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Angels Wear White

The Writer’s Room: Forgotten Festival Favorites

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Every year, the film festival circuit provides a crucial service of circulation, exposure, and beginnings of larger distribution for new filmmakers as well as for high-budget pictures from the largest studios and artistic films from the most acclaimed of directors. Programming at The Frida alone has been filled each year with films that have been considered festival gems out of festivals like Cannes, Venice, and Sundance. The festivals have not only seen hundreds of films that have lived on in the popular film culture but have even created cult circles with devoted fans for offbeat movies. However, throughout the years, a number of movies that gained high regard at these festivals have slipped through the cracks of everyone’s memories for any number of reasons and consequently tend to live on in the hearts of niche crowds. This listicle, in light of the wave of festival favorites that have been shown at The Frida, will show what forgotten festival favorites are still remembered and cherished by the members of our writing team.

Bobby Thornson, Concessions Attendant

The Puffy Chair (2005):

A wonderful gem of an ultra-independent movie that I long ago stumbled upon in the form of a DVD in a Dollar Tree, this feature debut by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass has sadly fallen out of the popular memory of the last twenty years of American cinema. After the Duplass brothers circulated their name in the festival circuit with their 2003 digital short This is John, made on a budget of $3 and following a depressed and anxious man attempting to record a voicemail message that is actually a cry for help, they took their filmmaking instincts and decided to make a feature. The Puffy Chair is the epitome of a quote from Mark at SXSW in 2015, which stated that “The Cavalry isn’t coming” for indie film and filmmakers, as he has championed the DIY and guerilla filmmaking that he has used to carve his own space out in the crowded industry.

It made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival before also screening at SXSW in 2005, before a release in 2006, and introduced audiences to the endearing road film about a man on a trip to retrieve and reupholster a replica of a lounge chair once used by his father. The trip and antics that ensue as Josh (Mark Duplass) and friends travel for this sincere birthday present reveals the desires, uncertainties, and tensions that lie underneath everyone’s relations with one another. The film perfectly embodies the angst experienced by people who went through their early twenties at the turn of the century in a new and uncertain age influenced by a growing digital world as well as the seemingly changing morals that were influenced by the tumultuous socio-political and socio-cultural disruptions. From this point in time, the film is a wonderfully bittersweet bottle of nostalgia that was a pillar in the American mumblecore subgenre with distinct inspirations from the movies of Cassavetes as well as other notable low budget, independent pictures of the three decades that preceded it.

Justina Bonilla, Writing Team Member

Blancanieves (2012):

Making its world premiere in the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, Blancanieves enchanted audiences with its breathtakingly beautiful yet heart breaking interpretation of the classic Brothers Grimm story, “Snow White,” as a silent film. Described as a “love letter to European silent films” by the film’s director and screenwriter Pablo Berger, it sets “Snow White” in a dreamlike 1910s-20s Andalusia, with hints of other fairy tales, such as “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

After her father dies, nineteen-year-old Carmen (aka Blancanieves), is nearly killed by the lover of her evil stepmother, Encarna. When Carmen is saved by a family of little people bullfighters, she joins them, and they become a popular bullfighting attraction. However, when Encarna hears about Carmen’s rising fame as a bullfighter, she will stop at nothing to kill her by any means necessary, including by a poisoned apple.

Taking a darker and melodramatic approach to the classic tale, Blancanieves stood out, giving the well-known tale a fresh interpretation, in spite of the two other “Snow White”-themed movies (the family comedy Mirror Mirror and the action drama Show White and the Huntsman) that also came out in 2012. Berger was heavily influenced by the French film pioneer Abel Gance, known for his theory and practice of montage. Gance’s influences can be seen throughout the film, most notably the first and final bullfighting scenes.

In the cinematography of Kiko de la Rica and editing of Fernando Franco, Blancanieves was able to combine classic and modern techniques, intertwining joy and sorrow and giving it a grimly realistic yet dreamy imagery. The strength of the cinematography and editing can be seen in a scene in which a young Carmen is dancing for her father.

Blancanieves was praised by critics and won nearly fifty international awards, including winning ten of Spain’s Goya Awards, including Best Film. It’s currently Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with 95 percent.

Alan Ke, Writing Team Member

Angels Wear White (2017):

A seeming trend among filmmakers of the Chinese diaspora is to make movies about their hometowns. Jia Zhangke’s personal take on Fenyang and Bi Gan’s poetic recollections of Kaili come to mind. In so doing, these auteurs lay bare their influences and directorial sensibilities by depicting a pocket of China’s vast landscape true to their lived experiences. Unlike her contemporaries, Vivian Qu’s searing portrait of femininity takes place not in her hometown of Beijing but in an unnamed seaside village, which at once evokes a sense of familiarity in its likeness to bigger cities like Xiamen and Qingdao but also poignancy in its ambiguity. For not existing, her complete portrait of such a town is all the more impressive for its palpable realism. Regardless of where it takes place, Angels Wear White is an uncompromising and truthful look at the pains of growing up in a society marred by sexism and corruption. Debuting at Singapore International Film Festival, the film later saw a run in the main competition at Venice but largely faded into the crowd, following a trajectory similar to that of many of China’s lesser-known corners.

Watching over surveillance footage, a young hotel worker witnesses a government executive assaulting two schoolchildren but, as an undocumented worker, is powerless to speak up about it. As a children’s rights advocate presses an investigation, the victims are forced into navigating not only their trauma but also the blindsided systems of power that mask it. The film deals with challenging themes of sexism, privilege, and the constant violation/valorization of the female body, none better represented than in the statue that overlooks the town’s beach: a larger-than-life figure of Marilyn Monroe, itself perpetually photographed amidst its steady decay. True to the nature of its inquiries, the film presents no easy solution to these difficult realities. For that, Qu’s film is about as realistic as it gets.

Anthony McKelroy, Writing Team Member

Memoria (2021):

A roar. A rumbling from the “core of the earth.” That mysterious sound heard in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s somniferous film, Memoria, first materialized at the Cannes Film Festival in the summer of 2021. Since its premiere at the festival’s 2000-seat Grand Théâtre Lumière, the film has delivered its sonic thrills across the globe in a theatrical-only release pattern which boasts no physical DVD release for the film, no streaming home except in endless beams of projector light. An all-in gambit to incentivize theatrical attendance and save the movie industry during a global pandemic? Perhaps. But mostly, such distribution helps to underscore the film’s themes of impermanence and dislocation. There’s a currency to art that is difficult to find in our Information Age: lost films, burned works, but mostly anything that’s not viewable on the Internet. That lacking, that inaccessibility, begets a search, begets an obsession, that is essential to the experience of Memoria.

Obsession galvanizes Scottish botanist Jessica Holland (a speechless Tilda Swinton) in her search for the source of a bewildering and explosive sound that wakes her just before morning. She dines with colleagues and family, goes to work, but her mind always returns to this unknowable sound. The film’s journey with Jessica as she unpacks the meaning of this unknowability shapes the story into a supernatural mystery that’s liable to take off in any direction. Like Jessica, the audience will be unable to “trigger” the sound (or see the film) on demand in order to study it; we must wait for it to come to us. A satellite in outer space, Memoria is still out there, orbiting around cinematheques like a specter. The Frida Cinema honorably hosted the film for a weeklong engagement when it was first making its theatrical rounds last year, the echoes of which are still resonating (at least with this writer). It’s cinema that must be seen and heard – in theaters – to be believed. From the Cannes Film Festival to Fourth Street, Memoria sings a song that will not be soon forgotten.


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