Sunday, March 30, 2014

SFIFF57 2014 Anticipating the Line-Up

I've had the good fortune to attend every San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) since 1976 and the privilege of covering it as accredited press for eight years running. As has become a tradition here at film-415, on the eve of the festival's official press conference I've gathered together a rundown of what's already been announced for 2014's edition, followed by a wish list of 20 films I'm hoping to find in the line-up when it's unveiled Tuesday morning.

This year the festival made my job easy by issuing fewer-than-ever early announcements, especially regarding the recipients of its many awards and tributes. Still waiting TBA at this 11th hour are the Peter J. Owens Acting Award, the Maurice Kanbar Screenwriting Award, the Persistence of Vision Award, the Mel Novikoff Award, as well as the fest's Centerpiece Film and the question of who will deliver 2014's State of Cinema Address. All shall be revealed soon enough. Meanwhile, here's a glance at what we know thus far.

● The 57th SFIFF opens on Thursday, April 24 with a screening of The Two Faces of January, which marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Hossein Amini (Drive, The Wings of the Dove). The film premiered to positive reviews when it screened out of competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival, and the SFIFF Opening Night slot will be its North American premiere. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac, the movie is based on a Patricia Highsmith ("The Talented Mr. Ripley") novel and is set in a lushly photographed Greece and Turkey in the early '60s. Director Amini is scheduled to be in attendance. This year's opening night party will be at the SOMA nightclub Public Works.

● The festival closes on May 8 with another directorial debut, this one from actor Chris Messina (who I had to imdb because I obviously don't watch enough television.) His film is called Alex of Venice and it stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead (had to look her up as well) as an attorney whose life changes when her stay-at-home husband (Messina) decides to take a break from it all. Both Messina and Winstead are expected to attend the screening. Alex of Venice arrives in San Francisco very soon after its world premiere at Tribeca. SFIFF57's closing night party takes place at The Chapel club, in the heart of the Mission District.

● This year's Founder's Directing Award goes to none other than the fabulously eclectic and talented Richard Linklater, whose debut feature Slackers played the festival in 1991 and whose most recent film, Before Midnight, closed last year's fest with the director in attendance. Linklater's tribute takes place at the Castro Theatre on Friday, May 2, with an on-stage interview, career clips reel and a screening of his 18th and most recent feature, the wildly acclaimed Boyhood. This event is destined to be a huge highlight of SFIFF57 – I arranged to take the night off from work the minute I heard about it.

● One of the festival's most popular events is the annual pairing of a silent film with a newly composed score, performed live by a contemporary music artist. Four years after his campy (and somewhat divisive) accompaniment to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Magnetic Fields' front man Stephin Merritt returns to SFIFF with his take on Tod Browning's 1927 creepy circus crime thriller The Unknown, starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. (The film last played the Castro Theatre during the 2008 SF Silent Film Festival, with director Guy Maddin doing a live translation of its French inter-titles.) The second SFIFF57 live music event at the Castro will be Bay Area musician Thao Nguyen and her band, The Get Down Stay Down, performing alongside a diverse selection of short films that includes Chaplin's The Pawn Shop, animations by Harry Smith, vintage newsreels and some of Nguyen's own video work.

● Eleven films will compete for 2014's SFIFF New Directors Prize. I'm especially excited they've programmed Salvation Army, Abdellah Taïa's adaptation of his autobiographical novel about a gay Moroccan boy who later immigrates to Europe. It's a critically acclaimed film I wasn't expecting to see until June's Frameline LGBT festival. (For the record, there are a half dozen other undoubtedly Frameline-bound LGBT films I wouldn't mind seeing at SFIFF, like Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm and Guillaume Gallienne's multiple-César award-winning, Me, Myself and Mum.) The other New Directors Prize contender I'm hot to see is Benjamín Naishtat's History of Fear, a dystopian nightmare set in the Buenos Aires suburbs, which has drawn comparisons to the early works of Michael Haneke since its Berlin premiere. I've also heard terrific things about the Icelandic film, Of Horses and Men, and Mexico's The Amazing Catfish. Both the latter film, as well as Taïa's Salvation Army, boasts cinematography by  renowned DP Agnès Godard.

● Eight films are in the running for SFIFF57's Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature Competition. The only one even remotely on my radar is Hubert Sauper's We Come as Friends, which examines the human cost of neo-colonialism in the newly formed nation of South Sudan. To this day, Sauper's 2004 Oscar®-nominated Darwin's Nightmare remains the most disturbing and dispiriting doc I've ever seen. Perhaps his latest will make me feel even worse.

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Below is a list of 20 films that would comprise my ultimate SFIFF57 dream festival. They've been culled from a larger list I maintain throughout the year, making notes of promising new works from festival reports I read. Last year only two of my 20 films made the line-up, but I still managed to have a sublime festival experience. How will I fare this year?

My SFIFF57 Wish List

Abuse of Weakness (France, dir. Catherine Breillat)
Self-described provocatrice Catherine Breillat takes the autobiographical route, as she directs Isabelle Huppert as a Catherine Breillat-like film director who suffers a stroke and is subsequently swindled by a young con man.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (China, dir. Yi'nan Diao)
Winner of the top prize at February's Berlin Film Festival, it's probably too early to expect this stylized Chinese neo-noir to show up in these parts just yet. But I can still wish.

Club Sandwich (Mexico, dir. Fernando Eimbcke)
SFIFF screened this laid-back Mexican director's first two films, Duck Season (2004) and Lake Tahoe (2008) and will hopefully follow through with this droll comedy about a doting mother on vacation with her newly pubescent son.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her (USA, dir. Ned Benson)
These are actually two separate films that take on the dissolution of a relationship from opposing gender-centric P.O.V.s. James McAvoy is Him and Jessica Chastain is Her, with a supporting cast that includes Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt and Viola Davis.

Exhibition (UK, dir. Joanna Hogg)
Joanna Hogg (Unrelated, Archipelago) is an acclaimed new British director about whom plenty has been written, yet none of her films have been seen in the Bay Area. Not even, weirdly enough, at our annual Mostly British festival. Is this the year we'll be brought up to speed?

Hard to Be a God (Russia, dir. Aleksei Gherman)
Russian master Gherman died last year, but not before (almost) completing work on this 3-hour phantasmagoric, medieval mind-fuck only the third film he's made in 30 years. The other two, My Friend Ivan Lapshin and Khrustaliov, My Car! screened at previous SFIFF editions, giving me hope this highly anticipated extravaganza might be headed our way.

Jealousy (France, dir. Philippe Garrel)
Do we really need to see a third consecutive Philippe Garrel film about tormented relationships between artsy types starring Garrel's impossibly handsome son Louis? Not necessarily, but this one has earned the director his best reviews since 2005's Regular Lovers.

Manakamana (Nepal/USA, dir. Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez)
From the folks at Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab (Sweetgrass, Leviathan) comes this heralded documentary consisting of only 12 shots, all long takes of passengers riding a cable car to a Nepalese mountaintop temple.

Miss Violence (Greece, dir. Alexandros Avranas)
It seems like forever, or at least a year or two, since we last witnessed an act of cinematic transgression from Greece. This one took the Best Director and Actor prizes at last year's Venice Film Festival.

Moebius (South Korea, dir. Kim Ki-duk)
Speaking of transgression, nobody pushes buttons harder than Kim and his latest film is said to take the cake. Variety's Leslie Felperin calls it "a gloriously off-the-charts study in perversity featuring castration, rape and incest" that fits "right inside the Korean king-of-wackitude's wheelhouse of outrageous cinema."

El Mudo (Peru, dir. Daniel Vega, Diego Vega)
The fraternal Peruvian writing/directing team of Daniel and Diego Vega follow-up 2010's sublime Octubre with another deadpan black comedy, this one winning a Best Actor nod at Locarno for lead Fernando Bacilio.

Night Moves (USA, dir. Kelly Reichardt) With a cast that includes Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard, this eco-terrorism thriller from Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff) will surely have a theatrical release later in the year, but the rave reviews from Venice and Toronto have me wanting to see it sooner rather than later.

Nobody's Daughter or Our Sunhi (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Prolific Korean master Hong released two new, well-received films in 2013, the first one at Berlin and then another at Locarno, where he won Best Director. Rather surprisingly, neither got programmed by Mill Valley or CAAMFest, leaving them available for possible SFIFF inclusion.

October November (Götz Spielmann)
German director Götz Spielmann follows up his 2008 masterpiece Revanche with this tale of two disparate sisters reuniting when their father takes ill. A curious omission from this year's Berlin & Beyond festival.

The Quispe Girls (Chile, dir. Sebastián Sepúlveda)
Three indigenous sisters in rural 1974 Chile face an end to their sheep-herding way of life thanks to the ominous encroachment of General Pinochet's rule. Starring the incomparable Catalina Saavedra (The Maid.)

Story of My Death (Spain, dir. Albert Serra)
The borderline experimental films of noted Catalonian director Serra have largely gone unseen in the Bay Area. His latest, an imagined meeting between Casanova and Dracula, is said to be his most accessible, winning the top prize at last year's Locarno Film Festival.

Stray Dogs (Taiwan, dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
Unlike his last feature, 2009's largely reviled Face, Tsai's latest won acclaim and a slew of awards on 2013's festival circuit, including Best Director and Actor at the Golden Horse Awards. The director's acteur fétiche, Lee Kang-sheng, stars as a father with two children struggling to survive on the streets of Taipei. A welcome consolation prize would be Journey to the West, a new Tsai film that recently premiered at Berlin.

Tarr Béla: I Used to be a Filmmaker (France, dir. Jean-Marc Lamoure)
An in-depth documentary look into the making of Hungarian maestro Bela Tarr's final masterpiece, 2011's The Turin Horse.

Tip Top (France, dir. Serge Bozon)
Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Kiberlain star as detectives investigating a small town murder and police corruption in this perverse, screwball noir from actor/director Bozon. His last film, the WWI musical La France, screened at SFIFF in 2008.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Romania, dir. Corneliu Porumbiou)
Reviews were mixed for this latest formalist exercise from the director of 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective, but I'm dying to see it anyway. I'd also be quite happy to see The Second Game, his even newer film which just premiered at Berlin.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

CAAMFest 2014

Review – Beautiful 2013

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival rebranded itself CAAMFest last year, thereby completing its transition from a festival which dependably exhibited the latest works of established Asian auteurs, into what is now a film-music-food festival dominated almost exclusively by emerging filmmakers. Anyone in the Bay Area who wants to see the newest films from Tsai Ming-liang (Stray Dogs), Kim Ki-duk (Moebius), Lav Diaz (Norte, the End of History) or Hong Sang-soo (Nobody's Daughter, Our Sunhi) in a public setting had better hope they've earned a slot at next month's 57th San Francisco International Film Festival (program TBA April 1.)

Oh well. Things change. And it's not like CAAMFest 2014, which runs from March 13 to 23, is bereft of familiar names. This year's festival features a 20th anniversary screening of Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman, as well as a three-film tribute to legendary Hong Kong producer Run Run Shaw, who passed away this year at age 107. For those who either missed it at last year's Mill Valley Film Festival or can't wait for its local theatrical release on April 4, there's also Rithy Panh's Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture from Cambodia. In this devastating, not-to-be-missed autobiographical essay film, Panh uses carved figurines, rudimentary dioramas, archival footage and voiceover narration to reconstruct memories of his 5-year enslavement by the Khmer Rouge.

Then there's Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Beautiful New Bay Area Project, one of four shorts that comprise Beautiful 2013, the most recent omnibus co-production between the Hong Kong International Film Festival and Youku, China's version of YouTube. My personal highlight of last year's CAAMFest was the Beautiful 2012 entry Walker. In this 27-minute minimalist masterpiece, director Tsai Ming-liang's perpetual muse, actor Lee Kang-sheng, posed as a monk walking at a snail's pace through a series of flawlessly composed Hong Kong cityscapes. (Tsai has since expanded that idea into a feature-length film called Journey to the West, which premiered at the recent Berlin Film Festival). This year's Beautiful marquee name is Kurosawa, whom this festival fabulously feted with an in-person retrospective and tribute back in 2009. The 29-minute Beautiful New Bay Area Project is set on the docks of Yokohama, where a young, unhinged urban developer becomes obsessed with a female dockworker. After his attentions are repeatedly spurned, he steals her nameplate from work, setting off a lengthy set-piece in which she kicks the ass of every security guard, executive and office worker who stands between her and her precious nameplate. It's not quite as thrilling as the swimming pool scene in Kurosawa's 2012 TV mini-series Penance – whereby a female kendo master battles a knife-wielding maniac around a pool of terrified schoolchildren – but it's still awfully fun. The ominous mise-en-scene, poetic camera set-ups, unsettlingly music and unexpected laughs are all pure Kurosawa Kiyoshi. Fans of his features (Cure, Bright Future, Tokyo Sonata) definitely won't want to miss seeing the Japanese master's latest short on the big screen.

As with most portmanteau collections, the other three shorts in Beautiful 2013 are a mixed bag. Every bit as good as the Kurosawa is the visually arresting 1 Dimension, directed by cinematographer Lü Yue (John Woo's Red Cliff, Zhang Yimou's To Live and Shanghai Triad). Employing silhouetted figures against a backdrop of Chinese scroll paintings, Lü stages the ancient tale of "Prince Piety from the Land of Toto," in which a young royal goes on a six-year journey to acquire the life lessons necessary to be a good king. That's preceded by the wryly dour A New Year, the Same Day by Taiwan's Wu Nien-jen, who's best known as a screenwriter (Hou Hsiao-hsien's A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster) and actor (star of Edward Yang's Yi Yi). On New Year's Day, a put-upon husband and father who describes himself as a "fat and exhausted slave," calls a family powwow and tries to elicit a bit of succor from his crabby wife and distracted teens. The best response comes from the daughter, who squeals with delight, "I posted on Facebook that my family is falling apart and I got 30 "likes!" Beautiful 2013's weakest entry is saved for last, the borderline insipid Indigo from Hong Kong director Mabel Cheung (An Autumn's Tale, The Soong Sisters), in which a nightclub dance instructor (a vibrant Elaine Jin) sends her resentful teenage daughter out to look for her mentally challenged little brother who's gone missing.

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Elsewhere in the CAAMFest 2014 line-up:

● In addition to Cambodia's The Missing Picture, the festival brings us two more films which were their respective country's Oscar® submission. Anthony Chen's directorial debut Ilo Ilo is set during a time of economic crisis and observes what happens when a joyless Singapore family brings a Filipina maid into their household. Ilo Ilo took the prize for Best Feature at last year's Golden Horse Awards (essentially the Academy Awards for Chinese language art/indie films), as well as Best Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress and Best New Director for Mr. Chen, who is scheduled to attend the CAAMFest screenings. The festival is also showing Yûya Ishii's The Great Passage, which was Japan's surprise Oscar® choice over Hirokazu Koreeda's vastly superior Like Father, Like Son. Over the course of 134 minutes, the film chronicles the laborious 15-year task of creating a "living" Japanese dictionary, and succeeds as often as not in making it interesting. The film stars Ryûhei Matsuda (the boy who drove the other samurai wild with desire in Nagisa Ôshima's final film, Taboo) as the painfully awkward linguistics nerd who shepherds the project, and the ubiquitous Jô Odagiri (the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hirokazu Koreeda, Kim Ki-duk, Seijun Suzuki, Shinji Aoyama and others) as his more gregarious co-worker.

● I'm always interested to learn which films top the box office charts around the world. This year's CAAMFest boasts three which were the 2013 blockbusters in their country of origin. The only one I've previewed is Banjong Pisanthanakun's Pee Mak from Thailand, a well made, really stupid, but funny-enough lampoon of a classic Thai ghost story. I was glad to have seen a more serious version of the story at a previous edition of this festival – the film's title and year escape me – so I had a clue what was being spoofed. Be prepared to lose a few brain cells watching this one. South Korea's top performer of 2013 was the "high-octane thriller" Cold Eyes, which chronicles a police surveillance operation's efforts against a sophisticated robbery ring. The film is a remake of the 2007 Hong Kong hit, Eye in the Sky, and is one of CAAMFest 2014's two Centerpiece Presentations. It should be a blast to watch on the Castro Theatre's big screen, with co-director Jo Ui-seok scheduled to attend. CAAMFest 2014's Opening Night movie at the Castro will be Viet Nam's 2013 B.O. champ, Ham Tran's How to Fight in Six Inch Heels. Described loosely as a rom-com mash-up of The Devil Wears Prada and Mean Girls, the film stars Bay Area native Kathy Uyen.

● CAAMFest 2014's other Centerpiece Presentation at the Castro will be Grace Lee's documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, which celebrates the life and work of the 98-year-old Chinese-American political activist-writer-philosopher who was also an outspoken advocate for African Americans. Both director Grace Lee and subject Grace Lee Boggs will attend. Earlier in the day there'll be an In Conversation with Grace Lee at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. CAAMFest 2014 will also feature a revival screening of Lee's 2007 mockumentary American Zombie, which I originally reviewed for The Evening Class in my first year of blogging about this festival.