Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Reviews

SIFF 2011 Dispatch 8: “Life in a Day” and “Norwegian Wood,” final screenings and return engagements

Screenings will continue late into the evening of Sunday, June 12, the 25th and final day of the 2011 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival (see below for the films scheduled in the numerous TBA slots of the program). But the festival marks the conclusion with its closing night gala film – the lovely Life in a Day (USA), which is being screened at the magnificent Cinerama (still the finest theater in town and sadly absent from the rest of SIFF this year) – and the traditional closing night party. I hope to rouse myself for the latter.

As for the Closing Night film itself, Life in a Day is a feel-good film (with some moments of sadness and emotional trials) about the global village that doesn’t sell out its integrity to go for the emotional tug. A mix of high concept ambition, low-fidelity tools and the networking possibilities of the web’s global community, the production is a collaboration between National Geographic and YouTube, which is also as accurate a description you can offer for its sensibility. Officially directed by Kevin Macdonald, who plays ringmaster to a circus of contributors, it is in fact shot and performed by you, or us, or the folks out there, using everything from high-end video equipment to flip cameras to smart phones. What unifies the footage is that it was all shot on July 24, 2010, and each piece used in the film relates to the way we live our lives.

Macdonald and his editor sorted through 4,500 hours of video received from more than 80,000 people from 192 countries to get down to about 300 clips (about 90 minutes) from 80 contributors, organized by both time (taking us through a 24-hour cycle from midnight to midnight) and theme (“What do you love?” “What frightens you?”). It’s not anthropology or science. There’s no attempt to represent every culture or weigh representation by the populations of the culture—over half the spoken words are in English—but the array of lives on the screen captures more than cultures and lifestyles around the world. Practically every piece communicates something about the people either on the screen or behind the camera.

This is not a documentary, it’s an impressionist journey around the world of experience through the lenses of folks with cameras and a desire to share their lives and express themselves. There is stunt footage (cameras leaping from an airplane, jetting through streets on a motorcycle and diving into a pool strapped to a diver’s head) and magical moments (animal birth, human birth) and gorgeous imagery. But the real blast of seeing an airplane passing in front of the full moon (a defining image included in the trailer) is the spontaneous commentary of the amateur cameraman, surprised and thrilled at getting the unexpected image. And the most moving sequences are the least dramatic. The proposals and weddings and such are lovely an all, but the morning ritual of a Japanese man and his young son in their crowded little apartment, saying hello to deceased wife/mother, via a shrine, before continuing on with their day, is more telling in its modesty and honesty than any of the home movie moments.

Making its U.S. debut is Norwegian Wood (Japan), directed and adapted by French-Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh-hung from the novel by Murakami Haruki, with a Japanese cast, cinematography by Hou Hsiao-hsien favorite Mark Lee Ping-bin (also of In The Mood for Love), songs by Can and a hushed score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood).

The setting is the youth culture of late sixties Tokyo, where student protests erupt on college campuses and sexual liberation is in the air. Tran, a director all about quiet intimacy and graceful, approaches the social rebellion with a delicate touch. Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Death Note), a teenage boy who leaves his hometown for college in Tokyo after his best friend’s suicide, narrates with the same restraint, even when the dialogue heads into the realm of intimacy and sex (not, I should add, at his instigation). While he avoids the political and social upheaval with his escape into books, this pretty, shy boy is quite the chick magnet and, even when he makes a point of joining his ladykiller buddy Nagasawa in hopes of a little action, he just passively accepts what comes his way, sex included. Except when it comes to Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel), his childhood friend and girlfriend of the dead boy, now a fragile thing unable to relate to most people. It’s hard to tell if its love, the emotional anchor of shared emotional trauma or anxious protectiveness that draws him to her, and Watanabe is no more clear about it himself. Meanwhile there is Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a confident, forward, flirtatious young woman whose sudden appearance is full of surprises and potential that she both encourages and retreats from.

This is a film suffused in melancholia and disconnection. Where Naoko retreats from society at a secluded sanitarium, Watanabe simply retreats into books, school and work, with the occasional date. Matsuyama plays the part as if a spectator rather than a participant in his life, too afraid to engage after the pain of his friend’s suicide. Except when he’s around Naoko. Lee’s photography, even at its most intimate, picks Watanabe and Naoko out of their world, always apart from others and even from one another. The imagery is as delicate as the lives it presents, atmospheres so fragile they look like they’d shatter under too much emotional pressure.. It’s almost suspended out of time even as Watanabe weaves through student marches and slips in and out of one night stands. It’s not that nothing touches him, it’s that he refuses to allow anything or anyone close enough to allow that. Tran’s portrayal of the fragility of emotionally devastated teens and young adults afraid to open themselves up again makes for lonely portrait, more touching than engaging but masterfully painted throughout.

Final Screenings

The TBA slots on Sunday, June 12, the final day of SIFF, have been filled:

Late Autumn, directed by Kim Tae-yong (South Korea/Hong Kong/USA, 2010, 113 minutes)
June 12, 7:00pm at the Egyptian Theatre

Flamenco, Flamenco, directed by Carlos Saura (Spain, 2010, 90 minutes)
June 12, 8:30pm at the Admiral Theater

Hot Coffee, directed by Susan Saladeff (USA, 2011, 88 minutes)
June 12, 9:00pm at the Harvard Exit

Small Town Murder Songs, directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly (Canada, 2010, 75 minutes)
June 12, 9:15pm at SIFF Cinema

Burke & Hare, directed by John Landis (United Kingdom, 2010, 91 minutes)
June 12, 9:30pm at the Egyptian Theatre

The Poll Diaries, directed by Chris Kraus (Germany/Austria/Estonia, 2010, 134 minutes)
June 12, 9:30pm at Pacific Place Cinemas

Best of SIFF 2011

Next weekend, SIFF makes a brief return engagement for a “Best of SIFF 2011” series: 12 programs (11 features and one collection of shorts) over three days at SIFF Cinema.

Friday June 17
Gandu @ 5:30 PM Winner Grand Jury Prize –New Directors Competition
Simple Simon @ 7:30 PM
Best of SIFF Shorts @ 9:30 PM

Saturday June 18
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey @ 11:00 AM – Winner Lena Sharpe Award for Persistence of Vision
To Be Heard @ 1:00 PM Winner Best Documentary – Golden Space Needle Audience Awards and Special Jury Prize –Documentary Competition
Tilt @ 3:30 PM
On the Ice @ 5:30 PM Winner FIPRESCI Prize –New American Cinema FIPRESCI Competition
Paper Birds @ 8:00 PM Winner Best Film – Golden Space Needle Audience Awards

Sunday June 19
Circus Dreams @ 11:00 AM Winner Best Films4Families Feature –Youth Jury
How to Die in Oregon @ 1:00 PM
Life in a Day @ 3:30 PM
Old Goats @ 5:30 PM
King of Devil’s Island @ 8:00 PM

For more information, or to purchases passes or individual tickets, visit the SIFF website here.

See complete coverage at Parallax View’s SIFF 2011 Guide here