Saturday, April 9, 2011

SFIFF54 2011 The Line-Up (Part 2)

My previous film-415 coverage of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) includes an overview of films and special events announced prior to the Opening Press Conference, a special report on that press conference, and a look at the European films in this year's line-up. Now here's a gander at what the programmers are bringing us from the rest of the world.

Last month's SF International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) offered little in the way of new works from prominent Asian auteurs. I'd hoped the SFIFF would pick up the slack and to a degree they have. I'm most excited about prolific cult director Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins. Critics found this samurai epic surprisingly well-crafted, yet still over-the-top in Miike's inimitable way – making it his most satisfying film since 1999's Audition. In this wacky world of contemporary film distribution, 13 Assassins has actually been available for some time via Comcast's On-Demand and Amazon's Instant Video. It's also scheduled for a local theatrical release on May 20. But since SFIFF is showing it on the Castro Theater's enormous screen, you'd be crazy to see it any other way. Relatedly in the festival's The Late Show sidebar is Outrage, Takeshi Kitano's return to the neo-yakuza gang-warfare genre he pioneered. This screened in Cannes' main competition to mostly yawning reviews, so never having been a big Kitano fan to begin with, I'll give it a pass. Outrage 2 is already in production.

Another Asian auteur overlooked at this year's SFIAAFF was Hong Sang-soo, who released two new films in 2010. The festival has chosen to bring us Hahaha, which won the top prize in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar. Hong's films all take place within a very insular world of sexist, alcoholic intellectuals (frequently a film director or screenwriter), and they usually involve a journey and have a bifurcated structure. They also annoy me to no end. Yet I'm strangely compelled to watch each new film, just to see how he's reworked his thing (or not). Hahaha will have the added advantage of starring the amazing Korean actress Moon So-ri (Oasis, The Good Lawyer's Wife).

Three other Asian films will get high priority from me. Park Jung-bum's The Journals of Musan shared the top prize at this year's Rotterdam Film Festival. This is Park's directorial debut, in which he also plays the main character, a North Korean refugee struggling to adjust to life in capitalist Seoul. One of the most talked about films at last month's New Directors/New Films series in NYC was Koji Fukada's Hospitalité, a dark comedy that plays on Japanese xenophobia and issues of globalization. The SFIFF54 documentary I'm most anticipating is Kwan Pun-leung and Chiang Hsiu-chiung's Let the Wind Carry Me, a portrait of renowned cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin. Directors Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiou-hsien, Hirokazu Kore-eda and others line up to sing Lee's praises and discuss his work methods. I noticed that one of the doc's co-directors had a film in the 2009 SFIFF, the remarkable Taiwanese family drama, Artemisia.

At the 2008 SFIFF I was all nerves watching Hong Kong director Dante Lam's intense
The Beast Stalker, and his latest action melodrama The Stool Pigeon has a spot in this year's fest. Also of interest from Hong Kong is Love in a Puff, which is – of all things these days – a romantic comedy about smokers. Both have garnered very positive reviews. India is represented by four films, including a fifth SFIFF appearance by documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto. Her past films have examined everything from Iranian divorce courts to Japanese female wrestlers. Her new work Pink Saris, profiles an activist for India's untouchable women. I'm also reading good things about the doc Marathon Boy, an inspirational portrait of a prodigy marathon runner that transitions into something more complex and disturbing. Indian narrative features are represented by Kashmir-set Autumn, about which I've not heard positive reports, and Nainsukh, a meditation on an 18th century miniaturist painter that's part of the festival's Spotlight, Painting with Light. Other Asian countries represented at SFIFF54 include Kyrgyzstan (The Light Thief), Malaysia (Year Without a Summer), China (The High Life) and Indonesia (Position Among the Stars, the third chapter in Dutch documentarian Leonard Retel Helmrich's ongoing look at one Jakarta family).

Latin America
I was probably more disappointed in the selection of films from this region than anywhere else. On the plus side, SFIFF54 has programmed the much-lauded Nostalgia for the Light from Chilean Patricio Guzmán, arguably Latin America's greatest documentary filmmaker. The director, who is currently being feted with a Pacific Film Archive retrospective, is scheduled to attend the fest. Nostalgia also opens in local theaters on May 13. I'm also quite stoked to see Federico Veiroj's A Useful Life. The protagonist of this B&W, melancholic love letter to cinephilia, programs an Uruguayan cinematheque that's on the verge of closing its doors.

Unfortunately, many of the past year's high profile Latin American films are absent from SFIFF54. At the top of the missing list I'd place Pablo Larraín's
Post Mortem, the Chilean director's follow-up to Tony Manero that premiered to great acclaim at Venice. Then there's the Mexican film Leap Year, which won the Camera d'or for best first feature at Cannes. From that same festival, there was Daniel and Diego Vidal's wonderfully deadpan Peruvian comedy October, which took home the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard. Fortunately, I was able to see it at Palm Springs and it's a hoot. For good measure I'll add Old Cats (the new film by Sebastián Silva, director of The Maid), Brothers and Sisters (from top Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman) and Guest (José Luis Guerín's documentary about the year he spent travelling the Latin American film festival circuit with In the City of Sylvia).

Of the festival's remaining Latin American films – all of which were news to me – two are singled out for praise in Robert Koehler's recent indieWire dispatch from the Guadalajara Film Festival. Calling The Tiniest Place the most remarkable film he saw at the fest, this documentary profiles an El Salvador village that's returning to life years after being decimated by civil war. He cheered its director, Tatiana Huezo, as "one of the bright new talents of Latin American cinema, exhibiting a mastery of every aspect of filmmaking…programmers were beside themselves with enthusiasm." Sounds like it's not to be missed. Koehler also liked Jean Gentil, whose co-directors Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, helmed the 2008 SFIFF entry Cochochi. Carlos César Arbeláez' The Colors of the mountain is set in a Colombian village torn between guerillas and government soldiers, its story told through the eyes of a young boy. The film won the New Directors Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival and has earned warm reviews from Variety and elsewhere. For a thorough critical overview of all eight SFIFF Latin American films, check out Michael Guillén's SFIFF54 LATINBEAT entry at The Evening Class.

Africa/Middle East
My unequivocal recommendation is this section is Oliver Schmitz' Life, Above All, a skillfully directed and tremendously moving South African AIDS drama that I saw in Palm Springs. Schmitz first came to my attention with 1988's Soweto gangster drama Mapantsula, and Life, Above All marks his return to Africa after years directing for German TV. While the film is scheduled to open in cinemas later this year, I've received notice that Schmitz and the film's 15-year-old lead actress, Khomotso Manyaka, will be traveling to the fest. There are three additional films from and/or about sub-Saharan Africa. Kinyarwanda, a tale of genocide and reconciliation from Rwanda, won the Audience Award for World Cinema at Sundance this year. Documentary The Redemption of General Butt Naked examines one man's dubious transition from bloodthirsty Liberian warlord to Pentecostal preacher. French/Burkina Faso co-production The Place in Between follows two parallel stories of global displacement – one of them focused on a young Frenchwoman of mixed race who travels back to Africa in search of her birth mother.

The search for an unknown parent in a foreign land is also a theme found in Denis Villeneuve's Incendies. Lubna Azabal (Paradise Now) stars as an Arab-Canadian who learns that her father is still alive and that she has a brother she never knew existed. Accompanied by her reluctant Canadian twin, she sets off on a familial search in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Buoyed by incredible reviews and an Oscar® nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Incendies is set to open at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 6. Another Middle Eastern-set film made by a North American director is Maryam Keshavarz' Circumstance, a drama about two young Iranian lesbians. While the film won the Sundance Narrative Audience Award, critics have not been as kind, labeling the film clunky and heavy-handed. There's also an Iranian documentary in the festival, Ali Samadi Ahadi's The Green Wave, which recounts that country's unsuccessful 2009 anti-government revolt. Finally, I'm really looking forward to Microphone, which promises an energetic take on various cultural youth movements happening in Alexandria, Egypt. Director Ahmad Abdalla's impressive first film Heliopolis, screened at our 2010 Arab Film Festival.

In researching the U.S. and Canadian line-up, I was surprised to discover that the majority are directed or co-directed by women. The most high-profile amongst the narrative features is surely
Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, which stars Michelle Williams (who worked with the director previously in Wendy and Lucy) as a pioneer woman forced to assert herself on the Oregon Trail. The film opens May 6 at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema. Also highly anticipated is Miranda July's The Future, her long-awaited follow-up to 2005's Me and You and Everyone We Know. While I'm part of a tiny minority who found much of that film unbearably infantile, I'm still curious about The Future. It's confirmed that July will attend the festival, along with husband Mike Mills who directed this year's opening night film, Beginners. Alison Bagnall's The Dish & the Spoon is about an unhinged, cheated-upon wife who teams up with a British teenage boy. It stars one of my favorite American actresses (Greta Gerwig), in one of my favorite movie settings (a beach resort in the off-season.) Women seldom get to direct horror films, but Emily Lou makes her directorial debut with The Selling, a comedy about the difficulties of unloading a haunted house in a down real estate market. This is a world premiere and a local production to boot. Finally, in Larysa Kondracki's Canadian/German co-production The Whistleblower, Rachel Weisz is a Nebraska cop who discovers that U.N. workers are complicit in Bosnian sex slave trade.

Women are all over the North American documentary line-up as well and I'm aiming to catch three of them. I'm a long-time fan of the Bay Area's Lynn Hershman Leeson (Teknolust), and her !Women Art Revolution surveys 40 years of radicalized art made by women. Marie Losier's The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye tells the curious story of industrial rock musician Genesis P. Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV), and the extreme steps he took to merge into one "pandrogyne" being with his beloved Lady Jaye. Then in the critically acclaimed Foreign Parts, Véréna Paravel and co-director J.P. Sniadecki provide an elegiac tour of a neighborhood in demise, the Willets Points area of Queens (setting for Ramin Bahrani's 2007 film Chop Shop). Other women-directed SFIFF54 documentary features include American Teacher, Better This World, Hot Coffee, The Last Buffalo Hunt, Miss Representation and Something Ventured.

Guys also have a hand in the USA/Canadian line-up, but not a big one. Errol Morris' new doc Tabloid is said to be extremely fun, revisiting a 1976 scandal in which a former Miss Wyoming abducted a Mormon missionary and made him her sex slave. Another high profile documentary is Andrew Rossi's self-explanatory Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, which arrives in Bay Area theaters July 1. Director Christopher Munch (The Hour and the Times) has had an interesting, but all too infrequent career (five movies in 20 years). His new film Letters from the Big Man tells the earnest, unironic story of a young woman who develops a metaphysical relationship with a Sasquatch. Apart from the aforementioned Incendies, SFIFF54's lone Canadian narrative feature is Sébastien Pilote's The Salesman, an affecting study of a 67-year-old auto dealer at the end of a successful career.

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