Seattle International Film Festival Closing Weekend: Shocking Sex and Violence in Flying Fish

by Meredith Brody
June 11, 2011 7:36 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood
The Seattle International Film Festival is finally drawing to a close this weekend, and our peripatetic fest chronicler Meredith Brody is back there.
Let’s see: I’ve been a few places since I was in Seattle for the Film Festival’s opening weekend, a little more than two weeks ago. Whether I was seeing Glee in Concert in San Jose, or watching my goddaughter graduate from Brown, or trudging all over New York in sweltering heat from museum to theater, somewhere in the back of my head I was aware that back in cool, grey Seattle, movie after movie was unspooling at more than a dozen different venues, in what they’re pleased to call the “largest film festival in the country.” I’m pleased to be returning for its closing weekend, even though it means finding myself back at Oakland Airport about eight hours after I land there from the steamy East Coast.

Thompson on Hollywood
My spirits lift, a few minutes later, when I see my friend Anita Monga board the plane. Surprise! Anita, film programmer nonpareil who’s the director of the exceptionally delightful San Francisco Silent Film Festival, is headed up to Seattle to introduce some screenings at SIFF – including a Korean film, The Yellow Sea, whose 2 hour 20 minute print arrived, it seems, sans subtitles. At baggage claim, we’re met by a sophisticated volunteer, Del, a Seattle booster who’s also an aspiring movie music composer, who points out culinary destinations – Top Pot doughnuts (as seen on TV!), Seattle gastronome Tom Douglas’s Palace, Five Points Café for 24-hour breakfast – en route to our hotels.

I am determined to act more like a human being than a crazed cinephile on this second pass at Seattle, and to this end I wander, briefly, through Pike’s Place Market with Anita, where we consume an excellent grilled cheese sandwich at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, overlooking gigantic vats of swirling curds and whey.

Having made a pass at relaxation, tourism, and nutrition, it’s on to the AMC at Pacific Place to see Flying Fish, an unknown quantity: an over-two-hour movie set in Sri Lanka by a first-time film director, Sanjeewa Pushpakumara. He giggles through a somewhat off-putting introduction that prophesies numerous walkouts, since he did not make an enjoyable movie. It sounds like he’s daring us to endure it.

Imagine my surprise when I do. The acting is rudimentary in three entwined stories of shocking sex and shocking violence set against the largely unseen endless Sri Lankan civil war, but the compositions are striking and assured and the saturated colors astonishing. There are more beautiful shots, I think, than in The Tree of Life, and they seem natural and unselfconscious rather than forced.

I wish I could stay for the Q and A, but in my effort to be a human, I’ve agreed to go to a Festival dinner instead of dining at the cinephile’s 7 p.m. buffet, which includes several documentaries (To Be Heard, Buck), a number of international entries (Uruguay’s Por El Camino, Italy’s Gorbacief – The Cashier Who Liked Gambling), one a sexy US world premiere (August) and, cutting down my own choices, two already seen (the delightful Swedish Sound of Noise and the slick, chilling documentary Hot Coffee). The one I’m saddest to miss is Bon Appétit, a co-production of Spain/Germany/Switzerland and Italy, set in a world-famous Zurich restaurant and said to “chart the complicated camaraderie and zealous rivalries at play among the culinary elite,” like other kitchen confidentials such as Big Night, Mostly Martha, and last year’s Mediterranean Food. Sounds right up my alley. Pragmatically, old Seattle hand Monga warns me that its venue is way the hell out in west Seattle.

Outside the hotel I run into Lucy Virgen, an old friend who lives, writes, and programs films in Guadalajara, and who is in Seattle as a member of the jury for the Fipresci Prize to be awarded to one of ten films in the New American Cinema selection of SIFF. A happy surprise. I hope we’re dining together, but she and her Fipresci colleagues -- Gideon Kouts, head of the European office of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and Peter Keough, film editor of the Boston Phoenix -- are off to a screening or a meal or maybe both. Journalists that pass in the night! We promise to catch up later.

I’m ferried to Osteria La Spiga, a striking two-level restaurant with a view of downtown, all glass and metal struts and weathered wood, which was once, Director of Programming Beth Barrett tells me, an automobile body shop. Artistic Director Carl Spence says it’s one of his favorite restaurants, a promise born out by family-style platters of crunchy gnocco fritto (like little Italian popovers), prosciutto and robiola cheese, beet salad, tortelli with asparagus, tagliatelle Bolognese, and mascarpone.

I sit next to the US distributor of The Yellow Sea, David Dinerstein, who assures us that the digital print does indeed have subtitles, and that its Seattle venues are now amply supplied with the software required to decipher them. I’m entranced by his 11-year-old film buff son, who has seen Inception three times, and fancies the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit. It also turns out that Dinerstein distributed Mostly Martha. I mention a magical party given for it in Los Angeles by the German consulate, in a Los Feliz mansion overlooking the lights of LA. “Yes,” he laughs, “the famous party where we had no budget for food.” Monga arrives and, more magic, slips me a DVD of Bon Appetit. Score!

On my other side is Pablo Torrado, 1/3rd of the directors behind The Most Important Thing in Life is Not Being Dead, another first film and unknown quantity whose catalogue entry cites Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro, and Terry Gilliam. It seems only natural to accompany him afterwards to its 9:30 p.m.screening at the Egyptian, after I promise to meet Anita at SIFF Cinema, a venue I’ve not yet visited, at 10 a.m. tomorrow for a press screening of The Yellow Sea -- I love the smell of Asian violence in the morning. Tonight she’s off to see Errol Morris’s Tabloid, where it’s rumoured that the blonde subject is going to attempt to highjack the screening.

The Most Important Thing in Life is Not Being Dead is the second delightful surprise of the day. The film is shot in artful black-and-white, entrancingly touched up here and there with color. Set during many decades of the endless Franco regime in Spain, its protagonist, a happily married piano tuner, finds that he cannot sleep – and that his heretofore miraculously self-tuned pianos are no longer fixing themselves overnight as they used to. It plays like a magical realist parable from some writer who will eventually win the Nobel prize – and charms me despite my disaffection for both magical realism (usually) and parables (sometimes).

Afterwards Pablo expresses disappointment, charmingly, because he found the Q-and-A too brief – “at some festivals it goes on for an hour.” We drop him at the Gayla party – he needs a drink. I’m sorely tempted – the gay party is usually the best party of the festival -- but jet lag leads me back to my hotel bed. I have a date with a Korean film at 10 a.m

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More: festivals, Independents, Seattle

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