Sunday, March 22, 2009

SFIFF52 The Line-Up Part 1 (Early Announcements)

Bay Area cinephiles will be obsessively checking their in-boxes this Friday, awaiting e-mail instructions on how to access the program for the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF52). The line-up won't be officially announced until the March 31 press conference, but for the third year in a row, SF Film Society members get to peek (and start buying tickets) four days earlier. Press releases have arrived at a steady clip over the past few weeks, and the festival has already revealed much of its hand. Here's a recap of what we know so far, followed by a bit of speculation and wishful thinking over what Friday might have in store.

The Opening Night film will be the hometown premiere of Peter Bratt's La Mission. The film stars the director's brother Benjamin and is a redemption drama set in San Francisco's Mission District. The after-party will take place in the very neighborhood where the film was made and will be a two-venue affair: Bruno's Restaurant on Mission Street between 19th and 20th, and two blocks north among the ruins of the old El Capitan movie theater.

I'm really thrilled by the festival's choice for Closing Night film, Alexis Dos Santos' Unmade Beds. The director's first feature, Glue, was a wholly original look at teen angst in an Argentine backwater and one of my ten favorite films of 2007. His latest is set amongst young creative types living in a London squat, and features rising French star Déborah François (The Child, The Page Turner). The after-party takes place at the popular downtown nightclub Mezzanine.

Equally exciting is programmer Sean Uyehara's annual pairing of an iconic silent film with a live, newly composed score. This year's wild combo is 1925 stop-motion dinosaur epic The Lost World with music composed and performed by exotic Bay Area club favorites Dengue Fever. I've written more about this highly anticipated event here (click and scroll to the bottom).

Receiving this year's Peter J. Owens Award for acting will be none other than screen legend Robert Redford. I can think of dozens of more interesting choices, but hey – when someone of his stature agrees to show up and collect an award, the resulting publicity and cachet for the festival rightfully trumps all. (At least he's not getting the directing award à la Warren Beatty in 2002). Redford's career will be celebrated with a retrospective of film clips, on on-stage interview with SF Chronicle editor-at-large Phil Bronstein, and the world premiere of a newly restored print of This Property is Condemned (just joking…it'll be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, natch.)

Newly restored prints are a recurring highlight of SFIFF52, and here are three more that have been announced: Sergio Leone's 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West, Michelangelo Antonioni's 1955 Le Amiche, and John Cassavetes' 1974 A Woman Under the Influence (with an expected live appearance by Gena Rowlands).

Bruce Goldstein will be the recipient of this year's Mel Novikoff Award, which is given each year to "an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema." Goldstein has been the programming whiz behind New York's Film Forum for the past 22 years, and is the founder of Rialto Pictures, a distributor which specializes in classic restorations. He'll be interviewed on-stage by another great programmer, Anita Monga, following a 20-minute reel of Rialto trailers. The evening will be capped off by a screening of Federico Fellini's 1957
Nights of Cabiria.

All of the above-mentioned programs will take place at the Castro Theater, continuing the festival's recent trend of using the historic venue exclusively for special events. This year the Castro will host only three regular screenings. Although not as yet officially announced, the titles are up on the theater's website, so I'm hardly revealing state secrets here. The Tiger's Tail is a unreleased 2006 John Boorman film starring Brendan Gleeson which has received mixed to poor reviews (we're talking a Rotten Tomatoes 7% freshness rating). The film obviously has its defenders, as it was included in last month's Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center. Every Little Step is a documentary about the Broadway musical A Chorus Line, and is scheduled to open in theaters immediately after the festival. Moon is the feature directorial debut of Duncan Jones (who happens to be the son of David Bowie) and stars Sam Rockwell as an astronaut whose three-year stint on the moon is about to come to an end.

Four films comprise this year's Cinema by the Bay section. The anticipated highlight is undoubtedly the world premiere of Christopher Felver's documentary on Bay Area poet/writer/activist Lawrence
Ferlinghetti. The other selections are Frazer Bradshaw's Everything Strange and New, Allie Light and Irving Saraf's Empress Hotel and David Lee Miller's My Suicide.

In a SFIFF first, the festival has generously pre-divulged the names of all the documentaries competing for the Best Documentary Feature Golden Gate Award, plus all the narrative features competing for the New Director's Prize. 13 feature documentaries will contend for a GGA $20,000 cash prize, and I confess they're all unknown entities to me. Three which catch my eye are
City of Borders (about Jerusalem's only gay bar), Kimjongilia (an indictment of North Korea's Kim Jong II) and Speaking in Tongues (a look at four SF public schoolchildren enrolled in Chinese and Spanish language-immersion programs). Of the 11 narrative features competing for the $15,000 New Director's Prize, Autumn from Turkish director Özcan Alper and Snow from Bosnian director Aida Begic have received considerable acclaim and were films I'd very much hoped to find in the SFIFF52 line-up. Ursula Meier's Home stars Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet and features cinematography by the great Agnès Godard, making this a personal must-see. I'm also pleased to see three Latin American films in this section, representing Guatemala (Gasoline), Argentina (The Paranoids) and the U.S. (Don't Let Me Drown).

So that's everything we know so far. Strangely, we're still waiting to learn the recipient of this year's Founders Directing Award. Whoever it is, they'll be getting their award at the Castro on May 1. Also TBA are the Centerpiece Event, the Persistence of Vision Award, the Maurice Kanbar Screenwriting Award, the Midnight Awards and the State of Cinema Address.

Now all that's left to ruminate upon are the individual films that'll make up the balance of the program. I haven't attended any festivals outside the Bay Area in the past year, so my wish list has grown to an unwieldy length of nearly 100 films that have played the international festival circuit between last year's Cannes and this year's Berlin (with a few stragglers leftover from Berlin08). I've painfully narrowed them down to 25, and the list could easily have been comprised exclusively of French-language films or films from Latin America. Since there's no use in wasting wishes, I've excluded several films I know for certain will open soon after the festival (Tulpan, Adoration, Rudo y Cursi, Summer Hours, Departures and Lorna's Silence). When the program is revealed on Friday, these are the 25 titles I'm most hoping to see laid out before me:

35 Rhums (France dir. Claire Denis)
Bellamy (France dir. Claude Chabrol)
The Country Teacher (Czech Republic dir. Bohdan Sláma)
Desert Within (Mexico dir. Rodrigo Plá)
Eden is West (France dir. Costa-Gavras)
El Olvido (Netherlands/Peru dir. Heddy Honigmann)
Everyone Else (Germany dir. Maren Ade)
The Girl on the Train (France dir. André Téchiné)
The Headless Woman (Argentina dir. Lucrecia Martel)
Il Divo (Italy dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
I'm Going to Explode (Mexico dir. Gerardo Naranjo)
It's Not Me, I Swear (Canada dir. Philippe Falardeau)
Julia (France dir. Erick Zonca)
Lake Tahoe (Mexico dir. Fernando Eimbcke)
Lion's Den (Argentina dir. Pablo Trapero)
Little Joe (US dir. Nicole Haeusser)
Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (Parts I & II) (France dir. Jean-François Richet)
The Milk of Sorrow (Peru dir. Claudia Llosa)
Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire (US dir. Lee Daniels)
The Sea Wall (France dir. Rithy Panh)
Still Walking (Japan dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
Three Monkeys (Turkey dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Tony Manero (Chile dir. Pablo Larrain)
United Red Army (Japan dir. Kôji Wakamatsu)
The Window (Argentina dir. Carlos Sorin)

Update 3/24/09
The recipients of this year's Midnight Awards will be actors Elijah Wood and Evan Rachel Wood. Author Beth Lisick will host the clips n' conversation event at the W Hotel on Saturday, April 25. The Midnight Awards were established three years ago "to honor a dynamic young actor and actress entering the prime of their careers, who have made outstanding contributions to independent and Hollywood cinema and who bring intelligence, talent and depth of character to their roles."

Update 3/30/09
It was inevitable that the SFIFF would eventually honor local hero Francis Ford Coppola with its Founders Directing Award, and it turns out this is to be the year. The director, who turns 70 next week, will be joined on the Castro stage by a number of his esteemed friends and collaborators, who, in a moderated discussion, will cover all manner of subjects, cinematic and otherwise. Film clips, including the new Tetro trailer, and extended audience Q&A will round out the evening.

Monday, March 9, 2009

SFIAAFF 2009 Preview

The 27th 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) is set to begin this Thursday, March 12. Since posting my overview of the line-up a few weeks ago, I've previewed 16 of this year's offerings. My capsule write-ups are below, more or less in order of favorite to least favorite. Overall it's a strong program, so even those at the bottom have things of value to recommend them. Coincidentally, the top five were all films I caught at press screenings, and the rest I saw on DVD screeners. Half are Hold Review (HR) titles, which means my praise or scorn is limited to a 75-word count.

My Dear Enemy (South Korea, dir. Lee Yoon-ki, HR)
(Opening Night Film)
A pissed-off woman (Jeon Do-yeon, Cannes Best Actress for Secret Sunshine) tries collecting an I.O.U. from her charming, but broke ex (Ha Jung-woo) in this, my favorite film of 2009 thus far. The pair's day-long Seoul odyssey takes them everywhere from a rooftop golf-driving range to a Hell's Angels hangout, as she drives and he attempts to borrow money from a series of female 'friends.' Assured direction, seamlessly comic performances and a smart crackling screenplay – this movie's got it all.

Treeless Mountain (USA/South Korea, dir. So Yong-kim, HR)
(Closing Night Film)
With a depth and complexity I found lacking in her much-praised debut In Between Days, So's masterful 2nd film sees the world through the eyes of two small girls who've been left in the care of an alcoholic aunt. More sad than harrowing, we watch as the sisters employ kid's logic to navigate circumstances they're powerless to control. So's directorial style contrasts extreme close-ups with open skies. She coaxes brilliantly naturalistic performances from her leads and rescues us all with a hopeful third act.

Tokyo! (France/Japan/South Korea/ Germany, dir. Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-ho, HR)
One city. Three directors. Three short films. In Carax' sublimely seditious tale, a primordial gnome exits the sewers to wreak Godzillian havoc – hurling grenades, snatching cigarettes and licking adolescent armpits. At his terrorism trial, Japanese society gets lambasted and a cult movement is born. In Gondry's hilarious yarn, a talent-less, insecure young woman with a pretentious filmmaker boyfriend copes by making a surreal physical transformation. In Bong's apocalyptic tragedy, an earthquake and a pizza delivery girl lure a hikkomori out of seclusion.

Tokyo Sonata (Japan, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, HR)
A down-sized salaryman conceals unemployment from loved ones in this Cannes prize-winning, darkly comic take on the contemporary Japanese family. With two rebellious sons to support – the eldest has joined the US Army and the youngest is taking clandestine piano lessons – Dad's reduced to cleaning shopping mall toilets while Mom tries to hold everyone together. In the last half-hour, Kurosawa's narrative takes a dive off the deep end, the absurdities of which will either work for you, or not.

The Chaser (South Korea dir. Na Hong-jin)
In the tradition of grisly thrillers like Old Boy comes this Korean box office smash that's being fast-tracked for a Hollywood remake. When a hot-headed ex-police detective turned pimp discovers another of his 'girls' missing, he tracks down a regular customer he suspects of selling her to another pimp. After a heart-stopping chase through the back alleys of Seoul, both men wind up in police custody. The customer confesses to being a serial killer, and the film becomes a rip-roaring race to gather evidence before the idiotic cops release him for lack thereof.

Adroit, suspenseful and laced with a cracked sense of humor (the cops are more concerned with a guy who threw feces at the mayor), this is one helluva debut for first-time director/co-writer Na. There are some annoying clichés to contend with (such as a schmaltzy subplot involving an endangered kid), but they're negligible. Kim Yun-seok is riveting as the film's desperate anti-hero, and Ha Jung-woo proves he's one of the most versatile actors working anywhere with this portrait of a cagey killer. (Ha also stars in opening-nighter
My Dear Enemy, American indie Never Forever and Kim Ki-duk's Time and Breath.) Some words of warning: this film isn't for everyone. The serial killer's modus operandi is a hammer and chisel to the head, and one grueling scene had some press screening attendees fleeing for the exits.

Adela (Philippines dir. Adolfo Alix Jr.)

Adela is an 80-year-old slum-dweller and today is her birthday. As she prepares for a family celebration, the film's dawn-to-dusk time frame packs an absurd amount of activity into the old lady's day. She delivers a baby, goes to church, visits her husband's grave and visits a son in prison. She shops, irons, cooks, gets a manicure, eats in a cafe, attends a karaoke party – and still that ain't the half of it. Amazingly, all this unfolds at a laconic pace, with most of the film done in long shots with a strictly ambient soundtrack. (Adela is a former radio soap opera actress and we catch her listening to programs tellingly titled "You Ruined My Life" and "The Promise of a Better Tomorrow.")

Two things make this film unforgettable. The first is Filipino screen legend Anita Linda's modulated, un-showy performance in the title role. The buoyant air with which she starts the day transforms into dispirited melancholy as life and the day's disappointments bear down. In the heart-breaking final scene, she picnics alone on a secluded beach while the sun sets on her thwarted birthday plans. The other memorable aspect is the film's distinctive setting – a dusty dumpsite shantytown outside of Manila. Surrounded by mountains of garbage, a buzzing expressway, tranquil Manila Bay and non-stop air traffic overhead, the location could be considered the film's second main character. Director Alix conveys a clear sense of the rhythm of life there, and in his press notes states that the dumpsite "acts as a macrocosm of what seems to be pivotal to every Filipino nowadays – survival at all cost."

All Around Us(Japan, dir. Ryosuke Hashiguchi)
It's been eight years since Hashiguchi's last film, the LGBT-flavored Hush (although you still see its poster promoting Frameline at MUNI bus shelters around town). His latest offbeat opus tracks a 10-year rough patch in the history of a marriage and of a nation. It's 1993 and Shoko and Kanae seem a perfectly mismatched couple. She's controlling and emotional, and he's laid back and reserved. As the film's narrative skips over months (and sometimes years) we learn that at some point they lost an infant girl, an event that gradually causes Shoko to fall apart. Japan falls apart, too, recounted through Kanae's work as a courtroom sketch artist. We witness several trials based on real-life events of the time – from child-eating cannibals to the sarin gas subway attacks. Meanwhile, intermittent TV news reports focus on earthquakes, typhoons and economic slumps.

By the end of the film's sprawling 140-minute running time, Kanae and Shoko have worked through their marital issues (via art therapy of all things). As for Japan itself, I'm not so certain. This is a film I quite liked and might have loved had Hashiguchi narrowed his focus – way too much screen time is devoted to peripheral characters and inconsequential events. I was intrigued by his wry, almost light-hearted approach to tragedy, and his satirization of Japanese media and (I think) Japanese society as a whole. Best of all is the enigmatic performance of acclaimed writer/musician/illustrator/photographer Lily Franky as Kanae, an unassuming guy who's happy to stand by and just let life happen to him.

I previewed three of the six films competing in this year's SFIAAFF Documentary Competition, and chose biographical portraits of an actor, a politician and an artist over the three social issue-driven films. While none are ground-breaking exemplars of the documentary form, they all succeed at conveying who their subjects are, why they're important and why we should care.

You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story (USA dir. Jeff Adachi)
Jeff Adachi, better known is San Francisco's Public Defender, follows 2006's The Slanted Screen with this affectionate portrait of actor/comedian/singer Jack Soo. Born Goro Suzuki in 1917 Oakland, this 6' athletic, former class clown would spend WWII at Tanforan and Topaz internment camps. It was there that he honed his skills as an entertainer, which lead to eventual success in nightclubs, Broadway (Flower Drum Song), movies (The Green Berets) and TV (Barney Miller). In addition to interviews with family and friends, Adachi calls upon George Takei, Nancy Kwan, C.Y. Lee and Steve Landesberg to share their memories and reflections. We see some terrific archival material, including clips from the forgotten 1964 TV show Valentine's Day, in which Soo plays Tony Franciosa's wisecracking, hipster "houseboy." Finally, in the film's biggest surprise, Adachi reveals that it was Jack Soo, not Stevie Wonder who originally recorded "For Once in My Life" for Motown Records. Over at The Evening Class, Michael Guillén has posted a great interview with Adachi regarding this film.

Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority
(USA dir. Kimberlee Bassford)
She was the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Congress and a champion for the rights of women, minorities and the underprivileged. After seeing Bassford's film you'll be convinced she was also one of the most important women in U.S. political history. Mink was born Patsy Matsu Takemoto in 1927 and raised in the canefields of Kauai. Upon graduating class valedictorian in 1944, she attended the University of Nebraska and was assigned to the dorm for "foreign" students. This became her first civil rights battle, as she led a coalition forcing the school to end its segregated student housing policy. After no U.S. medical school would admit her, she decided it was more important to change the law and attended the University of Chicago Law School (gaining entrance on the foreign student quota). Her early political career was closely aligned with the struggle for Hawaiian statehood, and in 1965 she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first of 12 terms.

Here are some reasons why you've gotta love her: She was an early opponent of the Viet Nam War and traveled to Paris with Bella Abzug to discuss peace with North Vietnamese officials (earning her the nickname Patsy Pink). In 1972, she co-authored Title IX (renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act shortly after her death in 2002), the revolutionary legislation which forced colleges and universities to give women equal access to admissions, scholarships and sports programs. In 1994 she led the fight against Clinton's welfare "reform" and in 2001 voted against the Patriot Act. Director Bassford documents all this with clarity and conviction, calling on Mink's former Congressional aids and fellow lawmakers (such as Maxine Waters) to round out her portrait. My only complaints are with the overly fawning narration and occasional trite music cues.

Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe (USA dir. Harry Kim, HR)
"I make art for people who don't give a fuck about art," rages Korean-American David Choe. 90 minutes later we learn a $2.5 million 2008 gallery show sold out – a perfect symbol of this guy's extremes and contradictions. Shot over seven years, Kim's insular film documents Choe's Congo dinosaur hunt, his Japanese prison stint, the lesbian porn writing, his conversion to Jesus and yes, his art, executed with aerosol spray paint, blood, urine and soy sauce. All that's missing is an outsider's perspective to it all.

24 City (China, Hong Kong, Japan, dir. Jia Zheng-ke, HR)
The dismantling of a city-sized munitions factory and its toll on displaced workers is the latest subject for China's top filmmaker, riffing once again on the human consequences of modernization. Workers, some real and some played by actors, deliver monologues about their lives – a suspicious gimmick that brings mixed results. Jia has a magnificent eye for composition and ironic visual counterpoint which frequently shines here, but unfortunately this is minor stuff compared with 2006's transcendent Still Life.

Serpent's Path (Japan, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Eyes of the Spider (Japan, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
License to Live (Japan, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
In 1998, tucked in between the previous year's career-high of Cure and the following year's baffling Charisma, Kiyoshi Kurosawa directed three features which are all part of this year's SFIAAFF tribute. Serpent's Path and Eyes of the Spider are two of a kind. They're both off-kilter deconstructions of yakuza genre films and were shot back-to-back with the same cast (including Tokyo Sonata's Teruyuki Kagawa) and same basic premise – a man seeks revenge for the murder of his young daughter. I watched them with interest and took delight in their more outwardly absurdist elements. But they were ultimately too inscrutable, leaving me to wonder if I really "got" them. I'll be anxious to hear Kurosawa-san himself introduce the films when they screen as a double-bill at the Castro on Friday the 13th. But for now I'll kindly direct your attention to The Evening Class, where Professor Guillén obviously did get them and articulately explains it to you all.

License to Live is a bit more commonsensical, a relative term in Kurosawa's world. A young man awakens from a 10-year coma and is guided home by an old family friend (Koji Yakusho). The homestead is now a dumping ground with an on-site carp farm, and the two men dabble in transforming it into a dude ranch-cum-roadside milk bar. The young man literally gets dragged into adulthood (driving lessons and a whorehouse), while family members mysteriously drift in and out of the picture. A visit from the man responsible for the coma sets off a calamitous finale, and once again, head-scratching, existential absurdity reigns supreme.

High Noon (Hong Kong, dir. Heiward Mak, HR)
The antics and hard knocks of seven teen delinquents mark this ambitious if overloaded debut by 24-year-old Mak. Bursting with undeniable youthful energy, the film exploits every imaginable teen issue (drugs, gangs, suicide, V.D., shoplifting, prostitution, parental neglect/abuse) and every imaginable cinematic device (slow-mo, fast-mo, animation, color filters, handheld, sound effects). Within the mayhem, however, lies an earnest heart not easily dismissed. Translated subtitles of colloquial-heavy dialogue are problematic.

The Panda Candy (China, dir. Peng Lei)
A lesbian and a bi-curious gal share post-coital chit-chat in this film's opening, then meet at the end for a softcore sapphic flashback. In between they search for something like love with a string of inappropriate partners. Both women are pretty humorless, so it's fortunate for us that the bi-girl meets two hilariously annoying men – a deatbeat porn-addicted skateboarder and a pushy self-absorbed poet. Director Peng hails from the Beijing new-wave band New Pants and there's vitality in the way he edits music to his images. Most of the scenes and dialogue appear to be improvised, and unfortunately the results run tediously flat as often as not. The videography is frequently gorgeous, but I have to ask, what's up with all the 90° camera tilts. Finally, if you have a fetish for watching women exhale cigarette smoke, boy is this film for you.