Every year when the Seattle International Film Festival starts, I feel like a concussion grenade has just landed in my lap. If there was ever a "travel destination" film festival, SIFF would be it -- the Iron Man of film festivals -- over 240 films in just over 3 weeks.
If you are a die-hard film fan, this is the make or break test. Don't get me wrong, I love SIFF. It is the film festival. Deal makers and power brokers have Sundance. The press and stars have Cannes. No, this one is aimed straight at the heart of the movie enthusiast. Love American film? Got it. Love South American Cinema? Check. Hell they've even got Icelandic films. You want it? You got it.
The SIFF programmers are particularly adept at finding the countries that are producing fantastic work. In the past it's been African, Iran, Sweden and this year it's Thailand. Who would have thought that would've been the new Zanadu? Thailand films are smart, sassy and surprisingly strong. Muscular testosterone fest "Bangkok: Dangerous," the loopy "6ixtynin9" and the stunningly beautiful "Nang Nak," justify all the attention. The other surprise is transgender films -- which seem to be coming from all over. Thailand has "Iron Ladies," there's the multinationals "Princesa" from Germany, Italy and Brazil and "Gaudi Afternoon" from the US and Spain, the award winning "Southern Comfort" and the much anticipated "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" from the US.
Opening night Gala premiered "The Anniversary Party," which gained most of it's attention not from the fact that it was shot on video, but rather its director/stars, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming. The word on it has been luke warm, which is fine by me. I tend to avoid the opening night films; they tend to be focused more on publicity than strength. The next day film going begins in earnest.
The first week the buzz was about "Brother," "Stranger Inside," "Things Behind The Sun," "Everybody's Famous," "Vertical Ray of the Sun," "Princesa," "6ixtynin9," "Barking Dogs Never Bite," " Saroja," "Chopper" and "Gaudi Afternoon." Of the Films I screened, here are some of the ones worth mentioning.
"A Matter Of Taste" (France, 2000) This movie was a dark, nasty little piece of work about a slacker who is hired to be a food taster for a multimillionaire. If that sounds innocent enough, then the trap is set. The executive turns out to be a master manipulator bent on controlling every aspect of his employee's life. Great. Hunt this one down.
"Brother" (Japan/USA, 2000) If you are a fan of Takeshi Kitano ("Fireworks") then you will probably be disappointed by this one. A Yakusa gangster's life is spared on the condition that he goes to America. Once here he hooks up with his brother's gang and starts warfare with Latino and Italian gangsters. Omar Epps stars as one of Kitano's brother's friends, and improvises one of the most painful scenes in recent memory. A few humorous scenes but it lacks the poetics that his other work brings to Yakusa sagas. Forgettable.
"Stranger Inside" (USA, 2001) Cheryl Dunye ("Watermelon Woman") returns with this riveting prison film. Yolanda Ross nails her debut as Treasure, a girl whose spent her childhood in juvie and lives to get into the state pen, to meet her mom, the notorious Brownie. The direction is spot-on and the story keeps you on the edge of your seat until the end. Performances are strong and compelling. Funny, scary, good. Very Good. Co-Produced by Michael Stipe ("Being John Malkovich"), the film is distributed by HBO Films, meaning it will be on HBO eventually. Don't wait. This is a movie worth seeing in the theatre.
"Things Behind The Sun" (USA, 2000) Allison Anders' newest pic was a hit at Sundance. No wonder. Great Performances by Kim Dickens as a up and coming rocker who is still dealing with her childhood rape, and Gabriel Mann as a reporter who knows her past all too well. Don Cheadle, as always, is great. This is one of the most heartbreakingly honest films about rape and its aftermath. Long overdue.
"Bangkok: Dangerous" (Thailand, 2000) The Pang brothers kick your butt (what is it about directing brothers?). The story of a deaf hitman's downfall. "Bangkok" may not be the most cerebral of films, but visually this movie beats you like you've got a glass jaw. "Bangkok" all but demolishes the usual spare, hit-man-trope visuals, giving you brutal Wong Kar-Wai-esqe visuals suited to the city's gritty, neon bright demeanor. The editing is equally on point -- especially a stunning ghost scene later in the film. My eyes fell out of my head and rolled to the front of the theater, covered with gum and soda. You will be hearing from the Pangs and I can't wait.
"Barking Dogs Never Bite" (South Korea, 2000) Even though they say no dogs were harmed, I was cringing watching some of the scenes. All the same I love this movie, Bong Joon-Hu's debut is assured, smart and off the wall. A loopy comedy about a apartment building's dog-hating and dog-loving tenants, this movie is nothing short of irresistible. The two girls who star in this are so endearing, so warm that if this was an American film they would probably have 3 or 4 sequels ahead of them. I would be one of the first in line to see it, too. A Gem.
"Gaudi Afternoon" (USA/Spain, 2000) Susan Seidleman's ("Making Mr. Right," "Desperately Seeking Susan") latest is a gender-bending mystery. Judy Davis is a translator who is hired by a mysterious woman to find her ex- husband. Essentially it's an American "All About My Mother," and all that implies: not as good or as deep. You'd think with a cast of Judy Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and Lily Taylor, she'd have it made. Instead it winds up being, well, gaudy.
More to follow next week.