Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Perhaps it's a just matter of perception, but it appears there might be fewer Asian films at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. Admittedly, not many movies from the continent generated festival buzz in 2015 and several of those that did, such as Hou Hsiou-hsien's The Assassin, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendor and Jia Zheng-ke's Mountains May Depart have already played the Bay Area. The biggest surprise is that there isn't a single film representing Southeast Asia. Fortunately, there's still plenty to look forward to from the region, including the film that topped my wish list for SFIFF59 inclusion. Here's a country by country overview.

South Korea

Of all the films in the festival, I'm most excited about Hong Sang-soo's Right Now, Wrong Then. It's the director's 17th feature in a 20-year career, which probably makes him Asia's most prolific (non-genre) arthouse filmmaker. His works never receive a Bay Area theatrical release, so I'm incredibly grateful to SFIFF for screening his movies year after year. I confess that I haven't always been a fan. The protagonists in his early efforts were so obnoxiously pathetic as to render the experience of watching them insufferable. That began to change somewhere around 2009's Like You Know It All and I've been on the Hong love train since. The 65-minute bonbon Hill of Freedom was the funniest movie I saw at last year's festival.

Some critics accuse Hong of making the same movie over and over again. From what I've read, it sure doesn't sound like Right Now, Wrong Then will change any minds. All the familiar Hong tropes appear firmly in place—an artistic-type male protagonist travels out of town and attempts to hook up with an enigmatic female, accompanied by lots of booze consumption and Hong invariably messing with the story's narrative's structure. More specifically in this new movie, a film director comes to Seoul for a festival and meets an attractive artist while sightseeing, followed by an alcohol-fueled incident that turns things sour. At the film's mid-point the clock gets reset, with the title changing to Right Then, Wrong Now. The entire story gets replayed with slight variances, affording the hero a shot at redemption. The jury at last year's Locarno Film Festival gave the film its top prize, the Golden Leopard, as well as the best actor award to leading man, Jeong Jae-yeong.

While RNWT might be the lone South Korean entry in SFIFF59, it's also worth mentioning Vitaly Mansky's Russian documentary Under the Sun, which adds to the recent groundswell of non-fiction films reporting on life inside North Korea. Under the Sun is one of 11 films competing in the Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature Competition.


There are three Japanese selections at the festival and I've had an opportunity to preview two. I especially recommend Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Journey to the Shore, which is the director's latest metaphysical exploration and his best film since 2008's Tokyo Sonata. In the pre-opening credits sequence, a piano teacher comes home to find that her husband, played by Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano, has returned home after dying at sea three years previous. He invites her on a journey to experience the villages where he "lived" during his absence, working as a newspaper assistant at one location and a cook / astrophysicist teacher at another. Journey to the Shore is filled with melancholy longing and regret, as well as a goofy kind of sweetness. This being Kurosawa, one keeps waiting for the appearance of some malevolent entity that never (quite) shows up. Stylistic flourishes include the dimming and brightening of interior settings for emotional effect, and an archaically sweeping music score that lies somewhere between Max Steiner and Arvo Pärt. Journey to the Shore premiered at Cannes and received mixed reviews, with some critics calling it an "overlong afterlife story" that's "undecided if it belongs in the arthouse or on afternoon TV." Un Certain Regard jury members rightfully thumbed their nose at these naysayers, awarding Kurosawa the sidebar's Best Director prize.

I've also taken a look at Ryûsake Hamaguchi's Happy Hour, which has the distinction of being SFIFF59's longest movie at 317 minutes. Is it worth the huge time investment? My answer is a qualified yes. Happy Hour centers on the lives of four 30-something women in Kobe who are best friends. When one of them announces her impending divorce, plus the fact that she's having an extra-marital affair, it destabilizes the group and causes the others to question their own relationships with men. Hamaguchi's film is rich with character detail and features several extended set pieces that invite comparisons to Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. I was particularly struck by how the director places his actors within the frame, achieving meaning via their relationship to the camera and each other. Unfortunately Happy Hour wears out its welcome in the plot-heavy final hour, which also includes the least engaging of the aforementioned set pieces. The performances by the quartet of first-time, non-professional actresses are effective, if occasionally awkward. Collectively they won the Best Actress prize at Locarno. The script, which was developed through a series of workshops, also won that festival's Best Screenplay prize. The third Japanese SFIFF59 selection is Eiichirô Hasumi's Assassination Classroom, which screens in the festival's Dark Wave sidebar.

China / Hong Kong

There are zero narrative features from China in the festival, which is quite a contrast to last year's powerful and artistically accomplished triple punch of Black Coal Thin Ice, Red Amnesia and Dearest. The closest we come this year is Paths of the Soul, a highly acclaimed docudrama from narrative filmmaker Zhang Yang (Shower, Getting Home). The director's latest recreates a grueling 1,200 mile pilgrimage to Lhasa during which a group of 11 Tibetan Buddhist devotees stop every few yards to prostate themselves. Along the way they endure extreme temperatures, flooded roads and a mini-avalanche. Stops are made en route, once for a participant to give birth, and again for the group to perform manual labor in order to earn travel expense money. In his rave review for Variety, Richard Kuipers calls Paths of the Soul "a stirring study in faith and spirituality that will inspire many viewers to think about big and small questions of life." The other mainland Chinese documentary at SFIFF59 is A Young Patriot. The film traces the disillusioned transition of a die-hard young Maoist as he's forced to confront the realities of his country's rush to cutthroat capitalism. The film's director, Du Haibin, is expected to attend the festival.

The SF Film Society presides over a separate Hong Kong Cinema festival each autumn. That, combined with the fact that Hong Kong (and mainland Chinese) films now receive year-round Bay Area theatrical exhibition could explain why there are only two HK flicks at SFIFF59. The one I'm looking forward to is the U.S. premiere of Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous, the third directorial effort from ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle (known for his work with Gus Van Sant, Zhang Yimou, Pen-ek Ratanaruang and most memorably, Wong Kar-wai). Each section of this docudrama triptych spotlights a different generation, with "actors" playing slightly modified versions of themselves. The first is set amongst a group of elementary schoolchildren, the second focuses on young people involved in the 2014 "Umbrella Revolution" and the third spends time with a group of "speed dating" seniors. According to reviews, the middle segment is by far the most compelling. Also representing Hong Kong at SFIFF59 is Trivisa, a high-octane crime thriller set during HK's 1997 handover to China, which screens in the festival's Dark Wave sidebar.


The big news here is that Mira Nair will be given the festival's Irving M. Levin Directing Award, making her the first woman to receive the honor since its inception in 1986 (when it was initially called the Akira Kurosawa Award and later, the Founders Directing Award). The India-born, New York-based filmmaker will be on hand for an An Afternoon with Mira Nair at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, April 24. The program will include an on-stage conversation, clips reel and a revival screening of the fabulous 2001 Oscar® nominated Monsoon Wedding. We're also promised a preview of Queen of Katwe, Nair's upcoming biopic of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi starring Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo. Be sure to check out Michael Fox' excellent SF Film Society Blog essay on Nair's career, "Mira Nair: Between Two Worlds".

The only new Indian film showing at the festival is Raam Reddy's Thithi, which has gotten plenty of attention since winning the New Directors Prize at Locarno. It screened at last month's New Directors New Films series in New York (along with nine other films playing SFIFF59) and will compete for our festival's New Directors Prize as well. In this folk comedy-of-errors set in a South Indian village, three generations of sons react in very different, but all too human ways to the death of the family's 101-year-old patriarch. At issue is what's to be done with the old man's estate, as the family prepares for the thithi, or final funeral celebration taking place 11 days after death.


The festival has done a fine job programming new Turkish cinema in recent years and I'm thrilled they've secured Emin Alper's Frenzy for SFIFF59 inclusion. The director's second feature won the Special Jury Prize at last year's Venice Film Festival. Set in an Istanbul shantytown amidst a quasi-apocalyptic, near-future dystopia, Frenzy's protagonist has just been released from prison after 20 years. He's assigned the job of combing through people's garbage in search of terrorism clues and lives with his brother whose occupation is shooting stray dogs. Reviews describe Frenzy with adjectives like "tense," "brooding" and "paranoid," making special mention of its dark visual palette and nerve-jarring sound design of explosions, alarm bells, rattling trucks and clanging metal doors. "A parable about a society brought to heel by its fear of terrorism" is how Jay Weissberg sums up Frenzy in his review for Variety, a description that certainly has applications extending beyond Turkey given our planet's current socio-political zeitgeist.


While there aren't any Iranian films per se at SFIFF59, there are three very promising-sounding features which are Iranian in terms of either setting or co-production. Radio Dreams is the latest from director Babak Jalali, whose Frontier Blues won the festival's FIPRESCI prize in 2010. Set during a single day at a San Francisco Farsi-language radio station, this bittersweet deadpan comedy stars Moshen Namjoo, a.k.a. the Bob Dylan of Iran, as a station manager awaiting the arrival of Metallica. The Bay Area metal band has promised to come jam in-studio with visiting Afghani rock group Kabul Dreams. Jalali's film, which won the prestigious Tiger Award at January's Rotterdam Film Festival, has been praised for how it gently touches on issues of immigration, national identity and assimilation. A large coterie of the film's talent, including the director, producers and cast members are expected to attend the festival, with Kabul Dreams performing a concert after the April 28 showing at the Victoria Theatre.

Although I'm not a particular fan of genre films, I have no intention of missing debut filmmaker Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow, which has garnered terrific write-ups as it's traveled the 2016 U.S. festival circuit. The story takes place in a Tehran apartment building near the end of the Iran / Iraq war where Shideh, a resentful, aspiring female doctor lives with her young daughter. When a missile crashes through the roof of the top floor unit, it unleashes an evil force that takes special interest in the girl. In his favorable review for Variety, Justin Chang asks us to imagine Under the Shadow as "an Asghar Farhadi remake of The Babadook," with "feminist anger blazing at its core." He also praises lead actress Narges Rashidi, who "plays Shideh like an instrument slowly going out of tune, modulating skillfully between maternal tetchiness and scream-queen abandon." The film unsurprisingly screens under the festival's Dark Wave banner.

Finally in the documentary Sonita, an 18-year-old undocumented Afghani refugee lives in a Tehran homeless shelter, all the while aspiring to become a rapper. Tensions come to a head when her mother tries to return her to Afghanistan, where she'll be sold for $9,000 so her brother can afford his own bride. In the World Cinema Documentary section at Sundance, Sonita won the Grand Jury Prize as well as the Audience Award. Director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, who ends up stepping outside her role as objective filmmaker in order to assist Sonita, is expected to appear at the SFIFF59 screenings.

Cross-published at film-415.

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