Tuesday, May 15, 2007

2007 SFIFF50—Michael Hawley's Wrap-Up

The Golden Anniversary edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival came to a close last week. I wish I could say it was the festival to end all festivals, but I can't. That's because, for me at least, the festival has always been great, and that's why I've been coming to it for 31 years. This year I saw a total of 22 films, in addition to what I had seen pre-festival. Two of them were the kind of mind-blowers you pray you'll experience during a festival, and another five were merely excellent by comparison. Nine more were very much worth the time invested and five were disappointing, but not painfully so. Only one was outright loathsome, and even it had its enthusiastic defenders. Those are great stats, in my book.

I'd like to begin by thanking the festival staff for this year's zero-tolerance policy on any and all electronic devices being used during the screenings. It seemed to work, as I didn't hear any cell phones ring or see any of those annoying lights (thereby making it unnecessary for me to get into any physical altercations … unlike last year.) Hell, I didn't even have to beg anyone to shut up. At several screenings I was able to detect scattered chattering, but it was far enough away to tune out. All I can say about that is, "People, if you have to jabber while watching a movie, pretty please stay home and do it in front of your TV set."

This was the first year I got to experience the festival as a member of the press, and it was wonderful to retreat from the madness at the Kabuki and take refuge in the relative tranquility of the press and hospitality suites. I'm very grateful to the publicity staffers who helped me secure last-minute tickets whenever I found myself with an unexpected afternoon or evening free. As a press member I also received a list of guests expected to attend the festival and learned that it's not a good idea to plan your festival by it. There were several high-profile no-shows (Bruno Dumont, Otar Iosseliani, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, John Carney) and several directors showed up to introduce their films but for whatever reason never returned for a Q&A (Hal Hartley, Im Sang-soo, Kevin Brownlow). On the other hand, there were several surprise guests. The presence of Indonesian dancer Eko Supriyanto helped turn my screening of Opera Jawa into a real event. And I wanted to die when I later learned that Egyptian movie goddess Youssra had shown up for a screening of The Yacoubian Building.

One constant topic of conversation was the renovated Sundance Kabuki theater, which recently converted all of it auditoriums to stadium-style seating (with the exception of the main floor of House One). How wonderful it was to finally watch a foreign film there and not have someone's big head, big hat or big hair blocking my view of the subtitles. Everyone I talked to concurred, with the exception of one friend who claimed that because the distance between projection booth and screen is now shorter, wide-screen movies in particular no longer look as crisp. He saw Private Fears in Public Places at the Kabuki and at the Pacific Film Archive and said there was no comparison. This was certainly not my experience. I will say, however, that if the Kabuki wants to start passing itself off as some kind of high-end temple of cinephilia, it'll need to smooth over some rough edges. For starters, they can tend to the second floor men's room, with its leaky toilets, broken stall latches and trash cans that are overflowing by 1:00 in the afternoon. But enough about big hair and leaky toilets. Let's look at the films I saw, beginning with the highlights and working down to the low lights.

Garin Nugroho's Opera Jawa, quite simply, did me in. Spellbinding, heart-wrenching, perhaps even revolutionary, I left the Castro Theater that afternoon certain that I had just seen what would be my favorite film of 2007. The film is an all-singing, all-dancing re-imagining of a lusty tale from the Ramayana, given contemporary political subtext, and featuring eye-popping sets designed by Indonesia's greatest installation artists. We were lucky enough to have the film introduced by the man who commissioned it, avant-garde opera and theater director Peter Sellars, as well as having the aforementioned personal appearance by dancer Eko Supriyanto. The latter sat directly across the aisle from me and it was interesting to occasionally glance over and watch him watching himself on the Castro's enormous screen.

After a generous and informative Q&A, I floated over to the Kabuki to hear Sellars deliver this year's State of Cinema address. I'd never bothered to attend the address in the past, but boy did I make the right choice in deciding to tune in this year. Resplendent in an orange shirt with a string of chunky, blue African beads around his neck, and sporting his trademark gravity-defying hairdo, Sellars delivered a searing, impassioned speech that was perhaps more State of Humanity than State of Cinema. I was particularly fascinated by his discourse on the last year of Mozart's life, and how that became the inspiration for the six features he commissioned for the New Crowned Hope festival. He spoke without notes for well over an hour, tears occasionally rolling down his cheeks, and the audience leapt to its feet to deliver a big standing O the split second he finished. A transcription of this stirring address is now available at SF360.

The one-two punch of Opera Jawa and this speech all added up to one of the finest days I've ever had at this festival. Indeed, the following day I decided to scrap my ticket for Sounds of Sand and attend a second screening of Opera Jawa at the Kabuki. Big Mistake! There were major projection problems, the biggest of which was having the soundtrack sputter or cut out completely every single time there was a reel change. I was mortified for the festival, and really felt awful for my friends who were seeing the film for the first time. The experience was more akin to watching a movie in some Market Street grindhouse circa 1977 than attending a world-class film festival celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2007. Opera Jawa was the only film to receive a last-minute added screening this year, and I'm assuming it was in response to complaints about this unfortunate snafu.

The other sublime event of this year's festival was—as expected—the "performance" of Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain! at the Castro Theater. I'd been salivating over this silent film with live accompaniment by a 13-piece ensemble, three foley artists, narrator and "castrato," ever since I read about its premiere at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival. It was everything I'd hoped for, and I look forward to the film's commercial release next month so I can more closely consider it without all the on-stage distractions. But what marvelous distractions they were. I never imagined that the foley artists—all wearing very scientific-looking white lab coats—would actually be on-stage in front of the screen. But they were loads of fun to watch as they created all the film's sound effects live. My favorite had to be the twisting of celery stalks to simulate the sound of anything "squicky," i.e. the scooping of human "nectar" from the brains of little children, or the bending of bones calcified by rigor mortis. Joan Chen also made an outstanding narrator, especially in the scene where the protagonist's mother has a fit of orgasmic histrionics. For those unfortunate enough to have missed this incredible evening, San Francisco photographer Steve Rhodes has a terrific selection of photos from the event here.

Of the five films in my "merely excellent by comparison" category, three were first features and two were the works of established directors; Im Sang-soo from South Korea and Carlos Sorin from Argentina. As it happened, I had the pleasure of seeing both of their new films on the same day. Im's The Old Garden is quite a departure from his last two features, the jolting infidelity tale A Good Lawyer's Wife, and the somewhat befuddling political satire The President's Last Bang. Earnest and sentimental, this new film tells the story of a political prisoner who is released after 16 years, the effect his absence has had on friends and family, and the tragic loss of a special woman who was unable to wait for him. Masterfully constructed, the film shifts frequently and seamlessly between the past and present, all leading up to a finale that packs quite an emotional wallop.

After the heaviness of Im's film, Carlos Sorin's light, hilarious fairytale, The Road to San Diego, came as a welcome relief. The San Diego of the title is famed soccer player Diego Armando Maradona, and the titular road is one traveled by Tati Benítez, a young soccer fanatic from the jungles of Argentina's Misiones province. One day Tati finds a tree root that bears a resemblance to his idol, and decides it's his duty to bring it to Buenos Aires where the soccer star is recovering from a heart attack. On the road we're introduced to a host of benevolent characters who help Tati along his merry way, all played by the type of engaging non-professional actors Sorin's films specialize in. You keep waiting for the scene where Tati gets cheated, robbed, beaten up or worse, but it never happens. Realistic? Hardly. Refreshing? You bet! It put a huge grin upon the face of this sports-hating quasi-nihilist that lasted long after the movie was over.

Jean-Pascal Hattu's debut feature 7 Years was the last film I saw at the festival and what a fine ending it was. Deliciously perverse and morally complex, it's the kind of film that's hard to imagine being made anywhere in the world besides France. The story is simple; Vincent (Bruno Todeschini)—in prison for seven years for an undetermined crime—convinces a reluctant guard to seduce his adoring wife and tape-record the sounds of their love-making. Needless to say, things get complicated mighty fast. Hattu, who also wrote the story and screenplay, was at the screening and gave a most interesting half-hour Q&A afterwards. An astounding first film, this would have been my personal choice for this year's Skyy Prize.

The other two debut features that made an impression on me were Zoe Cassavetes' Broken English and Joachim Trier's Reprise from Norway. I went into the Cassavetes film with a love for Parker Posey and pretty low expectations for what sounded like another lonely-girl-in-the-big-city rom-com. To my great surprise it was much better than that; intelligent, touching and hysterically funny. Posey has never been better suited for a role and her many fans should eat this right up. Equally good is Melvil Poupaud as the intense Frenchman she meets at a co-worker's boring July 4th party, and who just might be her salvation. Cassavetes, who also wrote the clever screenplay, is the daughter of director John Cassavetes, and her mother—screen legend Gena Rowlands—plays Posey's mother. Posey and Cassavetes were on hand to introduce the film, and returned for a brief, but spirited Q&A afterwards.

Now we move on to that group of films which I found to be quite good in their way, but which lacked the something that would have made them great for me. Or, conversely, these are films for which I might have lacked the something that would have made me see their greatness. At the top of the list would be Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth, which since its premiere at Cannes last year, has had me wondering which side of the debate I would eventually fall on … masterpiece or Colossal Bore? As it turns out I'm somewhere right in the middle. While I was in constant awe of Costa's stunning compositions and use of spot lighting, I was pretty much at a loss when it came to involving myself emotionally with his characters, which may have even been the point. And as tortuously monotonous as some scenes were, i.e. Vanda's lengthy rant about childbirth, I'm sure it'll be some time before I forget them. Incidentally, by the time the end credits rolled at the 155-minute mark, more than half the audience had abandoned ship.

Michael Glawogger's Slumming also came with some controversy attached. It's about two horribly obnoxious Viennese men, one a bellicose mega-drunk and the other a trust-fund scumbag, whose lives cross paths and are somehow transformed and redeemed by travel. Ultimately, I didn't buy it, but it was certainly great fun in parts, especially the scenes involving a frozen lake and some bobbing garden gnomes. The final scene, set just outside what I think was a brothel along some train tracks leading out of Jakarta, was for me, this festival's ultimate indelible image.

I enjoyed Hirokazu Kore-eda's delightful, revisionist samurai tale Hana, although it felt too long by about one-fourth. Just as likable (and the perfect length) was John Carney's Once, a self-proclaimed "art-house musical" about a Dublin busker and a Czech immigrant who literally and figuratively make beautiful music together. I also got a big kick out of Hal Hartley's Henry Fool sequel-of-sorts, the comic thriller Fay Grim, although it would have been even nicer if Hartley had stuck around for a Q&A. Or for that matter, if the film's star Parker Posey, had come to the screening at all. (This was very strange, considering that Posey had been in the exact same theater only 45 minutes earlier for the Broken English Q&A. And I don't buy the excuse given by Hartley that she "scraped her wrist and had to return to her hotel.")

Two remarkable films from Chad and Mexico dealt with issues which arise when a country is a war with itself. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Daratt (Dry Season) is a measured revenge tale about a young man who travels to the city to kill the man who murdered his father in a civil war. Unexpectedly, he finds himself apprenticed at the man's bakery and being made a family member, forcing him to confront issues of forgiveness and redemption. His choice is both surprising and satisfying. After the screening it was brought to my attention how much the film's story was like the Dardenne Brothers' The Son, only in reverse. This was another film commissioned by Peter Sellars for the New Crowned Hope festival.

From the other side of the globe came Francisco Vargas' The Violin, which ended up winning the festival's Skyy Prize for best first narrative feature. Shot in B&W to purposefully render vague the time and place in which the film is set, it explores a conflict between the brutal Mexican army on one side, and village campesinos and rebel guerrillas on the other. Connecting these worlds is quietly-crafty Don Plutarco, an 81-year-old, one-handed violin player who uses his talent and his instrument to manipulate and negotiate his way around the conflict. As portrayed by non-actor Don Angel Tavira, this was one of the most wondrous performances in this year's festival.

Of the four documentaries I saw, my two favorites had several things in common. Both documented life on a Caribbean island, both were made by offspring of famous directors, and both were criticized for being too narrow in their focus. The Sugar Curtain by Camila Guzmán Urzúa (daughter of famed Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán) is a nostalgic and bittersweet look back at the "golden age" of the Cuban revolution, specifically the 1970's and 1980's up until the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Guzmán Urzúa grew up in Cuba during that time period, when children were "taught life as a spiritual experience, not a material one," and indeed the life she portrays is idyllic. During the Q&A she was criticized for barely mentioning the horrible treatment of dissidents during this "golden age," or the role of the U.S. trade embargo in hastening the island's economic collapse. Her defense was that these issues were better left for another movie, a stance I can't wholly agree with in light of the film's short 86-minute running time. As expected, there were anti-Castro-ites in the audience who lambasted the film in its entirety, claiming as they always do that there was absolutely, positively, never anything at all good about the revolution. Guzmán Urzúa rightly ignored them.

The other documentary was Ghosts of Cité Soleil by Asger Leth (son of director Jørgen Leth, subject and co-director—with Lars Von Trier—of The Five Obstructions). Cité Soleil is a slum on the outskirts of Port au Prince, Haiti, named by the U.N. as "the most dangerous place on earth." Leth's urgent, beautifully shot film focuses on the lives of two notorious gang leaders over the course of several months in 2004. It's amazing to think how a European director could have obtained this kind of access, but as Leth remarked during the Q&A, "When you're in your early twenties and you think you're going to die, you want to tell your story." Access also comes in the person of Lala, a duplicitous white female French relief worker who becomes romantically involved with one of the gangsters, and acts as a mediator to negotiate a truce with the government. As dynamic as the portraits of these two self-proclaimed "thugsters" were, I found myself getting mighty bored with all their macho bullshit, gun-waving posturing (to the point where I nodded out for a while). A little reflection and perspective would have been welcome in its place. Incidentally, local organization Global Exchange was on hand before and during the screening, passing out flyers decrying the film's alleged demonization of former Haitian president Jean-Betrand Aristide.

So that about wraps up all the good stuff I saw. I'm afraid that the rest of this post is paved with disappointment, starting with the two other documentaries I saw. Kevin Brownlow's Cecil B. DeMille—American Epic wasn't bad, it was just your standard issue TCM documentary, and—had I known that—I would have waited and watched it on TCM. Tahani Rached's much anticipated These Girls, about young women living on the mean streets of Cairo, sorely needed some structure and context.

Probably the saddest and most disappointing film of the festival for me was Otar Iosseliani's Gardens in Autumn. It gets off to a rollicking start, but soon dissolves into an endless series of bland, absurdist musings, and the novelty of seeing Michel Piccoli in drag can only keep things afloat for so long. This disappointment came as quite a surprise after having watched Julie Bertuccelli's delightful Otar Iosseliani, The Whistling Blackbird, a portrait of the director and the making of this film. It's enough to make one wonder if the 73-year-old director's years of masterful filmmaking are now behind him.

Tariq Teguia's Rome Rather Than You from Algeria had the dubious honor of generating more audience walk-outs than Colossal Youth. This indulgent slice of Maghrebian mininalism/miserablism was like a compendium of all the boring parts from every boring art film you've ever seen. You've got your disaffected youth, your existential malaise, your cryptic inter-titles, your endless tracking shots of people walking walking walking or driving driving driving or searching searching searching while a cacophonous score squawks on the soundtrack. A woman stands in front of her stove waiting for the coffee water to boil, and—guess what sucker?—you get to wait right along with her. And stick around, because soon you'll get to watch her mop a floor. I came to this screening excruciatingly fatigued and in need of a nap, but forced myself to stay awake less I miss the one revelatory moment which would illuminate all this other nonsense. Surprise … that moment never came. If nothing else, I greatly admired the director's audacity and would have stuck around for the Q&A had I not needed to seek out a press ticket to The 12 Labors. This Brazilian film by Ricardo Elias was also a disappointment, although in a much more conventional way. Basically a retelling of the Hercules legend, with Hercules as a novice Sao Paolo motorcycle courier out to prove his worth, it's an ambitious idea weighed down by stiff performances, clunky dialogue and a labored premise.

Last and least we come to Ying Liang's The Other Half, a well-intentioned social issue film that had all the aesthetics and artistry of a public access TV show. Ying, who won last year's Skyy Prize for Taking Father Home (which alas, I didn't see), took his $10,000 prize money and vowed to return this year with another film. In the industrial city of Zigong, our sullen heroine Xiaofen gets a job clerking in a law office that takes on beleaguered female clients. For a film that purports in its press kit to be "a contemporary report on the status of women," I was surprised how many of these clients were portrayed in their interviews as petty, opportunistic brats and harpies. Xiaofen is never seen during the interviews, but we know she's there because of her constant off-camera coughing, the director's unsubtle way of telling us that industrial pollution is the film's other grand theme. Xiaofen also has a drunken, deadbeat gambler boyfriend who may also be a murderer, and a mother who's always trying to pawn her off on some soulless businessman twice her age. And on and on and on. Stiffly acted, with atrocious sound and a monotonous, static camera that never, ever moves (and not in an artistic Tsai Ming-liang kind of way), I was truly appalled to find this film in our festival. It's especially irritating considering that there were only two films from China in this year's line-up (not including Hong Kong) and this was one of them. I have to ask the programmers: out of all the films made in China in the past year, was there truly nothing more interesting and accomplished than this? For starters, how about Jia Zheng-ke's Still Life, which won the Gold Lion at Venice last year and is perhaps SFIFF50's most glaring omission? As I mentioned in my first paragraph, this film was enthusiastically received by some at the matinee screening I attended. All I can say is, mileage has never varied more wildly than this.

Cross-published on Twitch.


Marina said...

I have to admit that "Colossal Youth" was not an easy watch for me and to be honest, I don't think I would ever subject myself to it again, but I did enjoy it in it's own bizarrely slow and detached way.

dave said...

I've seen Colossal Youth twice, and I found it a much richer viewing experience the second time around. I just put up a post today on the deeper, hidden politics of the film - read it here.

Jay, aka The Angry Little Man said...

HA!! Yeah, I have a friend who that "The Other Half" was brilliant! I'll avoid it (as if THAT were a problem down here?!) at all costs!

Must see your "MUST SEES" though! sigh....

Maya said...

Dave, thank you so much for the link to your write-up on Colossal Youth, which at a cursory glance is stunning. It deserves a more measured read, which I hope to do in the next few days. Until then, my best.

Jay, I haven't forgotten you!! Honest. Just forgotten how to adhere a stamp onto an envelope.

The Visitor said...

trivia: the cinematographer for Opera Jawa is Malaysian Teoh Gay Hian, who also shot Ho Yuhang's Rain Dogs.

Michael Hawley said...

Thanks so much for your comments, everyone. Dave, I look forward to reading your piece on Colossal Youth. Visitor, thanks for the info on Teoh Gay Hian. Rain Dogs is one film I desperately wanted to be in the SF Asian American International Film Festival or the SFIFF50. But alas...