I went to the press launch for the Seattle International Fim Festival (SIFF) on May 7, and it was interesting. The festival will be larger than ever, and I believe I heard it described as the largest international film festival in North America this year. There will be 220 features and 75 shorts. Of these, 55 will be U.S. or North American premieres. No special announcement was made regarding world premieres, and I didn’t think to ask.

Of special note are a couple of areas the festival is highlighting: documentaries, and what they are calling “Heroic Grace“, Hong Kong action movies. There will be 46 documentaries screened during the festival, and while the SIFF Guide only mentions nine films under the “Heroic Grace” heading, I suspect there are more films than that in the festival that have Hong Kong connections.

Some of the other areas of special interest that the Festival will be highlighting are “Cloud Kingdom“, recent films from South Korea; “Women in Cinema“, highlighted by the promising Maori film Whale Rider, and “Spawned in Seattle“, a two-day series of events focusing on the work of people from the region.

Additionally, the Screenings for Students offers FREE TICKETS to selected screenings for students – run, don’t walk, to the SIFF Box Office in Pacific Place, mm’kay? It’s a floor or two down from the theaters. The box office also will host an exhibition of Polish cinema posters that runs for the duration of the Festival.

The complete listing of SIFF Events is quite extensive.

After the Festival people spoke we were shown a half-hour of trailers. As SIFF Director Darrel McDonald took care to note, most of the films that appear at SIFF are the works of independent filmmakers that lack the resources to produce trailers, let alone get them rated. Keeping that in mind, there were some appealing possibilities.

One of the two most conventionally appealing trailers was for the previously-mentioned Whale Rider, which appears to be the story of a Maori girl who struggles to take up her family’s traditional role in Maori culture as chieftains, crossing a gender boundary to do so. Whales! Cute little girls learning staff fighting! Cool Maori tattoos! The auditorium sighed with desire.

Director Niki Caro’s 2002 film won the 2002 Toronto Film Festival Best Film and the Sundance 2003 Audience Award, Best Film. It will only have two festival showings, but with awards like that it’s no surprise to hear that Whale Rider already has a distribution agreement with Newmarket Films.

The other trailer that garnered positive reaction for it’s fluid, flashy screen presence is the Hong Kong action flick So Close, which combined impossibly stylish, stylized action scenes of balletic grace and strikingly commercial high-fashion costume design with digital effects – something like The Matrix meets Crouching Tiger, but in present-day Asia (possibly Hong Kong). The (ahem) kicker? The film’s lead action heroines are two beauties, who act as assassins in “the high-stakes–world of corporate intrigue” (or something like that).

Frustratingly, the film does not appear in the festival guide.

Finally, the single most astonishing trailer is for a film whose name did not appear on screen in a script that I can read. The film’s trailer presented what appeared to be a buddy story about two young athletes, devoted to the challenging sport – of high-powered table tennis.

The American audience chuckled at the novelty of such a thing, and then the trailer began to present a rapid-fire avalanche of surreal images, the originality of the visuals heightened by the fact that we could only make four words in the entire trailer: “I can flyy,” echoing in heavily accented English as a young man leaps from an urban bridge toward the water below, his flight arrested by the camera as it orbits his frozen fall. A man, facing away, slouchingly hunched in a locker room, butterfly wings flexing from his back, suffused with light. Just after, less than a second of a person emerging from a vat of ping-pong balls. The juxtaposition of the butterfly wings and the egg-like ping-pong balls evoked birth and transformation.

All of this was intercut with frenetic table-tennis action. Taken together, it was by far the most powerful of the trailers. Certainly part of the power stemmed from the mystery of the experience, as the trailer was not subtitled in any way.

The film, it turns out, is called (duh) Ping Pong!

Also shown were trailers for the upcoming Philip Seymour Hoffman vehicle, Owning Mahowny, in which a nebbish who works at a bank leads a double life as a high-rolling gambler; I Capture the Castle, a leading candidate for a date flick at SIFF for me personally, and Double Vision, which ambitiously seeks to combine the supernatural horror thriller with the detective film and sets it squarely in Hong Kong.

China loomed large in the trailer presence, with about half, it seemed to me, of the trailers flacking films that originated either in HK or the mainland itself.

Following the trailers, the Fesitval’s premiere film, Argentina’s Valentin was shown, which I regrettably had to miss (my dear wife was home sick in bed).

Films that were not discussed or previewed in which I have an interest include a screening of all nine Animatrix shorts (as I type this sentence, SIFF’s website has just gone down) – just one showing, though, kids! It’s on May 31 at the Egyptian.

Speaking of genre animation, The Tortoise and the Hare, a long unfinished but recently completed film from stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen will be shown along with the maestro’s Jason and the Argonauts. But wait! That’s not all!

Harryhausen himself will be present for the screening, and will talk about his career. Mmmm, inn-ter-view. Cross your fingers.

Jeff Goldblum is the other onsite high-profile guest – no word on an Apple Store walkthrough yet 😉 .

I have had an opportunity to flag the films I hope to see or catch press screenings of and will dash off that list as well… Hopefully I can link to the SIFF site, but the web gods are in charge of that now.

Generally speaking I will be focused on genre flicks and local work. I hope to be able to pick one or more of the local pieces to work up a feature for Tablet in addition to whatever Cinescape assignments I might put out.

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