SIFF 2008: Sir Ben saves the day

Our Rating

It was Day Four of the fest, and I had yet to be really impressed by any of the films that had gotten good advance buzz. Sure, Battle in Seattle was fine, and the other films were mostly watchable, but there were no films that I was excited about. Luckily today I finally scored two good films that I can highly recommend.

First up was the event A Tribute to Sir Ben Kingsley, which featured an special award for the man himself (the ubiquitous Dale Chihuly blown-glass thing-a-ma-bob), a Q&A, and a screening of one of Sir Ben’s newest films, Elegy (7/8). Moviepie Jennifer and her pal joined me to see the Sexy Beast himself, and at least I was impressed by the film (my pals, not so much). In Elegy, Sir Ben plays an aging lothario with a put-upon adult son (Peter Sarsgaard), a fuck-buddy lover (Patricia Clarkson), and a best friend (Dennis Hopper) that he can B.S. with on things, life, and whatnot. What he doesn’t expect is that a fling with one of his beautiful young grad students (played by Penelope Cruz) would turn him on his head and that he would actually fall in love.

I had read absolutely nothing about the film before going in, so found myself surprised not only with the cast as each appeared on screen (“OMG! It’s Dennis Hopper! OMG! It’s Patricia Clarkson!”), but also surprised that I was into the film almost immediately. Despite Penelope Cruz’s odd hair transformation (from mousey Bettie-Page severe bangs to the suddenly luscious Penelope-hair we all know and love), I found it to be a believable and humble musing on what it means to age, both for men and women. Unsurprisingly, Sir Ben and all involved were excellent. He also turned out to be an accommodating interviewee, musing on his career from his days on stage, to his burst of fame with Gandhi, to his struggle to find a place in Hollywood after his initial success. I liked his view on acting (and life): the simpler, the better, using the metaphor of minimal brush-strokes to create a whole image. Despite artistic director and host Carl Spence’s insistence that it was evening (I think he has already been in dark theaters too long), it was a pleasant afternoon with Sir Ben.

My second film arrived with a bit of buzz. A documentary, Up The Yangtze (7/8), at times almost feels like a drama because of its intimacy with its subjects. Canadian director Yung Chang was in attendance, and memorably introduced the film as “The Love Boat meets Apocalypse Now“. The Three Gorges Dam has been slowly blocking China’s Yangtze River, and will eventually flood areas 175 meters higher than its previous level, displacing 2 million people. The film mainly focuses on a poor farming peasant family who live in a ramshackle hut on the riverbank (in an area that will soon be covered in water). Because the family cannot afford to send their daughter to high school, she is instead sent to work on one of the river’s tour-boats that cater to Westerners (with “farewell tour” cruise themes). The daughter Shui Yu is dubbed “Cindy” at work, and struggles with homesickness, learning English, and the responsibility of a job. The family’s sacrifices at home are heartbreaking and haunting; the mother sobs, explaining that they can’t afford to send her to school, and the father’s gaunt humble face says what words don’t. Cindy’s story is contrasted with “Jerry” Bo Yu Chen, a co-worker who is handsome, 19, and admits he grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth. Their stories overlap with spooky images of abandoned riverside cities and the jovial faces of Western tourists ooing and aahing at the sights and their hosts. Up the Yangtze is a fascinating, moving film… my only criticism is that for those of us without the background knowledge, that the film could have offered some more big-picture explanation of the Three Gorges Dam project, and its intended effect on the countryside. Otherwise, I highly recommend catching the film when it hits the indie circuit this summer.


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