VIFF 2013: The Great Passage and Good Vibrations

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

I’m sitting in the Grade “A” Chinese/Canadian Restaurant (two different menus, I opted for the ham, cheese and mushroom omelette with hash browns, toast and coffee) across from my hotel, reflecting on my first, not entirely unsuccessful, day at VIFF 2013. I woke up at the ungodly 5 AM to catch the train from Seattle to Vancouver, a train occupied by an unsurprising assortment of ridiculous old white people and quietly polite Koreans. The train was late in arriving, and customs delays gave me my first long line of the day. The second quickly followed, as dozens of people queued up for a cab on this rainy Saturday morning at the station. After a traffic delay (variously ascribed to the weather, a soccer game and road construction by my driver), I finally arrived at the hotel, just in time to miss the first movie I’d hoped to see (The Missing Picture, I’ll be able to catch it later in the week, fortunately). So I had plenty of time to charge my phone, eat my first meal of the day (clam chowder, Cesar salad and sourdough toast at Earl’s) before heading over to the Pacific Cinematheque for my first film of the festival.

The Great Passage

Japan’s submission for the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, director Ishii Yuya’s quietly sweet comic drama chronicles the creation of a dictionary and the lives of the unusual people who devote 15 years of their lives to it. The central character is Mitsuya Majime, a reserved and book-obsessed young man who gets hired to help edit a new kind of dictionary in the fall of 1995. It’s to be a living dictionary, incorporating slang and modern usage while still reflecting the traditional language (“we’ll have notes about how the words are being misused” says the project’s leader, an aged and kindly curious professor). The dictionary is conceived as a boat that people can use to cross the vast, mysterious sea of words that inhibits people’s ability to communicate with each other. The metaphor is literalized throughout the film, with non-diegetic wave-lapping sounds and a recurring dream of an ocean in which Majime finds himself drowning. Majime, who in life finds communication with other humans almost impossible, proves a perfect fit for the job, and as he dives into the project begins to open up slightly, inching along the Asperger’s spectrum towards love and fulfillment. It’s these personal interactions, as Majime makes friends, falls in love and loses a father figure, warmly underplayed by all involved, that are the film’s strength. Ishii films with a relaxed dignity and the generous pacing gives his remarkable cast of actors time to develop their unassuming and often very funny characters. The biggest emotional beats in the film are barely indicated: a slight nod, a melt of the eyes and a barely perceptible smile makes as moving a declaration of love as I’m likely to see at the festival this year. That cast is uniformly excellent, featuring veterans like Go Kato (Samurai Rebellion) and Misake Watanabe (Kwaidan) alongside newer stars like Aoi Miyzaki (Eureka), Joe Odagiri (Princess Raccoon, Air Doll) and Ryuhei Matsuda (Gohatto). Matsuda as Majime and Miyazaki as his love interest, the aspiring chef (another job exacting in its dedication to detail) Kaguya, in particular stand out, both in their tenderly tentative courtship and in their later life, admiring and adoring each other still. “You’re so interesting.”

My next film required a bit of a hike. VIFF is without longtime headquarters the Granville 7, a multiplex that served as an ideal central location for the festival. Forced to adapt in the wake of that theatre’s closing, the festival is now spread across downtown Vancouver. It was a long, damp 20 minute walk from the Cinematheque to the International Village for my second film, where I arrived just in time to join another line. Technical delays made that wait much longer, and made me wish I’d taken a more relaxed pace on my walk, or at least taken the time to grab some real food. Instead, devouring a much-too-large bag of mediocre popcorn, I settled in for film #2.

Good Vibrations

No less sentimental in theme, but wildly different in style is this biopic about Terri Hooley, a record shop owner instrumental in the late 70s Belfast punk scene. As loud and abrasive as The Great Passage is subdued, directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn use every trick in the playbook to throw their hectic comic drama in your face: hyperactive narration, rapidly cut stock footage, a peripatetic soundtrack, quick swings from farce to melodrama and back again. The obvious comparison is to Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, set in a similar milieu at the same time (it’s set in Manchester), but where that film had a simple rise and fall structure, cocaine-fueled and anchored by an increasingly manic Steve Coogan, Good Vibrations doesn’t follow a clear progression, instead lurching from high to low and back again as Hooley repeatedly finds himself on the precipice of success but never quite breaks through. The film’s peaks are a lot of fun: Terri’s first discovery of punk (hearing Rudi’s “Big Time”), the joy of hearing legendary DJ John Peel unprecedentedly playing one of his band’s singles twice in a row (The Undertones’s “Teenage Kicks”), a final singalong to Sonny Bono. But the film’s infectious charm is ham-handedly leavened by strained dramatic moments (Terri gets beat up by Nazi IRA youths, Terri inexplicably abandons his wife (Broadchurch‘s Jodie Whittacker) and newborn daughter to sorrowfully drink in dingy bars). Richard Dormer is ingratiatingly scampy as Wooley, I totally failed to recognize him from Game of Thrones (he’s apparently not related to Natalie Dormer, who also appears on that show). Thickly-accented crowd-pleasers from the UK are a bit of a tradition here at VIFF, and this film ably joins The Angels’ Share and Made in Dagenham trailing well-behind Mike Liegh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. In the end, it’s the second-best Good Vibrations, well-behind the Beach Boys’ pop masterpiece but well-ahead of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.

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