by Richard von Busack
The 22nd Annual Pacific Rim Film Festival plays Oct 15-20 in Santa Cruz, California. Admission is free. For more information check the Santa Cruz Weekly’s website or the Pacific Rim Film Festival’s site at www. pacrimfilmfestival .org
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Dai Sijie's first novel was a bestseller in 2003. Dai has since adapted Balzac for the big screen. Based on his own experiences, the film takes place during Mao's Cultural Revolution. Two students, Ma (Ye Liu) and Luo (Kun Chen), are put in a re-education camp. Then two good things happen: one involves art and the other, of course, a girl. The girl is the village tailor's daughter, known as the Little Seamstress (Xun Zhou). The boys set out to introduce their new friend to the glories of French writers. She becomes entranced, falls in love and moves beyond, the boys just as shocked as she at her eventual—and sophisticated—transformation. Balzac is a slight film about the power of plot and the abject nakedness of human life without art. The end piece, set some 25 years after the main plot, is jarring and betrays Dai's lack of experience as a filmmaker, but the journey to that precipice is gentle and joyful. (Plays Oct 17 at 5pm at the Del Mar.) (Gretchen Giles)
The Burning Season All over the Indonesian archipelago, an eco-catastrophy is underway: slash and burn farmers are clearing land to make way for palm oil plantations (used for soap, hydrogenated palm oil for pastries and sweets, and bio-fuel). The result is smog epidemics that choke Southeast Asia, pollutes the biosphere, and severely depopulates the habitats of our closest relatives, the Orangutan. Director Cathy Henkel’s The Burning Season, narrated by Hugh Jackman, follows one entrepreneur as he shakes a different kind of tree: commuting from Sydney’s CBD to New York. Dorjee Sun (the son of Tibetans who moved to Australia) tries to interest global businessmen in cap and trade, and he meets with the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Al Gore and Arnold Schwarzenegger as well. The good news is that the governors of the Indonesian provinces, where there’s still old forests left (especially Aceh, still recovering from the ‘04 tsunami), are discussing the curtailing of the destructive farming. The bad news is more obvious: despite the Indonesian government outlawing slash and burn, it’s still going on. And Borneo’s Lone Droscher-Nielsen, who has been spearheading a orang rescue center, is overwhelmed with (literally) wheelbarrows full of orphaned, sick and injured apes. “You have to make people cry,” Sun says, describing his attempts to wake up the world to the on-going catastrophe. Seeing the plight of the oranges draws some tears, but there’s more despair when watching the world’s leaders hanging out at a luxury hotel in Bali for the latest round of talks…while the US representatives stall out on provisions of the latest accord…and we note an Indonesian farmer who unknowingly cites Adam Smith when he talks about “an invisible hand” forcing him to devastate a forest, just to raise a cash crop that’ll be sold overseas. (Plays Oct 17 at 3pm and Oct 18 at 9:30pm at the Del Mar.) (RvB)
The Chef of South Polar The Japanese saying “the nail that sticks its head up gets hammered down” is inarguable, but it should have a reverse angle: the nail that holds everything together never gets really noticed. Jun (the Tim Blake Nelson-like Masato Sakai) is ordered by the Japanese coast-guard to be the cook at a six-man South Pole base for a two year assignment; his beautifully-photographed facility with cooking frozen food (and almost nothing but) keeps the men sane. But he’s an odd solitary figure, compared to the other men at the base, who are more flamboyant and argumentative and violently cabin-fever wracked. The story is set in 1997 before the Internet really took off, and the life line back to the real world is a telephone that can only be used in 3 minute bursts. How Jun ended up on ice, and how he endures, is but one of the many ironies in an episodic but drily funny tale based on a memoir. The soundtrack by Unicorn heightens the comedy through the film’s theme, based on the rhythm track from Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”. (Plays Oct 15 at 7 and Oct 16 at 1 at the Del Mar.) (RvB)
Departures (2008) The best comedies are always uncertain about what side of the line they fall on. Sometimes, a tragedy seems about to break out at any minute. Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) once played the cello in a Tokyo orchestra. Laid off afterward, Daigo is in serious debt, since his expensive new cello set him back some $186,000. Without a better idea, Daigo decides to leave Tokyo to reclaim his family home in the country in Yamagata Prefecture. Daigo's adoring wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), agrees to the plan, seemingly without doubts. Looking for a job, Daigo finds a newspaper ad for work helping out "Departures." He supposes it’s a travel agency. The boss is Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki); he explains that the ad was a misprint. Daigo will be working not with departures but with the departed. This business sells and fills coffins. Though old Sasaki claims that fate sent the young man there, Daigo can't accept it. He hides his new job from his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue); when she finds out, she regards her husband as an untouchable and leaves him.
What follows are slices of life in the death trade. Daigo becomes aware that what had seemed like a job was actually a vocation. He's very good at handling the formalities, and the harsh situations: untimely deaths, suicides by charcoal inhalation or the aftermath of a motorcycle crash. He’s mentored by Sasaki, a man among men. Yamazaki, never to be forgotten as the John Wayne–like trucker in the 1985 Tampopo, is an actor of absolute gravity and unreal smoothness, and he gives a top movie-star's performance in this role. Yamazaki's suaveness just gets richer as the film goes along. Yamagata Prefecture supposedly has a reputation as a region of bumpkins. It's easy on the eyes; the snow-covered volcanic cones and the wetlands remind one of Washington State. Maybe the earthiness of the people is a regional-comedy touch in all the characters, from the Sasaki to his salty, forward secretary (Kimiko Yo, a pleasure to watch). The film celebrates old-style, hands-on craft. Director Yojiro Takita has impeccable timing and gives this somber comedic material constant bubbliness. It’s a movie about death that's suffused with the joy of living. (Plays Oct 16 at 7pm) (RvB)
Genghis Blues (1999) Kyzyl! who hasn't wanted to voyage to that mecca of throat singers, the capital of Tuva? If you lived there, you'd be home now. The city of Kyzyl--pronounced "kazil"--in the heart of Central Asia, is the setting for much of the unique documentary Genghis Blues. Tuva has a great national art form: throat singing, a technique of vocalizing four different notes at once. How to describe this unearthly song? As Asian cowboy music, only with the yodels emitted at several octaves lower than Roy Rogers? Like an operatic cicada? The guttural chuckle of Popeye set to music? Alto didgeridoo accented with toy whistles and a little bit of chainsaw motor thrown in for drone? A completely unusual sound is a precious resource. The Tuvans have been practicing theirs for centuries. How Tuva became known outside the South Dakota-sized nation is the subject of Roko Belic's documentary. The story begins with Paul Pena, a local blues singer who has performed with John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker.
Pena, grieving after the death of his wife, heard a Radio Moscow program of Tuvan music. Fascinated, Pena backward-engineered the technique of throat singing, augmenting his knowledge by listening to CDs he purchased from San Francisco's Round World Records. Since there is no English-Tuvan dictionary, Pena translated the language from Tuvan into Russian and from Russian into English. In Braille. Like more than a few blues singers, Pena is blind. Pena's performance of the kargyraa style, turning the bluesman's growl into the scary lowing of the accomplished throat singer, is remarkable-- and yet it's chilling to see that kinship between two very different forms of music separated by so much space and time. Caution: scene of a sheep being slaughtered. BILLED WITH A Song for Ourselves. (Plays Oct 17 at 10pm.) (RvB)
Mustang: Journey of Transformation You’d think from the title that this was a western thing, but as The Cowboy says in The Big Lebowski, far from it, dude, far from it. A tiny nation in a Himalayan plateau between Nepal and Tibet, Mustang has been cut off from the world for many years; it’s one rich trade route cut off because of the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Still more or less in the middle ages, this tiny kingdom is rich in monasteries; the sad news is that they are in decline, but western archeologists and art restoriers—including John Sanday, who has helped preserve Angkor Wat—arrive to bring essential social services and to bring back the jewel-like colors to the temples’ centuries old murals. No Himalayan trekker will want to miss this documentary, which includes interviews with the Dalai Lama and narration by Richard Gere. (Plays Oct 17 at 1pm at the Del Mar. Director Will Parinello will be present.) (RvB)
Old Partner The saddest movie about a draft animal since Au Hazard, Balthasar, this slightly manipulative but heartbreaking Korean documentary follows the story of a pair of elderly agriculturalists: 79 year old Choi Wungyung and his nameless ox, some four decades old. The two still head into the rice paddies for daily labor, even if the old man has to crawl over his plants because of a bad leg, and the old ox can barely walk. The old man’s bitter wife is clearly jealous of their close companionship (as well she might be, since she has to get out and push the cart sometimes). Clearly director Chung-ryoul Lee is making some points about the persistence of traditional farming, endangered by globalization (and the US agribusiness); this is underscored through Mrs Choi’s complaint that he won’t break down and use pesticide for fear of poisoning his old partner. (We pro-organic types in the audience get the point.) Nevertheless, you can see why this was a hit in Korea: the director has a real eye for the beauties and homeliness of four seasons in a farm. And there’s a Buddhist message under it all: all life is suffering…and the tinkling of the ox’s bell becomes something like a chime at a temple. For Santa Cruz’s sake, one wants to mention that there’s a very painful scene of a cow being fitted for a nose ring (this being Santa Cruz, everyone will sympathize with the cow’s pain because they have a nose ring already). (Plays Oct 16 at 10pm and Oct 19 at 3pm at the Del Mar.) (RvB)
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
It begins with the most austere of seascapes—the north Japanese coast, shrouded with snow—and an icy, precise summing-up: "For unexplainable reasons, my son and I have become estranged." Takata (Ken Takakura) lives in exile in the north; his daughter-in-law, Rie (Shinobu Terajima, superb, as if a figure from Ozu had wandered into this Zhang Yimou film), pleads with the old man to finish a film project his hospitalized son was working on: a story of a Chinese opera performer from a remote village in Yunnan. But the musician is in prison for three years, behind not just stone walls but layers of red tape, which Takata tries to cut with the help of a local interpreter (Lin Qiu, quite funny); the interpreter has little Japanese, and less common sense. The ultimate futility of the errand is of less importance than the journey itself. Yimou gives us a frightening glimpse into a Chinese prison, where the Maoist ways haven't really died, and takes us to the parts of traditional China that are also on their way out, as represented by the dying traditions of Chinese opera. Strangely moving, particularly when you least expect it. (Plays Oct 18 at 7pm at the Del Mar.) (RvB)