Seattle International Film Festival Report #9

One of the most memorable images in sport is that of a barefoot Ethiopian, Abebe Bikila, winning the marathon in the 1960 Rome Olympics.

This dispatch includes a would-be prestige picture, successful comedies about Canadian teenagers and robotic geishas, two pretty-good documentaries about Warhol superstar Candy Darling and Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila, a mockumentary about Korean actresses and three Australian features—a serious modern-problems film, a family dramedy and a musical about Aboriginal identity.

When the lead actor announces, 15 minutes into a 90-minute film, that he’s going to kill himself that night, you can pretty well figure that 1) he won’t, and 2) that announcement will be the proverbial bomb under the table for the rest of the film. When he makes that announcement to his young son and tells the kid that it’s their secret, you can also figure that we’ll spend the rest of the film watching this unasked-for revelation eat the kid alive. Angel at Sea, directed by Frederic Dumont, does its arty best to makes something happen from this setup (lots of extreme close-ups and playing of focus) but the result is both manipulative and boring. I was hoping, given the fact that the family at the center of it all are European expats in Morocco, that it might turn into an allegory about colonialism and the patriarchy, perhaps asking how incompetent a white man has to be before he loses his inherited position as king of the mountain. But no joy: the only female character has little to recommend her and the Moroccans serve as mere backdrop to the white folks’ story.

Most teenagers, at least those featured in mainstream American high school movies, are fixated on sex, football and pimples in more or less that order, but Leon (the quite effective Jay Baruchel), the central character in The Trotsky, has concerns of quite a different order. He’s convinced he’s the reincarnation of the Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky and is charmingly monomaniacal in pursuit of what he believes to be his destiny. Leon keeps a list of to-do’s which include marrying an older woman, preferably named Alexandra, and being assassinated, preferably in a warm country, and after his attempts to organize a strike at his father’s plant don’t go as expected shifts his attentions to organizing a student union at his school. The script by Jacob Tierney, who also directed, is more literate than the typical teen comedy (although it has a similar quotient of magical thinking), excellent location shooting in Montreal, plus a strong cast of actors including Genevieve Bujold, Michael Murphy, Colm Feore and Saul Rubinek make this one fun for the old folks as well as the teens who are the more likely target audience.

Robo-geisha by Noboru Iguchi is definitely not for everyone, but for the right crowd it’s just about perfect. And the right crowd was in attendance at the midnight screening at the Egyptian, which was rocking with laughter from a full house of filmgoers all of whom seemed to appreciate this somewhat juvenile but far-paced and always entertaining satire on the clichés of Japanese popular culture. Robots, geisha, martial arts, schoolgirls in sera-fuku, Mt. Fuji—it’s all here and more. The basic setup involves a squad of geisha/martial artists whose bodies have been modified into weapons by a businessman and his son who plan to use them to conquer the world. At least half the laughs some from unexpected sources of weaponry (the ass-sword is only the beginning) and the other half from the satire on ostensibly serious martial arts movies which undercut their own effectiveness with CGI blood, staggeringly bad dialogue and constantly recycling of well-known themes. The robo-geisha are also babes, of course, and the fact that their uniforms are pink bikinis can’t help but please a largely male fan base.

There’s been a mini-industry in documentaries about Andy Warhol and his associates these past few years, so James Rasin deserves a lot of credit for coming up with a new angle for his documentary Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar. The something extra is provided by Jeremiah Newton, Darling’s friend and confidante, who provides his own oral history of this most beautiful of the Warhol superstars. Rasin also came up with a lot of archival materials from Darling’s childhood (when she was still James Slattery) and together they create an in-depth (and frequently heartbreaking) portrait of an individual who managed to create, however briefly, the kind of glamour more often associated with screen stars like Kim Novak. The sad part: that the world had no proper use for the talents of such a determined yet vulnerable person who was born several decades ahead of her time: today Candy could have been a real superstar and let Andy, or his modern equivalent, play his manipulative games on someone else.

One of the most memorable images in sport is that of a barefoot Ethiopian, Abebe Bikila, winning the marathon in the 1960 Rome Olympics. This made him the first black African to win a gold medal and when he defended his title in the 1964 Tokyo games Bikila became the first back-to-back marathon winner in Olympic history. These facts are common knowledge to anyone who follows track and field, but fewer are aware that after becoming paralyzed in an automobile accident Bikila became a pioneer in sport for the disabled. The Athlete by Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew (who also plays Bikila) is about the whole of Bikila’s life and also conveys the political importance of Bikila’s victory in Rome, making him a conqueror in Ethiopia’s former colonizer. The best thing about The Athlete is the skillful way it intercuts newly-filmed biographical segments with clips from an earlier documentary about Bikila, Bud Greenspan’s The Ethiopian; the worst is the painfully-straightforward exposition in many of the new segments. Still, The Athlete conveys a sense of Bikila’s spirit and includes some fabulous shots of the African countryside and athletics fans will definitely want to see it.

There’s not much story in The Actresses by Je-yong Lee but it’s a stylish and entertaining mockumentary about six top Korean actresses ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s who are brought together to do a photo shoot for a special issue of Korean Vogue. The dialogue was largely improvised from a basic outline provided by director Lee and the end results seems very convincing and natural as the mood shifts from the expected catfights and jealousies (each of these ladies is used to being the center of attention, after all) to a more thoughtful discussion of what it means to be an actress in Korea. Fans of Korean film will probably enjoy it even more than I did because reportedly each real actress is playing a version of the type of character she is most identified with, adding another layer of meaning.

If you have a high tolerance for the kind of film in which the lives of strangers intersect in improbably meaningful ways (I’ve gone a bit off them lately) you’ll love Blessed, directed by Ana Kokkinos. It presents 24 hours in the day of 7 Melbourne teenagers, then the same time period from the point of view of their mothers, a format which works better than you might expect because the second half gives you information which forces you to re-interpret what you saw in the first. This film is a veritable parade of Modern Problems of the Working Class: drinking, gambling, shoplifting, racism, child neglect and abuse, runaways, porn videos—and yet an excellent cast (including Frances O’Connor, Miranda Otto, and Deborra-Lee Furness) makes the characters both real and sympathetic. And that may be why ODTAA (One Damn Thing After Another) scripts keep getting written and produced: it’s easier to write a series of good scenes than a traditional script and the disconnected nature of the scenes makes it easier for actors to really go to town while the camera’s on them, knowing it will soon be on someone else. Production design and cinematography are first-rate as well.

My Year Without Sex, directed by Sarah Watt, looks at a year in the life of a suburban Melbourne family. Why this year and this family? Because the mother (Sacha Horler) has a ruptured cerebral aneurysm (most conveniently while she’s seeing her doctor for another purpose) and once released from the hospital is warned to not have sex for a year lest the rupture recur. You’d think a film could generate some tension from a life-threatening condition, but instead this film is mainly about the minutiae of daily life in an average family—the goldfish dies, the dog eats it, the daughter cracks her chin running in church, the son’s football coach gets carried away with competitiveness—in episodic short scenes which often end abruptly as if it were time for a television commercial. In fact the whole film has the feel of a sitcom (or better yet, an Erma Bombeck column) where nothing’s really at stake but—if and only if you identify with the characters—you can feel reassured that everything’s going to be OK and flattered that a life no more significant than your own is getting the big screen treatment.

And now for something completely different: an Australian musical set in 1967 about a young Aboriginal man (Rocky McKenzie) torn between native life (including his love for a beautiful girl played by Jessica Mauboy) and studying for the priesthood at a mission school led by the Geoffrey Rush (using the cheesiest German accent ever). After taking the rap for a minor infraction, the young man runs away and ends up on what becomes a road trip of self-discovery across Australia (sound familiar?) with the alcoholic elder Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) and a couple of German hippies (Tom Budge and Missy Higgins) in a psychedelically-painted VW bus. That’s a fair description of Bran Nue Dae, a film directed by Rachel Perkins (based on a successful 1990 stage musical) which has almost enough divine madness to carry it off. Plus you have to love a show which includes the lyric “There’s nothing I would rather be/ than an aborigine/ and watch you take my precious land away”). There are good moments and the cinematography by Andrew Lesnie sets an appropriately unreal mood but this film is ultimately sunk by stereotypical characters and plot, mostly forgettable music and amateurish production numbers. | Sarah Boslaugh

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