May 27, 2014

SIFF 2014: Chaplin Shorts and a Silent Chinese Classic

Chaplin in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)
This Sunday was one of my most enjoyable experiences at SIFF 2014 so far. I started the day at a Secret Festival screening (can't tell you about it or I'll be sued, sued, sued!) in the newly re-opened Egyptian Theater on Capital Hill. Then it was on to the Uptown Theater in Queen Anne, where as on Saturday, I got my silent film fix, this time with two great programs. Both were presented by SIFF board member and Chinese film expert Richie Meyer and accompanied by world-renowned silent film musician Donald Sosin.

Four Chaplin shorts: Kid Auto Races In Venice (1914), One A.M. (1916), Easy Street (1917), The Immigrant (1917)

One of my favorite memories of SIFF 2013 was seeing a gorgeous restoration of Harold Lloyd's Safety Last! (1923) with my then five-year-old daughter. It was the first time she'd seen a classic film in a theater, and while there were some squirmy moments, she loved the movie.

This year, my more seasoned cinephile had a lot more theater experiences under her belt, and she was pleased to show me she knew the drill this time around. The program of four restored Charlie Chaplin shorts was her favorite silent film screening so far ("I liked Peter Pan [1924] Mom, but it was sooo long!") It was a lot of fun to hear a 6-year-old laughing so hard at these 100-year-old movies.

All four digital prints were beautiful--yet another series of brilliant restorations by the always reliable Lobster Films. Chaplin shorts are so easy to see: on YouTube, from the library, on streaming sites, that I never think of trying to see them in a theater. I'm glad I did though, because more than any other film comedian of the age, Chaplin is much funnier on the big screen.

I liked the diversity of the program. Kid Auto Races In Venice (1914) was the simplest; a one-joke concept, though it was a funny joke. One A.M. (1916) was our favorite; the wall-to-wall slapstick of that one was so much fun to experience in an audience. Easy Street (1917) and The Immigrant (1917) had a bit more plot, with the former very rough-and-tumble while the latter had a few moments of that famous Chaplin pathos.

When Meyer introduced the films, he had a good time showing off Sosin's considerable skills on the keyboard. He had him play short passages to demonstrate different moods and characters: The Heroine, The Hero, A Happy Ending, A Sad Ending, etc. It was a lot of fun, and probably a great warm-up for Sosin.

I was impressed with how much the electric keyboard Sosin played sound like a real piano. He cleverly changed the setting to organ during a scene in The Immigrant when Edna Purviance tickled the ivories for a church service.

After the program, we went up to thank Sosin for his performance. He said that the keyboard he had played was similar to his own instrument at home, hence his ability to navigate the instrument so well. I can see why the man is in such high demand; he approaches his art with great confidence and skill. I think he's the best silent film accompanist I've ever seen. I also appreciated him chatting up my daughter and even just about getting her age right!

The Song of the Fisherman (Yu guang qu) (1934)
Directed by: Cai Chusheng
Starring: Wang Ren-Mei, Kwah-Wu Shang, Tianxiu Tang, Langen Han, Peng Luo

Meyer and Sosin were back for an evening screening of this Chinese drama. It is the first film from that country to win an international award, at the 1935 Moscow Film Festival. Its story of a struggling poor family and their rich master was typical of the age.

Before the film began, Meyer once again showcased Sosin's abilities. This time he had the audience shout out a year, country, genre and director and had the accompanist improvise a snippet of how a score for a film with that pedigree would sound. His minimalist version of a Russian Scorsese porn film from 1972 was hilariously perfect.

Meyer also repeated the same hero/heroine game as with the Chaplin screening, but Sosin was not as docile a participant this time around and it was fun to see the two playfully tangle with each other. Fun because the film to come, while fascinating, was anything but light.

Song of the Fishermen follows the hardships of boy and girl twins born into a poor fishing family and the wealthy son for whom their mother was a nanny. The trio grows up together and they are loyal to each other, but no matter what they do, they seem trapped into a certain life by their class. While the wealthy boy goes to school and enjoys a life of luxury, his poverty-stricken pals are hit by one tragedy after another.

The production of the film was as grueling as the lives of its characters. In his introduction, Meyer shared that over the four week shoot, many on the crew became seasick and one worker was even killed. In the opening credits, the film is dedicated to this crew member who gave his life for film.
The mesmerizing Wang Ren-Mei

One of the most remarkable aspects Song of the Fishermen was the three renditions of the title tune, one sung by the sister as a child, the other two by star Wang Ren-Mei. All three versions of the song were lovely, sad, wistful and perfectly in tune with the story. Sosin would fade out his playing while Wang's voice rang out on the soundtrack, the only moments of sound connected with the film. It was eerie and beautiful to hear her voice in those isolated moments.

At 57 minutes, the film is too brief and fast-paced for you get to know the trio at the center of Song of the Fishermen very, but it is substantial enough to make you care about them. The wrenching performances are overflowing with the high emotion of Asian cinema. You want so much for the twins to find happiness, but know that they haven't got the strength to fight fate. It's all so beautifully done that you can almost forgive director Chusheng for breaking your heart.

Check out my SIFF Gameplan to read about the other classics I plan to see at this year's festival.

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