SIFF 2010: SIFFtings III

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, June 2, 2010]

Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy light up the third week of the festival

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (Jessica Oreck, USA, 2009; 91 mins.)

Buried in this all-over-the-map meditation on Japan’s fascination with insects are lovely, nearly mystical moments. Did you know that there’s actually a country where little boys beg their daddies to buy them a handsome horned beetle, and families travel out into the country to enjoy the nocturnal beauty of fireflies? A place where festivals celebrate and aficionados enjoy the “crying” music of crickets and cicadas? The Japanese love their bugs (not just Mothra), which show up all over the place in pop culture, art and philosophy. An animal keeper and docent at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Jessica Oreck is no filmmaker, but she gives us an often stunning snapshot of a national psyche that’s capable of embracing the poetry of insects, whose brief lives reflect our own transience. —KAM

Ondine (Neil Jordan, Ireland/U.S.A., 2009; 111 mins.)

It would be silly, of course, to build a movie around the question of whether a beautiful woman pulled from the sea in a West Cork fisherman’s net might be a mermaid. But a selkie, now—a creature with the capability of transforming from seal to woman and back again—that’s another matter entirely, and a fine vehicle for writer-director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Mona Lisa, The Miracle) to once more travel the border where fantasy and scuffed-up reality trade valences.

The fisherman, a divorced husband, loving dad and precariously reformed drunkard, is played by Colin Farrell; the putative selkie, by Alicja Bachleda; and Jordan mainstay Stephen Rea strikes some exquisitely judged notes as Farrell’s priest (calling out after one confessional, “Keep me informed of developments”). Ondine goes about its business agreeably free of cuteness or self-importance, and greatly enhanced by its principal setting of Castletownbere, the seaside community Jordan calls home. Through the eye of master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, everything—place, weather, dusk, long grass, tavern wood, a hillside path—breathes with spectral beauty. —RTJ

K-20: The Fiend With 20 Faces (Shimako Sato, Japan, 2009; 137 mins.)

A handsome, big-budget evocation of ’50s adventure serials, pumped up by an engaging cast—especially Takeshi Kaneshiro (House of Flying Daggers)—operatic action sequences and chuckle-worthy comic touches. Set in a past where WWII never happened, K-20 gives us a Japan, in rich shades of sepia and brown, that depends on technology resembling a mash-up of modern-day and H.G. Wells gizmos. K-20, who dresses up like Darkman when he’s not disappearing behind flesh-like masks, frames a naïve circus acrobat for his crimes to get the cops off his case. With the Fiend plotting to get control of a Tesla apparatus that will make him master of the world’s energy needs, the acrobat, his colorful underworld friends, a by-the-book detective (Toru Nakamura) and his feisty fiancée (Takako Matsu) join forces to bring him down. It’s not The Dark Knight by a long shot, but K-20‘s the kind of gentle, fun fantasy you can take the kids to—as long as those kids aren’t video-game zombies. (Only one SIFF show remains, but the film is out on DVD.) —KAM

Angel at Sea (Frédéric Dumont, Belgium/Canada, 2009; 86 mins.)

Set under Morocco’s hot sun, Angel traces the fatal symbiosis that develops between a suicidal dad and his bright, beautiful son. Holed up in his shuttered, second-floor office, the father (Olivier Gourmet) summons Louis (Martin Nissen) from a happy game of soccer to load the full weight of his despair on the innocent’s shoulders: “I’m going to kill myself.” What follows is the visible corruption of a child’s soul, as Louis gives up living to keep his vampire-father alive. The boy’s slow, inexorable decline is marked by heartbreaking lines from a Baudelaire poem he has memorized (“Angel full of gaiety, have you ever known anguish?”), flashbacks to a time when his father rescued Louis from drowning and the on-off illumination of a nearby lighthouse, a palpable metaphor for manic-depressive disease and the plight of a sunny kid caught in his dad’s dark. Delicately visualized, graced with terrific performances by Gourmet, Nissen and Anne Consigny (Louis’s trapped mother), Angel is unique in capturing the cruelty—destructive enough to look like evil—of those possessed by their demons, and the terrible helplessness of the angels who try to save them. Not to be missed. —KAM

The River (Jean Renoir, France, 1951; 99 mins.)

In proposing an umbrella title for the cinema of Jean Renoir, “Grand Illusion” and “The Rules of the Game” might serve admirably, and certainly they grace matchless films. But really, you couldn’t do better than “The River.” Not only are Renoir’s movies rife with rivers and water in other forms — the essence of his style is flow, flux, change that is an eternal process. 

There is, to be sure, a specific river in this movie, though it is never called by name. That’s partly because “the river” also refers to the nature of existence. Its focus here is a British family living in Bengal, where the father (Powell-Pressburger regular Esmond Knight) runs a jute plantation, and his wife (Nora Swinburne) … well, she has children. Two of them are seen in the movie and a third is on the way. There are also the children of family friends, and three of the young people—teenage girls—all become smitten with an American WWII veteran who lost a leg and is also looking for less identifiable things lost. As the director himself noted, there is “no apparent plot” here, “but an intense, may we say, ‘inner action.'” The film was the first to be made in India in color; and incidentally, until recently none of the prints in circulation in this country has come near doing justice to its vibrant yet subtle, infinitely nuanced Technicolor. The shortfall was serious enough to qualify The River as effectively a lost film. No longer, thanks to the Film Foundation. See it. The River is a life experience. —RTJ

RoboGeisha (Noboru Iguchi, Japan, 2009; 101 mins.)

A bottom-of-the-barrel hoot recommended only for fanboys holed up in their mothers’ basements and hooked on primary-colored Asian cartoon-comedy featuring scantily clad sci-fi heroines, salacious weaponry and copious splashes of ketchup-gore. A mad-scientist corporate shark creates an army of girl robots in his bid to destroy Japan. Along with the Tengu—female goblins sporting red phallic faces and acid-milk-spouting breasts—our plain-Jane heroine and her geisha sister slice and dice nonstop, their swords sprouting from ever more unlikely locations. Gotta love it when a pagoda’d “castle” turned Robbie the Robot punches out a skyscraper until a huge gout of blood (!) sprays across the sky. —KAM

Stigmata (Adán Aliaga, Spain, 2009; 86 mins.)

A giant of a man moves through life in something like a trance, eking out a living as a tavern waiter, hardly ever speaking, spiritually sustained chiefly by drink and his fascination with a colony of silkworms he totes around in a cigar box. Then, after a dream of grappling in the earth with the voluptuous roots of a tree, he awakens to find his hands bleeding from stigmata, like the wounds suffered by Christ on the Cross. He sets out on a journey whose nature we cannot understand till some time later, and even then not entirely. The SIFF catalog tells us that the film is based on a graphic novel, and I suspect that the black-and-white images follow the novel’s “storyboard.” However, with a few striking exceptions, mostly dream images, the cinematography is monotonously murky and there’s little in the way of narrative movement and rhythm. The quasi-religious nature of the story might have made for a compelling and mysterious film (Luis Buñuel, you are missed), but we don’t have that here. Incidentally, the leading actor, Manuel Martinez, is a former shot putter affectionately known as “the Gentle Giant.” —RTJ

Tsar (Pavel Lungin, Russia, 2009; 123 mins.)

Director Lungin claims Josef Stalin, not Vladimir Putin, was the inspiration for this portrait of Ivan the Terrible. Either way, latterday resonances aren’t hard to detect. It’s 1565 and Ivan is being bedeviled by pesky Poland. Half the people, nobles and clergy around him are, he’s increasingly convinced, selling him out to Sigismund. What’s a poor paranoid autocrat to do but send his “dogs”—his personal secret police with severed canine heads dangling from their saddles—to wreak havoc? And on the spiritual front, with the head of the Russian Church having resigned in protest, Ivan drafts his childhood best friend Filipp to become the new Metropolitan. Unfortunately, Filipp has even more scruples than his predecessor. There will be tension. And yes, there will be blood. Lots of blood.

Tsar is focused so closely on Ivan’s descent into madness that the picture almost feels like a chamber drama at times, regardless of how many victims file through. Pyotr Mamonov, who starred in Lungin’s first important film Taxi Blues (1990), embraces the madness with more than a hint of comic relish; this Ivan is a far cry from Eisenstein’s. As the wellnigh-saintly Filipp, the late Oleg Yankovsky (SIFF’s opening night was the first anniversary of his death) achieves dignity and conviction without sanctimony. Cameraman was Tom Stern; after years with Clint Eastwood, he’s no stranger to dark palettes. —RTJ