SIFF’s opening delights

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

The Seattle International Film Festival, running from May 15 through June 8, always brings fascinating Asian films to our town, many of them not available for viewing elsewhere. Here are three of my preview picks for the second week of the festival.

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Siff-beyond-beauty caption: “Beyond Beauty” shows aerial views of Taiwan. (Photo by Po-lin Chi/Taiwan Aerial Imaging, Inc.)

“Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above” is one of several striking films from Taiwan at this year’s festival. Playing May 21 and May 23, it is produced by the prominent Taiwanese film director Hsiao-Hsien Hou, whose well-known titles include “Flight of the Red Balloon,” “Three Times,” and “A City of Sadness.” But the film was not directed by Hou. Instead, the longtime aerial photographer Po-Lin Chi settles into the director’s chair.

Narrated by Nien-Jen Wu, another prominent Taiwanese filmmaker, “Beyond Beauty” explores a God’s-eye view of the nation, from its crowded cities (Taipei’s urban population is more than 8 million), to coastlines, fields, and rivers. From above, connections that might not make sense from the ground-level, come together in fascinating, sometimes startling ways.

Recommended for anyone who wants a fresh look at Taiwan, or indeed, a new look at perception itself.

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Hidetaka Yoshioka and Takako Matsu in “The Little House.” (Photo courtesy of SIFF)

Japanese director Yoji Yamada kept himself busy for decades, doing most of the writing and directing for the Japanese “Tora-san” series, which follows a bumbling bumpkin through misadventures all over Japan, and occasionally, outside of it. Uneducated and frequently coarse, Tora-san, played by Atsumi Kiyoshi, sold cheap trinkets, but his real genius lay in making hilarious messes of every social situation he blundered into.

The series includes an astonishing 48 films, released between 1969 and 1995. Yoji Yamada directed all but two of the films, and wrote, or co-wrote, all the screenplays. After Kiyoshi’s death in 1996, the series finally came to an end. Yamada abruptly changed gears with a loosely-linked trilogy of elegant, restrained samurai films, including “The Twilight Samurai,” “The Hidden Blade,” and “Love and Honor.”

Now in his early 80s, Yamada has left samurai films behind and taken yet another approach. “The Little House,” playing May 21, June 1, and June 8, takes its story from a novel by Kyoko Nakajima (no relation to the adult video actress of the same name). It does include, however, the frequent Yamada device of someone looking back in old age, to younger days.

In this case, the memories revolve around a comfortably upper-middle-class family in Japan just before World War II, and the two new faces who arrive to disrupt their comfortable way of life — one a servant, the other a student.

The arrival of the war and the Japanese role in it, is of course disruptive in and of itself, as Yamada documented in an earlier drama, “Kabei: Our Mother,” which also played at SIFF. “The Little House” should be an impressive addition to a long and honorable resume.

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“The Search for General Tso” follows the history of the famous dish. (Photo courtesy of SIFF)

Ian Cheney’s “The Search for General Tso,” playing May 16, May 17, and May 18, is a documentary film with its own colorful approach to history. Cheney starts with “General Tso’s Chicken,” a spicy deep-fried chicken dish available in many Chinese restaurants throughout North America. He then takes the viewer back through time, all the way to Tsung-T’ang Tso, the legendary general in the late Qing Dynasty of China.

The true story of the chicken lies not in the story of the general, however, but in the North American story of how Chinese chefs arrived in North America, the challenges they faced, and the changes they made to adapt and prosper. Cheney might start with a simple food item many take for granted, but he uncovers a fascinating cultural epic as he goes along. (end)

The Seattle International Film Festival runs from May 15 through June 8 in Seattle. For more details, show times, and venues, visit http://www.siff.net/festival-2014.

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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