Saturday, June 3, 2017

Review - 2017 Seattle International Film Festival

          I have lived in the Puget Sound area for just under two years now, but have never really had the opportunity to enjoy the Seattle International Film Festival, which usually takes place every summer from May until June. However, this year, now that I have a higher income and more flexible free time, I was actually able to get out and see what the rest of the world has to offer in the way of film. This will be a kind of impromptu piece as I initially wasn't planning on writing anything for SIFF at all, but suddenly felt the urge to do so as many of the pieces I publish on my blog are about film, so it struck me as kind of odd that I would remain silent when a film festival rolls into town. Besides, it's a quick exercise for me to keep my writing chops fresh while I decide whether or not I am going to do a review for The Mummy remake. The exciting part for me is that, while many of my previous film reviews were for big-budget Hollywood films, many of the films displayed at SIFF are independent, or produced by a studio that is not part of Hollywood at all, which gives me an opportunity to experience how the artists approach film without being tied down by Hollywood bureaucracy. Perhaps even more exciting, it gives me an opportunity to experience how other cultures around the world interpret each genre and add their own perspective to it.
          I only managed to see three films for SIFF this year. While I wanted to see more (there were apparently a number of notably popular entries), these were the three that both my schedule and my budget would permit me to see: The Osiris Child: Science Fiction Volume One, Napping Princess (sometimes translated as Ancien and the Magic Tablet in English), and Without Name. Below I provide my overall impression of each of these films with some general observations I had of each. Note that these reviews will be not nearly as elaborate as the ones I usually post to my blog - again, my decision to write this was something I felt in the moment rather than something I had planned out, though I nonetheless aim to build at least a brief case for ratings I give each film. Needless to say, for low-budget or independent films, they were all very good, much better than many titles that have come out of Hollywood these days, although some were notably better than others.

The Osiris Child: Science Fiction Volume One

          My first outing at SIFF this year was the Australian sci-fi/dystopian action flick The Osiris Child. Unfortunately, it also turned out to be the least memorable of the three films I saw. Don't get me wrong, The Osiris Child was still very much palatable, and remains light-years ahead of much of the rubbish that came out of 2016 (i.e. The 5th Wave). In that sense, my dissatisfaction with it should not be construed as a criticism of its failures so much as an acknowledgement of just how good Napping Princess and Without Name are in comparison.
          I found the plot to be particularly engaging: a hard science fiction story about a military pilot stationed in a base floating above a colonized planet who must defect from the military in order to rescue his daughter on the planet below after his superiors plot to destroy said planet in order to cover up an illegal weapons research project. However, beyond the plot, The Osiris Child didn't have much going for it. The visual effects weren't anything special or hypnotizing - if anything, they were comparable to the industry standard for a science fiction film with a somewhat large budget. The characters were rather stock and generic, with none of them being particularly memorable or relatable. Neither the landscapes nor dialogue were very imaginative, with most of the film taking place in a bleak and barren desert landscape (which looked suspiciously like either the Australian Outback or the Southwestern United States), and many of the interactions between the characters being painfully predictable. Overall, The Osiris Child very much had a vibe of being geared towards the adolescent audience, or perhaps those who have little experience with science fiction, the same kind of audience that would perhaps go see a movie like The 5th Wave. However, the big difference between The 5th Wave and The Osiris Child is that The Osiris Child is actually somewhat good.

Napping Princess (Ancien and the Magic Tablet)

         In contrast to my experience with The Osiris Child, Napping Princess is easily the best film out of the three that I saw at SIFF. Written and directed by Kenji Kamiyama, the same director behind Jin-Roh and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Napping Princess is an anime film that doesn't fail to showcase the depth of imagination that Japanese anime is all-too-famous for.
          Napping Princess juxtaposes what many would consider to be two very disparate fictional settings: a modern Japanese society trying to grapple with the unfettered progress of technological innovation, and a whimsical kingdom, full of magic and sorcery, that is constantly under threat of destruction by a fiery behemoth, blending them together into a narrative that at times takes playful swipes at those who are stuck in the conservative mindset of trying preserve outdated technologies and energy sources, while simultaneously admonishing us of the risks of mindless innovation. The characters are memorable and the dialogue is entertaining, at times making us laugh, at times making us cry, and at other times leaving us on the edge of our seats asking what will happen next. The plot flows seamlessly from the primary protagonist's dreams of pirates, enchanted dolls, and evil wizards to her waking experiences of cell phones, tablets, software code, and her mission to rescue her father from the clutches of a corrupt corporation, all while paying passive homage to the Kaiju and Mecha genres of Japanese science fiction. Overall, Napping Princess was an anime experience that I had not seen in a very long time, and easily got the highest rating of any film I saw at SIFF.

Without Name

          Without Name presented a radical shift in tone from The Osiris Child and Napping Princess. Without Name is an Irish thriller production, directed by Lorcan Finnegan and filmed on location in Dublin with a fully Irish cast. Billed as an "eco-horror" film (I've never actually heard of "eco-horror" before), the film follows a professional land surveyor, Eric, as he is tasked with mapping out and collecting data on a heavily wooded patch of land for an enigmatic client. However, something about the woods is not quite right...
          I will confess myself ambivalent with regard to my reception of the plot. It's not clear whether or not the woods are actually haunted, or if the events of the film are all in Eric's head, developing from a small case of paranoia and depression, which itself stems from his shoddy relationship with his wife and son, to full-blown psychosis, brought on by his increasing use of hallucinogens and his reading of a madman's ravings throughout the course of the film. In one sense, this may be a directorial oversight: there seems to be a push in the film towards the idea that the woods are actually haunted, but other events in the film don't quite seem to agree with this prospect. In another sense, this is part of the beauty of the plot - part of the detective work of trying to figure out what is actually happening is left up to the audience, provoking them to actually reflect on what they are seeing instead of just mindlessly absorbing it, which is a good thing. Aside from the plot, there isn't much to judge. The acting was standard, perhaps more emotional and dramatic than The Osiris Child, though not as memorable as Napping Princess. What little special effects the film had were nice, if only slightly seizure-inducing with so many scenes of stroboscopic lights. Overall, I would rate Without Name as a very interesting experience, perhaps more so than The Osiris Child. However, it's very slow pacing makes it such that very little actually happens in the movie, and, as such, it doesn't appear to have the same kind of energy or emotional appeal as Napping Princess.

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