Seattle international film festival Interview

12 January 2009

SIFF standouts include potential cult classics, disturbing documentaries, and one screwball kung-fu parody

SIFF standouts include potential cult classics, disturbing documentaries, and one screwball kung-fu parody

You can tell when the end of a film festival is near. Pass holders start comparing the number of films like battle scars. When I overheard one person bragging late this week at the Seattle International Film Festival that they had seen around 17, I felt like an old woman -- my tally is just shy of 50.

In my last report, I regarded "King of the Ants" as a stupid, stupid, stupid movie. In this dispatch I'll begin with "Secret Things" and "Demonlover," which are equally wicked, wicked, wicked.

Extremely flawed and pretentious, I still found "Secret Things" not just a guilty pleasure, but also -- strangely -- a gem. I almost want to call it an opera noir. Basically, it is the story of two girls who decide to do a little social climbing by using their feminine wiles to manipulate men -- and how this plan comes back to haunt them. What made it so compelling? Beats the hell out of me. I have been trying to figure it out. If it weren't for the way-too loud opera music swelling in certain scenes -- and its pseudo-intellectual speeches -- this could have been one of the sexiest, darkest, neo-noir flicks in recent memory. Almost sadistic in its treatment of its characters and each other, with a more consistent director "Secret Things" could have been a "Dangerous Liaisons" for the new millennium.

Equally wicked is "Demonlover," a corporate espionage thriller-cum-hentai yarn. For those not familiar with the term hentai is a Japanese form of cartoon porn -- manga and anime -- that emphasizes the abduction and torture of its heroines. Dizzyingly shot, featuring American actresses like Chloe Sevigny and Gina Gershon, and boasting a soundtrack by Sonic Youth, it is almost impossible to figure out exactly what is going on and who is on whose side. Director Olivier Assayas -- whose "Irma Vep" was a festival, and later cult, darling -- brings some intellectual muscle to the project. I tried to analyze the movie, but then realized it isn't necessary. After all, the movie is named "Demonlover" and it's about a girl on a crusade who stumbles upon a secret society, gets abducted and is subjected to unspeakable sexual perversion -- a quintessential hentai story line. So what's to analyze?

The Canadian film "Wild Dogs," on the other hand, pretends to be wicked with one of its plots involving porn in Bucharest, but then opens like a stunning flower. This near-perfect film compassionately portrays the lives of some of the city's numerous canines (Bucharest was once called "the city of dogs"), and uses them as a metaphor for all forms of strays and social outcasts. In almost every case a plot/subplot starts out seeming to exploit its subjects -- sex workers, the deformed and handicapped, children, and yes, dogs -- but would finish by extolling them as the very heart of that city. Indeed, when our generosity is engaged, one of the best things in life. This is one of the festival's biggest surprises, and one of my favorites.

It wasn't just the dramas that were wicked, however. Of the non-fiction films I saw, "The Gift" was one of the best. A straight-ahead documentary, its about the shocking subject of people who intentionally contract AIDS and pass the disease on and give others AIDS. The strongest buzz, however, was for "Capturing the Freidmans," an equally shocking story of a normal American family that may or may not be at the center of a child porn ring. Unfortunately I was unable to get into a screening.

A film that could have been outstanding but was ultimately botched was "Overnight." It's the true story of a bartender who lands himself a $15 million budget for a film from his very first script -- and a record deal to boot. Like a lot of the dot-com docs in the last few years, hubris abounds, but the movie fails in making the chronology at all clear. The makers eschew almost any narration leaving the viewer unsure of not only what they are watching but when and what order the events take place. A prime example of the bungling involves a scene where one of the people is talking about how they are signing a record deal in the morning. One would naturally expect a scene of the signing, or failing that a voice-over telling us the outcome. Instead we are given the title card saying "Mexico," followed by trip photographs. We aren't sure of the conclusion until many scenes later.

In contrast, "Unprecedented" follows the complex information of the Florida presidential election wonderfully. Not only is new information presented, but also all of the shadiness that abounded in that mess is made absolutely clear.

There was some lighter fare at the 2003 SIFF, of course. I am still grateful for the chance to have seen "Devdas" -- touted as the most expensive movie to ever come out of Bollywood. Possibly one of the most breathtakingly ornate musicals -- hell, films period! -- I have ever laid eyes on, it is basically a retelling and retooling of Romeo and Juliet expanded and tweaked. Incomparably lush, the sets and costumes make "Gone With The Wind" look like a junior high production. I am so tempted to say they don't make 'em like this anymore -- but the sad fact is, we don't make 'em like this anymore. Bollywood does, and they do it better.

"Springtime in a Small Town," a multi-national production remake of the 1948 chamber drama, won the best film at Venice and also made quite an impression on me at the Seattle Festival. Quietly beautiful, it reminded me of "Wuthering Heights." Directed by Tian Zhuangyuan, if you like Chinese dramas, you will fall in love with this movie. I was disappointed by another quiet Asian film, "The Last Scene," which was directed by Hideo Nakata -- who gave us the spooky thrillers "Ringu" (remade Stateside as "The Ring") and "Dark Water." About a washed up has-been actor coming back to be in his last film and realizing he's been a egoist his whole career, this movie never makes us care much about the characters in spite of some tear-jerking attempts.

I would be completely remiss if I didn't talk about Jeff Lau's loopy, almost musical romp, "A Chinese Odyssey 2002." Produced by art house fave Wong Kar-wai, and reuniting two of the stars from Wong's hit "Chungking Express," this picture is not only a winner, but is winsome. Slyly skewering the martial art movie craze and tongue-firmly-in-cheekily making fun of a whole rainbow of other pop-culture phenomenons (at one point a characters breaks into a Michael Jackson routine), I laughed from the first fight scene to the end. At times it reminded me of "Airplane" -- and just when it did, it would pull back. One of the most enjoyable films here.


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