Wednesday, March 24, 2010

SFIFF53 2010 Early Announcements

In a matter of days, the full line-up for the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) (April 22 to May 8) will be revealed. If you’re a San Francisco Film Society member, look for an e-mail this Friday with instructions for downloading a PDF of the fest’s mini-guide (and all tickets go on sale to members that same day). Non-members will be kept in the dark until after the official press conference next Tuesday, and can start buying tickets April 1. In the meantime, plenty of good stuff has already been announced. Here’s a recap, followed by my personal 20-film wish list for the fest’s 2010 edition.

● For devotees of Midnight Mass hostess Peaches Christ (aka Joshua Grannell), the World Premiere of her/his feature directorial debut, All About Evil, will be the must-see event of this year’s festival. Peaches seizes control of the Castro Theater on Saturday, May 1 at 10:45 p.m. “with a fully realized stage-show spooktacular hosted by Peaches Christ, starring members of the cast including Mink Stole, Thomas Dekker, Martiny and more.”

● The SFIFF event I anticipate most each year is programmer Sean Uyehara’s pairing of a silent film with a new live score written and performed by a contemporary music artist. You’d think last year’s The Lost World/Dengue Fever combo would be an impossible act to follow, but I think Sean’s done it again. On Tuesday, May 4, songwriter Stephin Merritt of the group The Magnetic Fields will premiere a new score to Stuart Paton’s 1916 adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Joining Merritt will be Castro Theater organist David Hegarty, author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) on accordion and others TBA.

● Brazilian director Walter Salles (Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries) will be the recipient of 2010’s Founder’s Directing Award. His tribute takes place on Wednesday, April 28 and will feature a clip-reel of career highlights, an on-stage interview and “a special screening of In Search of On the Road (a Work in Progress), an hour-long edit prepared specifically for the Festival of a documentary about Salles’s effort to make a documentary about Jack Kerouac.” The following day Salles will offer a Master Class, plus attend a screening of his 2008 Cannes Competition film, Linha de Passe, which won a prize for its lead actress Sandra Corveloni. Hopefully, someone will ask the director why it has taken two years for this film to reach us (I believe this screening might even be the U.S. premiere?) Linha de Passe shows again at the Pacific Film Archive on Friday, April 30.

● Receiving this year’s Peter J. Owens Award for acting will be none other than legendary screen vet Robert Duvall. At the Friday, April 30 tribute, he’ll be feted with a career clip reel, on-stage interview and a screening of his latest film Get Low, co-starring Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek.

● Each year the festival gives its Mel Novikoff Award to “an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema.” Could anyone be more deserving of such an award than Roger Ebert? On Saturday, May 1, Ebert will appear on-stage in conversation (employing his extraordinary, new computerized text-to-speech speaking voice) with directors Terry Zwigoff, Jason Reitman and others TBA. Following the tribute, the festival will screen one of Ebert’s favorite films of 2009, Erick Zonca’s Julia, featuring a balls-to-the-wall performance by Tilda Swinton. If you missed this film when it screened at the SF Film Society’s Kabuki Screen (R.I.P.?) last summer, or its subsequent run at the Roxie, you’re lucky to have this additional opportunity.

● The SFIFF’s 2010 Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting will be given to writer/producer/Focus Features CEO James Shamus on Saturday, May 1. Shamus is best known for the films he’s written and produced for Ang Lee, including Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm and Lust, Caution. Following an on-stage interview with critic B. Ruby Rich, the festival will host the West Coast premiere of a new director’s cut of Ang Lee’s underappreciated 1999 Civil War film, Ride With the Devil.

● Every year the festival screens newly restored prints of some select cinema classics. For SFIFF53 we’ll get to take another look at Satyajit Ray’s 1958 The Music Room at the Castro on Saturday, May 1, as well as Luchino Visconti’s 1954 film Senso (date TBA).

● This year’s State of Cinema Address will be delivered on Sunday, April 25 by film editor/sound designer extraordinaire Walter Murch (The Conversation, Apocalypse Now). Titled “Three Fathers of Cinema: Beethoven, Flaubert, Edison,” the address will “contemplate what would have happened if motion pictures had been invented in 1789. He will present various theories on the evolution of filmmaking, investigating the cultural origins of cinema in the 19th century and the implications for the future of cinema in the 21st century.”

● The festival has also announced the 11 films that will be competing for Golden Gate Awards Documentary Competition. There are three I’m especially looking forward to. Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home examines the phenomenon of China’s annual New Year’s mass migration. Winning the documentary Jury Prize just last week at SXSW is Jeff Malmberg’s Merwencol, in which a brain-damaged survivor of a bar attack copes by setting up a complete WWII-era town in his backyard. In Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize Documentary winner Restrepo, we follow a group of soldiers fighting the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan. The other eight titles are Colony, The Invention of Dr. Nakamats, Mugabe and the White African, The Peddler, PianoMania, Presumed Guilty, Russian Lessons and Simonal: No One Knows How Tough It Was.

● Twelve filmmakers will compete for this year’s New Directors Prize. I saw Ounie Lecomte’s South Korean adoption drama A Brand New Life at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and would definitely recommend it. I’ve also heard very good things about Pedro González-Rubio’s Alamar, which won a coveted Tiger Award at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival. The remaining 10 titles are Animal Heart, The Day God Walked Away, The Famous and the Dead, Night Catches Us, Northless, La Pivellina, Shirley Adams, Susa, Tehroun and – I’ve gotta see this one for the title alone – You Think You’re the Prettiest, but You Are the Sluttiest.

● This year’s Persistence of Vision Award will go to Fremont-born, Oscar-nominated short-film animator Don Hertzfeldt on Friday, April 23 in a program titled "Life, Death and Very Large Utensils."

● Finally, SFIFF53 will close on May 6 with a screening of Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s documentary Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work. It is anticipated that Rivers will attend the screening, along with director Stern. At the closing night party at 1015 Folsom, “partygoers will celebrate the culmination of SFIFF53 with festive drinks, hors d’oeuvres and music inspired by the legendary comedian Joan Rivers.”

Every year I draw up a list of the 20 films I most hope to find in the SFIFF line-up. They’re culled from a longer wish list of approximately 100 films, spanning from 2009’s Berlin Film Festival up to the present. A few have received mixed-to awful-reviews, but they’re from directors who interest me nonetheless. Last year I only got seven of my 20 films, but eventually caught up with all but three. We’ll soon know how SFIFF53 shakes out.

Altiplano (Belgium dir. Peter Brosens, Jessica Hope Woodworth)
The Army of Crime (France dir. Robert Guédiguian)
Enter the Void (France, dir. Gaspar Noé)
Everyone Else (Germany, dir. Maren Ade)
Face (France/Taiwan dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
Gainsbourg (vie héroïque) (France dir. Joann Sfar)
Hadewijch (France dir. Bruno Dumont)
Hiroshima (Uruguay dir. Pablo Stoll)
I Am Love (Italy dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Korkoro (France dir. Tony Gatlif)
Life During Wartime (USA dir. Todd Solondz)
Lola (Philippines dir. Brilliante Mendoza)
Lourdes (France dir. Jessica Hausner)
Min Ye (Mali dir. Souleymane Cissé)
Rapt (France/Belgium dir. Lucas Belvaux)
Revolución (Mexico dir. Mariana Chenillo, Fernando Eimbcke, Amat Escalante, Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo Garcia, Diego Luna, Gerardo Naranjo, Rodrigo Plá, Carlos Reygadas, Patricia Riggen)
Scheherazade Tell Me a Story (Egypt dir. Yousry Nasrallah)
Skirt Day (France dir. Jean-Paul Lilienfeld)
The Time That Remains (Palestine dir. Elia Suleiman)
White Material (France, dir. Claire Denis)

And here are four terrific films I saw at January’s Palm Springs International Film Festival – films I’d love for my Bay Area friends to see, too.

Dogtooth (Greece dir. Giorgos Lanthimos)
I Killed My Mother (Canada dir. Xavier Dolan)
The Milk of Sorrow (Peru dir. Claudia Lhosa)
To Die Like a Man (Portugal dir. João Pedro Rodrigues)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

SFIAAFF28 2010 Preview - Narrative Features

The 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) kicks off tomorrow night, March 11 and continues throughout the Bay Area until March 21. I've already posted an overview of the line-up and capsule write-ups of some documentary features. Below are capsule write-ups of ten narrative features you'll find in the festival, more or less in order of most favorite to least. All were seen on DVD screener, except where noted.

About Elly (Iran dir. Asghar Farhadi)
Director Farhadi deservedly won Best Director prize at 2009's Berlin Film Festival for this complex psychological thriller about a group of young, upper-middle class Tehranis on holiday at the Caspian Sea. After a harrowing, near-tragic event, Elly, a teacher and interloper in the group who's been set up for some uninvited matchmaking, goes and disappears. The film becomes not so much About Elly, but about the deceptive, flawed personages who are left to deal with the aftermath of her disappearance. This was Iran's 2009 Oscar submission, and it' a glimpse into an Iranian social milieu we rarely see, at least in films which get exported. My favorite Iranian film since 2005's Iron Island. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival)

City of Life and Death (China dir. Lu Chuan)
Lu spent five years making this stunning masterpiece about the brutal 1937 siege of Nanking by Japanese occupation forces. Brilliantly walking the line between massive widescreen epic (cast of thousands, impressive sets, sweeping score) and intimate art film (B&W, hand-held camera), the film is constructed as a series of tangentially connected set pieces. A group of resistance fighters battle the enemy while perched atop bombed-out buildings. P.O.W.s are marched along atrocity-strewn roads en route to mass execution. In the film's central story, a Chinese collaborator, a German businessman (real-life figure John Rabe) and a young schoolteacher struggle with increasing desperation to maintain the integrity of the city's International Safety Zone, with its 300,000 refugees. Perhaps most surprising is the film's broadminded portrait of a conflicted Japanese sergeant and his relationship with a comfort woman. This month's scheduled U.S. theatrical release of City of Life and Death has been indefinitely postponed while distributor National Geographic Entertainment 'negotiates' with the Chinese Film Board. Best to see it at SFIAAFF – this is one film that demands a big-screen experience. And be sure to check out the schedule changes which affect the film.

The Housemaid (South Korea dir. Kim Ki-young)
For 2010's Out of the Vaults selection, SFIAAFF has chosen this disturbing 1960 doozy which has been restored by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation and the Korean Film Archive. Rat poison, abortion, blackmail, suicide, marital infidelity, murder and a caged squirrel all figure into this transgressive, anti-consumerist cautionary tale of a music teacher and the treacherous live-in maid who shoehorns her way into his home. From the dripping opening titles, to the nerve-racking score and sound design, to Kim's determined, constantly roaming camera, The Housemaid is an unsettling experience that should be enormous fun to watch with a crowd at the Castro Theater. (Seen on streaming video at The Auteurs)

Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, Part 4 & Part 5 (China dir. Yang Fudong)
Anyone who's curious what contemporary avant-garde Chinese cinema might look like won't want to miss this. And while I normally have a low threshold for ponderous artiness, I found myself engaged throughout. SFIAAFF will be screening two of the piece's five parts with separate admissions. While they're mostly self-contained, there are overlapping motifs and stylistic similarities – both were shot in B&W with zero dialogue and feature studied compositions, slow and purposeful camera movements, and full frontal nudity. Part 4 is set amidst a seaside community of kelp harvesters and dried cuttlefish cultivators. Part 5 takes place in a modern day Shanghai seemingly overshadowed by nostalgia for the city's opulent past of cafes, bathhouses and rooftop baseball (?!?). A coterie of business-dressed men and women, presumably the titular seven intellectuals, lug suitcases across both sea and city landscapes. Of the two parts, I'd probably recommend the more varied and playful Part 5.

The Forbidden Door (Indonesia dir. Joko Anwar)
Gambir is a successful sculptor of pregnant women who lives a chic lifestyle. He also suffers from erectile dysfunction and has a beautiful wife with her own Forbidden Door in their home. He becomes obsessed with a Lynchian private club where patrons watch unspeakable things being done to people on live TV, including an abused boy who keeps sending him messages for help. These are the key elements of this ultra-stylized metaphysical thriller from Indonesia, which reaches its apotheosis with a Christmas dinner scene worthy of Grand Guignol. Fortunately there's sufficient substance to warrant all that style, at least until the film's rather creaky denouement.

Talentime (Malaysia dir. Yasmin Ahmad)
In her final film (the talented filmmaker passed away last year at age 51), Yasmin Ahmad explores themes that are recurrent in all her works, namely love and loss and the need for tolerance in a multi-cultural/racial/religious society like Malaysia. The story focuses on three students who are finalists in a high school talent competition, each possessing their own set of familial tribulations. The film has a bittersweet, corny charm to it, but is hampered by some overly broad supporting characters, mawkish songs, abrupt editing and an overabundance of Debussy's "Clair de lune."

Like You Know It All (South Korea dir. Hong Sang-soo)
With Hong you either admire his persistence of vision or become really irritated/bored over how he essentially makes the same film over and over again. I'm pretty much in the second camp, but am still interested enough in how he reworks his themes to jump ship just yet. His latest contains all the signature Hong moves – an immature protagonist who's approaching middle-age and has a career in the arts, a bifurcated story structure, a trip away from home and lots of public drinking that leads to fighting or fucking or both. Hong's avatar this time out is an art-film director. In the first half he juries an out-of-town festival (falling asleep during films) and reconnects with an old friend. (I believe this section contains Hong's first dream sequence!). The second half finds him guest-lecturing at an out-of-town university and reconnecting with an old mentor. In both cases he leaves behind a wake of petty resentments and pissed-off people. Many Hong fans are considering this film one of his best.

Dear Lemon Lima, (USA dir. Suzi Yoonessi)
This debut feature about a half Yup'ik Eskimo girl coming to terms with her heritage plays like a sweet and snarky after-school special. 13-year-old Vanessa is the token minority student at a well-to-do school in Fairbanks, Alaska. She's appointed a team captain for the school's annual Snowstorm Survivor Competition, and enlists fellow nerds to do battle against her self-obsessed ex-boyfriend. Some fine performances, worthy intentions and snazzy visuals are nearly enough to overshadow the film's mega-cuteness and strained quirkiness. A shocking tragedy just before the final act nearly capsizes the whole enterprise.

Prince of Tears (Taiwan/Hong Kong dir. Yonfan)
This overwrought, yet stodgy tale of passion and betrayal during the communist witch hunts of 1950s Taiwan was Hong Kong's Oscar submission for 2009. It's based on director Yonfan's memories of growing up in that era, during which time he must have witnessed lots of impossibly gorgeous women and men languorously exhaling cigarette smoke. Come for the history lesson, stay for the truly sumptuous art direction (also by Yonfan). (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival)

The People I've Slept With
Nothing gives me less pleasure than to slag a festival's Centerpiece Film, but man, this was no fun at all. Putting a broad, Asian-American spin on the sex comedy genre, we watch as a self-avowed slut (Karin Anna Cheung) discovers she's pregnant and sets off on a laborious mission to find the father with the help of her gay best friend. One candidate turns out to be Mr. Right (Archie Kao), and she (cluelessly? maliciously?) withholds the fact of his dubious paternity until seconds before they say their wedding vows. Ha ha ha. On the plus side, Cheung and Kao have an amazing chemistry in their scenes together, which might have worked wonders in a different movie. And I did crack up at a line where Cheung bemoans finding yet another white pubic hair.

Friday, March 5, 2010

SFIAAFF28 2010 Preview - Documentaries

Of the five documentaries I previewed on DVD screener for this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), my favorite is one doc-purists might disavow. Indeed, when Variety reviewed Uruphong Raksasad's Agrarian Utopia last year they tagged it a narrative feature, while SFIAAFF is showing it under their Documentary Showcase banner. Whatever. Lyrical, advocative and exquisitely shot, this portrait of rice farmers in Northern Thailand shouldn't be missed.

Scenes of rice planting and harvesting are blended with activities like beehive foraging, mushroom cultivation and snake hunting – extracurricular necessities for these farmers who are essentially hired laborers drowning in debt. Raksasad, who is originally from this area, acts as his own cinematographer and what he captures is unforgettable – men hand-threshing rice stalks by the light of a kerosene lamp, time-lapsed electrical storms zooming over verdant paddies, the horseplay of children, the daunting task of training a water buffalo. His 'characters' appear unconscious of the camera's presence, making us privy to intimate conversations that frequently revolve around fiscal struggles (and which frequently take place during the acts of cooking and eating). The film is bookended with political rallies that place the farmers' plight in the context of recent upheavals in Thai society. If I have one quibble with Raksasad's film, it's that women's voices are largely absent.

Two other worthwhile SFIAAFF docs fit a more traditional mold, and both concern a Japanese-American male with life-changing ties to the U.S. military. Eight years in the army qualified Richard Aoki to become Field Marshall (and an early arms supplier) for the Black Panther Party. Who would have guessed that the iconic marching, drilling and chanting of the Panthers was orchestrated by a self-described "baddest Oriental to come out of West Oakland."

Directors Mike Cheng and Ben Wang filmed Aoki for the last five years of his life and spin a captivating narrative with archival materials, interviews and speeches. Born in San Leandro in 1938, Aoki spent part of his childhood in Topaz Relocation Camp, after which his family moved to Oakland. Following his army stint, he enrolled in Merritt College where he met Panther founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale (the latter appears extensively in this film, along with Panthers communications secretary Kathleen Cleaver). In addition to the Panthers, Aoki was involved in the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) and more notoriously, the Third World Liberation Front, which instigated the largest student strike in U.C. Berkeley history. He would end up spending most of his life in academia, while remaining a staunch and greatly admired activist. Curiously, the film makes little mention of Aoki's life outside his activism.

In 2006, Lt. Ehren Watada became the first commissioned officer in the U.S. military to refuse deployment to Iraq. In her incredibly moving new film Lt. Watada, Oscar-winning director Freida Lee Mock (
Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision) looks at this brave, thoughtful young man and the journey his refusal to be "part of something deeply illegal and immoral" took him on. After graduating magna cum laude with a business degree in 2003, this non-pacifist Eagle Scout, mindful of 9/11, joined the army with a desire to protect his country. In 2006, however, after having researched our reasons for invading Iraq, he decided that deployment there would be a violation of his military oath. Watada offered to resign and twice offered to fight in Afghanistan. The army refused. They offered him a cushy, non-combative job in Iraq, which Watada refused. Mock's film expertly lays out what happened next, detailing three years of court martial limbo during which time Watada continued to speak out and dig his hole deeper. Lt. Watada is part of a SFIAAFF spotlight on Frieda Lee Mock, and after the festival's only screening of the film on March 14, the director will take part in an on-stage interview.

Another SFIAAFF documentary by an Oscar-winning filmmaker is the North American Premiere of A Moment in Time by Ruby Yang (The Blood of Yingzhao District). Her film looks at the phenomenon of American Chinatown movie theaters – particularly here in San Francisco – and the role those theaters and the films they screened played in the Chinese community. From melodramas that made Chinatown matrons weep, to the kung-fu pics which established new models of Asian masculinity (and whose themes of loyalty and revenge carried over into Chinatown gang life), these films served as a link to the homeland and were a reflection of community not found in Hollywood films.

San Francisco's Chinatown has had as many as five theaters operating simultaneously and A Moment in Time profiles several, including the Grandview (which had its own film studio) and the Great Star (which if memory serves, is where I saw my first Jackie Chan flick, Operation Condor 2: The Armour of the Gods.) At times this doc overreaches by attempting to provide an entire history of Chinese cinema and consequently loses focus. There are also some strange digressions, like the young woman who praises her current boyfriend for the soy and oyster sauces in his cupboard, while bemoaning the ex who had ketchup and baked beans in his. But overall, it's a satisfying look at a bygone era. By 2000 there wasn't a single remaining Chinatown theater anywhere in the U.S. A Moment in Time will screen with Eric Lin's short, Music Palace, which looks at New York City's final Chinatown movie theater.

Sports documentaries are about as far outside my interest zone as you can get, but I checked out Brigitte Weich's Hana, dul, sed… for that rare glimpse of life in North
Korea. The film's first half traces the ascendancy of its women's soccer team – culminating in a 2003 Asia Cup win – with profiles of four players and lots and lots of requisite training and game footage. (They get revved-up for a U.S match by visiting the country's Anti-American Museum). After losing a 2004 Olympics qualifying match to Japan, all four women are forced into retirement. That's when the film gets interesting, as we watch them deal with life as ex-sports stars. While hardly a portrayal of 'average' North Koreans (they get to keep their nice state-given Pyongyang apartments and get extra food rations as "Players of the People"), we get to know them and experience the world from their POV: the wide boulevards devoid of auto traffic, the palatial subway stations, a beauty parlor visit, an outing to the National Zoo with its caged dogs and kitty cats, couples rowboating on the Taedong River and a bounty of Socialist Realist poster art (most of it helpfully translated). This film is definitely worth a look.

There are many other documentaries in the festival, which you'll find spread across the Documentary Showcase, CAAM 30th Anniversary Showcase and Documentary Competition sections. One I'm planning to catch during the fest is Tehran Without Permission, a collage of life in Iran's capital city, shot entirely on a Nokia camera phone before last summer's civil unrest.