Friday, March 04, 2011

Flashback Friday: PIFF 34

Last Saturday, the 34th annual Portland International Film Festival (PIFF) concluded. My favourite annual tradition in Portland was kind of disappointing this year. Part of this had to do with me not living and working conveniently downtown. I miss downtown living and working. I rarely had to leave the downtown core because my entire social life and all my needs were met within the small area known as the "Free Rail Zone."

Because I now live far out in what is called outer east Portland (a 45 minute bus ride), I'm dependent upon the bus schedule and can't go to a super late show if I hope to catch the final bus for the night. If I want to see a movie after work, its an hour long bus ride from the warehouse office I work to downtown. So, it meant that I wouldn't be see many movies this year.

When the booklet listing all the films is released in late January, I savour over each description. I'm basing my $10 per ticket (an expensive indulgence, I admit) on how the paragraphy synopsis strikes my fantasy. Since this is my fifth annual PIFF, I've become a better selector of films. I learned after making dismal choices in the first two years. Part of my selection process is based on country. I have a preference for films from France, Germany, Italy, Australia, South Africa, and Thailand. Next, I'll look at subject matter. The past few years, I've noticed a pattern emerge in what I'm most drawn to: stories featuring life under communist regimes in Eastern Europe or anything dealing with dictatorships. For the past several years, movies seen at the Portland International Film Festival have made my end of year Top 10 Best of List. Last year, the Russian film Hipsters was actually my favourite film of the year. In 2008, the French film Priceless starring the adorable Audrey Tautou was my favourite that year. Will one of the selections of this year make my end of list? Possibly.

Some of the movies I wanted to see the most were either canceled for the times I wanted to see them, or they were at an inconvenient time that would make me potentially miss the last bus for the night. I hope they will find their way to theaters later this year (as some do) or on DVD so I can have my own International Film Festival at home. These films I was not able to see but were on my list include:

Young Goethe (about the famous German writer. Definite must see!)

Passione (which sounded strange: actor John Tuturro made a film set in Naples, Italy and showcases various residents singing a variety of songs. Since I'm quite familiar with Naples, I wanted to see this film for the scenery more than anything else)

My Joy (from Ukraine, about a "road trip from hell" for one truck driver in Russia. It was likely to be too dark for me to enjoy sitting through)

Boy (from New Zealand, a coming-of-age story about a Maori boy who has a fondness for Michael Jackson's music and set in the early 1980s, so it was a generational film that I could relate to)

Kawasaki's Rose (a Czech film that deals with the knowledge that a person who was part of the underground movement to free Czechoslovakia from Soviet rule had actually informed on his fellow resistence members)

In a Better World (a Danish film that won the Best Foreign Film Oscar on Sunday, which is partially set in Kenya and deals with the personal nature of violence in both Kenya and Denmark)

The Princess of Montpensier (a French period film set among the chateaux of the Loire Valley)

Eastern Plays (from Bulgaria, about how young people cope in the post-communist era where unemployment is high as well as skinhead gangs who are anti-immigrants)

So, I didn't get to see any of the above, but the #1 film on my list to see was from Thailand. Its called Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall Past Lives. A strange title, but it resonated with me for several reasons. My mom is from Thailand and her youngest half-brother (who is just four years older than me) is named Boonme. I remember playing with him when my family last visited Thailand in April 1975. My mom said that in all her life, she had never heard of anyone else named Boonme. So, this was quite a personal film for me. The second item of interest for me is that the film supposedly deals with spirituality and past life memories. I'm interested in reincarnation stories, too.

This was the first film that I went to see, but I was disappointed. It was very strange. The film had won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival (the "Golden Palm" is the highest honours a film can earn at the most famous film festival in the world) and director Tim Burton just raved about it. Proof positive that Burton is an all around strange guy (I haven't seen any of his films since his disappointing Planet of the Apes remake).

There were a few things in the film that interested me. One was a reference to a Laotian who was hired to help the ailing uncle. His sister-in-law doesn't seem fond of Laotians who swim across the Mekong River into Thailand to find work. My mom is from a village in eastern Thailand (near the major city of Ubon) and she had told me stories of her childhood swimming across the Mekong River and not knowing that Laos was a communist country. The dialect of Thai that she speaks is actually a mix of Laotian and Thai, and the food she cooks (particularly my favourite: kao neel, which is a sweet sticky rice that you eat with your hands) is more Laotian than Thai. Anyhow, as I watched the film, with the house that is open to the elements (no doors, window panes, or screens) out in the jungle, I was finally able to get a glimpse of the kind of scenery my mother might have grown up in.

Unfortunately, though, the film is one of those surrealist artsy films, where the director tries the viewers patience by showing the mundane aspects of life: such as showing a monk taking a shower (boring!), a water buffalo standing around, people sitting on a bed watching TV, etc. There's a reason why films don't show mundane routines of life. Its boring. Each second in a film is supposed to progress the story. Sofia Coppola was masterful with her use of showing the mundane aspects of celebrity life in her latest film. This Thai director is not, though.

The film featured strange monkey-looking creatures with glowing red eyes sitting out in the jungle and staring at the inhabitants of the house (creepy!). I didn't hear much talk (or actually read in the subtitles) about past lives, though. False advertising! Perhaps the strangest scene was when a regal looking lady goes skinny dipping in a pool of water around a waterfall and takes pleasure in receiving cunnilingus from a fish!!! Oh my God that was a bizarre scene! But maybe its a Thai thing, because I remember my mom telling me a story that was told in Thailand about a woman who was so thirsty that she drink the urine of an elephant and ended up pregnant. It sounded like one of those Aesop type fables, the "how things came to be" mythologies.

I so wanted to like this film, but I was disappointed and bored by it. So far, the only Thai film that I like is called A Comedy About the Numbers 6 and 9 (or as its called in the American release: 69). That movie was hilarious with great acting and comedic scenes, with a strong message about the destructive nature of greed.

The last movie I saw was from Chile, called Nostalgia For the Light. I did not realize that it was a documentary, though, so I was disappointed and bored as well. The paragraphy synopsis sounded intriguing. This was the film that was second on my list to see. It was about the powerful telescopes in the desert, where astronomers can see more stars in the sky than anywhere else on earth, supposedly. Also in this desert are the bodies of the people who disappeared during the reign of the dictator Pinochet. The film was about the contrast between the vast magnitude of the heavens, where people are looking for a sign that God is out there somewhere, while horrors are under their feet, as bodies are found (still preserved because the desert is supposedly the only place on earth where no humidity exists).

Unfortunately, the film was around noon on Saturday, so I kept dozing off during the film. I don't like to watch movies in the afternoon because I generally doze off. My energy is highest in the evening, so that's when I prefer to see movies.

Another disappointment. Had I known that it would be kind of boring, I would have paid my $10 for another film that I really wanted to see.


All is not lost, however, because in between the two dud films, I saw an AMAZING film from Poland, called All That I Love. The setting is in the early 1980s Poland, when the military takes over the government and begins a crackdown on the Solidarity movement. I don't know much about the Solidarity movement and its leader Lech Walesa, but it was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the fall of communism in 1989. Solidarity is a strong word that resonates deeply within me. I would love to see such a movement emerge in the U.S., using that word as well.

Anyhow, this movie is about a young man who is part of a punk rock band. Their lyrics dissent from the government's policies, which eventually gets him into trouble. His father is a military officer who is unpopular among the populace. He falls in love with a beautiful girl (I was smitten with her too. She looked like she could fit in with the ladies of Bananarama, she has that vibe). The girl's father is active in Solidarity, though, so this creates tension between the two of them.

The film is mostly about the young man's relations with his father and his hanging out with his buddies as they aspire to some success as a punk rock band. The music wasn't bad, either. I was charmed by the movie, smiling the whole way through. This is why I love PIFF. I'm transported to other countries and get to experience that part of the world, another era not too far removed from us. I often wonder who I might've been had I been born in a communist country. Communism fell right around the time I came of age, so I feel a strong kinship with those of our generation who grew up under oppressive communist regimes, but who found freedom just when we became adults and kicked out of our familial nests.

Can't wait until next year! Hopefully I'll make better selections than I did this year.

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