The Seattle International Film Festival is my favorite time of year, and by far the best opprotunity to see Asian film in Seattle. In fact, within the festival there is a dedicated program, titled Asian Crossroads, which this year contains 24 features from 13 countries. I am seeing as many as humanly possible, and am excited to share them all with you!
Here are the first four, from South Korea, Cambodia, Japan, and Hong Kong.
|* Countdown is the strong first feature from Huh Jung-ho. It’s a character-driven classic action film, starring Jeong Jae-young as a debt collector who learns that he has liver cancer and ten days to live. Naturally, he brings all the skills that make him an excellent debt collector to the task of finding and securing a liver donor. And when he finds her, of course she has ties to gangsters.
Throw in some drama in his past that he can’t or won’t remember, and you have the formula for a well-paced, slick & snappy feature. A side note: if you’ve never seen a South Korean action film before, don’t be surprised at the lack of gun violence. It’s realistic, due to the country’s firearm regulations, and it’s frankly refreshing for characters to have to take each other on one-on-one rather than mowing down rivals in a spray of bullets.
|* Golden Slumbers is a documentary on the golden age of Cambodian cinema, which is a challenge because virtually nothing remains of the actual films. Instead, director Davy Chou (grandson of film producer Van Chann) relies on the memories of those who directed, starred in, and watched the films. Together they visit the sites where films were shot and the cinemas they were projected in, which adds another layer to the piece: life in Cambodia today.
The interview subjects are upfront about the quality of the films (or the lack thereof!)pointing out that each had essentially the same melodramatic plot. However, what I found incredibly powerful was the impact they had on the collective memory. Even though the films no longer exist, the songs are still sung and the plotlines are effortlessly recited by people who saw them over 40 years ago. Destruction of art is heartbreaking, but to be so warmly and fully remembered is beautiful.
|* Rent-a-Cat is easily the most charming film I’ve seen at the festival this year, and I am not even a cat person. I am assured that if you are a cat person, this film will make you explode with glee. If you are not a cat person, it just might turn you into one.
Rent-a-Cat stars Mikako Ichikawa (who has the best face at SIFF this year) as Sayoko, a lonely young woman who, you guessed it, rents out cats. Seriously. She walks along the river calling “rentaneko neko neko” through a megaphone, and rents cats to other lonely people. As it turns out, a lot of people are in the market for a low-commitment pet.
It’s hard to not watch a movie about what is essentially a crazy cat lady without being at least a little bit concerned. Will it judge her harshly? Will it devolve into a pat romance? Luckily, Rent-a-Cat ends not too cruel, not too sweet, but just right. Don’t forget to stick with it through the ridiculously cute illustrated end credits!
|* I wanted to like Romancing in Thin Air, but I found it overwrought & sentimental. The latest from Johnnie To is not his first romantic film, though he is better known for his thrillers. I do remember loving his unconventional romance Turn Left, Turn Right at a previous festival, so this was a disappointment.
It opens with film star Michael (Louis Koo) being left at the altar. He decides to drink himself to oblivion, which turns out to be the Deep Woods Hotel. There he shouts a lot and smashes things, until he slowly begins to heal with the help of the mournful proprietor Sue (Sammi Cheng). She is in pain herself over the loss of her husband Tian, who went missing in the woods seven years ago.
The film does contain some nice ideas. I liked the metaphor of Tian’s piano, which had broken keys when he disappeared that Sue still refuses to fix, plus the whole image of the quiet danger of a forest where compasses do not work is lovely. The scene where locals are creating noise to help people find their way out of the forest is beautiful and will stay with me.
Overall the high drama and the too-pat meta ending outweighed the pretty cast and the even prettier scenery.