Ursula K. Le Guin is also just the best

I previously wrote about my love for sci-fi and feminist sci-fi in particular under the title “Octavia E. Butler Was Just the Best.” Still true! I’m sad she died so young. I’m curious to see what the rest of her “Parable” Series would have looked like.

But I’m not here to talk about Butler, but about Le Guin. Another top shelf sci-fi writer. That’s the thing about feminist sci-fi. It doesn’t need it’s own little sub-category. The best feminist sci-fi is the best sci-fi.

Le Guin was a master of the type of science fiction that establishes a world with just a couple of exaggerations or differences from our own world, and then populates that world with humans. That’s it. It doesn’t need to be top-to-bottom aliens and AI and hyperspeed. Just a couple (0r only one) shifts from our own reality, and then she lets everything else play out very naturally. But this is easier said than done! It is no small feat to really make characters and cultures feel naturally human and relatable when inventing them out of whole cloth. Yet Le Guin does this successfully again and again.

Every story is a brilliant thought experiment about human nature. No matter how wacky the premise, her stories feel like documentaries, they play out so naturally.

The Disposessed, for example. A planet and moon are home to twin societies. One is hyper focused on material property. An exaggeration of all of Earth’s capitalist and autocratic societies. The other is an anarchist society where currency, and even personal property do not exist. Put aside any concerns over how difficult it might be to achieve this situation (that’s the suspension of disbelief), and just see how humans would behave in those situations.

Le Guin’s knack for creating such a variety of believable humans and cultures existing in unbelievable circumstances might stem from the fact that she learned about anthropology from such a young age. Her father was a prominent anthropologist. And I imagine she has a deeper than average grasp of the variety of human cultures and behaviors on our planet.

I must confess, I have not read any of her Earthsea books. Most of what I have read of Le Guin is from the loose association of “Ekumen” stories. Since my last post about sci-fi, I’ve nearly completed another book of Le Guin’s, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of short stories. Most of them are in the Ekumen universe. They are all great. Highly recommended!

There is one that I felt would make an interesting film. It’s a kind of diplomatic thriller. An alien diplomat gets caught in the middle of a civil war on a planet with a painful legacy (and present reality) of slavery. The embassy is officially politically neutral but stuck on one side of the divide. While trying to contact the other side, he gets captured and then, well, I don’t want to spoil it. Not that there’s a big twist. It’s just quite well done. It’s not even the best short story in the book, but something about it felt very cinematic.

Freelance Writing Gig

I recently started freelance writing for the Hot Docs cinema! That’s where the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival holds its year-round programming.

The centerpiece of this gig is writing the film descriptions for nearly all the films screening at the cinema. But it also involves preparing the box office webpages for each film, the print calendar, and pre-show slides.

I’m pretty proud of the results! Of course, I cannot take all of the credit, or even most of it. My contact (boss? editor?) at Hot Docs edits the content before it goes live. And there’s a designer who puts together the actual calendar. But at the very least, I have a hand in writing most of the text that goes in it and finding many of the images to be used. You can view the first calendar I helped make here. And of course most of the film pages for screenings between December 2016 and February 2017 will have been set up by me.

I’m about two months into a three-month trial in this position. So far I like it quite a bit and I’m learning a lot too. It is good practice to have to write so many film notes on a regular basis. (Now the trick is to muster the self discipline to write for my own site on a regular basis…).

Catching up

Whoa! Where did August and September go? (And half of October, haha)

The industry conference gig at TIFF was very busy, but I had a great time. It was interesting to see a different part of the film festival organism. The conference is not a part that I had any previous experience with, so it was all new to me.

There were a lot of interesting talks! Of course, I didn’t see any live, since I was always busy during the conference itself. Fortunately, TIFF streamed and recorded many of them (at least, many of the ones on the main stage: The Glenn Gould Studio). So I was able to watch some of them afterwards.

Jill Soloway was one of the most anticipated and appreciated speakers at the conference, so I was definitely glad to catch her video afterwards. There are many more interesting talks to be found on that TIFF Live youtube channel!

The conference is such an interesting part of TIFF. Of course, at the bottom line it’s all about the movies. But movies don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a discussion. And there are important issues that need to be discussed. A lot of the great conversations at TIFF happen at cafes, in lines, and in bars. But it’s great that some of them are given a stage (and a url) so that they can be shared far and wide.

True, there is a layer of exclusivity. To attend the conference in person you have to be an industry delegate or press. But, there are thousands of such delegates. And as mentioned, a lot of the great talks end up on YouTube for all to see.

And of course, the hope is that the filmmakers in the audience take the ideas from these talks and use them in their next films.

The cycle of film festivals continues!

As I’ve posted about previously, I was one of the senior programmers for the Toronto Korean Film Festival this June. I had a brief pause from festival work for July, but in a few days I start my new contract at another festival! And this time it’s the big one: TIFF.

For this round I will be the Industry Conference Coordinator. It’s my first time working specifically with industry events, so I’m looking forward to learning a lot. Looks like its going to be a busy few weeks! Hopefully not too busy to keep posting here once in a while. I have a few ideas kicking around…

Once TIFF finishes in September, work for JAYU will really ramp up. That festival is not until December, but programming work will be quite busy throughout the autumn.


Back to Plastic

Porco Rosso 1

I mentioned previously that the next model plane I’d build would be the plastic model kit that my friend gave me. Tah-dah! When I was a kid I made a few plastic model airplanes, but since I re-started this hobby a couple of years ago, I’ve only made those three wood and tissue paper planes. So this was an enjoyable change of medium.

Porco Rosso 2

I foolishly neglected to take photos of the building process. But it’s not that hard to imagine. Paint the pieces, cut them out, glue them together. The only tricky part is that it is so tiny!

Porco Rosso 3

It was the first time that I ever painted a model airplane like this (I never pained the ones I made as a kid) and I didn’t buy all the recommended colours. Still, I think I did okay, all things considered.

Porco Rosso 5

In any case, it was a lot of fun to put together. It’s such a fun-looking plane! That mix of whimsy and function. Its the main character’s plane from one of my favourite films, Porco Rosso.


Film Festivals!

Well, the Scarborough Worldwide Film Festival has wrapped up. Phew! Crazy busy. It feels like it was over before I knew it. But at the same time, the beginning feels like a hundred years ago.

Already on to the next one! The Toronto Korean Film Festival starts in a couple of days. I was the Festival Manager for the Scarborough one, and I am a Senior Programmer for this one. But with such small teams, there is a lot of overlap between the positions.

Busy busy!

New Job

I realize that I have not posted in quite a while.

I started a new job last week, and I have been pretty busy. But I have a few drafts that just need some editing, then I will post them later this week, I hope.

I am the new Festival Manager for the Scarborough Worldwide Film Festival. It is a very busy job, and there is a lot of intimidating work to be done. But I am enjoying it! It’s a good group of people to work with and I am glad for the challenging experience. It will be intense, but over relatively quickly, as the whole contract is just about a month and a half long.

Little Film Review: Last Harvest (2012)

Last Harvest (2014)
Jane Hui Wang

The “South-to-North Water Diversion Project” is perhaps the world’s largest geoengineering project. Its aim is to to divert water from southern China to northern China. It is much larger in scale and cost than the Three Gorges Dam, 800,000 people are being relocated, and their homes and farmlands are submerged behind dams.

Jane Hui Wang’s quiet and intimate documentary observes this massive event from the perspective of one elderly farming couple. Wang accompanies the Xu family in their day-to-day lives as they pack up their farmhouse and prepare to move to the resettlement village.

The film feels deceptively uneventful at first. There is no shocking scandal revealed in Last Harvest. The Xus thrash their last rice. They pack their furniture. They wait. But the massive events unfolding offscreen loom in the periphery. As the inevitability of their relocation sets in, you are reminded of the magnitude of the project. The Xu’s experience is being replicated by hundreds of thousands of others across China.

With her engaging subjects and patient camera, Wang has successfully demonstrated how to make a personal and uncontrived film with global relevance.

Little Film Review: Our Sunhi (2012)

Our Sunhi (2012)
Hong Sang-soo

This is Hong Sang-Soo in top form. Our Sunhi has all of Hong’s usual hallmarks – immature academic men, a somewhat exasperated woman, and lots of soju. With these simple building blocks, he’s created a simple film, setting aside his flashbacks and other plot complications. In fact, it is an uncomplicated film in almost every way. Most scenes are put together from just a couple of uninterrupted long takes, and the plot is fairly uneventful. The crux of the whole story is simple request for a reference letter.

But the film’s simplicity is not a fault in the least. Our Sunhi is well crafted light comedy and Hong’s restraint pays off. Simple repetition, paced sparingly throughout the film produces laughs from the least suspected places. Before seeing this film, who could  have guessed that the phrase “artistic sense” could be so funny?

In a sense, this film is an exercise in drawing the most value out of the least material. Restrained, but with good artistic sense, indeed.

Little Film Review: The Revenant (2015)

The Revenant (2015)
Alejandro González Iñárritu

With more than a few shots looking up through tree canopies, this film calls to mind Emmanuel Lubezki’s other work with Terrence Malick. While Lubezki has immense skill as a cinematographer, those signature skyward shots call so much attention to themselves that they pull the viewer out of the immersive experience of the film. Nevertheless, the cinematography does a remarkable job of transporting us to a wilderness of bleak beauty.

The other notable issue with this film is its cultural politics. While the Native American characters are certainly well researched, they are limited to background pieces that highlight the white protagonist’s struggle. As a result, the film fails to move beyond the same cultural stereotypes of countless previous westerns.

Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a fine enough performance. But it is not nearly as interesting as Tom Hardy’s captivatingly cruel villain. Where DiCaprio’s range is limited to expressing various degrees of pain and discomfort, Hardy’s performance contains a wealth of subtle humanizing mannerisms.

It’s hard to tell if the chronological filming schedule and natural lighting approach are gimmicks, or genius. Perhaps similar effects could have been achieved with the standard suite of techniques. It would certainly be cheaper. However, it is hard to deny how visceral this film feels. The actors’ growing exhaustion is palpable. The lighting and atmosphere are also spot on.

This is an engaging film, a powerful film, but also one that undermines its strengths with cultural cliché and risks distracting the viewer with artifice.