Tuesday, April 7, 2009

SFIFF52 The Line-Up Part 3 (Everywhere Else)

In Part One of my look at the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF52) line-up, I ran through most of this year's awards, tributes, special events and those films which were announced prior to the official press conference. Part Two gave an overview of the films from Latin America and Europe. Now, in Part Three, I'll look at what's on offer from Everywhere Else – meaning the USA/Canada, Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Arguably the American film with the biggest pre-festival profile this year is James Toback's Tyson, a documentary portrait of controversial heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. Toback will be in town to accept the Kanbar Award for Screenwriting, and the screening will follow an on-stage interview by film writer/historian David Thomson. The director is an interesting choice for this award, considering that with the exception of Karel Reisz' The Gambler (1974) and Barry Levinson's Bugsy (1991), all of Toback's screenplays have been for films he himself has directed. This is the first Toback film to play the SFIFF since The Big Bang was one of four Opening Night films in 1990. Tyson is scheduled to open in Bay Area theaters sometime in May.

I'm usually so caught up in seeing foreign films at the SFIFF, I rarely even consider the selection of U.S. indies. This year, however, there are two that sound irresistible. (untitled) is a satire of the contemporary art world, and stars one of my favorite American actors, Adam Goldberg, as an avant-garde composer who falls for his brother's girlfriend, a fashionable art gallery dealer. The film is by Jonathan Parker, who directed the remarkable 2001 adaptation of Herman Melville's Bartleby with Crispin Glover. The other film is Everything Strange and New, the narrative feature debut by Bay Area-based cinematographer/filmmaker Frazer Bradshaw. Shot in Oakland, the film is a semi-experimental narrative about a disillusioned carpenter with a house, a wife and two kids. In his rave review in Variety, Peter Debruge writes that the film is "a first glimpse of what post-recession independent cinema could look like, offering a revisionist, glass-half-empty take on the American dream…that provides as close to a time-capsule record of this moment in time as a film can provide today."

American documentaries are also usually well off my SFIFF radar, but this year there are five I hope to make time for. Assembled from the outtakes of When We Were Kings (the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary about the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle"), Soul Power documents the three-day music festival in Kinshasa, Zaire which preceded the prizefight. Featured performers include James Brown, The Spinners, Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers, Hugh Masekela and B.B. King. Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte was an editor on the original film, and Soul Power marks his directorial debut. (The film is scheduled to open in Bay Area theaters 7/17). The other four docs are Gerald Peary's self-explanatory For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider's Speaking in Tongues (about foreign language immersion schools for young children), N.C. Heiken's Kimjongilia (a savage take on life in North Korea) and Lee Anne Schmitt's California Company Town (about ghost towns created by corporate abandonment). Many of the remaining non-fiction films in the fest are end-of-the-world docs, a genre from which I'm currently on holiday. And as an ardent non-believer attending a secular film festival, you're unlikely to find me at New Muslim Cool, or its related forum, Truth, Youth and the New Muslim Cool.

Apart from the French-language It's Not Me, I Swear!, there's only one other Canadian feature in the festival. But it's a significant one – the latest from Canada's most internationally recognized director, Atom Egoyan. Adoration is about a teen who writes a story imagining his dead parents as terrorists, and what happens when that fantasy takes on a viral life of its own. As with most of Egoyan's films, this one stars the director's wife – the always engaging Arsinée Khanjian as the boy's teacher. Adoration is the first Egoyan film to play the SFIFF since 1993's Calendar, and is scheduled to open in Bay Area theaters on 5/15.

Middle East
Perhaps as a sign that the SF Arab Film Festival and SF Jewish Film Festival are doing a formidable job of bringing the region's best films to the Bay Area, there is only one Middle Eastern narrative feature in SFIFF52. Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi's wry social satire Laila's Birthday follows a former judge turned taxi-driver as he navigates his way around a "typical" day in contemporary Ramallah. The film stars Mohammed Bakri, whom SFIFF audiences may remember from The Olive Harvest and Private. I'm also hoping to catch a screening of Yun Suh's U.S. documentary City of Borders, which is a look at the only gay bar in Jerusalem.

Other than the Moroccan-set, French co-production French Girl, there are sadly no African narrative features to be found in this year's fest. There are, however, several documentaries which are either partially or completely African in setting or subject matter (such as the previously mentioned Soul Power). The one of interest to me is Cameroon director Jean-Marie Téno's Sacred Places, a portrait of a movie theater and its proprietor in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. This is Téno's fourth film to be screened at SFIFF, and it will be preceded by an earlier short of his from 1987, Homage.

2008 was a relatively low-key year for Asian films (a note to the Geography Police – I'll using that designation in its broadest possible sense) on the international festival circuit, and most of the notable ones screened at last month's SF International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF). Therefore there were only four films I'd hoped to find in the SFIFF line-up, and the festival has programmed two. Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking was the undisputed hit of last year's Toronto Film Festival, where it had its international premiere. Based on the director's own novel, the film is a lyrical examination of generational conflict in which an extended, dysfunctional family gathers to commemorate the loss of a beloved son/sibling 15 years earlier.

Praised for its gentle humor and gorgeous cinematography, Sergey Dvortsevoy's Tulpan tells the story of a young man recently discharged from the Russian navy who returns to his home in rural Kazakhstan. Intent on living the shepherd's life, tradition dictates that he can't take possession of a herd until he marries (and the only eligible bachelorette has rejected him because of his big ears). Tulpan won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section of last year's Cannes Film Festival, and is scheduled to open in Bay Area theaters on 5/8. For what it's worth, the two Asian films which didn't make the line-up are Hong Sang-soo's set-in-Paris Night and Day, and Kôji Wakamatsu's uncompromising, 190-minute study of Japanese student radicals of the 1960s, United Red Army. Both were critically acclaimed and oddly passed over by the SFIFF and the SFIAAFF in both 2008 and 2009.

I drew a complete blank when I first looked at the rest of the Asian line-up, but two South Korean films have emerged as personal must-sees. Yim Phil-Sung's wild, contemporary re-imagining of Hansel and Gretel (being shown in the fest's The Late Show section) sounds like a blast. Then in Choi Ho's Go Go 70s, political repression of youth culture is blended with the story of a real-life 1970s Korean Rock n' Soul revue band, The Devils. (An image from the film graces the cover of this year's festival catalog). I'll probably also want to have a look at Hong Kong action film The Beast Stalker, especially after reading this ringing endorsement from Variety's Derek Elley: "Stygian crimer Beast Stalker grips like a vise, and is unquestionably the finest Asian action-psychodrama since South Korea's The Chaser last year…a major return to form by genre helmer Dante Lam."

Several other Asian films have received excellent reviews. Acclaimed Hong Kong screenwriter Ivy Ho makes her directorial debut with Claustrophobia, a story of romance and sexual politics in the workplace. The fate of an infant abandoned in the back seat of a taxi cab grounds Barmak Akram's neo-realist fable from Afghanistan, Kabuli Kid. First-time Australian director Benjamin Gilmour disguised himself as a local and shot guerilla-style in northern Pakistan for Son of a Lion. The film is about a young boy whose education is thwarted by his father's insistence that he learn the family trade of firearms manufacturing. In Özcan Alper's Autumn – the first narrative feature ever filmed in the Hemsin language of northeastern Turkey – a young recently-released political prisoner returns home and comes to terms with a world he no longer recognizes. At the festival's press conference, programmers had high praise for another feature set in Kazakhstan, Russian director Mikhail Kalatozishvili' Wild Field.

Admirers of Ying Liang's 2006 SKYY prize-winning Taking Father Home and its follow-up, 2007's The Other Half, will surely want to see Good Cats, the director's latest exegesis on the negative effects of capitalism in modern China. The festival's other narrative feature from the mainland is He Jianjun's River People, a docu-fiction hybrid about an extended family of fishermen in Shanxi province. The lone entry from the Philippines in this year's festival is Confessional, Ruel Dahis Antipuesto and Jerrold Tarog's mockumentary about small-town corruption. And finally, there are two Indian features in SFIFF52, Mazhar Kamran's Mohandas and Suman Mukhopadhyay's Chaturanga (Four Chapters).


Brian said...

Great round-up as always, Michael.

One note (perhaps you're already clued in): YBCA promises to screen Night and Day in May, though I'm not aware of an announced date as yet. Hopefully it will be after the festival ends, so we Hong Sang-soo fans don't have to make hard choices...

Michael Hawley said...

Thanks for the kind words, Brian.

Indeed I did not know of YBCA's plans to screen NIGHT AND DAY...and now I see there are dates: May 21, 22, and 24. They'll also be showing Philippe Garrel's FRONTIER OF DAWN on May 14 and 17. YBCA rides to the rescue once again!