Thursday, October 13, 2011


Real-life stories take center stage in 23rd Annual Pacific Rim Film Festival

Truth may not be stranger than fiction, but reality is every bit as compelling in this year's edition of the Pacific Rim Film Festival. Now in its 23rd year, Santa Cruz's favorite free film festival unspools October 14-19, at three locations: The Del Mar Theatre, the Rio Theatre, and Cabrillo College Watsonville Center. As usual, the festival presents films from all around the Pacific Rim, from China, Japan, the Philippines, India, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia to Mexico, Hawaii and the U. S. mainland.

And of the 19 films served up in this year's festival, nine are documentaries, including the opening night kickoff event and the closing night benefit. Three other films in the lineup are fact-based stories, lightly fictionalized accounts of real people and real-life events.

What sort of real-life stories are we talking about here? Hot doc topics include music, in many variations, Japanese-American soldiers in WWII, a Korean mother reuniting with her American son, murder in the Himalayas, and circumnavigating the entire Hawaiian Islands via outrigger canoe. In particular, the opening night film (Last Paradise) and closing night film (Patagonia Rising) concern extreme sports, eco-activism (and exteme eco-activism). (Read more)

And speaking off offbeat movies, here are two words you might not expect to see in the same sentence: Norwegian comedy. But that's Happy, Happy, a tart, acerbic domestic satire about two modern couples who don't know what they want and don't want what they have. A big winner at Sundance, and Norway's official entry to the 2012 Academy Awards, it's not exactly a laff riot, but rookie director Anne Sewitsky trades in a laugh-to-keep-from-crying sort of worldview.

City couple Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), a lawyer, and Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen), along with their adopted young African son, rent a small guest house from warm, ebullient schoolteacher Katja (Agnes Kittelsen) and her sullen hubby, Erik (Joachim Rafaelsen) for a winter vacation. The cool Elisabeth thinks "Katja is desperate to be my friend," but it's Sigve and Katja who bond; both are lonely in the same way. Elisabeth was cheating on Sigve back in the city, and Katja is emotionally battered by Erik—who has demons of his own.

Director Sewitsky punches up these dark themes with ironic appearances by a quartet of white, Nordic males, singing a capella American gospel. (After a montage of illicit sex, the chorus comes back with a deadpan, yet somehow salacious "Good Religion.") In this way, Sewitsky develops her larger themes. When Erik and Katja's son, Theodor, starts playing "slave" games with the African child (including faux flogging with a towel), Sewitsky and screenwriter Ragnhild Tronvoll introduce the idea iof a bad marriage as a kind of enslavement for couples unhappily shackled together. This is alluded to again in a concert scene by the community chorus that the characters all join, where the oppressed Katja is chosen as a soloist on "Amazing Grace"—a hymn originally penned to support the anti-slavery movement in 19th Century Britain.

The narrative strays into some weird, off-putting moments as these characters attempt to find "tenderness and joy." And they can be alarmingly clueless. (Katja yearns to have more children, but if the results are more demon spawn like Theodor, we're glad she's been thwarted.) But Kittelsen delivers a mostly endearing performance as Katja; the viewer becomes invested in her emotional journey. And Sewitsky displays a droll sensibility (ironic, if not strictly comic) that keeps her feature debut interesting, however strange it may get. Catch up with it at the Nick before it disappears.

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