Sunday, March 25, 2012

SFIFF55 2012 Anticipating the Line-up

Tomorrow is a big day for Bay Area cinephiles. That's when the full line-up for the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF55) will be revealed to members of the SF Film Society (SFFS). Not a Film Society member? Then I'm sorry, but you'll have to wait until after Tuesday's official press conference to learn what's in store for April 19 through May 3. Certain to be on everyone's mind this year will be the tragic loss of Graham Leggat and Bingham Ray, the SF Film Society's two executive directors who passed away within five-months of each other. But anyone acquainted with this organization's veteran programmers and staff should have every confidence that 2012's festival will be nothing short of awesome. Many of the big events have already been announced, with the exception of Closing Night, the Peter J. Owens Acting Award and the Kanbar Award for screenwriting. What follows is a checklist of what's been unveiled thus far, followed by some predictions and a personal wish list for this year's fest.

● The festival's 55th anniversary edition kicks off on April 19 with Benoît Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen, a film which also opened last month's Berlin Film Festival. I'm quite excited to see it, especially considering that Jacquot's last film, 2010's Isild Le Besco-starring Deep in the Woods, never made it to the Bay Area (Jacquot's Via Amalia closed out the SFFS' French Cinema Now in 2009). This historical drama centers on Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) and her reader (Léa Seydoux), during the early days of the French Revolution. Director Jacquot is expected to be in attendance. SFIFF55's opening night shindig will once again take place at the Terra Gallery on Rincon Hill, which proved itself a memorably fabulous party space last year.

● The Founder's Directing Award will go to Kenneth Branagh, a choice that's sure to be popular, if perhaps a bit safe. The last time the festival gave the award to someone best known for their acting career was in 2002. Unlike Warren Beatty, however, Branagh has directed more than four films, in a behind-the-camera career that's included adaptations of Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing), opera (The Magic Flute), modern theater (Sleuth), classic literature (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) and Marvel comic book heroes (last year's Thor). Branagh's April 27 tribute at the Castro Theatre will include a screening of Dead Again, a 1991 L.A.-set detective thriller in which the director co-starred with then-wife Emma Thompson.

● The Mel Novikoff Award, given each year to "an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema," will be bestowed upon Pierre Rissient. I'm embarrassed to admit Rissient's name was an unfamiliar one to me – more so now that I've read up on his considerable accomplishments. Among other things, he helped introduce American film noir to emerging directors of the French New Wave and for five decades has acted as a scout for the Cannes Film Festival. This promises to be a fascinating program. Following an on-stage interview with Rissient at the Castro Theatre, the festival will screen Fritz Lang's 1950 gothic noir, House by the River. Also as part of SFIFF55, we'll get an opportunity to see film critic Todd McCarthy's 2007 documentary portrait, Pierre Rissent: Man of Cinema.

● In addition of Rissient, I confess I'm also unfamiliar with the work of writer Jonathan Lethem who'll be delivering this year's State of Cinema Address. Friends who are big fans of the author tell me they're extremely excited to hear him speak on "the ways cultural movements such as Occupy Wall Street, new media revolutions like YouTube and loosely-defined (and often derided) grassroots art movements like mumblecore can, in their various ways, unearth utopian possibilities for reciprocal transformations in film culture and our daily lives."

● SFIFF55's Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award will go to courageous and visionary documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, whose first two films, 1976's Harlan Country U.S.A. and 1990's American Dream, each won the Oscar® for Best Documentary Feature (Harlan County will screen as part of the Award presentation). Kopple's filmography includes such diverse documentaries as 1997's Woody Allen-as-musician portrait Wild Man Blues and 2006's Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing.

● In 2010 I regrettably missed catching director Sam Green's (The Weather Underground) live "performance" of the documentary Utopia in Four Movements. Therefore, I have no intention of missing out on the world premiere of his latest piece, The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, which is being co-presented by SFMOMA to coincide with their exhibition "The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area." Green will narrate the film live, while being musically accompanied by personal fave alt-rock band Yo La Tengo. Folks might remember that it was Yo La Tengo who composed and performed a live-rock score to the silent scientific underwater films of Jean Painlevé at the Castro Theatre back in 2001.

● Speaking of rock bands composing and performing live scores to silent films at the Castro, this year's event will see Merrill Garbus of the band tUnE-yArDs accompanying four Buster Keaton shorts. tUnE-yArDs most recent album "whokill" took the #1 position atop 2011's influential Village Voice Pazz + Jop Poll. My favorite track on the album is "My Country," which you can listen to here and get a feel for what to expect at the Castro Theatre on April 23.

● The festival has also announced the 11 narrative features that will compete for SFIFF55's New Directors Prize, as well as the dozen documentary features vying for this year's Golden Gate Award. I've read incredible things about the Israeli film Policeman and am certainly curious about Delphine and Muriel Coulin's 17 Girls. I missed seeing Belgian director John Shank's Last Winter at Palm Springs and look forward to catching up with it closer to home. All 12 documentaries in competition were off my radar. I'm most intrigued by Golden Slumbers, which looks at the Golden Age of Cambodian cinema. The doc line-up also includes The Law in These Parts, which won the 2012 Sundance Jury Prize for Best Documentary-World Cinema.

● Just as I was about to publish this post, a friend alerted me to the fact that the Castro Theatre's April calendar is available on-line and contains further clues about this year's festival line-up. As these events have yet to be officially announced by the SFFS, I'll keep mum except to say that I'm thrilled to find a major film from my wish-list amongst the selections.

This will be my sixth year covering the SFIFF as press and it has become a tradition to post a wish-list of 20 films I'd love to see at the festival. They've been painstakingly culled from a much larger list of stuff that's caught my eye over the past 14 months. To the best of my knowledge, none of these films has attained a U.S. distribution deal, which means a festival like the SFIFF represents the best chance of ever getting to see them. There are a number of films I'm hot to see which
do have U.S. distribution and I'm sure a number of them will show up at this year's festival (ideally with their directors in tow). These would include new films by Christophe Honoré (Beloved), Hong Sang-soo (The Day He Arrives), Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31st), Paolo Sorrentino (This Must Be the Place), André Téchiné (Unforgivable), Yorgos Lanthimos (Alps), Julia Loktev (The Loneliest Planet), Michael Winterbottom (Trishna), Christian Petzold (Barbara), Hirokazu Kore-eda (I Wish), Michael Glawogger (Whore's Glory) and Mathieu Kassovitz (Rebellion). Finally, I saw six very worthy films at January's Palm Springs International Film Festival that I would love my Bay Area film buddies to partake in: Omar Killed Me, Tatsumi, Michael, Breathing, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Las Acacias.

My 2012 SFIFF Wish List
38 Witnesses (France, Lucas Belvaux)
Almayer's Folly (Belgium/France, Chantal Akerman)
Beirut Hotel (France/Lebanon, Danielle Arbid)
Belmondo, Itinerary (France, Vincent Perrot)
Blue Bird (Belgium/France, Gust Van Den Berghe)
Captive (France/Philippines, Brillante Mendoza)
The Cat Vanishes (Argentina, Carlos Sorin)
Chatrak (France/India, Vimukthi Jayasundara)
The Cinema Hold Up (Mexico, Iria Gómez Concheiro)
Dark Horse (USA, Todd Solondz)
Dreileben (Germany, Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, Christoph Hochhäusler)
Good Bye (Iran, Mohammad Rasoulof)
Hanaan (South Korea/Uzbekistan)
Headshots (Thailand/France, Pen-ek Ratanaruang)
My Own Private River (USA, James Franco, Gus Van Sant)
Outside Satan (France, Bruno Dumont)
Sister (France/Switzerland, Ursula Meier)
Tabu (Portugal, Miguel Gomes)
Twixt (USA, Francis Ford Coppola)
The Year of the Tiger (Chile, Sébastian Lelio)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

SFIAAFF30 2012 Preview

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival turns 30 this year, thereby joining Frameline, Mill Valley and SF Jewish in that pantheon of Bay Area film festivals whose essentiality has earned them a fourth decade. My own earliest SFIAAFF recollection is of watching A Scene at the Sea – my first Takeshi Kitano movie – at the Kabuki Theater some 20 years ago. Highlights of 2012's anniversary line-up include an in-person tribute to Joan Chen, a pair of world premieres from the talents behind Colma: The Musical, and Patrick Wang's In the Family, one of the most acclaimed American indies from last year.

Of all this year's programs, however, I'm most anticipating Scenes from a Memoir with Cherylene Lee. This celebrated playwright has been my neighbor for 10 years. What I didn't know until just recently is that she's also
that Cherylene Lee, the Chinese-American child star who danced with Gene Kelly, headlined Vegas with her older sister and had numerous roles in movies (Flower Drum Song, Donovan's Reef) and TV (Bachelor Father, Ben Casey, McHale's Navy, My Three Sons, Dennis the Menace, M*A*S*H.) On Sunday, March 11 at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, Lee will stage a reading from her upcoming memoir, "Just Like Really," augmented with photos and film clips, followed by a conversation between Lee, her sister Virginia and film historian Stephen Gong. The photo below is of Cherylene Lee and actress Ruth Roman, from a 1967 episode of The F.B.I.

Back in 2008, SFIAAFF programmed Brilliante Mendoza's Slingshot and Foster Child (my reviews are here). These two films almost single-handedly reignited my interest in Filipino cinema, which had been dormant since the days of melodrama maestro Lino Brocka (himself the subject of a posthumous 2010 SFIAAFF retrospective). Ensuing exposure to directors like Raya Martin, Adolfo Alix Jr. and Lav Diaz furthered my enthusiasm for this national cinema. I was therefore very pleased to open up this year's festival catalogue and discover five new Filipino features in the line-up. I've had the chance to preview all but the Closing Night film, Prison Dancer, an "interactive web musical" which riffs on the viral 2009 YouTube phenomenon, Dancing Inmates of Cebu.

My favorite of the four films I did watch is Marlon N. Rivera's The Woman in the Septic Tank, a smart n' snarky comedy in which a young filmmaker cynically sets out to make a "typical" Filipino art movie, i.e. one specifically targeted to win international festival prizes. His project,
With Nothing, tells the grim story of a mother forced to sell her son to an old white pedophile. Chris Martinez' well-constructed, rapid-fire screenplay follows the production team as they gleefully scout picturesque slum locations, take a meeting with their lead actress (real Filipina star Eugene Domingo, in manic mode) and visualize their film as a musical. It's frequently laugh out loud funny, especially if you're familiar with the films being sent up, like Mendoza's Foster Child and the works of Adolfo Alix Jr. I'm a big fan of the latter director's film Adela (my review is here), which screened at SFIAAFF three years ago – his new film Fable of the Fish, perhaps not so much. Here Cherry Pie Picache (who starred in Foster Child and cameos in Septic Tank) plays a poor dumpsite denizen who gives birth to a fish, but is determined to raise it like a child. This inspires absurdist, dead-end scenarios like Mom taking fishy on pram strolls through an aquarium and Mom attempting to baptize her offspring in the Catholic Church. If this fable had a moral, or even a discernible point to make, it was too subtle to register with me.

As its title suggests, there are real infants aplenty in Eduardo W. Roy Jr.'s Baby Factory, a low-key docu-drama that addresses the acute overpopulation problem of the Philippines. Shot in a beat-up, government-run "labor" hospital that in real life facilitates the birth of almost 100 babies per day, Baby Factory exposes us to the institution's inner-workings and daily dramas of patients and staff. Our fictionalized guide is a harried head nurse (actress Diana Zubiri) with her own issues – she's pregnant by a married man and is being pressured by her greedy family to work abroad. All this transpires over the course of one hectic Christmas Eve, with the action never leaving the crowded confines of the holiday-decorated hospital.

For a jaw-dropping look at another Filipino institution, I highly recommend Give Up Tomorrow. Michael Collins' documentary covers a 13-year legal case in which a young man is sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two sisters, despite photos and 42 witnesses putting him in another city on the day of the crime. Toss in paid prosecution witnesses, a lack of corpses or other hard evidence, a sleeping judge who later commits suicide, corruption leading up to the President's office and a mother channeling her dead daughters' spirits in the courtroom, and you've got just the iceberg's tip of this exasperating steampot of judicial miscarriage. Collins, who is related to the accused and therefore had special access, expertly navigates the case's twists and turns, delivering a cogent and absorbing piece of non-fiction filmmaking. Give Up Tomorrow won the audience award at last year's Tribeca Film Festival and has been deemed a "must see" by no less than Yoko Ono.

It's impossible to think back on last year's SFIAAFF without remembering the devastating news of Japan's earthquake and tsunami, which arrived on Day Two of the festival. A highlight of this year's line-up is The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, a haunting new documentary from Lucy Walker (Waste Land) which was nominated for, but alas did not win, an Oscar® for Best Documentary Short. Filmed one month after the disaster and featuring an elegiac music score by Moby, Walker's film profiles survivors who find strength and hope in the blossoms' on-time spring arrival. The only other doc I previewed is No Look Pass, an interesting enough gaze at one young woman's transition from college to professional sports. A caveat to non-sports enthusiasts – the film is as much about basketball itself as it is the story of one particular Burmese-American lesbian athlete struggling with family and identity issues. Docs I'm hoping to catch during the festival include The Jake Shimabukuro Documentary (a portrait of the virtuoso ukulele player, featuring a live concert at the Castro Theater), There Once Was an Island (how the residents of a Polynesian atoll are facing climate change and a rising ocean), Love Crimes of Kabul (about an Afghani prison for women convicted of "moral" crimes) and Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful (the story of 98-year-old Keiko Fukuda, the world's foremost female Judo practitioner).

H.P. Mendoza (writer-actor-director) and Richard Wong (writer-director-cinematographer) are the multihyphenate talents behind Bay Area crowd-pleasers Colma: The Musical and Fruit Fly, both of which world-premiered to acclaim at SFIAAFF. This year's festival boasts two new works by this prodigious duo. First, Mendoza branches into the supernatural thriller genre as writer-director-cinematographer of I Am a Ghost. This haunted house mystery spins the tale of Emily, a ghost caught in a repetitive (and I do mean repetitive) cycle of events, necessitating a medium's involvement to guide her onward. It's a premise that increases in complexity and ultimately leads to an attention-grabbing climax. Anna Ishida gives an effective performance, although it's distracting that her lines, as both written and delivered, fail to match the Victorian era suggested by the film's art direction and costuming. Mendoza also penned the screenplay for Yes, We're Open, a sophisticated sex comedy of sorts which is the festival's Centerpiece Film. Richard Wong shot and directed this tale of an urban couple toying with the idea of an open relationship – with a second couple anxiously hoping to lead them astray. Yes, We're Open benefits from some knowing dialogue, an attractive cast and pleasurably recognizable San Francisco locations like Green Apple Books and the Roxie Theater.

This year's CinemAsia section (formerly known as the International Showcase) continues a recent SFIAAFF trend to de-emphasize the works of acknowledged Asian auteurs in favor of emerging filmmakers. For example, Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk, Lav Diaz, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Lou Ye, Shoji Aoyama, Jia Zheng-ke and Johnnie To all released new films in the past 12 months, but you won't find any of them in this festival. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I know many Bay Area cinephiles are feeling nostalgic for the days when such directors were an important part of SFIAAFF. Remember the knock-out retrospectives given Hong Sang-soo and Kiyoshi Kurosawa in 2007 and 2009 respectively? It's also notable there are no films from Iran this year, nor is there a Bollywood at the Castro screening (and as long as I'm lamenting, what's happened to the popular Out of the Vaults program?).

The most renowned director who is in CinemAsia's 2012 roster is prolific screwball Takashi Miike, whose Ninja Kids will undoubtedly prove to be great fun. Rithy Panh (
S21: Khmer Rouge Killing Machine) is another name many will recognize. His latest is The Catch, an engaging low-budget, Vietnam War-era drama about an African-American pilot who is captured by Cambodian villagers recently brought under the ideological sway of the Khmer Rouge. I've also had a look at Ryang-Kang-Do: Merry Christmas, North! This slick, South Korean dramedy is a shamelessly saccharine yarn about a talking toy robot and some too-cute North Korean urchins. The world is certainly begging for humanizing images of North Koreans, but this goes beyond the pale. I was shocked to learn it was written and directed by a former North Korean political prisoner. Of the remaining CinemAsia selections, I'm most intrigued by 11 Flowers from prominent Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle), South Korean war film The Front Line, which was that country's 2011 Oscar® submission and Night Market Hero, Taiwan's 2011 box office champ.

The festival kicks off on Thursday, March 8 with the world premiere of Quentin Lee's White Frog, followed by what's sure to be a typically fabulous Opening Night Gala at the SF Asian Art Museum. This will be one star-filled evening, given the famous cast Lee has assembled for his film: up and comers Booboo Stewart (
The Twilight Saga) and Harry Shum Jr. (Glee), plus veterans B.D. Wong and Joan Chen. As I mentioned at the start, Chen will be given her own SFIAAFF Spotlight tribute this year, with two screenings that will highlight her accomplishments as both an actress (Saving Face) and director (Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl). (Chen will live forevermore in my own heart as Jocelyn Packard from David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks). In this preview I've only touched upon half of what the festival has in store, so for the big picture be sure and check out the rest of SFIAAFF30's Doc Competition, Narrative Competition, CinemAsia, Special Presentations and six programs of Shorts. There's also New Directions, a catch-all for the festival's many non-filmgoing events that include a number of salons and panels, the Directions in Sound DJ party and extremely popular outdoor celebration Festival Forum, which takes place in Japantown's Peace Plaza.

Cross published on The Evening Class.