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PIFF 42: Take 1

Updated: Mar 28, 2019

The 42nd Portland International Film Festival (PIFF) kicked off on Thursday. Among other things this means we will all be spared my rants about the scoundrel in chief, the Ilhan Omar affair, &c., while I focus on the festival. Woot. This is one of my favorite times of the year.

A hefty investment in a Silver Screen Club membership at the Director level got me a festival press plus admission to advance screenings that began February 18. I will be posting impressions of films I've seen after they play at the festival. Posts will include upcoming festival showtimes and a note when I've confirmed that a film will enjoy a run at a Portland theater after PIFF. I advise readers to check the NW Film Center website for schedule changes before heading out. Changes are rare but they can happen on occasion.

I hope to convey some sense of what a film is about and what I thought of it. Here goes with the first installment. As the film center's Ilana Sol says when she introduces a film, hope it's a good one.

Styx (Germany, Austria). An emergency medicine doctor on a solo sailing voyage finds her resourcefulness and mettle tested first by a violent storm, then by an encounter with an old fishing trawler overloaded with refugees and dead in the water. Reike radios the coast guard and is told that a rescue team will be sent. She is also warned to stay away from the boat. The refugees will see her as their savior, and that is something she alone in her little boat cannot be. She puts herself at risk by remaining in the area.

On the social and political level Styx portrays the desperate plight of refugees, the hopelessness of a crisis that defies resolution, and the inadequate response of authorities who seem to wish the refugees would just go away. It also nails the personal. Reike is intelligent, capable, and accustomed to dealing with crisis, confident that she can handle whatever is thrown at her. Her sense of herself and her identity is shaken at its existential core when ethical obligation runs up against the limits of what is possible. Nor should we forget or neglect the frantic refugee boy powerless to help his sister who remains behind on the sinking boat.

Styx is a stunning, intense, absolutely first-rate film with a bravura performance by Susanne Wolff.

Dir. by Wolfgang Fischer. 94 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.

Upcoming PIFF showtime at Regal Fox Tower: Sunday March 10 at 6:00 pm. Styx opens at Living Room Theaters® on March 15.

Woman at War (Iceland, France, Ukraine). Halia is a mild-mannered choral teacher and environmental terrorist. Très engagée, in contrast to her twin sister Asa, who teaches yoga and is about to set off for India to live in an ashram. Halia's life becomes yet more complicated with the approval of her application to adopt a little orphan girl from Ukraine.

Scenes of high drama are spiced with that strange Icelandic humor as Halia sabotages the power grid and scrambles about the countryside eluding police person hunts, helicopters, and drones. A music trio, accordion, tuba, and drums, improbably pops up hither and yon to provide accompaniment as Halia battles enemies of the environment. A trio of women dressed in what I took to be Ukrainian folk costumes singing Ukrainian folk songs also pops up with some regularity.

Halia is aided by a farmer who thinks they may be second cousins because his father was not his father's son and her grandfather was known to step in for husbands in those parts. Then there is the poor Spanish-speaking fellow touring the countryside on bicycle who is repeatedly picked up by the police on suspicion of environmental terrorism.

There is a nice little twist toward the end followed by an ending that could not have been predicted. I do not know quite what to make of the conclusion. I'll take it as a note of hope and possibility. Seems to be a popular favorite at the festival. I liked it a lot.

Dir. by Benedikt Erlingsson. 101 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.

Upcoming PIFF showtime at Cinema 21: Tuesday March 12 @ 8:30 pm. Woman at War

opens at Living Room Theaters® on March 22.

Dead Pigs (China). It took me a while to get into this one. Character development comes slowly, but it comes, and with it Dead Pigs becomes engaging. The dead pigs of the title are turning up by the thousands in a mid-sized city near Shanghai and no one can figure out why. Known to her employees and customers as Madam Boss, the owner of a high-end beauty salon whose slogan is "there are no ugly women, only lazy ones," defiantly resists eviction from her family home. Unscrupulous hustlers have demolished every other building in the neighborhood where they plan to put up a glitzy but shoddy development. Her brother is a pig farmer in hock to loan sharks after putting his life's savings into a high risk-high reward investment that turned out to be all risk. Then his pigs died. A young busboy whose father thinks he is a successful businessman falls for a spoiled rich girl. And more in this convoluted spectacle of complex family relationships between brother and sister, father and son, father and daughter, expectation, disappointment, betrayal, and failure played out amid extremes of conspicuous wealth and desperate poverty in contemporary China. Dead Pigs is a bit chaotic. It would not have suffered from some judicious edits and cuts. Nonetheless it's entertaining. The concluding scenes in particular are nicely done.

Dir. by Cathy Yan. 130 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.

Upcoming PIFF showtime at Regal Fox Tower: Sunday March 12 at 8:30 pm.

Asako I & II (Japan, France). Asako is a strange, quiet, hardheaded young girl who falls for the handsome, enigmatic heartbreaker Baku. She is shattered when Baku mysteriously vanishes without a word or trace. Two years pass and she meets Baku's look-alike Ryôhei. At first Asako resists Ryôhei's approaches. Eventually though, somewhat against her will, she falls for him. Then the inevitable happens and everything flies apart. I can think of two alternative endings that would both have been unsatisfactory. The conclusion is a third possibility that works for me. Asako I & II may not be for everyone. I rather liked it.

Dir. by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi.119 minutes. PIFF program notes with trailer. A better trailer.

Upcoming PIFF showtime at Cinemagic: Sunday March 10 at 5:45 pm.

A Family Submerged (Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Norway). As the PIFF notes put it, following the death of her sister Marcela becomes disconnected from her family and home. At the same time she becomes strangely connected with her daughter's friend Nacho, who is in a state of disconnection himself after quitting his job, giving up his apartment, and breaking ties with his girlfriend to take a job in Costa Rica only to have the job fall through before he ever leaves town. Marcela puts her sister's affairs in order, is visited by dead relatives, has all sorts of family drama swirling around her two daughters and a son, and pals around with Nacho while her husband is taken out of town by his work. I never connected with this one.

Dir. by María Alché. 91 mins. PIFF program notes. Trailer.

Upcoming PIFF showtime at Regal Fox Tower: Wednesday March 13 @ 3:30 pm.

The Waldheim Waltz (Austria). You may recall Kurt Waldheim was secretary-general of the United Nations (1972 to 1981). His service in the Wehrmacht and possible involvement in war crimes in the Balkans became a subject of controversy when he ran for the Austrian presidency in 1986. Waldheim's denials, dismissal of documentation and evidence, and lame explanations make the film somewhat timely. It is easy to imagine him declaring it all "fake news." Interesting. Worth seeing. Not a festival highlight.

Dir. by Ruth Berkermann. 93 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.

Upcoming PIFF showtime at Regal Fox Tower: Thursday March 14 @ 3:30 pm.

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