NWAW reviews SIFF films: the good, the bad, and the plain ugly

Each year during the Seattle International Film Festival, we send out a team of intrepid film reviewers who are ready and willing to spend hours and hours watching movies in order to help our readers pick out the ones that may interest them the most. This is what they’ve come up with:

“Between Two Worlds”
Reviewed by Jason Cruz

This movie is set four years after the end of the Sri Lankan civil war and is about a young man trying to escape the remnants of the 26-year conflict. It’s a sparsely narrated, but powerful, film.

The main character seemingly washes up on shore in Sri Lanka and is thrown into the chaos of an urban environment. Shops are ransacked and looters pummel a helpless individual in a Mickey Mouse mask (a probable nod at the United States). He escapes the civil unrest and flees to the countryside with two others. Once there, his two companions abandon him and he is forced to find refuge alone.

In place of spoken words, contrasting images of the picturesque countryside and of gruesome civil war prevail in the film.

It is not known to the young man or the viewer whether the images he encounters are real or haunting memories from the past.

The film paints a picture of despair placed in beautiful areas of the Sri Lankan countryside. It is a reminder that, despite the end of the civil war, all wounds have yet to heal.

“Between Two Worlds” show times:
May 22 at 9:15 p.m., Harvard Exit
May 24 at 5 p.m., SIFF Cinema
May 31 at 1 p.m., Everett Performing Arts Center

“Bodyguard and Assassins”
Reviewed by Jason Cruz

Director Teddy Chen’s “Bodyguards and Assassins” is an epic, action-packed thriller about the plot to overthrow the Qing Dynasty in 1906 Hong Kong. The movie, starring many of Asian cinema’s biggest stars, begins by providing the necessary ripple of drama and setup of characters before giving the audience the crescendo of non-stop waves of action culminating in a chase scene through the streets and back alleys of Hong Kong.

The story surrounds leader Sun Wen (later known as Sun Yat-sen), who will arrive in town for secret discussions with local resistance to plan the overthrow. But, members of the Qing Dynasty know of the meeting and send assassins to kill Dr. Sun. A group of hastily assembled bodyguards is put in place to ensure that Dr. Sun keeps his meeting with the local leaders.

Although lengthy, the film’s first half sets up the action-packed second half. Chen does a good job in letting the viewer know the plight of each character and the compelling reasons why each one sacrifices to become a part of the bodyguard team. The fight sequences are athletically impressive and, at the same time, satisfy the bloodthirsty with gore-filled knife, sword, and steel hook fights. Even though certain parts of “Bodyguards and Assassins” are fictitious, the overall history behind the uprising at the turn of the 20th century is accurate.

“Bodyguards and Assassins” show times:
May 22 at 9:30 p.m., Neptune Theatre
June 1 at 6:30 p.m., Egyptian Theatre

“Castaway on the Moon”
Reviewed by James Tabafunda

After failing in love and debt management, Kim Seong-geun (Jung Jae-yeong) decides to end his life by jumping off a bridge into Seoul’s Han River. He adds another failure to his string of misfortune by waking up on the beach of a nearby bird sanctuary called Bam Island. When he calls for help on his cell phone and waves frantically to ships that pass by, he is not taken seriously.

He gives up and spends the next three months alone on the island. But, he is not alone.

Through the telescopic lens of her camera, Kim Jeong-yeon (Jung Rye-Won) sees his “HELP” written in very large letters on the beach. Interested in this strange man who lives outdoors, she decides to send messages to him inside bottles she throws into the river only at night.

From a high-rise apartment across the river, Kim Jeong-yeon lives her eccentric life entirely in her bedroom with her computer, Internet connection, and cell phone.

Good performances by both lead actors, and the script builds to a surprising ending by writer and director Lee Hey-jun.

“Castaway on the Moon” show times:
May 21 at 4 p.m., Pacific Place Cinema
May 23 at 9:30 p.m., Neptune Theatre
June 2 at 9:15 p.m., Everett Performing Arts Center

“The Chef of South Polar”
Reviewed by James Tabafunda

A science team of eight men at the South Pole must figure out what to do when they are not busy at work. The temperature outside of their research station — Dome Fuji Station — in Antarctica is always below zero.

Jun Nishimura is assigned to cook the group’s meals, and he takes his job seriously because he views food as one of the most important ways to give his co-workers some joy in an otherwise bleak location. Nishimura’s only problem is his frequent yearnings to be back at home with his family in Japan. When he thinks of his family, he loses sight of his importance to the morale of his co-workers.

Masato Sakai’s performance as Nishimura is almost as eye-catching as the wide variety of food presented throughout the film. Unfortunately, the mouth-watering appearances of lobster and foie gras are more appealing than the interactions among the  actors. Shuichi Okita’s script would have been more interesting if more time had been spent developing personalities instead of filming yet another dish.

“The Chef of South Polar” show times:
May 22 at 11 a.m., Neptune Theatre
May 24 at 7 p.m., Harvard Exit
May 26 at 6:30 p.m., Admiral Theater

“City of Life and Death”
Reviewed by Tiffany Ran

Naïve and lovesick Japanese soldier Masao Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) walks through the pummeled city of Nanking after the Japanese invasion in 1973.  The film depicts the atrocities committed after the Rape of Nanking, witnessed through the eyes of many other characters: Jiang Shuyun (Gao Yuanyuan), a teacher struggling to save the lives of innocent civilians in the safety zone, Tang (Fan Wei), secretary to German businessman John Rabe, and Xiaojiang (Jane Yiyang), a Chinese prostitute living in the designated safety zone.  Each character struggles to maintain strength, dignity, and humanity in the face of debilitating violence. The film is done in black and white — each scene like an archival picture coming to life.

There have been many films done on Nanking but few touch upon the horrors of war through the unprejudiced approach taken by this film. Many have accused director Lu of having Japanese sympathies but Lu’s sympathies lie with the victims of war including Japanese soldier Kadokawa, who suffers a moral breakdown after such prolonged exposure to senseless violence. Lu’s departure from focusing on the foreign saviors or shock factor is a courageous approach to understanding war.

“City of Life and Death” show times:
May 22 at 11 a.m., Egyptian Theater
May 25 at 6:30 p.m., Neptune Theater
May 30 at 8:30 p.m., Everett Theater

“The Eagle Hunter’s Son”
Reviewed by Andrew Hamlin

A young boy on the Kazakhstan–Mongolian border longs to see the big city, Mongolia’s Ulan Bator. Angered and shamed when his older brother gets sent to the city instead, he flees in pursuit, taking with him the family’s trained eagle, with whom he experiences a complex love/hate relationship.

His adventures range from an unlikely budding romance with a slightly older girl, to capture and indentured servitude to a traveling circus, where he shovels dung out of the animal cages.

The opening scenes of nomadic life feature astonishing vistas of rocky mountaintops lying right next to snowy ones. A bright red hat with striped trim, passed down from brother to brother, forms the only bright color in the beginning. The closer the narrative gets to Ulan Bator, the more blazing artificial colors abound.

The movie could have earned another star by tanking its soundtrack, which insistently underlines every emotional change onscreen — so frustrating I thought I could scream. The constant head shots of the eagle wear out their welcome, too, as does an impossibly miraculous climax.

“The Eagle Hunter’s Son” show times:
May 23 at 1 p.m., Admiral Theater
May 30 at 11 a.m. and May 31 at 6:30 p.m., Neptune Theatre

“K-20: The Fiend With 20 Faces”
Reviewed by Andrew Hamlin

Set in an alternate world where WWII never happened, 1949 finds Japan healthy and wealthy, but dangerously split between the haves and have-nots. A master thief called K-20, whose real face is never revealed to the public, runs riots through this split society, snapping up riches seemingly at will. A circus acrobat (Takeshi Kaneshiro) gets tricked by K-20 into taking the rap for his crimes.

The acrobat busts out of prison and takes up an underground life with the help of two unlikely camps: the Japanese thieves guild and a swarming population of homeless children. His informal superhero training and dynamic matches with K-20 keep the juices flowing in this action picture. At one point, the two men square off on opposite sides of an unbelievably gorgeous woman in a perfectly fitted wedding gown. “K-20” gets dizzily silly at times. But at your leisure, you might contemplate what the film’s quietly saying about poverty, desperation, greed, guile, and loyalty.

May 21 at 9:30 p.m., Admiral Theater
May 29 at 9 p.m., Neptune Theater
June 4 at 9:30 p.m., Kirkland Performance Center

Reviewed by James Tabafunda

Adapted from Takiji Kobayashi’s 1929 novel about the exploitation of the working class, director and writer Sabu’s “Kanikosen” is a story about the oppression faced by a group of workers aboard a Japanese ship equipped with everything found in a crab processing plant. Set in the early 1900s, these workers are forced to do tedious and repetitive work in confined areas deep within the ship.

One of the workers, Shinjo (Ryuhei Matsuda), has had enough of his particular work and is sick of his supervisor Asakawa’s (Hidetoshi Nishijima) vicious attacks on his co-workers. He manages to convince his fellow workers to join him in a mass suicide so they can all escape their plight and travel to their next life where they can live happily.

Even though their efforts to commit suicide by hanging fail, Shinjo and another co-worker manage to escape the ship using a lifeboat.

This film has a few problems. The most obvious glitch is Sabu’s mix of graphic violence and humor to make a single point: a few wealthy rulers amass their fortunes by duping those who are poor to work as their slaves. “Kanikosen” stays too narrowly focused on this point with very little to say or explore.

“Kanikosen” show times:
May 23 at 3 p.m., Admiral Theater
May 27 at 9:30 p.m., Uptown Cinemas
May 31 at 8:30 p.m., Egyptian Theatre

“Like You Know It All”
Reviewed by Andrew Hamlin

South Korean director Sang-soo Hong shot his latest feature on HD video for less than $100,000. But as he proves with “Like You Know It All,” he doesn’t need a big budget or fancy effects to plumb the depths of human fallibility. The film seems simple enough on the surface. We follow a struggling South Korean film director (played by Tae-woo Kim) as he tries to teach a college seminar on his work, judge other people’s films for a film festival, and play the field with the ladies. He’s a failure at all three, especially with the ladies.

Women flock to him constantly, splashing momentarily in his quasi-celebrity status. He’s thrilled. But as we learn slowly, painfully, and sometimes hilariously over two hours, the man has no idea how to handle a romantic life, nor any idea how to build a relationship.

All the characters drink to justify their own bad behavior and to tolerate one another in the first place. Hong’s misanthropy always arrives laced with black humor. And as the film winds down, you’ll feel shocked to see who confesses what to whom, and at what price.

“Like You Know It All” show times:
May 25 at 9:30 p.m.,
May 26 at 6:30 p.m., and May 28 at 3:30 p.m., Pacific Place Cinema

“Prince of Tears”
Reviewed by Tiffany Ran

In the midst of the 1950s White Terror in Taiwan, Little Zhou’s family is torn apart when her parents are captured as suspected traitors. Zhou’s parents, air force pilot Han Sun (Joseph Chang) and his wife Ping (Zhu Xuan), appear to have the perfect marriage and family. However, secrets of their past are revealed as their present lives begin to unravel. Little Zhou moves in with family friend Uncle Ding. Zhou befriends the daughter of Madame Liu, wife to the powerful General Liu. Zhou soon discovers that Ding plays a greater role in her father’s sentencing than she thought possible. Madame Liu’s relationship to Zhou’s mother is also revealed.

The story is told with a romantic narrative similar to Little Zhou’s favorite fantasy picture book, “Prince of Tears.”

Likewise, each scene in the film appears like a page from a painted storybook. Set against the backdrop of beautiful landscapes, the film is a testament to refined cinematography, contrasting breathtaking shots with incidents of horrible violence. However, the whimsical yet convoluted plot omits details needed make sense of the story, and efforts to tie up the loose ends in the end fall short.

“Prince of Tears” show times:
May 21 at 6:30 p.m., Pacific Place Cinema
May 23 at 1 p.m., Pacific Place Cinema
May 26 at 9:15 p.m., Admiral Theater

For more information or to buy tickets, visit siff.net.

Jason Cruz, Andrew Hamlin, Tiffany Ran, and James Tabafunda can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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