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Seattle International Film Festival 2011: Life in a Day and Norwegian Wood

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Seattle International Film Festival 2011: <em>Life in a Day</em> and <em>Norwegian Wood</em>

[Editor’s Note: Our coverage of the Seattle International Film Festival is cross-posted at Parallax View.]

Screenings will continue late into the evening of Sunday, June 12, the 25th and final day of the 2011 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival. But the festival marks the conclusion with its closing night gala film—the lovely Life in a Day (U.S.), which is being screened at the magnificent Cinerama (still the finest theater in town and sadly absent from the rest of SIFF this year)—and the traditional closing night party. I hope to rouse myself for the latter.

As for the Closing Night film itself, Life in a Day is a feel-good film (with some moments of sadness and emotional trials) about the global village that doesn’t sell out its integrity to go for the emotional tug. A mix of high-concept ambition, low-fidelity tools, and the networking possibilities of the Web’s global community, the production is a collaboration between National Geographic and YouTube, which is also as accurate a description you can offer for its sensibility. Officially directed by Kevin Macdonald, who plays ringmaster to a circus of contributors, it is, in fact, shot and performed by you, or us, or the folks out there, using everything from high-end video equipment to flip cameras to smart phones. What unifies the footage is that it was all shot on July 24, 2010, and each piece used in the film relates to the way we live our lives.

Macdonald and his editor sorted through 4,500 hours of video received from more than 80,000 people from 192 countries to get down to about 300 clips (about 90 minutes) from 80 contributors, organized by both time (taking us through a 24-hour cycle from midnight to midnight) and theme (“What do you love?,” “What frightens you?”). It’s not anthropology or science. There’s no attempt to represent every culture or weigh representation by the populations of the culture (over half the spoken words are in English), but the array of lives on the screen captures more than cultures and lifestyles around the world. Practically every piece communicates something about the people either on the screen or behind the camera.

This is not a documentary, it’s an impressionist journey around the world of experience through the lenses of folks with cameras and a desire to share their lives and express themselves. There’s stunt footage (cameras leaping from an airplane, jetting through streets on a motorcycle, and diving into a pool strapped to a diver’s head), magical moments (animal birth, human birth), and gorgeous imagery. But the real blast of seeing an airplane passing in front of the full moon (a defining image included in the trailer) is the spontaneous commentary of the amateur cameraman, surprised and thrilled at getting the unexpected image. And the most moving sequences are the least dramatic. The proposals, weddings, and such are lovely and all, but the morning ritual of a Japanese man and his young son in their crowded little apartment, saying hello to deceased wife/mother, via a shrine, before continuing on with their day, is more telling in its modesty and honesty than any of the home-movie moments.

Making its U.S. debut is Norwegian Wood (Japan), directed and adapted by French-Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh-hung from the novel by Murakami Haruki, with a Japanese cast, cinematography by Hou Hsiao-hsien favorite Mark Lee Ping-bin (also of In the Mood for Love), songs by Can, and a hushed score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood).

The setting is the youth culture of late-’60s Tokyo, where student protests erupt on college campuses and sexual liberation is in the air. Tran, a director all about quiet intimacy and graceful, restrained observation, approaches the social rebellion with a delicate touch. Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), a teenage boy who leaves his hometown for college in Tokyo after his best friend’s suicide, narrates with the same restraint, even when the dialogue heads into the realm of intimacy and sex (not, I should add, at his instigation). He may escape into books, but this pretty shy boy is quite the chick magnet and, even when he makes a point of joining his ladykiller buddy Nagasawa in hopes of a little action, he just passively accepts what comes his way, sex included. Except when it comes to Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), his childhood friend and girlfriend of the dead boy, now a fragile thing unable to relate to most people. It’s hard to tell if it’s love, the emotional anchor of shared emotional trauma, or anxious protectiveness that draws him to her, and Watanabe is no clearer about it himself. Meanwhile there is Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a confident, forward, flirtatious young woman whose sudden appearance is full of surprises and potential that she both encourages and retreats from.

This is a film suffused in melancholia and disconnection. Where Naoko retreats from society at a secluded sanitarium, Watanabe simply retreats into books, school, and work, with the occasional date. Matsuyama plays the part as if a spectator rather than a participant in his life, too afraid to engage after the pain of his friend’s suicide. Except when he’s around Naoko. Lee’s photography, even at its most intimate, picks Watanabe and Naoko out of their world, always apart from others and even from one another. The imagery is as delicate as the lives it presents, atmospheres so fragile they look like they’d shatter under too much emotional pressure. It’s almost suspended out of time even as Watanabe weaves through student marches and slips in and out of one-night stands. It’s not that nothing touches him, it’s that he refuses to allow anything or anyone close enough to allow that. Tran’s portrayal of the fragility of emotionally devastated teens and young adults afraid to open themselves up again makes for lonely portrait, more touching than engaging but masterfully painted throughout.

Click here to see this year’s festival award winners.

Sean Axmaker is a DVD columnist for MSN Entertainment, a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online and the managing editor of Parallax View. He was a film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for nine years, his work has appeared in The Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, The Seattle Post-Globe, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, Psychotronic Video and “The Scarecrow Video Guide” and he collaborated with Sherman Alexie on the commentary track to the DVD release of The Exiles. You can find links to all of this and more on his shamelessly self-promoting blog.