Monday, March 12, 2007

2007 SFIAAFF—Michael Hawley's Preview

My apologies for being missing in action this last week or so. I've had a death in the family as well as contracting a severe bout of pneumonia, from which I am just starting to recover. I'm grateful to contributing writer Michael Hawley who has picked up the slack by offering his tips for the upcoming San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival. Thank you, Michael! I hope to be back to normal before the festival officially launches.

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Several weeks have passed since the dispiriting experience of learning that none of the films on my SFIAAFF07 wish list would be part of this year's festival. It took all of a day or two to get over myself, and as expected, once I dove into the catalog I found plenty of titles to get excited about. What follows are some comments on the films I've managed to see on screener DVDs, at press screenings or at other festivals.

To my surprise, my three favorite films so far have all been documentaries: The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief, Kabul Transit and Air Guitar Nation. The first is probably the most disturbing documentary I've seen since Darwin's Nightmare. They're nothing alike in terms of subject matter, but they both elicit in me a great feeling of hopelessness about the future of this planet. The titular great happiness space is one of Kyoto's approximately 100 "host" clubs, where young women pay exorbitant sums of money to enjoy the company of charismatic young men. By "financially worshipping" their chosen hosts with $250 bottles of champagne, the women are in turn entertained, complimented and consoled. Issei, the most popular host at Café Rakkyo and the film's main subject, confesses to drinking around ten bottles a day, which he consumes and vomits in succession. It's all quite pathetic and sad, especially when it's revealed approximately one-third into the film, exactly why these women turn to host clubs for love and affection in the first place. In the final scene we watch as the Café Rakkyo hosts count up the day's take, close up shop and descend en masse in an elevator to the street below. Their haggard faces and slumped bodies tell us they've worked hard for the money, so hard for it, honey. Director/Producer/Cinematographer Jake Clennell has given us an objective, mesmeric and unsettling look at the commodification of love in the 21st century in its most extreme form.

Perhaps Kabul in Fragments would have been a more appropriate title for Kabul Transit. The film does contain a sequence which examines traffic problems in the Afghani capital; but if anything, the term "transit" here refers to the film's observant camera which floats through the city giving us random portraits of a people and place in transition. Filmed in 2003 by a trio of Afghanistan experts, Kabul Transit is a slice-of-life meditation on a place that has known little but strife in the last 20 years. Through a framing device which divides the film into sections based on Kabul's various districts, we meet a fascinating cross section of its occupants and occupiers: young men flying kites on "TV Mountain," an herbal doctor who "gives advice that is better than the medicine itself," a beneficent French couple who run a day-care center, a group of female university students discussing the future of their country, and many others. One particularly brilliant sequence cross cuts between a man giving a tour of the destruction wrought by U.S. air bombings, and actual cockpit footage of the same bombing being experienced as some kind of real-life video game. Kabul Transit is beautifully photographed, matter-of-fact, bleak yet oddly hopeful and "infinitely more successful," according to Variety's Robert Koehler, than the comparable Iraq in Fragments. I heartily concur.

On a considerably less serious note we have Air Guitar Nation, Alexandra Lipsitz's look at the international phenomenon of air guitar championships. Hysterically funny and with a terrific narrative arc, it's easy to see how this won the Audience Award at last year's SXSW film festival. The film follows two protagonists, Björn Türoque (aka Dan Crane, lead singer/guitarist for 60s French pop imitators Les Sans Culottes) and C-Diddy (aka David Jung, a Korean American from Brooklyn and reason for the film's inclusion in this festival) as they work their way from regional U.S. competitions to the world championship in Oulu, Finland. Along the way we meet a coterie of truly inspired and/or deranged characters, each hellbent on elevating this bizarre pastime into something more akin to performance art. "To win in Finland would be one of the coolest things," C-Diddy muses at one point. "I'd get to walk away and for the rest of my life be able to say, I was once the best in the world . . . at something."

From documentaries to mockumentary we arrive at Grace Lee's very funny and clever American Zombie. Lee stars as herself, who along with (fictional) co-director John Solomon set out to document the lives of zombies living in L.A. (Zombie-ism is explained as a virus activated by experiencing a violent death). The filmmakers have conflicting agendas. She wants to make a film "about community," while he seems exclusively focused on finding out if these "revenants" do indeed devour human flesh. They eventually get their answer at Live Dead, a sort-of Woodstock-for-zombies out in the boonies. But first we're treated to an engagingly "serious" look at various members of L.A.'s non-living populace, and those who would exploit them . . . like the Chinese sweatshop owner who "needs zombies to stay profitable," or the Zombie-Chasers who seek out romantic relationships with the undead, or the evangelical Christian who sees zombies as an "untapped market for spiritual enlightenment." After all, we're reminded, Jesus was the original zombie.

Perhaps my biggest film-going regret of 2002 was missing the SFIAAFF's rare screening of Rogers and Hammersteins's Flower Drum Song (1961) at the Castro Theater. It was finally released on DVD last November, and now I'm thrilled that the festival is bringing it back to the big Castro screen, with sing-a-long subtitles! Certainly this is not one of the better screen adaptations of an R&H musical. It's way too long for one thing. But it's got at least a half dozen terrific musical numbers and some entertaining and endearing performances from the likes of Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, Jack Soo and my personal favorite, Juanita Hall. I look forward to joining Juanita in belting out what are perhaps my favorite lyrics from the American musical songbook:

Chop Suey! Chop Suey!
Living here is very much like Chop Suey
Hula hoops and nuclear war
Dr. Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor
Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee and Dewey
Chop Suey!

I am quite impressed with writer/director Nia Dinata's Love For Share, which was Indonesia's submission for last year's Best Foreign Language Oscar. Comprised of three (barely) inter-related stories about the problems women face in a polygamous society, this is no dour "issue"-driven film. Instead, each of these well crafted tales is infused with a bittersweet, almost absurdist sense of humor. I was taken with how these stories encompass an entire spectrum of racial, religious and economic realities, and examines how those relate to the issue of polygamy. In the first story, a Muslim gynecologist stoically suffers as her famous husband collects two additional wives, but eventually manages to achieve a state of bemused resignation about it all. A poor film crew driver supports three wives and a covey of kids in the second tale, all living together in a two-room hut. One night he invites two wives to share his bed simultaneously, and the end result is surely not one that he, or the audience would have expected. And in the third story, a married Chinese Christian restaurant owner marries his favorite waitress by paying a bribe and obtaining a fake ID showing "single" status. In addition to Dinata's excellent script and direction, and the all-around solid acting, I also admired Ipung Rachmat Syaiful's inventive cinematography (especially in the second story, which was shot in Super 16 instead of 35mm). In all, I'd have to say that Love For Share is the most accomplished of the dozen or so Indonesian features I've seen through the years.

I caught Lou Ye's sprawling Summer Palace at this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival, and spent much of the film's 140 minutes in a state of confusion. The film spans 10 tumultuous years from 1987 (the Tiananmen Square student protests) to 1997 (the hand-over of Hong Kong to the PRC) as experienced through the eyes of Yu Hong, a young woman who leaves home to attend Beijing University. The film's first half is packed with sex and more sex, and leads up to the Tiananmen revolt, which was the only part of the film that really came alive for me. Lou does a masterful job here of conveying the exuberance and youthful optimism of the students as they head towards the square, the ensuing chaos and confusion when the army cracks down, and finally, the emotional aftermath of anger and depression. The rest of the film details the next 10 years, as characters get married, move to Berlin, get pregnant, move to Wuhan, commit suicide, move to Hong Kong, get hit by trucks, have abortions and on and on and on. All this sent my poor head spinning, a condition made worse by Lou's repeated use of "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" as a recurring musical motif. Equally unhelpful were Yu Hong's insipid diary entries which are read in voiceover throughout the film, my "favorite" being, "Then one afternoon I taught Dong Dong how to masturbate." It will truly be a shame if Ye is banned from film-making for five years as a result of not submitting this film to government censors before its 2006 Cannes premiere. I found much to admire in Suzhou River and Purple Butterfly, but Summer Palace, I'm afraid, was a big disappointment.

What's an Asian film festival without a few gangster movies? I've had a look at two, Johnnie To's Exiled from Hong Kong, and Yoo Ha's A Dirty Carnival from Korea. I must confess up front that I'm not a devotee of the genre. And while both films were reasonably enjoyable sit-throughs, neither of them had that special "something" that would render me a convert. I loved To's Fulltime Killer and Breaking News, but the only memorable thing I took away from Exiled was the uniqueness of its Macau setting, and perhaps Roy Cheung's sex appeal. A Dirty Carnival is epic in nature and follows the exploits of a young, low-level hood as he attempts to claw his way to the top of the gangster food chain. My major complaint about this film, apart from its occasional lapses into mawkish melodrama, is that both the lead actor and the cinematography are far too fresh and clean-cut looking for such a gritty tale. After all, this is a film in which people pummel and carve each other with baseball bats and sashimi knives. Even the press notes brag that "each of the four major action scenes caused injury to [the] actors." You can find plenty of rave reviews proclaiming the genius of these two movies on-line. I suggest you read a few, see the films and judge for yourself.

I remember when Ryuichi Hiroki's Vibrator caused a sensation at the 2004 San Francisco International Film Festival, so I was excited to see that his latest film was included in this year's SFIAAFF. Due to a problematic screener DVD, however, I was only able to watch the first half-hour of It's Only Talk. I loved what I saw and am recommending it on that basis. Regrettably, I won't be able to catch it at the festival, but I have been inspired to push Hiroki's Vibrator, Tokyo Trash Baby and I Am An S&M Writer to the top of my DVD rental queue.

One of the many anticipated highlights of this year's festival is the seven-film retrospective of Korean auteur Hong Sang-Soo. Considered by critics to be one of the most distinctive and complex voices working in cinema today, it's simply outrageous that his three most recent films have never been screened in the Bay Area. The SFIAAFF has rectified this error by bringing Hong's entire body of work to this year's festival, as well as the director himself, who will appear at two screenings.

In the past few weeks I've taken a look at four of Hong's features: Woman on the Beach, Tale of Cinema, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors and The Power of Kangwon Province. The end result is that while I may have obtained a certain level of respect for the man and his work, I'm most definitely not in love. This is, of course, somewhat embarrassing to admit, and I'll no doubt be examining the reasons why for some time to come. Could it be his characters, who are almost uniformly petty, arrogant, manipulative, boorish and flat-out unpleasant? Perhaps, but I can think of a number of Korean films I admired that were also populated with such types, including Oasis, A Good-Lawyer's Wife and Rules of Dating. Or maybe it's because so much of the interaction in these films is fueled by alcohol consumption, and I'm as immune to the supposed charm of drunks on-screen as I am to them in real life. That said, the only time I laughed out loud during any of these films was a drunken motel scene in The Power of Kangwon Province. (I have since learned that Hong forces his actors to actually be drunk in their drunk scenes). Then there's his frequent and much-admired manipulation of filmic time structures. For example, the whole first half of a movie turns out to be a film within a film, or the second half of a movie revisits the setting of the first half, but with different characters. But instead of admiring these inventions, why did I find them hugely distracting and unnecessarily disorienting? And finally, it kind of bugged me that Hong sets most of these films completely within the insular, self-referential artsy/intellectual world of filmmakers, writers, professors and art gallery owners. I'm aware that I'm expressing a minority opinion here, and would have preferred to find myself squarely on board the Hong Sang-Soo train. But that's the way these things go sometimes. Those who are unfamiliar with Hong's work should definitely take a look at Adam Hartzell's overview of the retrospective.

So those are the films I've managed to see thus far. But because film festivals are meant for getting out and seeing movies on the big screen, I've selected an additional seven programs to experience during the festival proper. On Saturday, March 17 I'll be catching two shows at the AMC 1000 Van Ness (with stadium seating!), So Yong Kim's In Between Days and Nick Broomfield's Ghosts. The former comes strongly recommended by this site's host Michael Guillén, who saw it at Toronto. And I've long been an admirer of Nick Broomfield's documentaries (Kurt and Courtney, Biggie and Tupac, the two Aileen Wuornos films), and am really looking forward to seeing his first venture into feature films. Later that evening, I'll be singing along at the aforementioned Flower Drum Song at the Castro Theater.

Sunday, March 18 will be a noon-to-midnight Castro marathon, starting with a revival of Pavement Butterfly with Anna Mae Wong, followed by the gay-themed Korean costume drama King and the Clown. Next up will be the Centerpiece Presentation/World Premiere of Arthur Dong's latest documentary Hollywood Chinese, capped off by what has become a wonderful SFIAAFF tradition, the screening of a recent Bollywood spectacular. This year's selection is Umrao Jaan with Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan. Hope to see you there!

Cross-published at Twitch.


Anonymous said...

The documentary about Japanese host clubs sounds really interesting. For years host clubs were a sort of male dominated thing where men would pay huge sums of money after work to relax with beautiful women who sort of tended to their every need, but now their wives want the same.

I even know of some western women who like to go to these clubs when they visit Tokyo, which I personally find rather odd, but I guess they all just enjoy the company - even if it's paid for - of beautiful men?

I hope you feel better soon! I've been fighting off a cold myself.

Brian Darr said...

Michael G: I'm sorry to hear about your family loss.

I'm glad you're starting to recover from your pneumonia. May it be speedily!

Michael H: Thanks for this inside look into some films I've been on the fence about seeing. I may still be on the fence, but at least I feel I have a trusted opinion to help guide my choice of direction to jump down off it.

I wonder, if Iraq in Fragments and Kabul Transit are comparable in structure, how about in their goals and approaches? Unlike Koehler, I didn't really mind the superficiality of Longley's film when it came to presenting any kind of argument; I found it more of a mood piece that, in almost transcending its topics of focus, made a kind of meta-argument for deeper understanding.

So far the most accomplished Indonesian film I've seen has been Eliana, Eliana, which I saw at an SFIAAFF several years ago and noticed just came out on Region 1 DVD. But even that had some ragged edges. Have you seen that one? Love For Share sounds pretty worthwhile regardless.

Don't be embarrassed if you don't respond to Hong; your theories as to why seem pretty logical. But before you close the door on him for good, I'd recommend seeing one more of his films: Turning Gate, which admittedly shares the presumably autobiographical intellectual milieu, and the scenes of alchohol consumption, but it does something a bit different with them, I'd say, than his earlier films at least (I still haven't seen his last three). Many still consider it his most accomplished, least structual "gimmick"-dependent film.

Tickets to his films are selling pretty fast, apparantly. Woman is the Future of Man was already at rush status last I checked (last night), and a Tale of Cinema not far from it.

Finally, a nitpick: Ghosts is apparantly not really Broomfield's first fiction film. He made a feature-length drama called Diamond Skulls in 1989.

Anonymous said...

Michael G - I too am sorry to hear about your loss and am glad you put the blog aside for a bit and focused on the most important things.

Michael H - I'm always hesitant to suggest Hong Sang-soo's films to my friends since I know he's not for everyone. What I appreciate about what you've written here Michael H is how you're honest w/o mistaking a snarky-attitude for honesty. A lot of people just love to pan what doesn't work for them. I personally hate musicals, but I'm not going to pan the genre just because it's not my thing. Many people I respect (such as my father) get a lot out of musicals. They just aren't made for me in mind. (Except DANCERS IN THE DARK, that was for me, a musical my father hates.) So it sounds like you're well aware of why Hong doesn't work for you. Readers who are in sync with your likes/dislikes will appreicate that.

Plus, I hadn't been able to find my essay on the festival site until you linked it, which I appreicate.

Michael Guillen said...

Kimberly, Brian, Adam: Thanks for your kind words. I'm so glad the antibiotics are finally kicking in so that I can husband my resources and help my Mom weather her loss.

I'm especially pleased that you recognize Hawley's fair assessment of Hong's films. I know he stressed out a bit about not flipping out over them as much as he wanted to. I'm afraid I'm somewhat in the same camp though I'm hoping that watching them on a big screen will further the experience.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone.

Brian, I think I preferred KABUL TRANSIT to IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS because it just does a much better job of giving me a clear sense of time and place. I thought IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS was simply too erratic and unfocused, and the first segment in particular seemed pointless to me, except as a portrait of a poor, emotionally abused boy.

I did see ELIANA, ELIANA and liked it quite a bit. LOVE FOR SHARE is quite different...much less of an 'art' film, with a more straight forward narrative and considerably 'better' tech aspects.

Thanks so much for recommending TURNING GATE. Unfortunately, I can't make it to the single screening the film gets during the festival, but I'll certainly keep an eye out for it, in case it turns up on a local screen or on DVD. I'm trying to remember if it was available on screener.

I also appreciate the mention of Broomfield's DIAMOND SKULLS. I thought I had read that GHOSTS was his first narrative feature (if indeed it doesn't fall into the category of docudrama). I saw the very long list of films on his imdb page and wondered if they were ALL documentaries, but opted not to go through the list one by one. Have you seen it?

Adam, I'm glad that the true intentions of my comments on Hong Sang-soo were taken how I meant them, and I really appreciate your saying so.

Brian Darr said...

Michael G: very good to hear you're starting to feel better.

Michael H: I haven't seen DIAMOND SKULLS, but I remembered hearing about a prior Broomfield narrative feature while at Sundance. To determine its title, I went to his imdb page and clicked the "by genre" link on the left side of the page. Much easier than clicking each title. Along with GHOSTS and DIAMOND SKULLS under the "Drama" heading there's MONSTER (which he didn't direct but was thanked for in the credits) and MONSTER IN A BOX (arguably a documentary, really).

Since I missed the Yerba Buena Center's sole screening of TURNING GATE, I watched it on DVD. Lost Weekend video on Valencia has a copy for rent. I'm excited for the chance to see it on the big screen this Friday.

And it appears I liked IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS a lot more than you did, which probably has nothing to do with whether I'll like KABUL TRANSIT or not. Though the latter will have to be pretty good to measure up to ENEMIES OF HAPPINESS, an Afghanistan-themed doc I saw at Sundance and thought was outstanding.

Anonymous said...

thanks michael. great summaries and unusual recommendations - we need this kind of coverage.

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