Wednesday, February 19, 2014


A version of this post appears in the Portland Observer here:

The Portland International Film Festival is in the final stretch and, as of this writing, I've seen 17 films since my last post. Here are the ones you can still see in the festival's final days, along with three more of my favorites to watch for in hopes of a theatrical or DVD release (and my ratings on a 10-point scale):

One of my favorite films of the festival was "Aftermath" (9), a powerful Holocaust story that apparently was quite controversial when it was released in Poland. Inspired by a true story of a Polish town, the film involves two brothers, the older of whom is returning home for the first time since immigrating to Chicago 25 years before. Franciszek's return has been occasioned by the fact that his brother Jozef's wife has suddenly left the village and moved to the U.S. with the couple's two children and won't say why. Upon his arrival, Franciszek finds that Jozef (and he, by extension) are the target of some hostility in the town. With some digging, he traces the hostility to Jozef's actions in unearthing some Jewish headstones that were repurposed for paving after the town's Jewish cemetery was destroyed during World War II.

It turns out that the headstones are just the tip of the iceberg that Franciszek encounters, and part of the achievement of this film is how genuinely successful it is at unfolding a very suspenseful tale of literally buried secrets. Significantly, the film does a better job than most Holocaust films at depicting how great evil may reverberate on unwitting successive generations. What drives the two men (one of whom seems to be anti-Semitic himself) to pursue the truth, how each reacts to the successive discoveries, and the reactions of the townspeople all are depicted with stark psychological realism. Full of devastating insights. (Plays again on Feb. 23)

"Ernest and Celestine" (8) is the best children's film I have seen at the festival, which inevitably means it offers much for adults to enjoy also. It's the charming story of a mouse, Celestine, and her friendship with a bear, Ernest. In the world of this delightfully animated film (based on a series of French children's books and justly nominated for an Academy Award), bears and mice live in separate worlds, above and below ground, nursing age-old antipathy with urban legends about each other. Celestine and Ernest have artistic souls, which contributes to their outsider status in each culture, and also provides a basis for them to bond. Of course, as outsiders, they also share a willingness to carve a path outside of convention, which lends a revelatory quality to the world they create for themselves. It's not a new theme, but it is very well executed here. And something about listening to their dialogue in French makes it all the more delightful. (Plays again on Feb.23)

The central enterprise of "The Great Passage" (6.5) is the arduous task of creating an ambitious dictionary (for which the film itself is named) during the period of change in which books are fading in significance and online resources are on the rise.

The film spans a period of 13 years, beginning in 1995, and charts the progress of the project along with the parallel maturation of a bookish young man at the center of the story, Majime. Shy and socially awkward and working in the sales department of a large Japanese book company, he is tapped to replace the main editor in the company's dictionary department when the man resigns to care for his ailing wife. Majime (whose name means "diligent") naturally exhibits the painstaking care and love of words needed to be inspired by the project of creating a "living dictionary" that incorporates modern words and slang. The work and the support he receives from the small department of misfits he works with also assist him in his own work of coming out of his shell (just barely) and learning to communicate enough to woo the quiet chef he meets through his landlady.

"The Great Passage" proceeds at the pace you might expect from people who love words and dictionaries, but it is a gently comic story with interesting characters that feels distinctly grounded in Japanese culture. (Plays again on Feb. 19)

"American Dreams in China" (7), though a bit uneven, offers a window into China's perception of how the Chinese are treated by the U.S. and also a Chinese perspective on the U.S. itself.

Wildly popular in China, this film from Hong Kong has been dubbed "the Chinese Social Network." It tells the story of three young men who meet at university, bond over their dreams of studying in the U.S., and end up founding a hugely successful corporation that tutors students in English and coaches them on what they need to obtain a U.S. visa. The U.S. actors in the film are distractingly awful and the plotting sometimes feels clumsy, but in the end I wondered if my perceptions as to the latter might in part reflect some cultural differences; ultimately the film sells its distinctly Chinese perspective on U.S-Chinese relations. (Plays again on Feb. 20)

"The Snow on the Pines" (6.5) is primarily interesting for what it may signal about a shift in Iranian society. It lacks the complexity that I have so admired about other Iranian films (including "The Last Step," discussed below). By Western standards, its story of a woman who discovers that her husband has been cheating on her is fairly well-worn territory. But for an Iranian film to focus entirely on the woman's experience, including her burgeoning interest in a man not her husband, feels pretty remarkable -- indeed, I was having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that this film actually won awards in Iran. Apparently it took a couple of years to get the film past Iranian censors, but things must be shifting if this film can garner critical interest in mainstream Iranian cinema. (Plays again on Feb. 20)

"Thy Womb" (5) offers the opportunity to observe the culture of one of the Philippines Muslim provinces, the island community of Tawi Tawi, but doesn't provide the narrative structure to help non-Filipino audiences understand what they are seeing.

The story revolves around a middle-aged fisherman and his wife, Shaleha, a midwife who has never been able to conceive. Shaleha decides, finally, to help her husband find a second wife. We don't learn enough about their culture to get a sense of why she would make such a choice and to interpret the other complications of the plot, as the two have a loving relationship and it's not even clear that he understands how this decision will end up affecting her. There also is intermittent violence in the film that is entirely unexplained. It's beautifully filmed and often arresting to watch, but leaves a lot of questions unanswered, having offered the audience no tools to answer them. (Plays again on Feb. 20)
Three of my favorite films have ended their festival run, but are so good that I recommend keeping an eye out for a theatrical or DVD release:

"Metro Manila" (10), a British film set in the Philippines, is my favorite film at the festival so far. It won an Audience Award at Sundance and was Britain's submission for the Academy Award for best foreign language film; it deserves to be among the nominees since it is better than the four that I have seen.

It's the third film of its talented writer director, Sean Ellis, who wrote the screenplay in English and shot the film in Tagalog, with the help of his strong Filipino cast. It's a brilliantly plotted, beautifully acted, suspenseful and moving story of a couple who leave their farm to seek a better life in Manila and encounter the worst of humanity there. I can't think of a more satisfying thriller, and it also has a really important story to tell. I expect to write a longer review of this one, which is a strong contender for my own list of the best films of 2014.

"The Last Step" (10), which finished its PIFF run on Monday, may have dimmer commercial prospects in the U.S. but is also quite wonderful, in its own way.

Inspired by Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" and James Joyce's "The Dead," it explores relationships between a husband, a wife, and their mutual friend, veering back and forth in time. It is clear early in the film that the husband has died, and the action changes time periods frequently, shifting before and after his death. The shifts are filmed without any fade-outs or clues, which is disorienting at first but ends up giving the film a sort of metaphysical quality, blurring the lines of time and space in a manner that mirrors the spiritual world and captures subtleties in the relationships that might not otherwise be perceptible.

Iran continues to produce particularly dazzling films; I'm anxious to see this one again because its riches can't be absorbed fully with just one viewing.

"Ida" (9) is the last of the three strong Polish films I saw at PIFF this year and may have a shot at a limited U.S. release, as it deals with World War II themes that Americans respond to and has won awards at several international film festivals.

Set in 1962 and shot beautifully in black-and-white, it tells the compelling story of a lovely young orphan who has spent her life in a rural convent. About to take her vows as a nun, she is instructed by her mother superior to visit an aunt in Warsaw that she didn't know she had, and once there she learns things about her family and identity that she never suspected. The aunt is a beautiful and hard-drinking judge who earned her reputation as "Red Wanda" for prosecuting state enemies. The two women are a study in contrasts, and embark on a journey to find what became of the younger woman's parents during the war. It's a compelling story, told with restraint and care.

Next week: my own list of the best films of 2013, just in time for the Academy Awards.

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