Sundance: Choke

Our first film at Sundance this year was Choke, which was our third choice as we navigated the ticket lottery from our rather late slot. Luckily, the blurb at the Sundance site doesn’t do it justice.

Before the screening, the director warned us, “you know this is a dirty movie”. He wasn’t kidding, but the sex was part of the story, not thrown in for titillation. If your main character is an alcoholic, you show them drinking, and if your main character is a sex addict, you show sex. The director was an actor first and it was clear that he really cared about his actors. He would only ask them to do that if the scene was really important to the story.

The movie isn’t really about sex any more than it is about feigning choking in restaurants or colonial theme parks or mental hospitals. Pinning down the “aboutness” is a little hard because the characters are so specific (the movie received a Sundance special jury award for ensemble acting) and the themes are so big — deception, affection, fear, trust.

A lot of the action is in places where people are pretending or acting or deluded: a mental hospital, a colonial reenactment village, a strip club. Truths that don’t matter are uncovered, like the stripper Cherry Daiquiri leaning down and whispering “It’s not my real name.” Some revealed information is not true. Some truths are incomplete or unwelcome.

Q&A with the director was mostly interesting for what he said about Chuck Palahniuk, the author of the novel Choke. Chuck told him to not be too faithful to the book. The director, Clark Gregg, said he wasted a year and a half by not following that advice. He only really made progress on the screenplay after separating it from the book. Palahniuk feels that his merging and retelling stories that he hears, a bit like a chain letter, and that someone working with his story should do the same thing. Palahniuk said that he most enjoyed the parts of the film that were new.

Choke is pretty raunchy in spots, so if you are convinced that you could not enjoy a film where two people duck out of the sex addiction 12 step meeting to screw in the bathroom, then don’t see this movie. Otherwise, give it a chance, and take someone with you because you’ll want to talk about it afterwards.

And after you see it, I’ll tell you something the director told us. But it is a bit of a spoiler.

Sundance: Yasukuni

There is a good 50 minute film somewhere in this 123 minute doucumentary on the Yasukuni shrine in Japan (wikipedia entry). In addition to a vigorous edit, someone should explain to the director that “cinéma vérité” does not mean camera shake so bad that you have to close your eyes, following a shot to the end whether anything happens or not, forgetting to focus, and never wiping the rain off the camera lens. It rains a lot at Yasukuni.

Yasukuni is a shrine to those who have died fighting for Japan. Their names are recorded at the shrine and a sword represents their glorious deaths. In World War II, so many Japanese died at sea and in places where remains could not be recovered that Yasukuni is the only place for families and comrades to visit them. The closest thing in the US is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In 1978, Yasukuni recorded the names of war criminals from WWII and became controversial. The emperor stopped his yearly visit, and the shrine became associated with an inflexible nationalism.

There are good parts in the documentary and you do learn a lot about Yasukuni. Here are some of the parts that connected with me.

Watching the last remaining sword maker at Yasukuni make a sword was good. The interviews with him were less satisfactory, especially the one where we watch this 90 year old man think about something for two minutes then not say anything. Yeesh.

A protester outside Yasukuni is gathering signatures to ask Mainichi Shinbun (a major quality newspaper) to retract a story about her grandfather taking part in a “beheading contest” between Japanese officers. This was in China, beheading prisoners with Japanese swords, perhaps even swords made at Yasukuni. The footage is followed by a whole series of contemporary reports from newspapers, excitedly following the contest with photos of the participants.

Prime Minister Koizumi defending his visit to the shrine in a press conference. He is soft spoken and direct, with none of the condescension I hear from our president. He is still a politician, saying he “can’t understand” the Chinese objections when clearly he can understand them, but his is a politician I can stand to listen to.

A veteran visiting the shrine at night, in heavy rain. He marches up, unsheathes his sword, salutes, resheathes it, and marches away.

Two women sitting on a bench talking about Yasukuni. One of them describes the letters that boys would give to their sisters before leaving for the front. They would write, “we will meet again at Yasukuni”.

A final montage of historical footage: soldiers training with swords, a kamikaze pilot placing his sword into his cockpit, an officer leading a charge with his sword, Hirohito visiting Yasukuni. Even this montage is too long, but it is exactly the right ending for the film.

Plans for Sundance 2008

We had a fun time at the Sundance Film Festival last year and we’re going again. Lodging is expensive and the ticket process is a hassle, but the festival itself is great. Park City is a lovely place, everyone is nice, and there are so many good films (and a few odd ones) that you might never see otherwise.

We didn’t get many of our first choices for tickets this year, but we are still seeing plenty of interesting stuff:



  • Patti Smith: Dream of Life — this one was my choice
  • Yasukuni — a documentary about the controversial shrine in Japan
  • Dramatic Grand Prize Award — the prizewinners were great last year


  • Shorts Award Winners — we really enjoyed the shorts last year
  • Dramatic Audience Award — because we have popular taste, at least Sundance style

Our tickets are mostly for documentaries, so we don’t expect overlap between those and the prize winners.

Other movies we’d like to see:

Yikes! Too many interesting films! Hmm, we have a fair overlap with Michael Rubin’s choices.

If you feel an urge to track Sundance, I like the coverage at Cinematical’s Sundance section.