The 27th Seattle International Film Festival
feature by KJ Doughton, 22 June 2001

Violet Kids! Terrorists! Delusional Inmates! Tarantino!

"Ah, all that beautiful black and white," observes Quentin Tarantino from a podium at Seattleís Egyptian Theatre, flailing his arms like heís had one espresso too many while critiquing an obscure forties film. "Itís enough to make you want to go skinny dipping in it Ė just jump onto the screen!"  A half mile down Pine Street, at The Paramount Hotel, horror director Jeremy Kasten has both ears glued to the radio as his new movie, The Attic Expeditions, gets a five-star rating from a local FM stationís film critic. He grins with enthusiastic approval. A few blocks east of the cityís famed Pike Street Market, Seattle International Film Festival Publicist Rebecca Fisher is juggling phone calls at the eventís Sheraton Hotel Press Room, while handing out press passes and publicity packets to the hordes of journalists on hand to cover the event.  "Iíd ordinarily go crazy from this," she confesses, "but I love my job."

The 27th Annual Seattle International Film Festival ignored the regional energy crisis and spun over a million feet of celluloid through projectors at five theaters.  The list of over 275 films was massive, and the unique gala presentations and archival screenings plugged up any lulls between movies.  While Starbucks Coffee houses and Microsoft logos are the images usually associated with the Puget Sound Region, the SIFF presence dominated the area and could be felt everywhere during its three week run from May 24th through June 17th. "Life in Perspective," the eventís slogan for 2001, jumped off of billboards, posters, marquees, and newspapers. It permeated the East-side Capitol Hill District, causing traffic to jam up on Broadway as commuters fought for parking spots during their attempts to catch a flick at The Egyptian or Harvard Exit after a busy day at the office. Across the street from The Egyptian, the same cinemaniacs could catch premieres at The Broadway Performance Hall, which also acted as the box office for rabid festival ticket-buyers.

Downtown, there was a triple-theatre shot of films playing at Cinerama (recently upgraded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, whose Allen Foundation for the Arts acted as one of SIFFís grand sponsors), Pacific Place Cinemas, and 5th Avenue Theatre.  Meanwhile, you might catch French director Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva, Mortal Transfer) dining at a restaurant, killing time before attending a tribute presentation.           

When he wasnít gushing praise and hyperventilating over the career of William Whitney during a four-day retrospective at The Egyptian, the ever-present Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) might be spotted in the same theaterís fourth row taking in the controversial Battle Royale, directed by Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku.

There were deservedly hyped "event" films, like Terry Zwigoffís Ghost World, a tale inspired by comic books, but in a very different way than his previous effort, Crumb (which documented cult comic artist R. Crumb).  The Endurance billed itself as "The Greatest Survival Story of All Time." No one would argue the claim. Narrated by Liam Neeson and chronicling the two-year struggle of explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 seamen after their ship became trapped in Antarctic ice during a 1914 expedition, the movie was showcased at a benefit for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.  Meanwhile, there were the timely celebrities, such as omnipresent Survivor host Jeff Probst, whose directorial debut Finderís Fee would go on to win the eventís grand prize Ė the Golden Space Needle Award. Campbell Scott was all over the map. Having directed the most recent version of Hamlet this year, along with a digitally shot psychological mystery called Final, Scott stepped in front of the camera for the Canadian sci-fi satire Top of the Food Chain. All three productions were screened at SIFF.

Co-directed by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cummings (and featuring both in acting roles), The Anniversary Party set things into motion during opening-night gala festivities. 24 days later, Alan Rudolphís Investigating Sex concluded a celluloid smorgasbord of Pacific Rim features, Thailand movies, shorts, documentaries, family films, and cutting-edge, controversial midnight screenings of kinetic action and erotica.  Film fodder from 50 countries graced what has grown into the largest film festival in America.  It might not hold the mystique of a Sundance or a Cannes, but for sheer variety and dynamics, SIFF takes the prize. 

But what of the festivalís more obscure, low-profile films that crept in under the radar with no buzz and minimal fanfare?  For every heavily promoted premiere, like Tim Blake Nelsonís updated retelling of Othello (O) or the flamboyant rock opera Hedwig and the Angry Inch, there were a dozen unknown gems like Parsley Days, Before the Storm, and Chopper.  One pleasing thematic trend running through many such offerings was a focus on physical and mental illness.  The oddly moving, resonant French film National 7 addressed the very real dilemma of assisted living residents and their limited opportunities for sexual gratification.  Manic, by U.S. director Jordan Melamed, featured a teenage protagonist serving time in a psychiatric facility and addressed the frustrations faced by both therapists and patients in this institutionalized melting pot. The surrealistic, humorous Iceland entry Angels of the Universe studied the bond between three schizophrenics committed to a mental hospital. 

Otherwise, there was the more predictable hodgepodge of Asian action films (Brother), coming of age dramas (My First Mister), visceral shockers (The Crimson Rivers), and timely documentaries (Scoutís Honor, Startup.com).  It would require a novel to outline each and every SIFF entry, but what follows is a sampling of what makes this blue ribbon film orgy the movie event of America.

"You were found next to a 1953 Ford, hypothermic, unconscious, at a quarry by a cliff," says an iceberg of a psychiatrist (Hope Davis) to confused mental patient Bill (Denis Leary), as he is jarred awake from a lengthy sleep.  Billís mind is awash in flashbacks: visions of an admiring fiancťe, a dying father, and a bout of booze-swilling behind the wheel of his pickup are all dancing in his scrambled noggin.  Meanwhile, he blathers on about being frozen and groomed for some kind of cryogenic government experiment that will culminate in his death via lethal injection.  Is Bill a delusional, psychotic nutcase, or is he really onto something? Such is the setup of Final, a movie that sounds like a futuristic thriller but plays out more like My Dinner with Nurse Ratched.

With Leary in the lead role, one might expect the filmís undercurrent of sarcastic humor, revealed in a scene where Davisí bloodless professional leaves Billís dreary cell after a tense therapy session and he responds, "See you later Ė Iíll be down by the pool!"  One might also expect the typically overbearing Leary to be a scenery-chewing live wire in this role, clawing at his cell walls like a caged animal. Refreshingly, Leary is relatively controlled as Bill, who comes off a bit like Kyle Reese, the future-born, misunderstood hero of The Terminator. He appears to be a schizophrenic, convinced that 400 years have passed since he was put into deep freeze by the government. Ann, however, tells him otherwise. "Youíre a ward of the state of Connecticut," she insists. "If you donít cooperate, youíll be here indefinitely."

What follows is a series of confrontations between the distant, guarded Ann and the impulsive, extroverted Bill, as he pieces together his jumbled fragments of memory during the duoís one-on-one therapy sessions.  Is the guy out to lunch, or does he have reason to fear an insidious plot and a "final injection" to end his life?

This type of subject matter typically lends itself to a suspense framework, as in Silence of the Lambs, where the two-character quid pro quo sessions offered a contrast to the violence and tension that drove that classic thriller.  But the way Scott presents it, Finalís redundant, stiff, colorless meetings between Bill and Ann are staged at such a leisurely pace that weíre waiting for someone to shut them up and provide some real tension.  As we wait, and waitÖand wait for Finalís denouement during a premise thatís more interesting than its two ever-present characters, Scott continues to serve up stagy, talky interactions until we really donít care anymore.

An antidote to Finalís sleepy pace and drab cinematography is Dead or Alive, a visual smelling salt thatís sure to jolt even the most jaded action fans to attention.  However, delicate or easily disturbed filmgoers should consider skipping this latest Japanese shock-fest from director Takashi Miike. His previous film, the unbearable, agonizing horror outing Audition, boasted the most unpredictable chills since Psycho and had unprepared SIFF audiences running for the exits last year, well before its final reel had concluded.

This time around, Miike is tossing the gore into our faces right from the get-go, during an opening sequence that begins with gyrating go-go dancers and ends as a gluttonous diner gets his predigested noodles blown out the chest during a wild restaurant shootout.  Dead or Alive soon morphs into a more run-of-the-mill cops versus yakuza gangsters crime film, as Chinese Mafia leader Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) is pursued by police detective Jojima (Sho Aikawa).  Jojima is a decent man, and an effective law enforcer, but his integrity is challenged by the need to raise money for his ailing daughterís medical treatment.  Heís also not past using the sleaziest, most deplorable porno hucksters as informers, if such means justify the greater good.  Meanwhile, his nemesis Ryuchi struggles with a kid brother fresh from completing college overseas, who is mortified to find that his education was paid for with dirty money. Refusing to get involved, Michael Corleone-style, in the robberies and drug cartels that his brother masterminds, this white knight is soon at odds with his evil sibling. Will the brothers find a middle ground? Will Jojima compromise his standards and go on the take? Will justice prevail over evil?  Without revealing any major plot points, letís simply say that the results arenít pretty.

There are surreal, David Lynchian scenes of the most depraved evil, as when a paunch-bellied, elderly crime lord drowns a tub-immersed woman by casually pushing her head beneath the putrid, darkened water of a wading pool. All the while, he relaxes in robe and reclining chair like some decadent vacationer enjoying the rays of a tropical beach.  At other times, Takashi throws humor into the mix, diffusing some of his all-too-potent darkness. In contrast, there are gentle, melancholy moments, as when Jojima weeps after a car bombing wreaks havoc on some innocent passengers.  Aikawa is a stoic figure of a man, but he also cries with the best of them. 

Like Audition, which boasted a female slasher that made Glenn Closeís Fatal Attraction psycho look like Mary Poppins, Dead or Alive catches us off balance with a rather low-key, somber middle section before throwing in everything but the kitchen sink during a riotous grande finale. This is Takashiís trademark, bathing us in the familiar and mundane before pulling out the rug from beneath us.  The resulting effect is akin to relaxing in a warm bath, only to be jolted into panic by a 9.0 earthquake.  Unlike his previous film, however, Takashi throws in enough shocks early on that weíre more guarded this time around. Even though the ending certainly kicks butt, weíre bracing ourselves for the impact far in advance.

Another thriller that takes itself far more seriously is the intense Swedish film, Before the Storm. Directed by Reza Parsa, this surprising and emotionally involving picture follows the plight of Ali (Per Graffman), an Arab immigrant making a home in Sweden, where he raises two daughters with a loving wife, and supports the happy clan as a cab driver. One day, a mysterious stranger from Aliís homeland forces herself into his domesticated life, demanding that he carry out an assassination.

Weíre soon tuned in to the harsh political climate gripping both countries. The camera passes a poster early on that reads, "Stop the Madness," and illustrates a silo of menacing nuclear missiles.  And as the dark-eyed, female stranger blackmails Ali into attempting the murder, she explains that the target is a Swedish rocket contractor whose exportation of nuclear warheads into the Middle East threatens widespread annihilation.  The woman also dangles an especially effective bait in front of Ali, to motivate his decision. 

Through the persistent, threatening woman, we learn that the cabby was once a "Captain" in his homeland, active in dissident, rebel activity, who left a previous wife behind during his transition to Sweden. From a gritty videotape provided by the woman, Ali listens to pleas from the Arab wife, held captive by terrorists, and views his first images of a son born after he fled the country. In no uncertain terms, the blackmailer tells Ali that these loved ones Ė remnants of his hidden past life - will be executed if he refuses to carry out the mission.  "You have two families," she reminds him, ominously. "If you say no, there will be only one left."

While Ali ponders what to do, another character is introduced into this world of touch choices. Leo (Emil Odepark) is a troubled youth whose school routine is one big obstacle course, as the preadolescent runs from Danne (Martin Wallstrom), a local bully.  Ultimately, Leo ponders killing his tormentor, after being forced to strip naked and wander into a packed girlsí locker room. This act of ultimate humiliation sees the embarrassed lad brandishing his policewoman momís pistol, confronting Danne in the woods, and shooting the oppressor. Leoís pulling of the trigger is more a result of fear and anxiety than any true bloodlust, however, and he wanders through the next few days with an invisible backpack of guilt strapped to his shoulders while Danne lies near-death in a hospital.  Should he turn himself in?  We walk in his footsteps as he makes the choice.

Before the Stormís two pained protagonists, Ali and Leo, share not just a burden of indecision, but also a relationship: the younger character is smitten with Aliís young daughter, Sara (Sasha Becker), a schoolmate who is also targeted by the relentless Danne. Earlier in the film, Ali senses that Leo is being picked on, and counsels the youth.  "If you love someone," the elder parent coaches, "you should do something important, to prove it."  Such words, however well intended, provide Leo with inspiration to rid the world of Danne, all the better to ride off into the sunset with Sarah. Later, Leo learns of Aliís conflict, and comes to understand that painful choices are universal, that to live is to get ground under oneís wheels, with no-one emerging unscathed.

Director Parsa closes his film with some deftly handled suspense.  There is violence, but it is handled in the least sensational manner possible.  An ugly, botched attempt at murder is depicted as a drawn-out, messy affair that induces one to look away from the screen.  Meanwhile, Graffman shows the torment lurking behind Aliís mellow gaze, as he watches his daughters put on a silly fashion show at home. Pondering whether to take on the assassination during this domestic family interaction, he personifies grace under pressure, while internally poised to explode.  Another scene has Graffman revealing the second family to his current wife, Jenny (Anni Ececioglu), and their emotional volleying of words and tension is an acting tour de force.  Before the Stormís closing scenes hint at both hope and despair, as the movie hits home its anti-nuclear message.

Takeshi "Beat" Kitano is a leathery-faced, 53-year-old Japanese filmmaker whose laconic, silent cool makes Clint Eastwood look like Robin Williams on amphetamines.  In Brother, which the hugely popular Nippon presence wrote, edited, directed, and starred in, he saunters in and out of cabs, hotels, and Los Angeles streets like an Eastern Reservoir Dog.  Donning a black sport jacket and shades, Kitano even keeps it cool as heís smashing bottles over the head of a threatening hoodlum.  But thereís also a resigned quality to Kitano as he plays Yamamoto, a Yakuza higher-up searching for half-brother Ken (Kuroudo Maki) in the City Of Angels, after his crime family in Japan is terminated by a rival gang. Yamamotoís face might be craggy and hard, but his tired eyes are those of a man who has seen it all. Nothing surprises this guy anymore, as he spends most of Brother literally laughing in the face of death.

After watching this stone-faced loner track down Ken, we learn that the two were once orphans in Japan, institutionalized together for years to form a bond that has extended into adulthood. However, Yamamoto is mortified to find that the younger sibling has frittered away money meant to finance an education in America, and gotten involved in an amateur drug dealing operation. Also involved in this bottom-of-the-barrel ring are Denny (Omar Epps),  Jaye (Royale Watkins), and Mo (Lombardo Moyar), who are puzzled by the quiet manner of Kenís relative.  "My brother doesnít speak English," Ken informs his fellow toughs. "What do I do with him?" Yamamoto impresses the group with his ability to cheat at cards, before going on to single-handedly turn the gang into L.A.ís most ferocious underworld force.

Brother can be hysterically funny.  The less professional crooks stand by, shaken and wide-eyed, as their new leader shoots his way through rival Asian criminals, black gangs, and Mafia henchmen, all with the laid-back elegance of a seasoned dancer. So matter-of-fact is Yamamotoís style that even the most horrific violence in the film is often laugh inducing.  Take, for instance, a hotel meeting with Mexican crime rivals, where failed negotiations lead to tension at a table rigged with guns, hidden beneath its surface.  "Fucking Jap," giggles an unimpressed adversary from across the wooden surface. "You canít even speak English."  Suddenly, Yamamoto lets loose with a hailstorm of lead.  As the smoke rises from a pile of dead Mexicans, this killer unleashes the corker: "I understand Ďf*cking Jap,í assholes."

As soon as you can say "upward mobility," the group has a swank new headquarters, complete with indoor basketball court and a personal accountant.  But all good things must come to an end, as Yamamoto finds out while trying to waste some persistent Italian goodfellas that simply wonít lie down and play dead. Eventually, the veteran lowlife finds that life in America has dealt him the same hand as the Far East had, as he endures a cluster of Scarface-level bullet exchanges.  If you have a taste for ironic, jet-black humor, Brother delivers.  As an action film, however, Kitano provides more routine fare that seldom matches the dark beauty of similar blood cinema masters, like John Woo or early Brian DePalma.  Still, this overseas  heir to Clint Eastwood certainly commands authority.

Indeed, authority is the name of the game in Battle Royale, a grisly, controversial little slice of sicko cinema that also features Kitano. This time, heís a teacher who endures considerable abuse before the Japanese government initiates the New Century Educational Reform Act, a kind of lottery, but certainly not one that you want to win.  Annually, the new law requires that a class of junior high youths be randomly chosen, shipped to a remote island, Survivor-style, and forced to engage in brutal combat until one student remains.  Set in the near future, Battle Royaleís Japan verges on ruin, a chaotic land plagued with rampant unemployment, suicide, and delinquency.  Kitanoís schoolteacher, tired of the various assaults, taunts, and verbal barbs dealt out by his barely teenage pupils, is recruited as the Reform Actís coordinator, a position he tackles with relish. 

When a new, fresh-faced bunch of recruits are shipped to his little island of horrors, Kitano holds a sinister orientation session.  Dressed in military fatigues and emerging from an army helicopter, the taskmaster herds his new batch of reluctant warriors into a warehouse. Fitting each participant with a modified dog collar, he casually announces that if more than one survivor emerges from the group after three days, the explosive collars will be detonated, and all will perish. The kids are left with only two options: kill or be killed.

Thus begins the disturbing ritual of teens offing teens, via hatchets, guns, and grenades.  The fact that these juveniles are acquaintances, or perhaps longtime friends, makes Battle Royale that much more horrific.  Will buddies turn against each other, forsaking loyalties to survive this gruesome endurance test? Suddenly, acne isnít such a big priority.

One could almost argue that Battle Royale is a legitimate satire of Japanese culture, where respect for oneís elders is the law of the land.  Disregard this commandment, director Kinji Fukasaku seems to be saying, and be prepared for some stiff penalties. Or perhaps he is challenging the Old Guard, shunning his countryís discipline-heavy treatment of children and telling parents to "lighten up."  There are certainly some perversely funny treatments of teenage angst gone awry: in a kind of fatal sleepover party, a gaggle of girls argue until theyíre clawing at each other with daggers, knives, and firearms.  Meanwhile, a televised tally of those killed is announced periodically by a perky, Britney Spears-style teenybopper, who concludes her updates with a team cheer. 

Ultimately, however, one walks out of the theatre feeling a little dirty.  Granted, America has a major Madonna-whore complex over violence at the Cineplex, with such gorefests as Gladiator and The Patriot heralded as historically enlightening entertainment, while Hollywood is condemned for each and every school shooting that hits the papers.  People enjoy violent entertainment, and itís hypocritical to say otherwise.  Why not vicariously revel in the kinetic thrill of Mel Gibson dusting some scumbag, or Harrison Ford telling a ruthless terrorist to get off his plane?  We enjoy it, because itís distanced and artificial. Better up on the screen than on our own streets.

However, to throw children into the mix is a queasy regression. Battle Royale isnít serious enough to warrant its taboo-breaking angle.  What next Ė Kindergarten Killers? Weíve descended a long way from Peter Finchís "mad as hell" anchorman getting assassinated for ratings on Network.  One can argue the case, but my take is to keep the young Ďuns out of harmís way, on and off the screen. Needless to say, teenagers will probably love this film every bit as much as their parents hate it.  

So there you have it.  Delusional asylum inmates. Sullen cops. World-weary crime lords. Youngsters with itchy trigger fingers. Terrorists.  Just another dull cast of characters at this yearís Seattle International Film Festival.  See you there next year.


 

 

 


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