This week marks the launch of the 2015 Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, featuring 200-plus films from over 60 countries. So whether you're a seasoned cinephile or a festival newcomer, MSPIFF probably has something that will interest you. The lineup this year boasts an especially strong showing from Southeast Asia, with movies from established scenes like the Thai New Wave sharing the spotlight with work from up-and-coming industries in countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia. Here is a sampling of six exciting films screening at this year's fest.
The Songs of Rice, Thailand
Uruphong Raksasad's documentary The Songs of Rice is in many ways a companion piece to his 2009 docu-fiction, Agrarian Utopia. But where the latter film is deeply engaged with questions of work and man's place in nature, The Songs of Rice is a much cheerier exploration of leisure and culture. Although lacking in the sort of voiceover narration that might anchor the story, Uruphong's film presents a series of vivid tableaux celebrating (what appears, to this viewer, to be) the completion of a harvest. We see the same farmers who were ground down by global capitalism in Agrarian Utopia participating in parades, racing buffalo, singing and dancing, and setting off elaborate fireworks. Uruphong excels at establishing a sense of place, and The Songs of Rice is so richly textured and vivid that it almost becomes abstract. Realer than reality, The Songs of Rice straddles the border of surrealism, although it never strays too far from the humans at the center of its story.
3 p.m. Wednesday, April 15; 3:45 p.m. Monday, April 20
Cartoonists: Footsoldiers of Democracy, France
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, the courageous irreverence of satiric cartoonists around the world has never been more poignant. What an excellent time, then, to see Stéphanie Valloatto's documentary on these warriors who wield the pen. Her travels take her from her native France to countries like Israel, Venezuela, and Burkina Faso, introducing the viewer to a diverse cast of editorial cartoonists with little respect for taboo, who often incur the wrath of those in power. The film paints a remarkable picture of the dangers these artists face, a reality borne out tragically in the case of Charlie Hebdo. Regardless of the risks their work entails, the titular footsoldiers of this film are a cheerful bunch whose company is a great pleasure.
7 p.m. Friday, April 17; 1:50 p.m. Saturday, April 18. After the April 17 showing, MSPIFF and the Star Tribune will be displaying a selection of bold comic art from around the world in the Aster Café river room.
The Second Life of Thieves, Malaysia
Village chief Tan has many problems. His wife has absconded with his friend Lim, migrant workers in his village are turning up dead, and Lim's estranged daughter has returned to the village to join Tan in a quest to untangle the complications that bind them together. What follows is an exploration of personal history, constructed just as much from dreams and fantasies as from memory. At the center is a tender gay love story, something that has only recently started appearing onscreen in heavily conservative Malaysia. For The Second Life of Thieves, director Woo Ming Jin drew inspiration from his gay uncle, who was forced to remain closeted his entire life. The film mixes straightforward narration with digressions and distancing techniques reminiscent of a Godard movie. The end result is highly effective and deeply moving.
11 a.m. Saturday, April 11; 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 15
Nuoc 2030, Vietnam
Arguably the first Vietnamese science-fiction movie, Nuoc 2030 is set in a near-future time in which much of Vietnam is underwater as a result of global warming. In a beautiful seascape sprinkled with houses mounted on stilts, Sáo and her husband Thi cling to the patch of water where Thi used to have farmland and now ekes out a living as a fisherman. When Thi winds up dead after accepting a mysterious job on a high-tech "floating farm," Sáo sets out to investigate. The film jumps back and forth in time, mapping out the connections between Sáo, Thi, and an alluring outsider named Giang whose scientific research in the area may well determine the fate of our heroes, and all of Vietnam. Vietnamese-American director Nghiem-Minh Nguyen-Vo suffuses his film with a striking, vibrant melancholy, which bodes well for the future of sci-fi cinema in Vietnam.
9 p.m. Sunday, April 19; 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 22
Amour Fou, Austria
There really shouldn't be anything funny about the 1811 double suicide of German playwright Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel. But in Amour Fou, the story of their last months alive, Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner has struck a delicate balance between comedy (admittedly of a dark sort) and a serious, very affecting tragedy. When melancholic wunderkind Heinrich fails to persuade his level-headed cousin to die with him, he swiftly transfers his affections to respectable housewife Henriette. Intrigued by the gawky young Heinrich, Henriette is nonetheless resistant to his grotesquely comic enticements of suicide (a recurring source of humor is Heinrich's narcissistic inability to comprehend why these women don't want to die with him). But when she is confronted with a terminal medical diagnosis, Henriette suddenly finds herself questioning all the values that once sustained her, a development that places her and Heinrich on the road to disaster.
7:20 p.m. Monday, April 13; 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 22
The Look of Silence, Indonesia
American expatriate filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer burst onto the international scene with his 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing, profiling several perpetrators of the mass slaughter of communists, suspected communists, and other "traitors" that raged through Indonesia in 1965 and '66. It's estimated that as many as a million people were killed. But unlike Rwanda or Cambodia, Indonesia has never had a reckoning for these crimes. The killers were never brought to justice, and many now enjoy prominent political and economic positions while living as neighbors alongside relatives of the victims. It is these relatives that Oppenheimer focuses on in his new documentary, The Look of Silence, following an optometrist named Adi who uses his house calls as an opportunity to solicit information about the events surrounding the death of his brother Ramli, who was murdered during the massacre. As Adi makes his way up the chain of command, more and more atrocities are detailed, and we are confronted with staggering, unrepentant evil. The Look of Evil is a difficult but profound and necessary film.
2:30 p.m. Friday, April 17; 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 23