Tuesday, April 22, 2014

SFIFF57—Michael Hawley Peruses the Line-Up From the Rest of the World

The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival will be taking off in just a few days time. In recent posts, we've looked at this year's awards and special programs, as well as SFIFF57's extensive line-up of French selections and films from other parts of Europe. Now it's time to wrap up this year's round-the-world perusal with highlights of SFIFF57's ambitious roster of films from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas.


While my enthusiasm for new Asian cinema has perhaps waned in recent years, I'm always game to see a new work by a favorite filmmaker. At this year's festival, that film will be Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogs. SFIFF has a long history with the minimalist Taiwanese director, going back to 1992's Rebels of the Neon Gods. (Not that I'm bragging, but that film's original Chinese poster hangs in my bathroom.) The festival was also responsible for bringing us Vive l'amour (1994), The River (1997), The Hole (1998) and The Wayward Cloud (2005). The consensus seems to be that his new film, Stray Dogs, is a return to form following the misfire of Face, Tsai's 2009 tripped-out take on Salomé (which remains unseen in the Bay Area). At this year's Golden Horse Awards—essentially the Oscars® for Chinese language indie / art films—Tsai won Best Director and his longtime filmic muse, Lee Kang-sheng, took Best Actor for this story of a father and two children surviving on the streets of Taipei. It's been very touching to have watched Lee age under Tsai's admiring gaze these past 22 years.

Another big name Asian auteur with a film in SFIFF57 is the prolific South Korean, Hong Sang-soo. Our Sunhi is one of two movies the filmmaker released in 2013, and it's the one that won him the Best Director prize at the Locarno Film Festival. Hong has been making films since 1996—Our Sunhi is his 15th feature—but it's only in the past few years that SFIFF has begun programming his work, screening Hahaha in 2011 and The Day He Arrives in 2012. His films are probably an acquired taste, with their squicky protagonists (as often as not, a drunken blowhard film director) and kinked-out narrative structures. Honestly, I found his earlier works almost unbearable. But I've been converted and am now fully on board the Hong train, eagerly awaiting a date with Our Sunhi.

Filipino cinema has experienced a renaissance in the Bay Area, thanks to curator Joel Shepard of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). One of the directors he champions is Lav Diaz, an award-winning independent filmmaker whose socially and politically conscious films are also noted for their extreme length (2004's Evolution of a Filipino Family clocked in at nine hours). While my own singular experience with a Diaz film saw me lasting only halfway through 2011's six-hour Century of Birthing, I'm committed to catching the entirety of SFIFF57 selection Norte, the End of History. Running a brisk four hours and 15 minutes, Norte screened in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar last year, and is said to be Diaz' most accessible film. If you're unable to catch it during the festival, YBCA will screen it four more times in June. On a related note, the festival will also present a 4K digital restoration of master Lino Brocka's 1975 masterpiece Manila in the Claws of Light. The film, which for some reason was titled Manila in the Claws of Darkness when I saw it at the festival decades ago, has been restored by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation with the assistance of Mike De Leon, the film's original cinematographer and an acclaimed director in his own right.

Two films from Kazakhstan have secured slots in the festival, Seric Aprymov's Bauyr (Little Brother) and Emir Baigazin's Harmony Lessons. I caught the latter at this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival and fully recommend it as a troubling, intensely cinematic allegory of institutionalized bullying and authoritarianism. A major caveat—animals were definitely harmed during filming, including, but not limited to, a roach getting fried on a miniature electric chair. There's also ample violence meted out against the film's teenage protagonists. I anticipate the unnerving Harmony Lessons will be one of the most talked about films at SFIFF57 amongst those who see it. Other possibilities within the festival's Asian narrative features include Peter Chan's American Dreams in China (with cinematography by Chris Doyle), Firestorm starring Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau, South Korean Late Show entry Intruders, Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy, with a story constructed from the Twitter musings of a Thai teen, and finally Tamako in Moratorium, from Nobuhiro Yamashita, director of 2005's hysterically funny Linda, Linda, Linda.

It happens that all three Asian documentaries I plan to see are works by Western filmmakers. My top doc choice of the entire festival is Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez' Manakamana, which arrives from the visionary folks at Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab (Sweetgrass, Leviathan). It consists of only a dozen shots, all long takes of passengers riding a cable car up to the titular Nepalese mountaintop temple. On one trip it's a group of schoolboys, on another it's three old ladies eating rapidly melting ice cream cones, and on another it's a bunch of goats. I am truly looking forward to seeing this. From over in neighboring Bhutan there's also Thomas Balmès' Happiness, a docu-fiction hybrid that witnesses the changes brought to a small village by the arrival of electricity and the internet. Balmès is best known for the 2010 commercial hit documentary, Babies, and this new film is scored by favorite indie band, British Sea Power. Lastly, in Swiss director Luc Schaedler's Three Letters from China, we're presented with three intimate views of life in a rapidly changing People's Republic.

Middle East / Africa

The film I most want to see from this region is Mohammad Rasoulof's Manuscripts Don't Burn, a clandestinely filmed drama about Iran's Secret Service police and their harassment of artists and intellectuals. Rasoulof would certainly have first-hand knowledge on that subject. The film is being likened more to 2011's solemn Goodbye (SFIFF55) than the director's earlier, otherworldly allegories like Iron Island and The White Meadows. The SFIFF57 line-up also features a trio of promising Sundance award winners from this part of the world. Zeresenay Berhane Mehari's Difret is an Ethiopian legal drama focused on women's rights, which won the festival's World Cinema Audience Award. Sundance awarded its Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary to Talal Derki's Return to Homs, a harrowing look at the effects of revolution on two young men in Syria's third largest city. The festival's documentary jury also saw to fit to award a special prize for "Cinematic Bravery" to Hubert Sauper's We Come as Friends, which examines the human cost of neo-colonialism in the newly formed nation of South Sudan. Sauper, whose 2004 Oscar®-nominated Darwin's Nightmare is one of my all-time favorites, is expected to attend the festival. Finally, in Noaz Deshi's fevered White Shadow, a Tanzanian albino teen struggles to remain alive in a culture that believes his body parts have restorative properties. The film has gotten incredible buzz since its Venice premiere, including the signing on of Ryan Gosling as executive producer. Variety's Guy Lodge praised the film as being "stylistically reckless in the best possible way," as it "veers wildly between earthy verité and near-ecstatic surrealism." White Shadow, as well as Difret will be competing for this year's New Director's Prize.


Out of all the movies in the festival line-up, it appears that Justin Simien's social satire Dear White People is the one Bay Area audiences are most excited about. Its two SFIFF57 screenings were among the very first to go to rush. A retinue of folks associated with the film is expected to attend the festival. As for me, I'm most looking forward to Night Moves, the eco-terrorism thriller from Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff), starring Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard. I'm also hoping to see the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Child of God, directed by and co-starring the ubiquitous James Franco. (SFIFF57's Centerpiece Film Palo Alto, also co-stars Franco and is based on a book of his short stories.) The film is Franco's second 2013 directorial literary adaptation, following William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. And because I love Susan Sarandon and nostalgic movies set in East coast seashore resort towns, I might also have to take a look at Michael Tully's Ping Pong Summer.

Jeremy Irons will receive this year's Peter J. Owens Acting Award, but it should be noted that SFIFF57 offers other opportunities for star-gazing. Indie queen Patricia Clarkson will attend the world premiere of Last Weekend on May 2, along with other cast members and the film's co-directors, Tom Williams and Tom Dolby. Dolby wrote the screenplay and is the son of pioneering sound engineer, Ray Dolby. Clarkson plays a well-to-do Lake Tahoe matriarch who gathers the family together for one final Labor Day weekend at the family manor. Saturday Night Live co-alumni Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig will also be in town for the May 1 screening of Craig Johnson's dysfunctional family dramedy The Skeleton Twins. It will be the film's first screening since its Sundance premiere back in January.

Roughly half of this year's U.S. feature films are documentaries, and a typically eclectic bunch they are. The first to grab my attention was Jeffrey Radice's No No: A Dockumentary. I'm no sports fan, but who doesn't want to see a film about the man who pitched a no-hitter, major league baseball game in 1970 while tripping on LSD? The player's name was Dock Ellis and his reputation as an African American rabble rouser who was told everything he did was a no-no, earned him the nickname, "The Muhammad Ali of the Ballpark." The film earns bonus points by having a score composed by the Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz. No No: A Dockumentary will be shown with Michael Jacobs' 10-minute short The High Five, which explores "the origin of the seemingly most instinctual of celebratory gestures."

Perhaps as a result of Twenty Feet from Stardom winning last year's audience award for Best Documentary—not to mention that Oscar®—SFIFF57 will feature four music-related documentaries. These include a reminiscence of indie singer / songwriter Elliott Smith (Heaven Adores You), a stylized look at a day in the life of Australian rocker, author, screenwriter and film composer Nick Cave (20,000 Days on Earth), a bio-doc of the Grateful Dead's legendary rhythm guitarist (The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir) and finally a portrait of veteran entertainment manager Shep Gordon (Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon). The latter reps the directorial debut of actor/comedian Mike Myers, and Mr. Gordon himself is expected to attend the festival. (The film opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on June 13.) Also attending the fest will be The Dead's Bob Weir, who is expected to perform a mini-concert at his May 2 screening. I can only assume word has not gotten out about this, as tickets still seem to be available.

Here's a rundown of a few other American docs of possible interest. Jeremy Ambers' Impossible Light explores artist Leo Villareal's dream, which was to cover the Oakland Bay Bridge's suspension cables with 25,000 computer-programmed LED lights. It's quite beautiful to see, if you haven't been to the Embarcadero yet to experience it. I'm therefore curious why the festival has given this film of such obvious local interest just one screening—and scheduled it at 4:00 p.m. on a weekday? Biographical documentaries of a non-musical nature at SFIFF57 include The Dog, a 10-years-in-the-making portrait of John Wojtowicz, the real-life person portrayed by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, and Burt's Buzz, where you'll learn all about the bearded guy with the railroad cap whose singular image has graced billions of lip balm packages. Social issue documentaries are a mainstay of this festival and among this year's selections are films about Cesar Chavez (Cesar's Last Fast), the Mississippi civil rights movement in the summer of 1964 (Freedom Summer) and a conflict between immigrant workers and locals in a North Dakota fracking boomtown (The Overnighters).

Latin America

For a few years now, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has sponsored a SFIFF World Cinema Spotlight, which "calls attention to a current trend in international filmmaking, bringing to light hot topics, reinvigorated genres, underappreciated filmmakers and national cinemas." This year the festival has chosen to spotlight New Voices in Latin American Cinema, with five films from first and second-time directors hailing from Costa Rica (Neto Villalobos' All About the Feathers), Mexico (Claudia Sainte-Luce's The Amazing Catfish), Venezuela (Mariana Rondón's Bad Hair), Argentina (Benjamin Naishtat's History of Fear) and Uruguay (Manolo Nieto's The Militant). They are joined by three additional features in making up SFIFF57's eight-film line-up of recent works from Latin America. For a savvy and extensive critical overview of these films, I defer to my esteemed colleague Michael Guillén's entry here on The Evening Class, whose special focus is Latin American Cinema. I'll end by saying that I am particularly excited the festival has programmed Club Sándwich, the third film from Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke. While SFIFF has shown his two previous features, Duck Season and Lake Tahoe, this is the first time that Eimbcke himself is scheduled to accompany his film to the Bay Area.

04/28/14 ADDENDUM: An added SFIFF screening of Jeremy Ambers' Impossible Light will be a special, outdoor screening for the general public on May 5th at 8 pm at the Exploratorium. Of note is that both screenings of Impossible Light sold out less than an hour after the outdoor one was announced, but Ambers has managed to also get the Roxie Theater to screen it on May 8th at 7:00PM, and possibly at a couple other theaters around the Bay Area thereafter.

Cross-published on film-415 (in a slightly alternate version).

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