Tuesday, February 16, 2010

SFIAAFF28 2010 Line-Up

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) unveiled the line-up for its 28th annual event last week, during a press conference at VIZ Cinema. The snazzy, state-of-the-art subterranean Japantown theater that opened last summer will serve as a supplemental venue for this year's fest. Festival Director Chi-hui Yang, Assistant Director Vicci Ho and Program Manager Christine Kwon took turns spotlighting the impressive roster of 109 films – 44 of them narrative and documentary features – as well as some of the special events celebrating the 30th anniversary of CAAM (Center for Asian American Media). Sadly, this will be Yang's 10th and final year as director, but it's fun to see him go out with a starring role in this year's festival trailer.

One of the strands running through 2010's festival is a Focus on Filipino and Filipino American Cinema, the highlight of which is a long overdue tribute to Lino Brocka. Openly gay and often at odds with Ferdinand Marcos' regime, Brocka directed 60-plus films between 1970 and his death in 1991, most of them melodramas with a social/political bent. To the best of my knowledge, with the exception of one-off screenings of 1988's Macho Dancer (for better or worse, his best known film in the U.S.), the Bay Area hasn't seen a Brocka film since the SF International Film Festival (SFIFF) showed Dirty Affair in 1992. (And if memory serves, the screening I attended got cancelled after the film broke midway through). Even the venerable Pacific Film Archive lists only one Brocka screening in its entire online archive; again the 1992 SFIFF presentation of Dirty Affair.

The SFIAAFF mini-retrospective consists of only four films, but they seem very well chosen. Yang explained that SFIAAFF wanted to program more, but prints were extremely hard to acquire. 1975's Manila in the Claws of Neon is a neo-noir about a country boy in the mean city, which I first saw at the 1980 SFIFF under the title Manila in the Claws of Darkness. (Oddly, the film is a.k.a. Manila in the Claws of Light). SFIFF also screened Brocka's mother-from-hell masterpiece Insiang in 1984, but I missed it. Bayan Ko is the film that got Brocka's Filipino citizenship revoked, and a print had to be smuggled out of the county for its competition screening at Cannes in 1984. The fourth selection is 1974's You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting (what a title!). All four films will be screened in 16mm or 35mm prints.

The rest of SFIAAFF's Focus on Filipino and Filipino American Cinema can be found scattered throughout the line-up. Classic Filipino American Shorts is, well, exactly that. From this year's Documentary Competition comes Ninoy Aquino & the Rise of People Power, about the revolutionary leader, political prisoner, exile and martyr to the cause of Philippine democracy. Manilatown is in the Heart – Time Travel with Al Robles is part of the CAAM@30 Documentary Showcase and the latest from director Curtis Choy (The Fall of the I-Hotel). From the Narrative Competition we have the world premiere of Gerry Balasta's The Mountain Thief, a docudrama about one family's struggle to live amidst a garbage dumpsite. And finally, the one I'm most looking forward to, Raya Martin's hyper-stylized allegory of early 20th century American colonialism, Independencia. Oh, and be sure to check out the fest's Filipino or Not mobile phone game app.

Apart from the Brockas, there's one other revival in the fest – an Out of the Vaults screening of Kim Ki-young's 1960 shocker The Housemaid. Released the same year as Hitchcock's Psycho, it's been described as "making Fatal Attraction look like The Brady Bunch" and proves that transgression in Korean cinema didn't begin with Kim Ki-duk or Park Chan-wook. The 35mm print being screened at the Castro is a recent restoration done by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation and the Korean Film Archive. Folks into this type of thing might also want to check out the contempo Indonesian urban horror film, The Forbidden Door, being presented as a Midnight Show at Landmark's Clay Theater.

Although Iran falls within SFIAAFF's definition of "Asian," films from that country are only intermittently represented in the festival – Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly in 2005 is the last one I remember. This year they've programmed About Elly, for which Asghar Farhadi won the Best Director prize at last year's Berlin Film Festival. I caught this psychological thriller about a group of middle-class Tehranites on seaside holiday at last month's Palm Springs Film Festival, and recommend it highly. To my dismay, the Palm Springs screening was digital, so I look forward to seeing it again in 35mm. (This is as good a place as any to specially commend SFIAAFF for always showing 35mm prints where possible and being totally upfront in their catalog about the format for each presentation. No other major festival I know bothers to do this!) Also from Iran this year is Tehran Without Permission, a documentary collage on life in Iran's capital city, shot entirely on a Nokia camera phone just before last summer's civil unrest.

Of all the new narrative features in the fest, I'm most anticipating City of Life and Death from Chinese director Lu Chuan (Kekexili: Mountain Patrol), one of five films in the Special Presentations section. This dramatization of the Nanking Massacre got yanked from Palm Springs by the Chinese government because the fest refused to withdraw a pro-Dalai Lama documentary. The film's U.S. theatrical release was set to begin March 31, but it's been cancelled because distributor National Geographic Entertainment is "still in negotiations with the Chinese Film Board." So if you're interested in seeing this, you'd best do it at SFIAAFF. Be sure to check out some schedule changes that directly affect this particular film. On a related note, the festival is also showing a documentary about Japanese use of biological weapons and human experimentation during the occupation years (Lessons of the Blood).

Apart from About Elly, Independencia and The Forbidden Door, I've got my eye on several other selections from the festival's International Showcase section. Although the drunken, infantile protagonists of Hong Sang-soo's films get on my nerves big-time, I wouldn't think of missing his latest, Like You Know It All, in which a Korean art-film director serves on a festival jury. The groundbreaking Thai film Mundane History just won a Tiger Award at the recent Rotterdam Film Festival, and concerns a male nurse and his invalid charge. For this year's Bollywood-at-the-Castro night, SFIAAFF has chosen Love Aaj Kal, starring Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padulone in an Indian re-imagining of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times. Talentime is the final film from beloved Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad, who died prematurely at age 41 last summer, and The Message is a lavish, all-star Chinese historical drama set during WWII. Finally, I rarely attend shorts programs at film festivals, but when the directors involved represent the cream of Asian filmmaking, I'll be there. What We Talk About When We… is comprised of short films from Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, Jia Zheng-ke and the aforementioned Hong Sang-soo.

SFIAAFF is one my favorite festivals for documentaries, and there are many intriguing titles spread across its Documentary Showcase, CAAM 30th Anniversary Showcase and Documentary Competition. Oscar-winning director Ruby Yang (The Blood of Yingzhou District) returns to SFIAAFF with A Moment in Time, a look back at the golden era of Chinatown movie theaters. Agrarian Utopia is an acclaimed, lyrical portrait of rice farming in Thailand. As part of Spotlight: Frieda Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision), we get to see her latest work, Lt. Watada, about the Japanese-American soldier who refused deployment to Iraq. Aoki tells the story Richard Aoki, a Japanese-American who was a founding member and Field Marshall for the Black Panther Party. A Village Called Versailles focuses on New Orleans' Vietnamese community in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while Hana, Dul, Sed… looks at North Korea's champion women's soccer team. There'll also be a work-in-progress screening of The Bonesetter's Daughter: Making of an Opera, about the creation of San Francisco Opera's recent lauded adaptation of Amy Tan's novel. The screening is free for CAAM members and the audience will be asked to provide feedback to director David Petersen.

Finally, here are mentions of some remaining SFIAAFF presentations/events I've yet to touch upon. The festival opens with Today's Special and closes with Au Revoir Taipei. Actor Aasif Mandvi, star of the opening night movie and "Senior Foreign-Looking Correspondent" on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, will be feted with a special An Afternoon With. This year's Centerpiece Film is The People I've Slept With, an Asian-American sex comedy from director Quentin Lee (Shopping For Fangs, Ethan Mao). Seven narrative features "by or about Asian Americans or Asian Canadians" will be vying for the top prize in this year's Narrative Competition. Directions in Sound is the festival's annual underground music event, and Festival Forum is an all-day-and-evening happening with live performances, interactive storytelling and screenings in Japantown's Peace Plaza. Details for these two events are here.

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I always find it interesting to consider which films didn't get programmed for a particular festival, so in closing, here are some words on films I incorrectly assumed/hoped would be a part of SFIAAFF28. Because of this year's focus on Filipino Cinema, I was certain Brillante Mendoza's two new films would be programmed. Both Kinatay (a horrifying tale of a prostitute's kidnapping and dismemberment that won Mendoza a Best Director Award at Cannes) and Lola (about the ramifications of a crime on two elderly women), were on YBCA curator Joel Shepard's 2009 Best Of list, so maybe we'll see them there. While the fest included Raya Martin's Independencia, they passed on Manila, his collaboration with Adolfo Alix Jr. (Adela), which also screened at Cannes. I'd also hoped to see Filipino director Pepe Diokno's Clash, which won the Horizons Award last year at Venice.

Besides Kinatay, I'd anticipated two other 2009 Cannes Competition entries: Lou Ye's (Suzhou River, Summer Palace) gay-themed Spring Fever, which won a Best Screenplay award for its writer Feng Mei, and Johnnie To's Vengeance, starring veteran French rock n' roller Johnny Hallyday. Perhaps Spring Fever will show up at Frameline in June. And will Nymph, which screened in Cannes' Un Certain Regard, become the third consecutive Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe) film to bypass the Bay Area? Hirokazu Kore-eda's Air Doll, which also debuted in Un Certain Regard is a bit of a letdown after the masterful Still Walking (I saw it in Palm Springs), but is still very much worth a look. Another worthy film I caught Palm Springs was the South Korean adoption drama A Brand New Life. Likewise Sawasdee Bangkok, a four-director Thai omnibus that's a decidedly mixed bag, but still of interest. Perhaps a few of these will appear when the SFIFF announces its 2010 line-up next month.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

SF IndieFest 2010

The 12th edition of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival – better known as SF IndieFest – takes over the Roxie Theater for two weeks starting this Thursday, February 4. Out of the fest's three dozen programs worth of features, docs and shorts, I had the chance of preview four on DVD screener. Happily, they're all winners.

The film I'm most excited about is No One Knows About Persian Cats, Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi's controversial portrait of Tehran's underground indie-rock scene. It won an Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at Cannes last year at the exact same time the film's co-writer, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, received a suspended sentence on espionage charges and was released from Iranian prison. More controversy occurred last autumn when Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami publicly admonished Ghobadi for this decidedly unsavory look at life in Iran. Ghobadi responded with a bitter, anguished open letter to his one-time mentor. Brouhaha aside,
Persian Cats is a remarkable film and an inspired departure for its director, best known for lyrical, but unsparing rural parables about war-ravaged children (Time for Drunken Horses, Turtles Can Fly). And though he's previously touched on the plight of musicians in Marooned in Iraq and Half Moon, this is his first time working in an urban milieu.

Shot clandestinely in 17 days, Persian Cats follows two musicians as they pursue a vague-ish notion of performing in Tehran before embarking on an elusive foreign tour. After hooking-up with a sketchy, motor-mouthed music promoter, the trio buzz around Tehran perched on a single motorcycle, in search of band members, passports, visas, practice space and a venue. Harassment by the authorities is constant. During these excursions we're introduced to a variety of local musicians and musical styles – Persian-flavored rap, heavy metal, alt-rock, neo-soul – with song performances rapid-cut MTV-style to images of Tehran street life. The musicians appear to be playing versions of themselves, with sincere, somewhat stilted acting that works fine within the film's semi-documentary vibe. The exception is actor Hamed Behdad as the manic promoter Nader. The scene where he wheedles his way out of 75 lashes and a massive fine for possessing foreign DVDs and alcohol is the film's comic highlight. (Runner up: the heavy metal band playing for distraught cows on a dairy farm.)

With a mixture of resignation and outrage, No One Knows About Persian Cats proves that tenacious youth and rock 'n' roll will somehow find a way, even in an Islamic theocracy. The film is also beautifully shot, making it all the more fortunate that SF IndieFest will be screening it in 35mm (one of only four such films in the fest). Here's the French trailer:

In Belgian director Johan Grimoprez' wildly original mash-up/collage/essay film Double Take, we get an 80-minute riff on paranoid USA/USSR Cold War relations by way of Alfred Hitchcock's assertion that "if you meet your double, you should kill him.
Or he should kill you." Clips of Hitchcock – mostly stuff from his droll film promos and TV show intros – are woven into a Hitch vs. Hitch narrative with the help of professional look-alike Ron Burrage and sound-alike Mark Perry. That's all cleverly edited with archival footage of the Nixon-Khrushchev debate, the Cuban Missile Crisis, worrisome Space Race updates (Sputnik! Pupnik!), Red Square military parades, flying saucer movie clips and a series of insidiously hilarious Folger's Instant Coffee commercials ("How can such a pretty housewife make such bad coffee?!") Fascinating, spooky and poetic (with the occasional drift into ponderousness), this is the most original vision I expect to see at the movies all year. Here are two clips:

Persian Cats and Double Take contain non-fiction elements, the other two films I previewed are straight-up documentaries. Don Argott's The Art of the Steal tells the story of the world's most valuable collection of post-impressionist and modern art, and how it became subjected to "the greatest act of cultural vandalism since WWII." Philadelphia pharmaceutical magnate Albert C. Barnes amassed the collection in the early 20th century, putting it on public display in 1923. The exhibition was reviled by Philly art critics, causing an outraged Barnes to move the whole thing to a building in the suburb of Lower Merion, PA. (The collection contains 181 Renoirs, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos and is currently valued at around $25 billion.) In his will, Barnes specified that the collection should stay in Merion, and never be sold or go on tour. Director Argott meticulously details how Barnes' wishes got thwarted over the years by a tourist-hungry metropolis, ambitious politicians, clueless judges and duplicitous foundation board members. It's a thorny, engrossing tale well told. This is another film IndieFest will be screening in 35mm. The Art of the Steal is also scheduled to open at a San Francisco Landmark theater on March 12. Here's the trailer:

I don't know if Palestinian-owned grocery stores are a phenomenon unique to San Francisco, but for 35 years I've never lived more than two blocks from one. Katherine Bruens' Corner Store, which is having its World Premiere at Indiefest, is the story of
one such store and its soft-spoken proprietor. For 10 years, Yousef Elhaj worked at the Church St. Market from 7:30AM to midnight, 364 days a year, closing only for Easter (Elhaj is Christian). He slept in a back storeroom, saving money to support his wife and three children back in Bethlehem. His intention is to bring them to America, and once all US bureaucratic hurdles have been cleared, the film follows him back to Bethlehem. Once there, however, Elhaj feels conflicted about returning to the US. On one hand, he loves being back amongst his people and culture. On the other hand, life under Israeli occupation, with its checkpoints and separation barriers, is extremely difficult. Friends, family and neighbors all weigh in with their opinions. I won't reveal what happens, but I promise this touching documentary will make you care one way or the other. Here's the trailer.