Yo-Yo Ma, Cellist, USA plays the cello during the 'Presentation of the Crystal Award' at the Annual Meeting 2008 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2008 •  Photo by Andy Mettler
Yo-Yo Ma, Cellist, USA plays the cello during the ‘Presentation of the Crystal Award’ at the Annual Meeting 2008 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2008 •  Photo by Andy Mettler

At the tender age of seven, cellist Yo-Yo Ma entertained President Kennedy at the White House. Since then, the world-renowned musician has accumulated a glut of awards including 18 Grammys. Yet, his solo accomplishments failed to satisfy his desire to expand his repertoire. So, he formed an ensemble of musicians gathered from around the globe. Collectively, they’re the subject of the documentary, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.

Perhaps it was his birth in Paris to Chinese parents, followed by growing up in New York, that endowed Ma with such a worldly vision. At just four years old, he began playing cello with his professor father. After attending Juilliard and graduating from Harvard, he launched a career performing with various orchestras and releasing dozens of albums. But in 2000, Ma began touring with a virtual United Nations of musical ambassadors. From singers to composers to musicians and visual artists, this collection of culture-crossing entertainers features the sweet sounds of traditional instruments from over 20 countries.

Besides its focus on music, the film also showcases the participants’ heritages such as footage of vibrant dancers or skilled craftsmen, or performers like the Chinese shadow puppeteers. Some of it’s quite spectacular. Unfortunately, the viewer is allowed only quick glimpses of it as the film urgently returns to the intoxicating music each time.

Some of the more dominant personalities are Wu Man from China, who plays and teaches the pipa, Kinan Azmeh, a clarinetist from Syria, and a highly energized Spanish bagpiper named Cristina Pato. But it’s the sad tale of Kurdish Iranian Kayhan Kalhor, who plays the kamancheh, a bowl-shaped stringed instrument, that’s the most riveting. Escaping Iran during the revolution of 1979, he returned 30 years later—only to encounter the uprising of 2009.

Each member of the Silk Road Ensemble contributes a part of their history through unique melodies that epitomizes their own native country. The result is a fusion of fresh sounds, filled with joy.  

‘The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble’ opened 6/24 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.

On the other hand, gloom and doom abounds in the feature narrative The Wailing. There’s something horrifying going on in a small Korean village and it all started when a strange Japanese man showed up. But even as the dead bodies pile up around the residents, they act as if they’re sleepwalking; slow to catch on and even slower to take action.

Two clueless cops arrive at the first terrifying murder scene where a man has killed his entire family and sits in the yard, drenched in their blood. At first, the cops suspect he ate some bad mushrooms, but then one of them—Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won)—visits him at the hospital and sees the unfortunate fellow thrashing about, as if possessed, until he breaks his own neck.

As more deaths occur, the cops go after “The Jap”—as their prime suspect is derogatorily referred to throughout the entire film. Creeping around the woods at night, Jong-gu and his partner nose around the suspect’s shack, destroying his property and ignoring his due process rights. They also stumble on developed photographs of the recent dead, which is interesting considering most cameras are digital these days and there doesn’t seem to be a photo processing shop in town that would serve “The Jap” anyway.

Before long, Jong-gu’s own daughter begins to behave strangely. A shaman is summoned and, in one of the film’s best scenes, conducts a rhythmic ritual to rid the evil spirit. Or, is it a ghost they’re after, like “The Jap” is accused of being? And, if he is a ghost, why has he been spotted on his haunches gnawing away at corpses, that in turn attempt to bite the necks of others, such as a vampire would?  When the shaman is attacked by another shaman, things get really crazy. Perhaps Satan is the deviant they’re after, suggests the nephew of one of the cops—a Catholic priest in training.

Beautifully shot scenes of the lush countryside help create an ominous veil. The film is so gorgeous to look at that the audience can’t help but feel that something bad is about to happen. The unnamed actress in the role of Jong-gu’s daughter is eerily convincing as his possessed child. As for “The Jap,” he’s played by Kunimura Jun, one of Japan’s most preeminent actors.  

‘The Wailing’ opens July 8 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.

In Right Now, Wrong Then, a Korean art house filmmaker experiments with romance. Arriving a day too early for his screening at a film festival, he shrugs off the adulation of a female festival organizer and goes sightseeing at a palace. There, he spots a young woman he feels drawn to. But she’s blasé, sipping her banana milk. However, after some idle talk, they discuss her paintings and she begins to show interest in him. She invites him to visit her studio to look at her work, while adamant about her new career as a complex artist versus the superficial model she used to be. And, even though he’s a famous filmmaker, she’s never heard of him.

The two end up spending the day together, and seem to be mutually attracted until they meet with her friends and the filmmaker reveals something about his personal life. That’s when the movie ends—then, starts all over again. In the second version, it’s as if the filmmaker character, Ham Chun-su (Jung Jae-young), is the real filmmaker, real-life director Hong Sang-soo, as he changes the dialogue that, in turn, changes the action. It’s an interesting concept, but the burden’s on the actors to make it engaging. While Jung Jae-young is good at playing the awkward Ham Chun-su, it’s Kim Min-hee as Yoon Hee-jung and her nuanced facial expressions that are most impressive.  

‘Right Now, Wrong Then opens July 14 at Northwest Film Forum.

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