Doing a film festival with a pass is an amazing thing if you’re a film addict, especially for a festival as long as SIFF is. As a pass holder with 24 days of movies, I see things that would normally not catch my eye, sometimes blindly. There have been many a day where I’ve wanted to see a movie at 4:30, and at 9:15 in the same theater, and just decided to see the 7:00 for the hell of it, because I’m a lazy man who doesn’t feel like going to another theater.
Of course, these non-choices make any festival a cinematic grab bag. Some films are not one’s cup of tea. Some are amazing. Some are average, and others are regrettable. Sometimes you’ll watch a movie that you just know is going to get a wide release, and other times you’ll end up with some foreign drama from Bumfuckistan that, nowadays, would have to fight even for a streaming release. The other day, I saw Atlantic Heart, a film from Cape Verde, because it fit between a VR exhibit and a screening of a Werner Herzog documentary. It was a movie that didn’t have a distributor, probably won’t get a distro deal, wasn’t all that great…yet I’m really glad I saw it.
Two of my favorites of this festival (which is a relatively strong year) were actually nowhere on my list of things to see, but I saw them as “filler” movies. The first was The Wounded Angel, a gorgeous piece of miserablist cinema from Kazakhstan. Set in the 1990s, when the now-broke-as-hell Russia was turning off electricity between 8pm and 6am, The Wounded Angel is four separate stories of adolescent boys growing up and discovering just how awful humanity actually can be. Over the course of 2 truly dysfunctional hours, The Wounded Angel dives deep into the bleak black soul of survival and rarely looks back.
The other is A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, a 3-hour Japanese movie about a woman finding her voice. Here is how the SIFF catalog describes it:
Japanese director Iwai Shunji (All About Lily Chou-Chou) returns with a deceptively beautiful romance about a bored young woman obsessed with a new social-media site, where she makes a friend who encourages a series of questionable decisions.
I honestly don’t know how to describe Bride, but the movie described in the catalog is not the movie I saw. I know many others who felt the same way. Bride is a complex movie that constantly changes its own rules, but it becomes an indescribable, expansive, and epic experience. When the movie’s plot is predicated on spoilers for the main character, it becomes impossible to promote a film without revealing its secrets.
Similarly, Sion Sono’s ultraviolent Tag sells itself as a movie about the exploitation and slaughter of Japanese schoolgirls, but is actually something completely different. It’s a (admittedly problematic) feminist meditation on female roles in media, the male gaze, life choices, memory, with existential questions about self-identity thrown in for good measure. And there’s the slaughter of Japanese schoolgirls. Here in liberal Seattle, the trailer for Tag was met with a huge amount of skepticism, making this a hard sell for anybody. Even after the great ratings it garnered from the audience, it was still hard to entice people into a movie like this without telling them what it was about.
The difficulty that Bride and Tag creates for the festival goer is trying to entice people to see the movies without giving too much away. The concept of spoilers is overwrought in modern society – no, discussing the latest episode of Game of Thrones probably isn’t going to ruin your experience of that episode – but, many media depend on a spoiler free zone to create an element of surprise as well as introspection. They are created so the mid-movie tone change is meaningful because it is unexpected. This year, the difficulty is noted even by the short 1-2 sentence blurbs in SIFF’s program, which have been dancing around the actual movie so as not to reveal anything…but, in the process describe a completely different movie than what was on screen.
In order to deal with this situation, festival goers have to keep their mind and ears open and their mouths shut. Find the people with whom you share tastes, and trust their instincts. If they recommend a movie, trust them and don’t ask questions. And, don’t be afraid of a blind choice. Who knows, you might stumble on a pure gem.
(There’s a full movie YouTube of Tag with English subtitles up right now. The colors are washed out and dingy compared to the bright and shiny version I saw. Just a warning).