[Best of SIFF: Day 3]

* I love short films, but they can be ridiculously hit or miss. The Best of SIFF shorts package was the perfect solution. Every film in it was well-done, regardless of if it was to my taste. Notable to me: Glenn Owen Dodds (with David Wenham playing God as sort of a harried middle manager), Off Season (horror/thriller), and The Little Dragon (stop motion with a Bruce Lee action figure).

* Wasteland was one of my favorite documentaries of the festival, though still falling behind my beloved Marwencol. It follows an artist, Vik Muniz, as he works with the pickers outside of Rio de Janeiro in Jardim Gramacho, the largest landfill in the world. They collect, sort, and resell the recyclables from the dump, and Muniz organizes some of them for a large scale photography project incorporating the materials they work with. Through it we get to know the pickers/artists, challenging assumptions about the people who do that work and why.

There are problematic elements of it, though I think the film doesn’t shy away from that. Muniz is upfront about how lucky he is to have changed his circumstances; we visit the São Paulo home where he grew up, but he now lives in New York. Also, I think Walker is not entirely comfortable with Muniz’s position of power, and makes the entirely correct decision to focus largely on the pickers themselves, their pasts, their interests, and how their lives are affected by Muniz for better or for worse.

* The Concert was a totally charming fable about a Russian conductor-turned-janitor, a loss of status due to refusing to fire Jewish musicians. 25 years later he intercepts an invitation for the current orchestra to play in Paris, and pulls together the original team to put on a show. Is it improbable? Of course. Do I care? Not a bit.

* Mao’s Last Dancer was a pretty infuriating final SIFF selection. I have no idea how it scored so high among the audience. I spent some time looking up other reviews, trying to figure out what other people saw in it. It didn’t really clarify things. Instead, I came across things like this, from Time Out Sydney: “A scene in which [ballet director Ben] Stevenson, a driven but gentle and nurturing man, has to explain to Li the meaning of a racist term, is quite affecting.” No. Stevenson was a manipulative asshole, and since he didn’t have enough respect for Li to tell him what the term actually meant, he lied. Affecting, I suppose, but certainly not in the way implied. Whatever, people.

Anyway. Based on the memoir by Li Cunxin, Dancer tells the story of how he was removed from his family at the age of 11 to study ballet in Beijing, a chance event that eventually brought him the the United States to dance in Houston. To stay in the country despite the wishes of the Chinese government, he marries fellow dancer Elizabeth (Amanda Schull from Center Stage, still a mediocre actress, in case you were wondering). Elizabeth, by the way, is treated horribly by Li, by the consulate, and by everyone associated with the Houston Ballet, apparently for the crimes of being a) female and b) not a brilliant dancer. So aggravating.

I thought Joan Chen was marvelous as his mother, but then, she’s always fabulous. She deserved better than this role where, in film’s cringe-worthy emotional climax she and Li’s father are brought up on stage to be reunited with Li at the end of a performance. All the more appalling, really, because I’m sure that’s how it actually happened. Because, as aforementioned, Stevenson was a manipulative asshole. I’m getting angry again just thinking about it.

I did appreciate the unashamedly 80s set design & cinematography. Oh, and of course the dancing. (So far as I know, which is not far because I know fuck-all about ballet.) But that’s about it. The rest was overlong, poorly written, heavy-handed, and generally insulting.

(Also, hee. I had totally forgotten that Li had remarried until I read it in another review. So that should give you some idea of how underdeveloped *that* relationship was. If by underdeveloped you mean NOT DEVELOPED AT ALL, and I do.)

I think that the thing I found most frustrating about the whole thing is that the concept should have been right up my alley. A dance film focused on a Chinese guy? As a romantic lead, no less? This never happens. If it had been even slightly effective I would have been all over it, frustrated as I am with the Western media’s inability to see Asian guys as desirable, as well as their inability to make dance films that don’t star blonde girls.

I guess I’m still waiting.

…and that’s it, kids! 50 SIFF films. Back to the real world of movie going soon: I saw Cyrus last week & Toy Story 3 this weekend, and am planning on Ondine this week. Fair warning!