My PIFF43: closing it out

The international film festival (PIFF43) came to an abrupt close yesterday with the announcement that following the guidance of the State of Oregon and the Oregon Health Authority the Portland Art Musuem and NW Film Center "are canceling all public programs, tours, field trips, films (including all films and programming for the remainder of the Portland International Film Festival at the Whitsell Auditorium and at partner venues), classes, events, and rental events until April 8."


It's been a topsy-turvy festival from the outset, beginning with the rollout of the Cinema Unbound marketing campaign and the announcement of dramatic changes in the festival format. I have little to add to what I wrote about that in PIFF43: Take 1. Attendance appeared to be down from previous years. Some of this can be attributed to concerns about COVID-19. I suspect that another factor was the decision by some long-time Silver Screen Club members not to renew their memberships after learning of the new direction the film center is taking with the festival. My plan remains to see how it goes through 2020 and take stock at year's end. I may have to think long and hard when it comes time to renew my membership.


Over the years my PIFF experience has come to be about more than just the opportunity to see a boatload of foreign films that I would not even hear about otherwise, although that remains at the heart of it. Each year brings the pleasure of renewing acquaintance with PIFF pals from years past and making new ones. This year that included Bob, a former marathoner who last summer celebrated his seventy-ninth birthday by riding a camel in Morocco, Elaine and the friend she always sits with whose name I don't recall, Gwendolyn and Drew, Karen and Stanley, and Gloria and Russell. There were others I exchanged comments with though we did not introduce ourselves. Good people all. Along with that came a touch of melancholy as Bob and I recollected faces we did not see this year.


I caught only fourteen films. Of those, I felt I could have done without sitting through two (Giraffe and I was at home, but…), while a third (Again Once Again) had moments but at the end just seemed slight. Even these three I might watch again if the opportunity presents itself to see what I missed. The other eleven ranged from good to real good. I am happy with that.


Each year brings a few films that do not measure up with the rest, many that I like, some quite a lot, and maybe a few that touch on the sublime. There are some fine filmmakers out and about in the world. How does this year's lineup compare to 2019? I'm not sure anything touched me like Styx, Woman at War, and Dead Pigs (notes at PIFF42: Take 1); Super Modo (PIFF42: Take 2); Hotel by the River, (PIFF42: Take 3); Transit and The Wild Pear Tree (PIFF42:Take 4); and 3 Faces and "I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians" (PIFF42: Take 5) did, each in its own way, and these were not the only ones I liked a lot. Just remembering these films elevates my spirit. This is what art can do for us.


A festival can be quite good without measuring up to the standard set by PIFF42, which exceptional. PIFF43 was quite good. I am hard-pressed to pick out favorites. Let's go with Advocate, Fire Will Come, Sole, To the Ends of the Earth, and Zana.


Following are concluding notes about films I saw and links to previous posts covering the other films that made up my PIFF43.


I was at home, but… I suppose I could argue that this film exhibits a kind of everyday surrealism in the juxtaposition of ordinary events of daily life without connection or explanation. A dog chases down a rabbit in the countryside, catching and devouring it. There is a donkey. The scene shifts to Berlin, where schoolchildren rehearse Hamlet. Astrid is the high-strung mother of two children still trying to pull things together after the death of her husband, a theater director, two years earlier. Her son returns home after having disappeared, why and where not revealed. Teachers meet to confer about how to address issues around the son's disappearance; some appear to have nodded off during the meeting. Astrid buys a bicycle from an old man, then engages in lengthy negotiation when she tries to return it because various parts malfunctioned. More Hamlet rehearsal. Astrid treats a filmmaker she encounters at the grocery store to a lengthy diatribe about his aesthetic choices. I forget the details. Something about her objection to comparing the pain of actors to that of people in real life. A young couple discuss their relationship. The woman prefers to be alone. Astrid goes off on her daughter for cooking at home without adult supervision. More Hamlet. Astrid has a lover whose father is wealthy. The lover gives Astrid's daughter tennis lessons. The son also plays tennis. Hamlet's closing scenes. The dog and the donkey.


From my customary seat in the theater, back row, on the aisle, left wing as a political statement, I spotted my PIFF pal Gloria when she took a seat midway down to the front. Almost immediately after the film began she grabbed her things and hurried out. I wondered if something was wrong. I found her and Russell waiting in line for the next film when I left the theater. It turned out she had unwittingly come to a film she had already seen. It can happen. Then a woman who also knows Gloria exited and proclaimed loudly, "That was godawful." No one voiced a dissenting opinion. I might have missed something. Maybe.


I was at home, but… (Germany/Serbia)

dir. Angela Schanelec

(105 mins)

PIFF43 program notes & trailer


The World Is Bright is a documentary that uses reenactments and interviews to portray the efforts of a grief-stricken Chinese couple to make sense of the death of their son, Shi Meng Deng, who immigrated to British Columbia to attend college and start a business. His death at thirty-three was ruled a suicide.


Qian Hui Deng, a geologist, and his wife Xue Mei Li, a teacher, travel to Vancouver and with the aid of a Chinese-Canadian immigration attorney who takes their case pro bono spend years trying to unravel the circumstances surrounding Shi Meng Deng's life and death.


They learn that Shi Meng Deng, once a brilliant student, led a solitary existence with few close acquaintances and drifted from job to job. He had a brief marriage that ended in a divorce brought about by his increasingly erratic behavior. He "caught" schizophrenia, as the subtitles translate it repeatedly, and was convicted of a presumably minor assault for which he was sentenced to spend one day in prison. With no resources or friends and community for support, his life spiraled downward. He died after ingesting a mind-boggling number of pills. None of this sounds like the son his parents once knew.


The assault conviction led to a determination by immigration authorities that Shi Meng Deng would not be allowed to remain in Canada. This seemed to push him over the edge. As the parents and their attorney pore over legal documents and interview the few people who knew Shi Meng Deng, they uncover a number of irregularities in how the case was handled. Mistakes were made. The police investigation of his death was conducted by an inexperienced officer acting without appropriate oversight. The government failed to notify Shi Meng Deng's parents or the Chinese embassy of his death until after he was buried.


Qian Hui Deng and Xue Mei Li's pursuit ensnarls them in a hopeless bureaucratic mess that takes its inevitable toll mentally, physically, and spiritually on two people already shattered by the inexplicable death of their son. The World Is Bright is deeply moving, always respectful, and well done.


The World Is Bright (British Columbia)

dir. Ying Wang

(115 mins)

PIFF43 program notes & trailer


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