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Ticket to the World
In its fourth edition, the Milwaukee Film Festival streamlines its vision.

Scene from 11 Flowers.

The Milwaukee Film Festival is growing up right before our eyes. And opening those eyes, too, right down to the festival’s new logo. Jonathan Jackson, the festival’s artistic and executive director, says the blue and white starburst resembles an eye, what the eye sees and the light from a film projector.

But the evolution goes beyond marketing. “Based on the success of last year, we’ve made a couple of really big changes,” Jackson says. In its fourth year, the festival is focused on a long-term vision that includes expansion (growing by four days) and historic screening venues (adding Fox-Bay Cinema Grill in Whitefish Bay and cutting ties with Marcus Theatres).

It’s part of an effort to “tighten the festival’s footprint and utilize historic venues,” Jackson says. So Fox-Bay, an art deco theater dating to 1951, joins the Oriental (1927) and Downer (1915) theaters. The festival is also introducing weekday daytime screenings at the Oriental.

From a content standpoint, the most notable development is the extension of a program that debuted last year and featured eight country-specific films. “The Passport program is the epitome of the festival experience,” Jackson says. “It’s an opportunity for our audience in Milwaukee to travel the world from their cinema seat.”

In 2011, viewers visited India, where Bollywood reigns supreme. This year, they’ll jet to China, a trip made possible in part by Milwaukee’s budding relationship with China, including new sister city, Ningbo. “[The films] explore contemporary and historic China, several different strains of history and issues that face China today,” Jackson says.

Passport screenings are scattered over the festival’s 15 days. For showtimes, visit mkefilm.org/festival. In the meantime, whet your exploratory appetite with these five Passport must-sees, complete with commentary courtesy of Jackson.

Passport Picks

11 Flowers
When 11-year-old Wang Han is selected to lead his school’s gym class, he asks his mother for a new shirt. This simple request sets off a family fight that speaks to the hardships of rural China in the years before Mao Zedong’s death. The film explores a changing Chinese society, and it is loosely based on director Wang Xiaoshuai’s experiences during the final days of China’s Cultural Revolution in the ’70s. “It’s a really moving story,” Jackson says, “and beautifully filmed in a remote village where it’s all set.”

Let the Bullets Fly
Viewers might be familiar with spaghetti Westerns, but Let the Bullets Fly is China’s answer to the ever-popular genre. Chinese audiences loved it, and it quickly became the country’s highest-grossing film ever. It follows the attempted takeover of Goose Town by train robber “Pocky” Zhang (Jiang Wen) and con man Tang (Xiaogang Feng). What neither man realizes is that Master Huang (legendary Hong Kong action hero Chow Yun-Fat) is already in control. “Basically, there are three unscrupulous men who are vying for control of the town,” Jackson says. “It’s over-the-top hilarious and very violent.”

Romancing in Thin Air
When movie star Michael (Louis Koo) is left at the altar, he travels to the storied Himalayan region of Shangri-la to recover. He meets innkeeper Sue (Sammi Cheng), who is struggling to get over the disappearance of her husband seven years earlier and happens to be one of Michael’s biggest fans. When Sue attempts suicide, Michael nurses her back to health, and the two begin a romance. “[The film] is breathtakingly beautiful, incredibly romantic and has a mega budget,” Jackson says. “These are two of the biggest superstars in Chinese cinema.”

High Tech, Low Life
As China increases censorship, websites are blocked and media outlets are only allowed to report positive stories. But not everyone’s content with that reality. “This is a documentary of the fascinating story of independent citizen reporters who are investigating local news stories by blogging,” Jackson says. High Tech, Low Life follows two of the country’s most prominent citizen journalists – Zola and Tiger Temple – as they attempt to unravel the truth and avoid political persecution.

China Heavyweight
Youth boxing documentary Sons of Cuba was well-received at the 2010 Milwaukee Film Festival. And the familiar theme of boxing as the path to a better life has been dutifully explored in American films such as Rocky and Cinderella Man. In rural China, that premise rings true, too. To find potential Olympians, elite coaches roam the Chinese countryside looking for young athletes. The recruits are taken to the city, trained and prepped for a life of success. In this documentary, director Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) takes viewers on a journey of self-discovery and triumph – and shows some great boxing.

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