi pancakes,” which I’m pretty sure does not exist.

Overall, I’m glad I had the opportunity to read this unique and interesting book. The plot and setting kept me engaged, and I only wish the conclusion could have done justice to the rest.