Posts tagged ‘san francisco international film festival’
Just got back into town and am diving into the thick of things at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, now running through May 7. I’m leaving town again on Sunday so I’m cramming as many screenings into the next five days as I can manage. Luckily there are plenty of great films to see. I’m hoping to make it to the Viggo Mortenson vehicle Jauja, by Argentine director Lisandro Alonso and featuring Viggo in a role that’s tailor-made for him as a Danish military engineer caught up in unrest in 19th-century Patagonia. Viggo he gets to acts in two of his native tongues, Danish and Spanish, and the film is a magical-realist version of the historical events it depicts.
Also on the docket is the 3-D version of Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, Hong Kong director Peter Chan’s child-abduction drama Dearest, and City of Gold, the documentary about Pulitzer-prize winning Los Angeles food critic and mensch Jonathan Gold. If I were in town next week I’d surely go see the South Korean thriller A Hard Day but I’m hopeful that it will make it to a theatrical release stateside sometime soon. SFIFF also plays host to Jenni Olsen’s newest feature-length experimental documentary/essay film The Royal Road, which looks at butch longing and unrequited love against the backdrop of El Camino Real, the historic king’s road that stretches nearly the length of California. Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane’s independent feature Court also screens this week, taking a character-based, neo-realist look at the absurdities of the Mumbai judicial system and its surrounding social and cultural milieu, with results that are about as anti-Bollywood as you can get.
One of my favorite films from last year, director Diao Yinan’s neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice, has one more screening this week at the festival and it’s definitely a don’t-miss movie. From the very start, with shots of random body parts mixed in among train cars of coal shipping throughout the frozen northern regions of China, the film puts a distinctive spin on the classic noir structure. The film follows Zhang (Liao Fan), a less-than-scrupulous cop, as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the mysterious disappearances and murders of various hapless men, all of whom eventually seem to be tied to a classic black-widow character, played by the amazing Taiwanese actress Guey Lun-Mei.
Looping back and forth in time and place, with bursts of intense and unexpected violence, the movie effortlessly transfers the noir genre to the China’s bleak and wintry industrial north, making great use of the icy landscape and the characters’ corresponding desperation and hopelessness. Both Liao and Guey won acting awards (at the Berlin Film Festival and the Golden Horse Awards respectively) for their performances in this film and they embody the moral messiness and ambiguity of the best noir characters. As in all great noirs, everyone is complicit and no one is innocent, and the most innocuous situation, whether in a beauty parlor or at an ice skating rink, can suddenly change into a deadly trap.
So although I’m missing the big galas and parties at the beginning and end of the fest I’m still catching the meat of the event this week. As always the festival is a chance to see some of the best recent global cinema on the big screen.
through May 7, 2015
It’s been a crazy past couple of months so I haven’t had time to update my posts recently, but I’ve finally got a bit of down time, so following are some highlights from some notable film festivals here in Cali.
Down the I-5 I stopped in for a couple screenings at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, which is one of my favorite jams of the year. I was only in the Southland for about 72 hours but I managed to see an outstanding double-bill of two recent Asian genre films at the CGV Cinema in Koreatown, one of the best movie-going venues in LA. CGV is part of a Seoul-based theater chain and its LA outpost usually screens a combination of South Korean movies with English subs and Hollywood movies with Korean subs in its three big state-of-the-art digital theaters. Add to that the cinema’s close proximity to the best of K-town’s nightlife, including dozens of noraebangs, soon dobu houses, Korean fried chicken joints, and soju bars and it all equals a great time in central LA.
First up was Once Upon A Time In Vietnam (2013), directed, written by, and starring Dustin Nguyen, most famously seen in the U.S. opposite a very young Johnny Depp in the classic late-80s cop show 21 Jump Street. A Western/martial arts/steampunk mashup, OUATIV looks pretty, but ultimately is pretty clichéd. Dustin Nguyen gives himself the leading role as Dao, a mystery man who rides into to town (on a souped-up motorbike instead of a palamino) and stirs up the village’s heretofore placid existence, unearthing a past romance with the kindly local baker’s pretty wife Anh (Thanh Van Ngo) and continuing his vendetta with the gang of toughs who are tailing him. Although Nguyen’s Dao is a cool dude, the most truly badass character is Long, the ostensible villain, who is Dao’s archnemesis and romantic rival, played by veteran stuntman Roger Yuan. Despite the film’s good-looking cinematography, the movie is still a bit choppy and rough, with inconsistent art direction that showed its flaws on CGV’s thirty-foot tall, crystal-clear digital screen. The movie’s many gratuitous ass shots and Thanh Van Ngo’s peek-a-booby fighting costume were also pretty silly, though I’m sure some of the film’s target demographic appreciated them.
The second half of the double-bill was the hit Hong Kong action flick Firestorm (2013), starring the evergreen Andy Lau as a conflicted cop hunting down bad guys in the streets of Central. The movie subscribes to the tenet of bigger, faster, and louder, with more explosions, more gunfire, and more bleeding head wounds, and harkens back to the fine old tradition of Hong Kong movie excess, where anything worth doing is worth doing ten times as much. As with any action blockbuster it’s probably better not to be too critical of the gaping plot holes and odd character motivations and just go along for the ride, which is pretty spectacular by the end of the movie. Interestingly, the film’s most harrowing moments are not during the high-powered CGI explosions at the story’s climax but during a quieter though no less tension-filled moment earlier on. The sight of a small child trembling with terror as she tries to silence her screams provides a much more visceral impact than the many later shots of breaking glass and rupturing concrete. Owing a debt to Dante Lam’s emotionally shattered characters and John Woo’s angsty adversaries, first-time director Alan Yuan works in a bit more psychological complexity than the genre demands, which adds to the overall impact of the film. But the movie is also about things blowing up, which it does splendidly, and which I completely enjoyed seeing on the big screen at CGV.
Back home in the Bay I caught a few shows at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Peter Chan’s latest Hong Kong/China co-production, American Dreams in China, was one of the biggest box office hits in the PRC in 2013. The comedy, which follows three friends across the span of several years and two continents, is a slick and engaging rags to riches tale that includes an underlying social commentary about the lives of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and their tenuous relationship with the American Dream. Tong Dawei, Huang Xiaoming, and Deng Chao play school buddies whose lives and careers entwine as they struggle to make their fortune. All three pull off great performances, convincingly aging from their early twenties to mid-forties, and the interplay between them is authentic and believable, with coverboy Huang Xiaoming hiding his essential hotness behind several pairs of nerd-chic glasses. The movie also includes beautiful cinematography by Christopher Doyle, though it’s much more naturalistic and less self-consciously flashy than his renowned work with Wong Kar-wai, and the movie’s snappy editing keeps the story moving along briskly. Although the climax of the film is a strange paean to copyright infringement and intellectual property theft which perhaps reveals something about the state of China’s hypercompetitive market-based economy, director Chan overall makes astute observations about the characters’ relationship to each other and to the rapidly shifting state of Chinese culture in the PRC and the U.S. Especially revealing is a passage in which one of the characters, then a Chinese grad student in a U.S. college, is reduced to a humiliating, low-status job in a campus lab. The film thus belies the myth of the American dream that lures so many immigrants to the U.S.
Tamako In Moratorium, an extremely droll and low-key Japanese comedy, is anchored by lead actress Atsuko Maeda as the titular character, a recent college graduate who’s moved back in with her divorced dad somewhere in a sleepy city in Japan. Dad runs a modest sporting goods store. Tamako spends most of her time sleeping, eating, and procrastinating, although this description makes it seem like she engages in activity, which mostly she doesn’t. Instead she eats microwaved vegetables from a plastic tub, grunts nonverbally at her dad’s attempts at conversation, and sleeps into the afternoon on her disheveled futon in her cluttered childhood bedroom. The film’s freeze frame moments capture the three seasons that Tamako aimlessly passes in her dad’s small house. The movie’s very slight and subtle dramatic tension is a nice antidote to the bombast of much commercial narrative cinema and, as the brilliant Maggie Lee at Variety points out, the movie’s style owes a lot to the great Yasujiro Ozu in its gentle, non-judgmental look at family dynamics.
I also witnessed the four-hour Filipino opus Norte: The End of History, by long-form specialist Lav Diaz (his 2004 film Evolution of a Filipino Family was 10 hours long). Advance reviews called the film a masterpiece, which I think is a bit of an overstatement, but it held my attention for most of its running time. As I’ve noted in the past, most movies over 90 minutes long put me to sleep unless Hrithik Roshan is singing and dancing in them, but this once kept my interest, aided in no small part by its excellent wide-screen digital cinematography and an episodic structure that allows the narrative to unwind unhurriedly. This is not to say that the movie is slow, although much of it is shot in single master shots. But the action within the frame is always dynamic and, although the film opens with a ten-minute static shot of a group of armchair revolutionaries discussing morality, ethics, and politics, the movie becomes much more cinematic and less chatty as it goes along.
As Noel Vera notes in Film Comment, Norte is a continuation of director Diaz’s interest in themes and motifs from Dostoevsky, and the film has some of the epic feel of a Russian novel. The story revolves around several individuals involved in a murder case, including the actual killer, the man framed for the deed, the patsy’s wife, and their assorted friends and relatives. Like Dostoevsky’s work, the film touches on themes of fate and free will, the moral and ethical responsibilities of the individual, and injustice within a stratified social system. The performances are uniformly strong, including Sid Lucero as an unbalanced intellectual, Archie Alemania as the man wrongly accused of murder, and Angeli Bayani (who played the stoic maid in Ilo Ilo) as his longsuffering wife. Diaz’s use of long takes that incrementally zoom in or pan across the action allow the viewer to perceive the startlingly close relationship between cruelty and kindness. Although most of the film’s violence feels appropriate to the narrative, I was a bit bothered that the killing of a dog got at least twice as much screen time as a violent and disturbing rape.
Lastly, I saw Dragnet Girl, an early Yasujiro Ozu joint, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I saw my very first Ozu film, Woman of Tokyo, (also a silent gangster movie) a couple years ago at the Port Townsend Film Festival. That movie set me off on an Ozu kick and I spent the better part of early 2013 watching every Ozu movie I could get my hands on, almost all on DVD. It was a treat for me, then, to see Dragnet Girl on the big screen with live accompaniment at the Silent Film Festival. Although the film’s title implies gats, dames, and rat-a-tat action, the movie is more of a character study in line with Ozu’s later and more famous oeuvre, with long stretches of the film devoted to character relationships rather than shootouts. Guns do make an appearance, however, as well as heists, boxing rings, and small-time gangsters, along with the titular character, a secretary/gangster’s moll played by legendary actress and film director (and Kenji Mizoguchi muse) Kinuyo Tanaka. It was great to see the movie as it was meant to be viewed, on the big screen at the Castro Theater, and once again the Silent Film Festival proved its status as one of the premiere film fests in the Bay Area.
Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, Ramona Diaz’s new documentary about classic-rock band Journey’s Filipino-born lead singer Arnel Pineda, premiered last month at the Tribeca Film Festival and showed here as the closing night film at the San Francisco International Film Festival. After attending the closing-night show, which also included Arnel and his bandmates live in person, I had the chance to chat with Ramona (who also directed the excellent documentary Imelda, about the former first lady of the Philippines), where she discussed the camera as confessor, converted haters, and the difficulty in finding late-night noodles in San Francisco.
BeyondAsiaphilia: I saw the movie on a DVD screener and then watched it again at the Castro last night, which is a really different experience. The film really works with the crowd. I loved how everyone cheered at the end as if they were at the concert.
Ramona Diaz: Yes, that happened at Tribeca, too. Even with jaded New Yorkers. The crowds have been incredible. It’s nice because you never know how a movie is going to be received.
BA: In Imelda you do a great job making Imelda Marcos a really fleshed-out person, for better or worse. How did she react to the film once she saw it?
RD: She tried to get a restraining order in the Philippines–she sued us in the Philippines but we won, so she let it go. When she saw the New York Times review she how people saw her. It was scary because you don’t want to have to pay all that money but we won. Luckily we got a lot of pro bono work from human rights lawyers who helped us out.
BA: So it’s interesting that you also have Arnel Pineda as an icon, but you personalize him in the same way.
RD: Well, you try to personalize someone and make them flesh and blood, or what’s the point? But when I met him I knew that he was golden. He’s a great narrator of his personal life in whatever language, although he’s more comfortable in Tagalog. The film is a happy story but inside that story is an angst-ridden artist trapped in a fairy tale. He addresses that in the language. Filipino audiences get it—it’s not even a word, it doesn’t translate—he’s kind of sarcastic about it. He knows that things don’t last. It’s a function of his personal experience and what he did to survive on the streets. He can talk about it in a real and fresh way.
BA: Where did you first meet him?
RD: I met him to the when Journey was rehearsing for the tour. I went to shoot a trailer to prove to the band that they had a story. The camera loves him and he returns the love to camera. I’m glad we made the movie in his first year because it would’ve been a very different film in the second year with the band. Now he has a personal assistant—in the first year the camera was his confessor.
BA: Was the fact that you’re Filipino helpful in the process of making the film?
RD: Yes, I was the only other Asian face in the whole band (entourage) and it really helped that he could talk to me. My crew was also very low-key and he got to trust them. Jim Choi was fantastic—he did sound and camera.
BA: You talk about how the band adopted this nation. I like how the Filipino fans are featured in the movie in an interesting way. They’re really present in the film.
RD: They just became more and more present as the tour progressed.
BA: So they found about him gradually?
RD: Oh, yes. With Filipinos word gets around!
BA: So where did you shoot that scene where all of the Filipinos are there with the t-shirts and signs and everything?
RD: That’s at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.
BA: That’s just a wonderful moment in the movie because he seems so surprised.
RD: Yes, Arnel was just looking for a signal and he was totally surprised at all of the people there to see him. And yet he stood there and signed everything for a good half hour. He might not do that nowadays—now he has a roadie to protect him.
BA: Does he do that now, now that he’s more used to it?
RD: Not so much any more. It’s not a good idea to prolong those things. He has to save his energy for the stage and performing.
BA: Why has he become this icon to Filipinos?
RD: He represents someone breaking through the mainstream, and he’s a talented and wonderful person. He’s very kind to his fans and they’re kind to him. We had to cut this out of the movie but they give him a lot of gifts—clothes, clothes for his wife, clothes for his son.
BA: A friend of mine said that Arnel is kind of an Overseas Foreign Worker. He’s doing this diasporic thing where he has to leave his home in order to make a living. It must be comforting for him to see these Filipino Americans treat him like a family member and make him feel a little bit more at home when he’s away from his home.
RD: He is in a way the ultimate OFW but in a way not—he’s in a different league. He flies back and forth to the Philippines first class.
BA: So he really makes a point of going back to the Philippines?
RD: He refuses to live in the West and now his family tours with him—after the first year he wasn’t alone.
BA: So when you started to make this film did you expect him to become so popular?
RD: Well, it is Journey—someone at Tribeca asked me, “Is Journey really popular?” They’ve got 21,000 people at their shows every night for 90 shows. Converted fans love him. I knew he’d be popular in the Filipino American community.
BA: But some of the response has been, “Where did this person come from?” For people who aren’t Asian American the Philippines could be the moon for all they know. And of course he’s very talented and good at what he does and that helps a lot. But he does mention really briefly in the movie about the haters, the people who didn’t like him in the beginning—there’s one woman who says, “I wish he was American.”
RD: That’s petered out—what are you gonna do? You can’t force people to like you—there’s always racism, so you just have to deal with it and move on. So he really blocked it out. It’s easy to do because you’re in the Journey bubble. What do you care if the bloggers hate you? There will always be hardcore Steve Perry fans who never accept you.
BA: What if Arnel had lost his voice like Steve Augeri (Journey’s previous lead singer)? Did you ever have that thought?
RD: You never know what will happen at the beginning of the shoot–if he’d lost his voice and had to drop out it’s a darker film. You don’t participate—you just go along with it.
People ask if there were creative differences but there weren’t very many. He was their ticket to a very popular summer and everyone had a great time.
I think they were also happy because they took a leap of faith to hire this guy from what seemed like across the universe—who knew if he would work out? It was a leap of faith that worked, so everyone was very happy about that.
BA: How has it been screening the movie?
RD: It’s very exciting and fun. I love the shooting and the process but it is a lot of work. I’m so glad that people are responding so positively. One person said to me, “It seems like a real film!” Meaning maybe not a documentary! I think people have to be educated about documentaries.
BA: You guys were on the road shooting for four months?
RD: We were on the road for four months, plus we went to the Philippines three times. It’s been fours years this month since we started working on the film. My last film, The Learning, was in post when we were about to start this one so I was hesitant at first, but you have to take the opportunity when it comes.
BA: You mentioned funding last night—what support did you get for the film?
RD: We put it on our credit cards and we were working our ass off on commercial jobs to pay for our next shoot. We didn’t get money from the traditional sources like ITVS, since there wasn’t time (to apply). It’s also not a fundable film in the usual sense. Some funders said “It’s too commercial for us.” A lot of people working on the movie deferred their payment—it’s a fun gig, so they were happy to do it. When you’re used to shooting wars in Afghanistan this is much more fun, even if you’re driving around in a mini-van all day. At least at the end of the day you get to stay in a nice hotel.
BA: So this is much more relaxing! Well, congratulations again, this is a really fun movie. We all know how the story ends, that he’s successful, so for me as a filmmaker to watch how you structure that story is also very fun. It could’ve been very maudlin or sentimental and it’s not, it always has a very interesting edge to it.
RD: Arnel takes you out of that sentimental world—he’s a realist. He and his wife have both been around the block a few times so they have a good perspective. He went from nothing to everything in the space of a few months.
BA: So do you still keep in touch with Arnel?
RD: I just saw him off the to airport—I still see him quite a bit. We went to have noodles in Chinatown late last night. San Francisco is such an early town! It was hard to find a place that was open but luckily there was something in Chinatown.
Bonus beats: Arnel Pineda sings “Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever” acapella at the SFIFF Closing Night Q & A for Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey. Thanks to APEX Express for the clip!
Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers, showing this week at the San Francisco International Film Festival, looks at the Cambodian film industry in the 1960s and 70s before the Khmer Rouge, and underscores the power of collective memory in the face of great trauma and oppression. Focusing on moviemaking in particular and Cambodian pop culture in general Golden Slumbers is an ethereal dream of a film, with people listening to old music, looking at film fragments, and reminiscing about people long dead. The movie is a testament to the power of using artmaking and storytelling to overcome great emotional and psychological scars.
The documentary starts with a sustained shot from the back of a moving vehicle as it travels down a road in modern-day Cambodia. This simple image conveys the long journey the Cambodian people have gone through as they’ve passed from the happy years of the 1960s and 70s through the national nightmare of the reign of the Khmer Rouge and back again from that great upheaval. Although Pol Pot’s genocidal regime was overthrown in 1979 the damage from that time period still lingers in Cambodia’s collective memory. Cambodia’s commercial film industry produced upwards of 400 films in the decade or so preceding the Khmer Rouge yet fewer than a dozen films now exist. Movies were deemed corrupt and most film prints were destroyed, with film directors and movie stars targeted and purged by the regime during its four-year reign. Golden Slumbers documents the traces of the once-thriving industry through ephemera including film stills and posters, fragments of soundtracks, and most significantly, interviews with the few surviving members of the Cambodian film world of the time.
One director managed to escape to France where he lived for nearly two decades before returning to Cambodia. Another happened to be among the 180 out of 1000 from his village to survive the Khmer Rouge massacres, although his wife and several children were among those killed. Another actress also fled to France, where she keeps a wall of photographs, postcards, and other mementos from lost Cambodian films. She notes, “If I remember the pictures, it’s like they’re still alive.” Her statement as well as others throughout Golden Slumbers suggests that keeping alive the memories of those martyred can vanquish the war crimes of the Khmer Rouge and that the key to defeating and outlasting those crimes is through human remembrance and a refusal to give up on the hopes and dreams of the people.
At one point the film visits a former movie palace that has become an indoor favela, housing over 100 families who squat the building. The residents there also have vivid memories of the films that they saw before the Khmer Rouge and can easily recall their plots and storylines. It’s as if the movies become symbols of happier times before the great national trauma of the war, taking on the status of myths or fairytales. At another point in the film one man sadly notes that he can’t remember the faces of his lost family members, yet he clearly recalls the faces of the actors from the films.
The film ends with footage from some of the lost Cambodian films projected on a brick wall in one of the repurposed movie houses. Current residents watch the footage in thoughtful silence as the images flicker on the segmented wall. The lines of the bricks fragment the pictures but they remain clear and focused, suggesting their resiliency despite their near-destruction. Cambodian movies thus become the immutable repositories of the country’s memory and mythology, preserving its vital stories even after the Khmer Rouge’s violent attempts to rewrite and obliterate them.
By illustrating the important place these lost movies hold in the hearts and minds of the Cambodian people, diretor Chou shows how the films have become a means of resisting brutality and persecution. Golden Slumbers is an elegaic tribute to a country and a culture that has survived despite near annihilation.
Other notable films in the festival by Asian/American directors include Johnny To’s Life Without Principle, which delves into the questionable morality of Hong Kong’s world of commerce; Wu Xia, Peter Chan’s detective/swordplay/martial arts movie starring the lovely and eminently watchable Takeshi Kaneshiro; Hong Sang Soo’s The Day He Arrives, another odd meditation on life, film, and neurosis; and Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, Ramona Diaz’s glorious and energetic real-life fable about Arnel Pineda, the Filipino singer from the shantytowns of Manila who became the lead vocalist for the classic rock band Journey.
For tickets and information go here.