Week 3: Real life is a drag
“The Red Race,” China/Germany
Reviewed by Jason Cruz
Do you ever wonder why the Chinese have great gymnasts at the Summer Olympics?
This documentary depicts the intense gymnastic training program of young Chinese children between the ages of 5 and 7 at Shanghai’s Luwan District Youth Athletic School. In their underwear, the children practice under the intense scrutiny of their coaches. With the sole purpose of winning a gold medal for their country, the coaches unmercifully demean the children into performing better.
The coaches are seen stretching, prodding, and bending the children to the point that some weep uncontrollably. The coaches are cold to the children’s emotions as it is clear that they care only to make champions.
Despite the tears and overwhelming physical and mental pain, the children are dedicated to the gymnastics school. In one scene, after a tough practice ending with a girl crying, the parents of the young girl ask if she would like to quit. The young girl declines because she wants to win a gold medal for China and earn enough money to buy her parents a house.
The children, without the presence of their parents, enter into 5-year contracts to practice and compete for the school. They are so young that they sign the contracts through a red ink thumbprint as it is likely that the children have yet to learn how to spell their name or read the contract they have signed.
Directed by Gan Chao, subtitles are the only device in telling the story of China’s commitment to gymnastic excellence. Chao does not provide the audience with the names of the children, coaches, or use a voiceover to guide the story. Although this makes it difficult to follow the different children at the school, it emphasizes their unwavering dedication to one goal: a gold medal.
“The Red Race” showtimes:
Monday, June 8 at 7:00 p.m., SIFF Cinema
Thursday, June 11 at 4:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema
“Machan,” Sri Lanka
Reviewed by James Tabafunda
Stanley (Dharmapriya Dias) and Manoj (Gihan de Chickera) are fed up with their daily lives in the slums of Colombo, Sri Lanka. They live with overwhelming feelings of hopelessness. Stanley sells fruit on the streets, doing his best to handle his large debt. Manoj serves drinks in an expensive restaurant frequented by white tourists. They decide to apply for a visa in order to find jobs and earn money in Germany. After their attempt fails, they use their ingenuity to help them gain entry into the more prosperous European country.
While carrying out their scheme to enter an international handball tournament, they convince family members, friends, and even strangers — mostly non-professional actors — to join in and contribute unique talents and, in some cases, lack of talent. The ongoing joke of the film is the gang’s complete ignorance and lack of experience playing handball.
Writers Ruwanthie de Chickera and Uberto Pasolini create an excellent comedy based on the true story about 23 members of the Sri Lanka National Handball Team traveling to a 2004 international competition in Wittislingen, Bavaria (in southern Germany). The story is so unbelievable, it is natural to assume that tournament officials will eventually catch on to their scheme since they are the ones with unlimited resources and power.
This film’s strength is its ability to keep viewers involved in the story, making them laugh, cheer, and feel sympathy in several key scenes. Credit goes to talented Italian director Uberto Pasolini for creating a successful balance of these three aspects.
Friday, June 5 at 4:30 p.m., Uptown Cinema
Wednesday, June 10 at 7:00 p.m., Uptown Cinema
“The Shaft,” China
Reviewed by Jason Cruz
This bleak drama about the lives of a family in a western Chinese mining town shows the despair and endless struggles of life without a means of escape. Told in three episodes, the characters balance their dreams with reality.
For the daughter, Jingshui Deng (Louqian Zheng), the choice is between her miner boyfriend or an arranged marriage and more promising future in the city. Her brother, Jingsheng Deng (Xuan Huang), has dropped out of school and must decide whether to start working in the coal mines like his father or to pursue his dream of becoming a pop star.
The father, Baogen Ding (Deyuan Luo), is retiring from the coal mines and faces the question of what to do with the rest of his life.
The movie reflects the hopelessness in trying to get ahead in rural towns while working for minimal wages. Set amid a picturesque mountainside contrasted by dank buildings and the expressionless inhabitants that populate the area, the film makes a point in observing the lives of ordinary people.
Yet, each character’s resolve to do something more is only a glimmer of hope in an endless world of cold reality. “People might not win the struggle against their destiny, but they would understand the life during the struggle,” explains Director Chi Zhang about his film.
Although “The Shaft” does a fine job in depicting ordinary life, the movie plods along from episode to episode. I felt a a lack of empathy for the characters as I witnessed each of them going through the motions of his or her life, wishing that each would attempt to do something different to change the intended destiny.
“The Shaft” showtimes:
Thursday, June 4 at 4:45 p.m., Pacific Place Cinema
Sunday, June 14 at 6:30 p.m., Pacific Place Cinema
“Kimjonglia,” South Korea/France
Reviewed by Jason Cruz
This art house documentary provides a historical and educational look at the tyrannical reign of North Korea under Kim Jong Il. Kimjonglia refers to a flower named in honor of the “Dear Leader.”
Through interviews of those who escaped North Korea between 1992 and 2006, the film provides detailed accounts of atrocities suffered under the Kim dynasty.
The interviewees decided to leave knowing that if they were captured, they would be sent to prison and possibly face execution. Many speak with great sadness of the families left behind and the suffering they witnessed.
Director N.C. Helkin uses archival footage of North Korean propaganda art, films, and original scenes that are meant to portray the daily life of North Koreans. In one such film, pretty people frolic in green grass, proclaiming North Korean prosperity. Yet, the film was part of a campaign urging people to eat 2 meals a day due to dwindling food supplies. In contrast to the propaganda film, the interviews grimly expose the starvation of many in North Korea , which resulted in millions of deaths.
In addition to the interviews and footage, Helkin relies on her background in theater and weaves in, throughout the documentary, a female interpretive dancer whose movements provide an abstract commentary on the oppressive regime.
Through each of these devices, Helkin creates a sense of sadness, anger, and frustration for the human rights violations that have occurred. Helkin looks at the inhuman conditions suffered by North Koreans and offers a powerful statement on one of the world’s worst dictators.
Friday, June 5 at 1:30 p.m., Kirkland Performance Center
Friday, June 12 at 6:30 p.m., Pacific Place Cinema
Saturday, June 13 at 1:30 p.m., Pacific Place Cinema
Jason Cruz and James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.
Want to see a Seattle International Film Festival movie?
They are playing at these theater locations:
Kirkland Performance Center
350 Kirkland Ave., Kirkland
Pacific Place Cinema
600 Pine St., Suite 400, Seattle
321 Mercer St. at Third Avenue
McCaw Hall, Seattle
511 Queen Anne Ave., Seattle
For tickets, visit www.siff.net.