PIFF 42: Take 2
Updated: Mar 12, 2019
42nd Portland International Film Festival (PIFF)
March 7–21, 2019
The Load (Serbia, France, Croatia, Iran, Qatar). A quietly nice film set in Yugoslavia during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. A laid-off factory worker takes a job as a truck driver transporting a mysterious locked shipment from Kosovo to Belgrade where NATO airstrikes are delivering bombs and propaganda leaflets. Forced to deviate from his planned route when the road is closed off by a traffic accident, he ignores his orders to drive straight through as he makes stops along the way to ask directions, picks up a hitchhiker, encounters a wedding party. Asked what he is transporting, he replies, "Whatever they give me. I don't ask." The contents of the shipment are not definitively revealed, but the driver and audience get a pretty good idea when he surreptitiously observes it being unloaded. Let's just say our supposition is grim. I liked it. Maybe not a must-see, but certainly worth seeing.
Dir. by Ognjen Glavonic. 98 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.
Upcoming PIFF showtime at Regal Fox Tower: Monday March 11 @ 3:30 pm.
Ash Is Purest White (China). Starts out a gangster film before turning into something of considerably more depth and interest. Zhao Tao gives a memorable performance as Qiao, jianghu Bin's girlfriend. PIFF pals Gwendolyn and Drew left when a scene of intense, graphic violence early in the film was too much. It was too much but unfortunate they left because this was the only such scene in the film, which took quite a turn following the incident. Qiao saves Bin's life, then takes the rap for possession of his illegal gun and serves five years in prison. She expects that Bin will be waiting when she is released. He isn't. Qiao must remake her life, starting from nothing. Intelligent, resourceful, strong-willed, she does just that. Along the way she confronts Bin, who has, shall we say, moved on from her. Their paths cross yet again after his life has taken a downturn. I don't think it gives too much away that what follows is not exactly a reprise of their former relationship. Yet, Qiao tells Bin, "Anything that burns at high temperatures is made pure." This is among my festival favorites.
Dir. by Jia Zhangke. 141 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.
Upcoming PIFF showtime at Cinema 21: Thursday March 14 @ 8:30 pm.
Non-Fiction (France). Olivier Assayas is a director I can almost like a lot. He deserves his due for taking on serious subjects. His earlier film Something in the Air (French title Aprés mai) is an engaging but in the end not quite satisfying account of students coming to terms with what they will make of their lives after the heady days of the May 1968 student revolt in France. I saw Clouds of Sils Maria a second time looking for what I may have missed on the first viewing. I didn't find it.
Why are foreign films so often given lame titles for the American market when a literal translation would be much better? After May is more concrete than the nebulous Something in the Air. Likewise, Double Lives (Doubles Vies) is to my mind preferable to Non-Fiction.
Oh, yes, about the film. Non-Fiction revolves around two couples, their relationships and affairs, what keeps them together, and maybe even something about love. As Selena (Juliette Binoche) puts it, "It's not hypocrisy after twenty years."
Alain is a book publisher taking tentative steps to move his company into the digital age. To this end he brings on board a new head of digital transition, a younger woman with whom, quelle surprise, he has an affair. By the bye, it so happens she also likes girls.
Selena, Alain's wife, is a successful actress with a starring role in a TV police drama called Collusion. She plays a crisis management expert, not a cop, a point on which she is a bit touchy until the end when she decides to walk away from the show to try for a more substantive role onstage, whereupon she snaps, I'm a flic. She suspects Alain is having an affair but is pretty sure he has no inkling she is engaged in an affair of her own.
Leonard is a moderately successful author of autofiction feel-bad novels that Alain publishes. Alain declines to publish Leonard's new novel because his most recent book is not exactly leaping off the shelves and the new one is just more of the same, which is to say, mostly a recounting of Leonard's numerous sordid affairs with women whose identities can be easily guessed. The technical term for Leonard's type is douche, or to more precise, thick-headed douche. He is a caricature of the self-absorbed writer, blithely devoid of any capacity for reflection, self-awareness, &c...well, maybe not all that much caricature.
Valérie is Leonard's wife. She works for an idealistic socialist politician who get busted coming out of a call-girl's camping car. She has no illusions about Leonard's numerous flaws but puts up with them and loves him anyway.
Dialogue at dinner parties features lengthy disputation and debate about the future of books and reading, print vs. Kindle, tweet as art form, the post-truth age where opinion is all that matters, whether expertise is passé or worse elitist. My PIFF pal Steve thought it came off as if the actors were reading their lines. I was more okay with it. It's all kept pretty light, not a substantive deep dive by any stretch, but nonetheless brings up the issues well enough.
Assayas throws in a bit of self-referential whimsy when he has Alain tell Leonard that they are trying to get Juliette Binoche to be the reader on the audio version of his new book, which in the end Alain published after all. Selena has asked Binoche to do it. Kind of cute.
My verdict: Non-Fiction has a lighter touch than Assayas' earlier films and is better for it. Witty, cynical, topical. Very French. I liked it.
Dir. by Olivier Assayas. 107 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.
Alas, Non-Fiction was scheduled for only one screening at PIFF. I will be surprised if it doesn't have a run at a Portland theater in the coming months, what with Assayas as director and Juliette Binoche.
Supa Modo (Kenya/Germany). This may be the sweetest film of the festival. It was certainly an audience favorite at the press screening.
Jo is a little girl with cancer. She and her friends on the hospital ward are big fans of superheroes and Chinese martial arts movies with Jet Li, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan. When the doctor delivers the grim news that Jo has only two months to live, her mother checks her out of the hospital and takes her home, saying she doesn't want Jo to spend her little remaining time on the ward watching her friends die one by one. Understandably overprotective and wanting the best for her daughter, Kathryn takes all the fun out of Jo's life. Older sister Mwix comes to the rescue, sneaking Jo out of the house and scheming with members of their little village to help her imagine her superpowers. Jo is Supa Modo. Then Mwix recruits Mighty Mike, who takes videos of weddings and funerals and shows superhero movies in his makeshift theater, to make a movie starring Jo as Supa Moda, using her superpowers to foil evil villains kidnapping the village's children.
I don't know what kind of distribution Supa Modo will have. Jo's illness is handled with a deft touch, and the PIFF program bills it as a family film. It is worth seeing for Jo's sweet, beautiful smile alone. She's the best.
Dir. by Likarion Wainaina. 74 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.
Upcoming PIFF showtime at Cinemagic: Saturday March 16 @ 12:30pm.
Too Late to Die Young (Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Netherlands, Qatar). Sofia is a young girl of 15 or 16 who lives with her father and younger brother in a communal settlement in the mountains outside Santiago. Sofia has a crush on an older guy who rides a motorbike. Lucas, a boy her age, has a crush on Sofia. Sofia's mother is a singer who lives with her bass player/boyfriend in the city. Her father cares but is uncommunicative. A woman member of the commune tells Sofia that she had an affair with a considerably older man when she was young. Her advice: "I can't say I didn't enjoy my youth. What's important is not getting pregnant." Another plot thread involves Clara, a slightly younger girl, and a terrible case of mistaken dog identity. It took awhile to get into this tale of aging hippies, adolescent angst, and bad romance. At some point I found it somewhat compelling.
Dir. by Dominga Sotomayor. 110 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.
Upcoming PIFF showtime at Cinemagic: Wednesday March 13 @ 8:30 pm.
Virus Tropical (Colombia, Ecuador). Animation. Young girl's life from birth to coming of age in a dysfunctional middle-class family. The father is a former priest. Eventually the parents separate, with Paola and two older sisters staying with their mother. Sibling conflicts, problems at school, Paola's introduction to pot and sex. The film is in black and white with subtitles in white flashing on and off the screen too quickly, making them doubly difficult to read. Not my favorite, but that may be as much about me as it is about the film. I can enjoy animation on occasion, but it's not really my thing. Those who have greater appreciation for animation may like Virus Tropical.
Dir. by Santiago Caidedo, Paola Gaviria. 97 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.
Upcoming PIFF showtime at Regal Fox Tower: Wednesday March 13 @ 6:00 pm.