SIFF 2011: Smilin’ through – Is anybody really trying?

“You know, the director will be in town on Friday. Would you like to interview him?”

That’s how I was welcomed today by an eager young publicist to SIFF’s 10 a.m. screening for press and passholders of Hong-jin Na’s The Yellow Sea. “Let me check out the movie first,” I replied. But that was not to be, thanks to yet another technical screwup on the part of our hometown festival.

When The Yellow Sea hit the screen, a prologue in English explained the very particular players and setting of this “great and gory” South Korean film (as described by The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, at the Cannes Film Festival). Then the main action began, there was dialogue—in Korean—and the audience sat tight, in dead silence, as the film continued … sans subtitles. Finally, someone—all right, it was me—shouted, “Stop the movie!” Nothing happened. The Yellow Sea rolled on.

Surely this can’t be happening again, I thought. Once might be excusable, but twice, on consecutive days, is just plain incompetence. You see, exactly 24 hours earlier, in the same venue (Pacific Place Cinemas), the 10 a.m. audience for the much-anticipated Norwegian Wood by Tranh Anh Hung watched bewildered as the Japanese-language film unreeled, for several minutes, sans subtitles. Eventually someone from SIFF was heard to mumble from the sidelines that “the projectionist isn’t going to start the film over again.” Mass exodus ensued.

What, exactly, had happened? Pressed to say something, one SIFF staffer speculated whether an unsubtitled version had been mistakenly sent from Japan. Even he didn’t seem to believe that was likely (we’re talking about a U.S. Premiere engagement). And what, exactly, did that curious phrase mean—”the projectionist isn’t going to start the film over again”? The projectionist refuses to? Won’t be asked to? If the projectionist had tried again, might he have hit the right button and activated subtitles that were there after all? If so, why not give it a shot? Or were we past a point of no return, and it wasn’t feasible to set the day’s screening schedule back, jeopardizing regular theater showings?

Were we talking technical error, or incompetence coupled with indifference? Who knows? SIFF never explains. Doesn’t have to.

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