Category Archives: Film

A Tour de Force of Iranian Cinema

Fatemeh Motamed-Arya in "Avalanche"

Fatemeh Motamed-Arya in Avalanche.

In a career spanning three decades and more than fifty films, Fatemeh Motamed-Arya (born 1961) has established herself as one of Iran’s most acclaimed actresses, both at home and abroad. At the Fajr Film Festival, Iran’s premier cinema showcase, she has won awards for her performances four times, in addition to prizes at the Montreal World Film Festival and the Prix de Henri-Langlois at the Vincennes International Film Festival.

With her expressive face and impressive range, Motamed-Arya is instantly recognizable to followers of Iranian cinema—including fans of our Iranian Film Festival—particularly through her powerful performances in such films as Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s antiwar drama Gilaneh and Bahram Tavakoli’s Here Without Me. Attendees of this year’s festival already got a taste of Motamed-Arya’s work in the opening film, Bani-Etemad’s Tales, which played at the National Gallery of Art on January 2.

Motamed-Arya also is an in-demand world traveler, having made appearances at film festivals in India, Dubai, Holland, Korea, and Dhaka in the last couple of years (just to name a few). I met her at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival. With some mutual friends, we spent a memorable afternoon sightseeing and shopping, during which I broached the idea of inviting her to Washington. I was able to make good on my promise this year, with the release of the film Avalanche, in which she gives a tour-de-force performance as a night nurse tormented by insomnia as a snowstorm descends on Tehran.

Motamed-Arya was scheduled to attend the screening of the film on January 31 at the National Gallery of Art, but I’m sorry to say that she will not be able to attend. Due to a flood of applications from Iran in the wake of the nuclear deal, her visa, unfortunately, was not approved in time.

Just yesterday, I also heard the terrible news that she and director Kaveh Ebrahimpour were attacked by an angry mob at a screening of their latest film, Yahya, in Iran over the weekend. Whether the attack was motivated by the film itself (in which she plays an abortionist), Motamed-Arya’s outspoken progressive political positions, or her habit of defiantly taking off the hijab when she travels abroad ultimately doesn’t matter. It serves as another reminder of the very real threats that uncompromising artists can face in Iran. Luckily, she seems to have come through the ordeal unharmed.

Even though we won’t be able to see her in person, I hope you’ll show your support for this courageous artist by coming out to the screening of Avalanche this Sunday.

Reseeing Iran: Our 20th Iranian Film Festival

"The President" screens Sunday, January 17, 4 pm, at the National Gallery of Art.

The President screens Sunday, January 17, 4 pm, at the National Gallery of Art.

The new year is upon us, and with the Freer now closed for renovation, our film program has made its temporary move to other theaters around the DC area. I was pleased to see big crowds in the National Gallery of Art’s spacious East Building Auditorium during the opening weekend of our Twentieth Annual Iranian Film Festival on January 2 and 3.

If you weren’t able to join us, there are still plenty of provocative and inspiring Iranian films to come this month, starting with Dariush Mehrjui’s 1969 masterpiece The Cow. This landmark of Iranian cinema has long been unavailable on DVD, but thanks to the efforts of the National Film Archive of Iran, we are able to bring you a digitally restored version this Saturday at 1 pm.

Also not to be missed are Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s biting political allegory The President on January 17 and Jafar Panahi’s award-winning Taxi on January 23. This is the third film Panahi has made in defiance of a ban on directing films imposed by the Iranian government for alleged treasonous activities. Like its predecessors This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is a moving testament to his devotion to artistic freedom, no matter the cost.

Sending off Suzuki with “Pistol” and “Princess”

Pistol Opera

Suzuki’s 2001 film “Pistol Opera,” screening tonight, looks back at his inventive career.

When Seijun Suzuki returned to directing in 2001 after a decade-long break, he was in a reflective mood. His work recently had begun reaching new fans around the world thanks to a touring retrospective in the 1990s. Pistol Opera (made in 2001 and screening tonight) was pitched as a remake of Branded to Kill, the notorious 1967 film that simultaneously got Suzuki banned from filmmaking and gained him legions of fans in the Japanese counterculture. Instead, Pistol Opera serves as a tour of Suzuki’s outrageous career: a riot of color, violence, sensuality, and, above all, anarchy.

Our Suzuki retrospective concludes on Sunday with his final film, Princess Raccoon, a charming musical inspired by Japanese folklore and featuring megastars Zhang Ziyi and Jo Odagiri. It concludes, appropriately, with the cast waving goodbye to the camera.

After that screening, we, too, will wave goodbye as the Meyer Auditorium, along with the rest of the Freer Gallery, closes for renovations on January 4. Along with visiting our exhibitions in the Sackler, which remains open, I hope you’ll join us at other venues in the DC area for our 2016 film program. It kicks off with the twentieth edition of our annual Iranian Film Festival, which has found a temporary home at the National Gallery of Art and the AFI Silver Theatre.

Action, Anarchy, and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective

Film still from "Branded to Kill"

Film still from “Branded to Kill”

Seijun Suzuki is one of Japanese cinema’s legendary eccentrics. He was fired from his job at Nikkatsu Studios in the late 1960s for, as he put it, making films that “made no sense and made no money.” Over the last couple of decades, he has developed a global cult following for those stylistically outrageous send-ups of gangster movies, as well as the mysterious ghost stories he created upon his return to filmmaking in the 1980s.

Though he is virtually a household name in Japan (he was once voted the country’s best-dressed man), very little has been written about Suzuki in the United States—until now. My book Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki has been published by the Freer|Sackler. To celebrate, we are devoting the next three months to a retrospective of Suzuki’s work, co-organized with the Japan Foundation and comprising more than twenty films, some of which have never before screened in the United States.

We kick things off this evening with Suzuki’s most notorious film, Branded to Kill, the outrageous excesses of which led to his firing from Nikkatsu. After the screening, I will be on hand to sign copies of Time and Place Are Nonsense. For the rest of the month, you can sample films from the most fertile period of Suzuki’s career: the mid- to late ’60s, during which he twisted B movie scripts into dazzling, funny, and shocking artistic statements. These films are rooted both in the gleefully nihilistic outlook Suzuki gained as a soldier in World War II and in the wild, bawdy underbelly of Japanese aesthetic traditions, such as Kabuki theater, that has fascinated him throughout his career.

I hope you’ll join us and come back in November and December, when we delve into Suzuki’s equally fascinating later career. The complete film schedule is available on our website. And if you have friends in other parts of the United States and Canada, please tell them to keep an eye out for the retrospective. Between now and next May, it will be traveling to cities throughout North America.

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Close Up: Turkish Filmmaker Ҫağan Irmak

Film still from "Whisper If I Forget"

Film still from “Whisper If I Forget”

On Friday at 7 pm in the Meyer Auditorium, we inaugurate a new partnership with Turkish Airlines in Close Up, a series that will periodically bring Asian filmmakers to the Galleries to present their work. Appropriately enough, our first guest, Ҫağan Irmak, is one of Turkey’s most popular and accomplished directors. I’m not too proud to admit that until a few months ago, I had never heard of him. I am eternally grateful to the friend who clued me in, because now I’m hooked. Irmak makes popular entertainment of the most satisfying kind: films that balance humor and sadness, address serious issues without becoming heavy-handed, and aim for a broad audience without insulting anyone’s intelligence.

In Are We OK?, playing September 18, a heartbroken sculptor befriends a suicidal, severely disabled man in a story that mixes sadness, joy, and touches of magic realism. Spanning four decades, September 20’s film, Whisper if I Forget, follows an aging diva suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s as she returns home to make amends with the sister she betrayed on her way to stardom. This touching tale of sacrifice, forgiveness, and the strength of family ties revels in a nostalgia for ’70s rock-and-roll kitsch that will bring a smile even to those who have never donned a pair of bell bottoms.

Coming upon new filmmakers is one of the great pleasures of my job. It is an even greater one to be able to share them with you. I hope you enjoy discovering Irmak’s work as much as I have.

After each screening, please stay for a Q&A with the director.

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Twenty Years of the Hong Kong Film Festival

Still from the film "Diva"

Still from the film “Diva”

Twenty years ago, the Freer debuted its very first Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, a partnership that remains strong to this day. Over the years, this ever-popular annual festival has treated our audiences to the films of some of the biggest directors in Hong Kong cinema, among them Wong Kar-wai, John Woo, Johnny To, and Ann Hui. Actors and actresses such as Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Maggie Cheung, and Sandra Ng have become like old friends to our devoted crew of festival regulars, who come back year after year to watch them onscreen.

To celebrate this milestone, we are bringing a stellar selection of new and classic films to the Meyer Auditorium in July and August, from the street-racing action of Derek Yee’s Full Throttle (which also played in the first festival in 1996) to Fruit Chan’s award-winning sci-fi comedy The Midnight After—one of the most lauded Hong Kong films of last year.

We also have some special events up our sleeves. On July 26, we honor Hong Kong’s rich history of kung fu movies by showing the classic kung fu extravaganza Martial Club. After the film, a group of martial arts masters, some of whom have even appeared in Hong Kong movies, will take to the stage to demonstrate their skills and discuss kung fu cinema with Hong Kong producer, author, and martial arts expert Bey Logan. There will even be a traditional Chinese Lion Dance to get everyone in the mood.

We will also look to the future of Hong Kong cinema when Heiward Mak graces our stage on August 16 to present her backstage drama Diva. And because it is our longtime Hong Kong movie fans who have made this festival one of our most popular events year after year, we are giving you the chance to pick a Jackie Chan classic to show on August 14. You can vote online on our Facebook page or in person at any screening through July 26.

I look forward to seeing Hong Kong movie fans, old and new, at our festival this summer!

The Traveler’s Pen

Still from "Old Men," courtesy of Icarus Films

Still from “Old Men,” courtesy of Icarus Films

As a young woman, Val Wang—inspired by Zhang Yuan’s seminal independent Chinese film Beijing Bastards—left her family home in the DC suburbs to move to China. Partly a declaration of independence and partly a way of connecting to her émigré family’s roots, Wang’s time there resulted in the book Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a Changing China.

One of the many odd jobs Wang took on in China was helping independent Chinese filmmakers with English subtitles. Her honest and intimate descriptions of her sometimes complicated relationships with people such as Zhang himself are among the book’s highlights.

Wang is one of two authors I invited to share a film they find meaningful as part of the series Road Works: Films Inspire Writers, presented this month in conjunction with the exhibition The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia. Wang chose Old Men, an ingenious documentary by another independent filmmaker she got to know, Lina Yang. The complex relationship between the two women, as Wang described in her book, should add spice to the discussion when she presents the film on April 12.

Keith Bellows, travel writer, blogger, and former editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler, chose to confront the contradictions and controversies of the very industry in which he works by selecting Gringo Trails. This documentary looks at the impact of global tourism on the cultures, economies, and ecosystems of countries in Asia and South America.

Although Bellows won’t be able to join us in person on April 19, he managed to corral the film’s director, anthropologist Peggy Vail, and its producer, Melvin Estrella, to participate in an Q&A after the screening. Among the topics they’ll discuss is whether tourism is destroying the planet or saving it, and how tourists can change local economies for better … and for worse.

As The Traveler’s Eye illustrates, the ways that travel affects travelers and that travelers impact the places they visit are ideas artists have considered for centuries. I hope you’ll join us for these two contemporary takes on age-old themes.

Discovering Georgian Cinema

Film still from "Eliso" (Courtesy of National Archives of Georgia)

Film still from “Eliso” (Courtesy of National Archives of Georgia)

The cinema of the Republic of Georgia is as varied as its landscape and the many cultures that have inhabited it over the centuries. This month, the Freer|Sackler teams up with the National Gallery of Art, the Embassy of France, the AFI Silver Theatre, and the Goethe-Institut Washington to present a landmark survey of Georgian cinema—from the silent era through last year’s Oscar-nominated Tangerines. Cocurated by Susan Oxtoby of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and Jytte Jensen of the Museum of Modern Art, this is the largest retrospective of Georgian cinema ever presented in the United States, and it includes rare 35mm prints from archives all over the world.

“This retrospective concentrates on three main periods of production,” Oxtoby wrote in the retrospective booklet. “The wonderfully creative films of the silent era; the flowering of narrative filmmaking that began in the mid-fifties … and is well represented here by a concentration of films from the 1960s and 1980s; and the new wave of Georgian cinema, which demonstrates the talents of the young filmmaking community today.”

We open the retrospective in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium on Friday, February 13, with a screening of the silent classic Eliso, with live accompaniment by Trio Kavkasia and members of the Supruli Choir, performing a score by Carl Linich commissioned for the event. The composition is adapted from Georgia’s unique polyphonic folk singing tradition, a style admired by the likes of Igor Stravinsky, Billy Joel, and the Coen brothers (who used it in The Big Lebowski, believe it or not). If that’s not enough to tempt you, the screening will be followed by a reception featuring Georgian wine, which has developed a devoted following of its own in recent years.

There are other special events planned as well. The silent double feature of Salt for Svanetia and Nail in the Boot on February 15 will be introduced by Georgia expert Peter Rollberg of George Washington University and accompanied by keyboardist Burnett Thompson. On February 22, Dr. Julie Christenson, an expert in Soviet and post-Soviet cinema at George Mason University, will introduce Tengiz Abuladze’s once-banned Repentance, one of the first films to address the terrors of the Stalin era. It remains a fine example of Georgian filmmakers’ subtle rebellious character during the Soviet era, which some have compared to the similarly poetic strategies of Iranian filmmakers from the 1990s through today.

I’m grateful to my colleague Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery of Art for offering us this rare opportunity to explore the cinema of this unique region. You can find the full schedule on the NGA’s website.

Journey to the West: A 400-Year-Old Tale

"Journey to the West"

Scene from “Journey to the West”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn recently interned in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at Freer|Sackler.

There will always be a special place in my heart for Journey to the West. It’s a magical tale that has captivated both children and adults for centuries. Growing up in a half-Thai, half-Chinese household, I couldn’t escape its spell. How could anyone resist the fantastic journey to India undertaken by a Buddhist monk, an invincible magic monkey, a gluttonous pig monster, a humble fish monster, and a quiet dragon-in-disguise horse? Oh, the good old Saturday mornings of sitting around the table watching the Monkey King defeat demons. It makes me nostalgic!

Journey to the West (aka Journey) is one of those stories that brings together East Asian people of all ages, especially when you’re partly Chinese. My grandmother and I are able to discuss the same story even though we were born fifty years apart. As one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Journey was adapted into many forms, ranging from Beijing opera to animation spin-offs. My earliest memory of it is the 1988 film Doraemon: The Record of Nobita’s Parallel Visit to the West. As I was growing up, television series, cartoons, and movies telling this tale were released every few years to people who knew the story by heart. Regardless, we all rejoiced with every new version we could find.

The one element of the novel that appears most frequently in popular culture is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. Many actors have tried their hand at portraying the character. Just this year, Donnie Yen starred in The Monkey King, a new adaptation made with a big budget and plenty of special effects. Although the entire story is loosely based on Journey, Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball protagonist Son Goku is heavily influenced by Wukong. Goku has the same name (but in Japanese), rides on a cloud, carries a magic staff, and had a monkey tail as a kid.

My favorite Wukong is the one and only Hong Kong comedy king, Stephen Chow, who created a bombastically funny version in Jeffrey Lau’s A Chinese Odyssey series. Focusing on how one may suffer with love and lust, the loose adaptation traces Wukong’s journey of self-redemption from an arrogant lying individual to a faithful follower of the Longevity Monk. Chow’s Wukong has set a high standard for any future adapters of the tale.

Catch Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons on Friday, August 15, at 7 pm, and A Chinese Odyssey Parts I and II at 1 and 3 pm on Sunday, August 17, at the Freer. These films conclude the 19th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Washington, DC.

Read Molly’s previous post on Hong Kong films.

Hong Kong Films: The Vampire Strikes Back

Twin ghosts from the movie "Rigor Mortis"

Twin ghosts from the movie “Rigor Mortis”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn is an intern in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at the Freer|Sackler.

They jump. They bite. They’re scary and hilarious at the same time. The Jiangshi, or hopping vampires, seen in Mr. Vampire are always up for some brutally comical blood-sucking. The success of this film, directed by Ricky Lau in 1985, made Jiangshi (Goeng-si in Cantonese) a popular sub-genre of horror films in the following decade.

Of all the qualities that go into making a Jiangshi movie, humor is number one. Jiangshi films employ slapstick physical comedy, especially when the vampires hop into kung fu moves. When I was younger, I played Jiangshi vampire with other kids back home in Bangkok, Thailand. The one who was “it” jumped around with his or her arms raised zombie style to catch the fleeing humans. In our children’s game, the humans tended to outrun the vampires, but not so in the Jiangshi movies. If onscreen characters aren’t speedy, they need one of the following: kung fu skills, a Taoist protective tag, or the ability to hold their breath for a long time—the Jiangshi vampire can’t see prey that’s not breathing. This contributed to many funny scenes in the films, and my friends and I would hold our own breath while we sat in the audience. Jiangshi took the scary out of horror films and replaced it with a physical comedy that younger audiences appreciated.

After the 1990s, Jiangshi movies disappeared from the cinema marquees in Asia. Finally, in 2013, Juno Mak decided to bring the hopping vampire back to the silver screen, this time darker and scarier than before. His film Rigor Mortis is a story of a bankrupted actor who moves into a rundown apartment, only to find himself in terrifying circumstances. A critical and commercial success, Rigor Mortis won Best Supporting Actress (Kara Hui) and Best Visual Effects at the 33rd Hong Kong Film Awards, while Juno Mak was nominated for Best New Director. Earning more than ten million Hong Kong dollars, Rigor Mortis is proof that the Jiangshi vampire never really fades away for East Asian audiences. Newer trends of horror films may come and go, but the Jiangshi vampire sleeps quietly, waiting to return and shake us all again with its hopping.

See Mr. Vampire and Rigor Mortis back to back on Sunday, July 27, as part of our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office.