Sunday, March 26, 2006

2006 SFIAAFF—Festival Wrap-up

My buddy Michael Hawley is singlehandedly responsible for developing my love for world cinema and festival fare. We attended several of this year's entries together and I invited him to comment.

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I thought the festival was pretty terrific this year. I ended up seeing nine programs, all of them foreign films with the exception of Bridge to the Sun. This was intentional, now that docs and American independents have a better chance of theatrical release than anything with subtitles.

Kicked off the fest with Rules of Dating. The Koreans have certainly cornered the market on edgy, challenging adult dramas; I'm thinking films like A Good Lawyer's Wife, Oasis and now this. Basically a story of sexual harassment carried to extremes, between two unlikable characters who get their just desserts, Rules of Dating is certainly a very impressive debut for first-time director Han Jae-rim. And it's hilarious to think this was marketed as a romantic comedy in Korea.

I loved Grain in Ear, except for the ending which left me a bit incredulous and ultimately unsatisfied. The film's protagonist is a Korean kimchee peddler in rural China, who, after quietly suffering a series of small and large indignities inflicted upon her by the village citizenry, takes the ultimate revenge. Director Zhang Lu's camera doesn't move an inch during the entire movie, except during the film's final shot, and her compositions are often stunning. I was bothered, however, by the ambiguity of the event which causes her crack-up.

Citizen Dog was enormously entertaining, and I wasn't bothered by its lack of substance . . . not when there was so much fabulousness to engage my eyes and ears. It will really be something if Wisit Sasanatieng ever comes up with a script that matches his stylistic gifts in equal measure. Until then, when is the Bay Area finally going to see Tears of the Black Tiger?

Letter From an Unknown Woman was probably my least favorite film of the festival, but certainly worth seeing just for Mark Lee Ping-bin's gorgeous (as usual) cinematography, lovely art direction and a different kind of role for Jiang Wen. I usually can't bear stories about unrequited love (wanna torture me? strap me to a chair and force me to re-watch The Story of Adele H), but this one kept the melodramatics to a minimum.

What more can I say about Deepa Mehta's incredibly moving Water? At first I was just a bit put off by some of its more manipulative elements (headstrong, but adorable little girl in peril, a cute puppy, a golden-hearted whore, etc.) but wow, it all added up to something so damn powerful. And the ending! I sure didn't see that one coming. I very rarely cry at the movies, but as the emotions built to a perfect catharsis in that final train station scene, really, how could I not? And with Mehta there in person to do a post Q&A, it was as perfect a night at the movies as they come.

I had seen Hou Hisou-hsien's lovely 2004 film Cafe Lumiere in Paris last fall, with French subtitles, figuring it was never going to be shown in the Bay Area. Its charms seemed somewhat lessened by a 2nd viewing, although it was my fourth film of the day and I was quite tired at that point. It was personally gratifying to realize that my comprehension of those French subtitles had been fairly accurate.

I was originally going to wait and see Kekexili: Mountain Patrol during its theatrical run, but then realized it would conflict with the SFIFF. There's a scene near the end that is absolutely stupefying. It still makes me shudder to think about it.

Capped off the festival nicely with Linda Linda Linda in the Kabuki's House One. This was great fun, although I left wondering if it would have been anywhere near as good without the talents of its lead actress, Bae Du-Na. She plays a Korean exchange student enlisted to sing lead vocals for an all-girl punk band in a high school talent show. I'm usually not a fan of deadpan humor, but Bae's bug-eyed, fish-out-of-water antics had me cracking up the entire time she was on screen. I also enjoyed ex-Smashing Pumpkins' James Iha's original score. Now if I could only get that infectious title song out of my head.

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