Sunday, September 18, 2011

VIFF 2011: Preview 1

Ah, fall … the return of the cooler climes heralds the return of rain on what we call “the wet coast” of Vancouver, BC. For Vancouver cineastes, September brings with it excitement surrounding the new fall films that offer something more substantive than the usual summertime diversions. And the end of September, as usual, the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) kicks off.

Following on the heels of Venice and Toronto, VIFF doesn’t boast a lot of stars coming up to do red carpet appearances for their movies, so if you’re hoping to get into a screening and after-party with Gwyneth Paltrow and George Clooney, you’re out of luck. However, that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t get to see the occasional screen star sneaking into a crowded screening while on break from making films up here (no less than Matt Damon, Hugh Jackman and Jodie Foster are all in town filming their latest projects). In 2009, I attended a screening of a film fest sensation, a little indie film called Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. By that point, Oprah had attached her name as executive producer and the film was presented at its sold-out gala screening by no less than its director Lee Daniels. Four months later, he received an Oscar nomination for his work. You never know who’s going to come up here.

What VIFF might lack in star power, it makes up for in terms of volume. A staggering 300 films will be shown at various cinemas in downtown Vancouver from September 29 to October 15, 2011. Due to our massive Asian population, VIFF brings in works from China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, India, the Philippines and many other nations in that part of the world. To showcase and promote these hard-to-find – and often sold-out – rarities, VIFF annually presents its “Dragons and Tigers” Award to the most popular young Asian entry in the festival.

VIFF also has a number of other series to demonstrate the vast range of works presented here. The “Canadian Images” series spotlights Canadian cinema, and a number of our homegrown directors have presented films here including Guy Madden, Thom Fitzgerald and Oscar nominees Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley. “Heaven and Earth” showcases a number of works focusing on environmental issues. “Cinema of Our Time” presents contemporary works from around the globe, always including a number of award winners from other festivals. This year’s series will include the reigning winner of the Golden Bear from the Berlin Film Festival. And as is expected for our fair city, a number of LGBT-related films will be showcased in a series, no doubt inspired by the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

In the run-up to VIFF, which kicks off on September 29, I will post a few previews of upcoming films on this blog. Here are ten notable films being presented at VIFF:

The Skin I Live In  (Spain; directed by Pedro Almodóvar) 

Presented at Cannes and Toronto to sensational reviews, and gearing up for a commercial release at the end of the year, Almodóvar returns to Vancouver two years after Broken Embraces with his latest entry. Antonio Banderas makes his first appearance in a Spanish-language film in many years as a surgeon who tries to develop new skin (yup), which he tests on an enigmatic young woman he keeps imprisoned day and night in his Xanadu-like estate. Almodovar has said that this film fulfills his desire to make “a horror story without screams or frights”. Given his penchant for creating melodrama and the rapturous reception accorded so many of his films, this should become a new art-house favourite. The Skin I Live In is presented as VIFF’s sure-to-be-sold-out opening gala on September 29.

Wish Me Away (US; directed by Bobbie Birleffi & Beverly Kopf) 

An intimate documentary on country singer Chely Wright’s agonizing struggle to remain in the closet and then coming out in the country music world, the chanteuse allows unprecedented access to her first-hand eyewitness account of the prejudices that are still present in certain sectors of the arts. Wright talks about how her record sales dropped substantially due to negative (to say the least) reaction from the deeply conservative country music world. What’s exposed here is just how deep the pockets of conservative America still run to this day and how their corporate decisions target and negatively affect talented artists.

Sleeping Beauty (Australia; directed by Julia Leigh) 
A sensation at Cannes, this film’s shocking premise is of a young woman (Emily Browning) trained to become a high-class prostitute specializing in fulfilling men’s fairy tale fetishes. The woman in question plays Sleeping Beauty, but in the morning, the young woman wakes up and remembers … nothing. And she does the same thing that evening. The film is presented by Oscar-winning director Jane Campion, whose film The Piano took home the VIFF Audience Award in 1993.

Man Without a Cell Phone (Israel / Palestine; directed by Sameh Zoabi)

A mobile phone tower pops up in an Arab-Israeli town, and there’s a man who really, really doesn’t like it. Modern technology has finally arrived in this town and the man challenges progression, seeing something more sinister and politically charged behind it. What does community mean? Will this bring everyone closer, or destroy his town’s fabric? Zoabi’s film makes its Canadian preview at VIFF.

A Separation (Iran; directed by Asghar Farhadi) 
The sensation of the Berlin Film Festival, where it swept Best Film, Actor and Actress prizes, A Separation has been confirmed as the official Iranian entry for this year’s Academy Awards. The film charts the progress of a middle-aged couple who separate after the husband refuses to emigrate and provide a better life for his daughter. He then hires a woman to look after his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. The caretaker is pregnant and doesn’t tell her own husband that she has taken the job, because he would never have allowed her to enter a strange man’s home without his wife’s presence. The film’s delicate balance explores contemporary social concerns in Iran and lays bare the complications unique to its legal system.

Woman in a Septic Tank (Philippines; directed by Marlon Rivera)

Ever wonder if auteurs and “serious” directors make films just to win film festival prizes and use it as a springboard to making big-budget blockbusters in Hollywood? This Philippine comedy is a satire about a filmmaker who goes to great lengths making an “authentic” cinema-verite-style documentary about a woman who sells her daughter into prostitution. The strange things people do in the name of “art”.

The Singing City (Germany; directed by Vadim Jendreyko)

The Blogger’s regular readers are aware of his fascination withGerman opera. So it was with a very loud “WUNDERBAR!” that he read the synopsis of this documentary: a film about the Stuttgart Opera’s mounting of Wagner’s dense, complex opera Parsifal. Although high arts may not be as valued in North America as it was in the Old World, it remains serious business in Europe. For those of you worried about opera being “hoity-toity”, a look at this non-fiction entry shows that fundamentally, it’s a play. It shouldn’t be intimidating.

A Simple Life (Hong Kong; directed by Ann Hui)

Fans of early 90s Cantopop will undoubtedly flock to this HK drama that blends a strong element of nonfiction film into its premise. Starring Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau as a man who negotiates film budgets for a living, his family has been looked after by “amah”, their housekeeper of over 60 years. (In the Blogger’s dialect, “amah” also means “grandmother”.) When she collapses, their roles are reversed as he must look after her and eventually seek outside help. The film includes a number of non-professionals, all of whom are making their film debuts as members of a community home. Hui’s film is autobiographical as it documents some of the challenges her own family faced in a similar situation.

The Artist (France; directed by Michel Hazanavicius)

What’s black and white and silent all over? This film, that’s what! One of the breakthrough successes at Cannes, this silent comedy is about a 1920s actor (played by France’s biggest movie star, Jean Dujardin) who refuses to adapt to the coming of the talkies. Already picked up by The Weinstein Company for a limited commercial Oscar-qualifying release at Christmas, The Artist won Best Actor at Cannes for Dujardin, who defeated no less than Brad Pitt for The Tree of Life to the award. Those who have been salivating over this film, and want to see it before its commercial release, take note that there is only ONE screening of this delightful comedy at VIFF.

Target (Russia; directed by Alexander Zeldovich)

This Russian film is based on Vladimir Sorokin’s science fiction novel. In the year 2020, mega-wealthy Muscovites hear that there’s something at the Russo-Mongolian border that will provide them with eternal youth. (Think Death Becomes Her but in Eastern Europe.) Rushing towards this unknown phenomenon on a train, the super-rich feel rejuvenating effects after visiting this mysterious entity, but will they be able to stave off the aging process forever? And just what are those weird things that are happening to them on the train ride back? As the class divide widens in contemporary Russia, this supposedly fantastical work of fiction starts to look like social commentary.