Once again, it’s time to sift through the catalogue of film offerings being screened at the Seattle International Film Festival, or SIFF. This year’s program offers an eclectic Asian crossroads of action, drama, documentary, romantic comedy and, of course, martial arts flicks.
Misery has never looked as beautiful as it does in the documentary “A River Changes Course.” While they may be suffering from poverty, Cambodian women like Khieu Mok display a timeless grace while swinging sickles at rice plants. Working tirelessly on the farm with her mother, in debt because their fields don’t yield enough food, Khieu opts for a job in the city. Hunched over a sewing machine in a stifling Phnom Penh factory by day, she goes home at night to a crowd-choked slum. But before long, she’s back on the farm helping her mother with the harvest; the money she sent home is never enough to pay off their debt. Side by side, laboring on their scenic land, the two women emanate poise. Despite their hardships, their pure spirits exude perfection as mother and daughter toil the earth together.
Another agrarian family — this one of the minority Indigenous Jarai ethnicity — features a mother named Sav Samour. While her young children hoist even younger children onto their hips, dig for potatoes and wash clothes in the river, Sav breastfeeds yet another child. Contemplating their ancestral lands, she expresses fear they’ll vanish in the near future. Still, Sav is radiant even as she stares blankly at a daughter who — upon finishing her meal — complains she’s not yet full.
Meanwhile, the Math family, Cham Muslims, make their living fishing. Sixteen-year old Sari reluctantly leaves school to help his father catch dwindling amounts of fish they sell to customers along a watery route back to their home. But soon, Sari quits to work for Chinese developers, hoeing and clearing land. The absurdity of destroying forests — which limits the Math’s food sources — while embracing development that offers only low-paying jobs, is unbearable.
Director Kalyanee Mam sees the changing course of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap River twice a year as a metaphor for its people. With one foot firmly planted in the past, their other foot runs to catch up with the globalization assaulting their country. Sumptuously filmed, “River” is a beautiful tribute to the inhabitants of a beautiful country.
Another film featuring pretty people is “Two Weddings and a Funeral” — only these beauties are actors in makeup. Evidently, to be gay in South Korea is to be ostracized, so two queer doctors agree to marry each other. She is Hyo-jin (Hyeon-kyeong Ryu) who wants to adopt a baby with her lesbian partner. He is Min-soo (Kim Dong-Yoon) who wants his parents off his back. Even though he’s still in the closet to his family and colleagues, Min-soo hangs out at bars with his gay buddies singing with their group called G-voice. The drama begins when Min-soo meets Suk (Song Yong-Jin), the man of his dreams, who urges him to live his truth just like he does. Instead, Min-soo displays only cowardice until one crucial night when he’s compelled to save a friend. What this movie lacks in storytelling, it makes up for in high-production value in depicting the trendy soul of Seoul.
Rene (Filipino superstar Eddie Garcia) is another closeted gay man. In “Bwakaw,” he refuses to come out until he turns 70. Now, living in a rural Philippines village, he’s convinced it’s too late for happiness and — making no effort to enjoy life — he surrounds himself with boxes packed with belongings and willed to beneficiaries. He also buys a coffin in preparation for the inevitable and keeps a statue of Santo Entierro next to his bed. Rene even holds his faithful and affectionate dog, Bwakaw (street slang for “voracious” in Tagalog), at bay. Eternally grumpy, he exists in a colorless world of washed-out floral shirts and refuses to dye his gray hair even as his flamboyant friends at the salon urge him to embrace life.
On the contrary, the elderly in Zhang Yang’s “Full Circle” refuse to die. Confined to a nursing home in China, and bossed around by Chief Nurse, they exist in a world filled with prescription pills, surly adult children that neglect them and extreme boredom. That is, until Old Zhou (Wu Tianming), the best friend of resident Old Ge (Xu Huanshan), arrives. Together the two men urge the others to join them onstage so they can compete on a Japanese TV variety show, partly inspired by Old Ge’s wish to be reconnected with a daughter who resides in Japan. Swaying his fellow residents, Old Zhou finds ways to get around Chief Nurse’s watchful command. Before long, these charming seniors are sneaking onto a bus to perform in a distant city. While intergenerational issues are explored with some heavy-handedness in this film, the conflict between a demented woman and the man she believes to be her husband is delicately presented.
Another group of elders — this one in Taiwan — also refuse to go quietly into the night. In the documentary “Go Grandriders,” the average age of 17 motorcycle riders is 81 years old. In a show of strength, they trek 1178 kilometers in 13 days around Taiwan. Among the participants is He Qing-tong. Visiting his wife’s grave, he tearfully promises to take her along, then pastes her photo onto his windshield. With their ardent sense of self-worth, these seniors do at 81 what some 18 year olds can’t. Sadly, the end credit roll scrolls the names of those who won’t be making the next ride.
For action fans, “Tai Chi Hero” features Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) marrying into the Chen family to learn their potent and powerful form of kung fu. Alas, there’s a bad seed planted among the relatives, and soon, fists are furiously flying. With steampunk, rock-n-roll and astounding fight scenes, this follow-up to “Tai Chi Zero” is packed with more plot twists and martial arts poses than a pretzel.
Whether you choose to laugh, cry or cringe with these options, anyway you sift it, there’s a film for you in this year’s SIFF mix. Stay tuned for more SIFF coverage in the next issue.
For theater dates and times, please search film titles at www.siff.net.