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The 2004 Vancouver Film Festival -- A Primer

by Jason Whyte

As I write this article, I just finished watching Jacques Tati's classic film "Mr. Hulot's Holiday". Tati's 1953 film is about a series of comedic adventures that befall a group of people all surrounding a man named Mr. Hulot at a common retreat spot for many travellers. An insane amount of Chaos ensues and lots of unpredictable events happen. Towards the end of the film, there are a series of goodbyes sent among all of the main players that really struck a chord with me. Some of the players even mentioned that they couldn't wait to come back the next year.

Two years ago, I entered the behemoth known as the Vancouver Film Festival, unprepared for what was to come. The previous two years I had been attending the local film festival in my home town in Victoria, which is an intimate gathering of smaller filmmakers and cinema that only appeals to a small group of Victorians. Vancouver is one sold-out show after another, with people of different ages, backgrounds and film interests, in a city full of diversity. And the films! You could walk from theater to theater during the festival and randomly see images from Turkey, England, Japan, South Korea, Egypt, and none of the films would ever be about the same topic.

That was 2002, and I only stayed for a quick weekend and a few films. In 2003, I ventured back with my new job at eFilmCritic.com to cover the entire festival from beginning to end, and was certainly a life-changing experience. In a little over two weeks, I was taken to one end of the world to the other, soaking my feet in deep dramas, foreign comedies, documentaries and an endless amount of subtitles. I was numb by the end of it all.

But what stood out for me was not only the films (and trust me, there were a lot of them...

- The Barbarian Invasions
- The Delicate Art of Parking
- Distant
- Elephant
- The Fog of War
- Goodbye Dragon Inn
- Kamchatka
- A Problem With Fear
- The Saddest Music in the World
- A Tale of Two Sisters
- Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself

...just to name a few) but the community experience of the VIFF (which many just pronounce as if it's one word) that were among rabid filmgoers that didn't mind seeing three to four films a day, the volunteers who were extremely friendly with the festival crowd, and getting to meet and greet with the filmmakers and actors involved with the competing films. As the festival ended in early October last year, I sent and recieved many kind goodbye's with several saying "I hope to see you next year!" Mr. Whyte’s holiday, if you will.

And now, here we are in late September, gearing up for another incredible dosage of 16 days of cinema. A total of 370 features and shorts make this the biggest year ever for the VIFF (a record they seem to keep breaking). Things kick off on Thursday, September 23rd with the first day of screenings. On that evening, the festival officially christens itself at the Vogue Theatre with a gala screening of Istvan Stabo's "Being Julia" (unseen by me) which also opened this year's Toronto Film Festival. The film stars Annette Bening, Bruce Greenwood and Jeremy Irons about live musicals in the 30’s. Afterwards, the gala party begins, but you won’t hear my thoughts from that experience since I am not accredited for the gala. However, on September 21st I attended a filmmaker’s party at the Cin Cin restaurant featuring many of the same talent arriving at the gala on the 23rd with many drinks and

A week later, "Electric Shadows" (from China) takes the spotlight at the festival's Anniversary Gala. Xiao Jiang’s debut certainly struck a chord with the festival staff, as they refer to it in the program guide as “A Chinese Cinema Paradiso”, and with backing that opinion with a $150 gala price, I’m sure it is that good. A gala party follows.

And to close out the festival, Agnes Jaoui's "Look at Me" is also a gala. Jaoui's last film, the wonderful "The Taste of Others" was nominated for an Oscar in 2001. The only problem with this screening is there is only one showing of the film, and it’s a gala, so it will set you back a whopper of $150. Let’s hope that a public screening is announced shortly.

In-between those three galas, there is an endless supply of Asian films in the Dragons and Tigers series (the largest Asian selection outside of the east), another interesting chapter on “Spotlight on France”, a series on German Independent films aptly titled “German Indies”, “Cinema of our Time” which covers all foreign selections not in the previously mentioned categories, another extensive selection of documentaries in the “Non-fiction Features” as well as a political series known as “Changing the World”. There are also various other special presentation films and an endless supply of short films, all arranged into two-hour programs.

What to look out for:

- Beautiful Boxer (3.5/5) – There was a very enthused reaction to this Taiwanese film at the press screening on Friday, so no doubt this will be a hit at the festival. Echoing last year’s “Normal” with Tom Wilkinson, this is the true story of a Taiwan-born boxer who wants nothing more to be a woman and accepted in society. Although there’s a dull framework and it gets off to an awfully uneven start (there’s a kickboxing fight that echoes The Matrix), the film picks up to tell an enjoyable story of personal struggle.
- Baober In Love (3.5/5) - What an odd film from China, a beautifully produced dramedy that falls all over the narrative map, going from wacky comedy and strange, interesting visual trickery to complete melodrama involving amnesia. Yeah, creepy stuff!
- Brothers (3/5) - A fairly good story of two completely different brothers living far apart from one another; Joni who is terminally ill and likes to videotape everything, and Sami, a photgrapher, who is stubborn and distraught, learn to come together despite their differences. Another low-budget indie, shot in a Dogma-esque style with several long one-take scenes where the camera swooshes back instead of doing editing tricks. Not entirely successful but there is some real dramatic insight.
- Cold Light (3.5/5) – A brutal drama involving weather heavily in its story, the bleak and dark “Cold Light” spends a while to take off, but it is a searing portrait of a man haunted by the events in his younger life. Featuring outstanding, widescreen cinematography and fine acting across the board (especially the child actors who look and act brutally honest), this film is haunting in its characters and in its depiction of gloomy weather.
- Everyone (3.5/5) - Vancouver Film School acting director Bill Marchant kicks off his first feature film about a gay couple getting married and all of the family that comes to their house for an intimate ceremony. Although with a small budget, the film carries some fine casting with some questionable ones, but it does quite well for it’s $20,000 price tag, and worth seeing if you like these small stories about wacky Vancouver life.
- Havana Suite (3/5) This slight documentary about a group of 10 different people living in Cuba spans only 24 hours in their life, and it is a fascinating idea (one I have thought about myself), but not a very through one. Some of the people documented just aren’t all that darn interesting, although I must give credit to the filmmakers for showing their lived lives with nearly no dialogue.
- My Stepbrother Frankenstein (3.5/5) – From Russia, Valery Todorovsky’s drama about a solider who comes back into the life of his birth father and brings tension into his family is a gorgeous picture of family struggle and acceptance of the past.
- Quiet as a Mouse (4.5/5) – Awesome, simply awesome. Part of the “German Indies” series, Marcus Mittermeier’s debut film stars future-star Jan Henrik Stahlberg as Max, who is hell-bent on making peace in Berlin, by videotaping crimes and charging small sums of cash instead of turning them over to police. But Max is not out for a profit, and the film follows his struggle along with cameraman Gerd with shocking results. The film’s finale is horrifying and certainly something that would never be filmed in America.
- Seven Times Lucky (2/5) – This grifter-picture is disappointing, mostly for being a simple and unappealing noir that is unexciting and with depressing, one-note characters that doesn’t extend much further from every other con-movie ever made. Avoid unless you’re a die-hard Kevin Pollack fan.
- Show Me (2.5/5) – A preposterous, Toronto-based thriller about a woman who is kidnapped by two window-washing punk kids, taken to her log cabin and then engaging in a cat-and-mouse battle of wits that would never, ever happen outside of cinema. Not much of the film is very rewarding except for some good performances and a surprising inclusion of “Broken Social Scene”, one of my favourite bands going right now, over the end credits.
- Siblings (4/5) – A hilarious Canadian (!) comedy about much-removed children doing away with their abusive step-parents after their grandfather dies. Solid direction by David Weaver with amusing writing and interesting performances, especially from the kids.
- Taipei 21 (3.5/5) – A quiet and gentle drama set in Taipei at the dawn of the new millennium (hence the film’s title), about a break-up between a distant couple and the aftermath in their lives. Features little music and long sequences of the leads in haunted thought about their doomed relationship in a depressing, finance-poor Taipei.
- What Remains of Us (3/5)– A middling documentary about the Chinese rule over Tibetans that really hits a stir of controversy by filming footage of Tibetans watching video footage of the Dalai Lama’s teachings – which is a big-no no. In fact, during the festival screenings of this film, there will be full bag checks for cameras and cell phones with pesky cameras in cell phones…a big no-no due to the non-permission of the participants. How this film will be released for the public is a curiosity.
- Zero Day (4.5/5) - A peculiar release, considering that this film was given a limited release in U.S. right around the same time as “Elephant” (VIFF ’03) and I saw it nearly around the same time by way of a screener copy. But still, this is a great film about school violence that (although my editor Chris “Oz” Parry will most likely disagree with me) would make a pretty fascinating double feature with Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant”.

Best Bets That We Haven’t Seen Yet:

- The Archimede's Principle - From Italy, which is apparently about intellectual, political groups of people. Sounds something very “Barbarian Invasions” to me so it will be certainly worth a look.

- Berlin Blues – A comedy set around the fall of the Berlin Wall! Works for me, and if the many positive reviews I’ve read are any indication, it is sure to be a real treat.

- Dear Frankie – The lovely Emily Mortimer and Gerard Butler (whom many woman find lovely) in the story about a mother who hires a father to give attention to her deaf son. The preview strikes much curiousness with me, but then again, all Emily Mortimer films do, so…

- The Door to the Sun – I have a great curiosity about this one due to the film’s nearly FIVE HOUR running time! It doesn’t come near the 6-hour “The Best of Youth” which screened at VIFF last year, but it will certainly try the patience of any filmgoer who attempts it.

- Head in the Clouds – The film that made Charlize Theron and Stuart Towsend lovers. That alone would be worth a look, but there seems to be much more with John Duigan’s (Lawn Dogs) 1930’s set film about a love affair during the tumultuous early stages of the war in Europe.

- A Hole in My Heart – Lukas Moodysson’s new film; and boy do I mean NEW; the film just had its Swedish premiere on September 17th and Vancouver is one of its first venues. This appears to be a follow-up or branch off point from Moodysson’s “Lilya 4-Ever” and “Show Me Love/Fucking Amal”, both of which have played at VIFF. Moodysoon really knows how characters think and talk around one another, and I’m hoping that he keeps that with his new film.

- Izo – Anybody up for some more Miike? Takashi Miike has a reserved spot at VIFF every year in the Dragons and Tigers series, which is not surprising considering that his films do extremely well here. This one features Miike’s usual amount of blood, gore and crazy warfare that he is best known for. Might want to start lining up now.

- The Machinist – Brad Anderson (“Happy Accidents”, “Session 9”) has a new film here with Christian Bale about an insomniac who hasn’t slept – in over a year. We need a real creepy flick at VIFF (last year the honour proudly went to “A Tale of Two Sisters”) and this one sounds like it will fit the bill.

- The Motorcycle Diaries – About Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s 8 month journey through Argentina with his friend Alberto (Rodrigo De la Serna, loosely related to the actual Guevara), the film has been getting major attention on the festival circuit, and is set for release in just a few weeks.

- Silver City –I’m not talking about the corporate-owned megaplexes that can be found in Richmond and Coquitlam; rather this is John Sayles’ latest political themed dramaedy. The film is already scoring some rave reviews as well as some negative ones, so it looks worth a viewin’.

- Travellers and Magicians – The first feature from Bhutan (a Buddist Kingdom) and set in the Himalayas, this film appears to be proof of the festival’s commitment to bringing interesting films from lands that we would never get to see otherwise. Add to that, the film’s director, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche directed the wonderful “The Cup” (2000), so this one should please the festival crowd as well.

And many, many others….what you didn’t think I was going to list all 200+ features here, would you?

The VIFF community:

- Once again, this year’s festival will be no doubt filled with interesting filmgoers, volunteers, media and guests from all walks of life and background; one of the few places you’ll see a UBC professor arguing with a 19 year old skateboarding poet or a 67 year-old having a laugh with a 24 year old (That last one is actually true; volunteer Ray Henderson and I have already been screening buddies and the festival has not even started yet!) . If you are a shy film-lover, the VIFF will make you more confident. There are endless, fascinating conversations to find with the stranger sitting next to you in the theatre to the person in the concession line and the nearest person in line. Seriously campers, we’re all here because we have an undying love for film, so by all means, turn and that person and start talking! (I’ve already made several festival friends through the press screenings over the past week alone.)
- If you are vacationing (like I am, along with covering it) and plan to check out a bunch of films, I have three words for you: buy a pass. Didn’t hear me? BUY A PASS! The purchase of a pass puts you at the front of the line for everything; first shot at tickets at the Granville 7, and first access at the single-screen cinemas (Vogue, Ridge and Cinematheque). It makes things a lot less stressful and you get to see more films this way. Everybody wins!
- The biggest issue for many is the new line-up system that is happening at the main festival cinema, the Granville 7. Last year, pass holders would arrive at a check-in desk and receive tickets for all of the day’s screenings, as early as 9:00 in the morning. This year, passholders arrive in a common passholder line and will receive tickets for the matinee screenings ONLY in the morning (maximum of three), and then will return to the line in the evening for the remaining shows (maximum of two). This is being done to give other passholders a better chance at the evening shows. I’m not sure what they’ll do to stop patrons from re-lining up again to get more tickets. You’ll be hearing from me about this new line policy in my next festival article.

So that’s about it for now. Watch for film reviews from VIFF from myself and Chris Parry, along with some additional coverage of events, interviews, “hot picks” and happenings with the festival. I’m Jason, and if you see me in line wearing my festival badge, feel free to stop and say howdy. I don’t know about Chris, but he’s a cool guy, I swear. We’ll also be talking about the festival on Sundays at CJSF 90.1 FM; listen locally or on the web at www.cjsf.ca.

For more info on what's happening at this year's festival, point yourself to the VIFF website at http://www.viff.org

Read our Film Festivals of the World #4: Vancouver Film Festival for a complete rundown of what to expect at the fest, written by eFilmCritic guru Chris Parry. A great read if you are going to attend VIFF for the first time as it contains more information about getting the most out of the film festival experience.

Thanks to Vicky Jones and the staff at VIFF for assistance with this article.
You can reach Jason with any comments or questions by simply clicking HERE.


-- Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1192
originally posted: 09/22/04 20:10:23
last updated: 10/15/04 03:58:46
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