Monday, November 30, 2009


When I saw the Chinese American Film Festival at the 4 Star, I noticed they had some Thrillville postcard advertisements.

I've never been to a Thrillville show. They used to put on shows at the now defunct Speakeasy Theaters. Quoting from their homepage:

Thrillville is a City of B Movie Dreams in a State of Culture Shock, where Time stands still and aesthetics supercede politics; where monsters, babes, hipsters and swingers mingle and mate over Martinis and Mai Tais; where Style rules over Fashion, Elvis is King, the Rat Pack rules, and Will the Thrill, a beatnik lounge lizard, is Mayor. Mr. Thrill and his lovely assistant and bride, Monica, Tiki Goddess, host a live cult movie cabaret celebrating Classic Retro Pop Culture, from the Atomic Age to Zombies.

I notice that they are producing shows at three theaters that I frequent to varying degrees - 4 Star, Balboa and Camera Cinemas in San Jose.

Their schedule looks interesting. On December 3, they are screening Black Christmas (1974) at the 4 Star. Perhaps the original sorority house slasher film, Black Christmas has achieved cult status in the last 35 years. I don't think I've ever seen the unedited version. I've seen it on network or cable TV but those sanitized for broadcast.

On January 21 (during Noir City), they are screening Shanty Tramp (1967) at the 4 Star. I don't believe I've ever seen this film in any version. Certainly, it's title does not sound familiar but how can you not be intrigued by a title like that. A one star rating in TV Guide only whets my appetite. It looks to be an insightful treatise on death, racism, rape and religion.

Another quickly made movie from the South (shot on location in Florida) designed for the drive-in crowd. This one involves a young woman of loose morals who tries to seduce an evangelist. She then gets involved with a motorcycle gang, which only leads to trouble. She is saved by a black youth who is accused by the girl's sharecropper father of raping his daughter, and a sheriff's posse is sent out after him. The boy is forced to steal a car (from a moonshiner, no less) but dies when the vehicle crashes. The daughter has it out with her father, stabbing him to death, and heads off to her evangelist in hopes of leaving town.

On February 25, they are showing a Mamie Van Doren double feature at the Camera 3. The two films are Untamed Youth (1957) and Sex Kittens Go To College (1960). I didn't think I've ever seen a Mamie Van Doren film. Looking at her IMDB filmography, I notice Francis Joins the WACS (1954). I watched quite of the Talking Mule films and Francis Joins the WACS actually registers in my memory.

At this year's Hole in the Head Film Festival, they screened Sex Galaxy which consisted exclusively of footage from a Mamie Van Doren film called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) with new voice over that didn't match the original film (a la Mystery Science Theater 3000). Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, incredibly, was Peter Bogdanovich's first feature film credit as a director (under the Alan Smithee of "Derek Thomas"). I think the film was so bad that it's copyrights lapsed so it's in the public domain.

Mamie Van Doren is oft referred to as "the poor man's Jayne Mansfield." Of course, Mansfield was referred to as "the poor man's Marilyn Monroe." I guess that makes her the bankrupted man's Marilyn Monroe. To my surprise, Maime Van Doren is not just alive but has her own website, still makes appearances and photographs incredibly well for a 78 year old woman.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Black Dynamite

On November 20, I caught the midnight showing of Black Dynamite (2009) at the Castro. The film was scheduled for 11:59 PM but was late to start so technically it was November 21. The screening was sponsored by the Oakland Underground Film Festival. I would guess there were over 500 people in the audience - several in period costumes. Many people had gained admittance with a printed piece of paper so I wonder if there was a promotion that I wasn't aware of. The film starred Michael Jai White who said a few words before the screening. Tommy Davidson, Arsenio Hall, Nicole Sullivan and John Salley were also in the film but hard to recognize under their afros and 70's garb.

The film was a throwback to 70's blaxpoitation films like Shaft, Foxy Brown, etc. The plot isn't important but to summarize, Black Dynamite (the name of the lead character) is an ex-CIA assassin. His brother is killed in a drug deal gone bad so Black Dynamite (BD) kicks ass in da hood (I think they called it the ghetto back then) to find out who killed his brother. After beating every pimp and drug dealer (not to mention bedding dozens of women), BD finds out that the government is selling Anaconda Malt Liqour and lacing it with chemicals that "shrink black men's dicks." Actually, they showed a man's penis after copious consumption of Anaconda - I didn't think it wasn't that small.

Anyway, the film switches to kung fu throwback because there is some evil Chinese doctor that is producing the chemicals. After kicking Chinese ass, BD goes to take on the man ultimately responisible for Anaconda Malt Liquor - President Richard Nixon. Tricky Dick proves surprisingly adept with nunchucks but BD gets him to change his evil ways. Pat Nixon, on the other hand, seemed to be sexually aroused when she got bitch slapped by BD.

That's enough about the plot because this film is all about bitches, hoes, bruthas & sistas with big afros, ass kicking, bell bottom pants, leisure suits, synthetic fabrics, the origins of Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles, sticking it to The Man and unprotected sex with multiple partners.

It's hard to criticize a film like this because it is over the top satire. I wished they dialed it back a little, played it straight up and let the humor come from the societal anachronisms. Black Dynamite was more like Undercover Brother and I wish it would have been more like Quentin Tarantino say - the humor coming from the absurdity of the situations but the characters remaining true to their surrounding and not giving the slightest hint of the fourth wall or what they are satirizing. I will say that cinematographer Shawn Maurer nailed the 70's film stock look - flat images without sharp defintions.

Left to right: Nicole Sullivan, Michael Jai White and Salli Richardson-Whitfield in Black Dynamtie

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sophie's Revenge

I was able to watch the English subtitled version of Sophie's Revenge (2009) at the 4 Star. Advertised as a romantic comedy, the film featured a barely recognizable Ziyi Zhang. I can't put my finger on it but her face looked different than she did in Memoirs of a Geisha, Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Maybe it was the hair bangs.

Ziyi Zhang in Sophie's Revenge

The lack of recognition may be due to seeing her in slaptstick role. The film is obviously a showcase for Zhang's comedic talents. She shows a flair for physical comedy in the film that I had not seen before. The film itself was lacking the plot to showcase her skills.

The story involves comic book artist Sophie (Zhang) and her carefully planned/horribly executed plans to take revenge on her ex-boyfriend Jeff. Jeff dumped Sophie to date movie star Joanna (nice performance by Bingbing Fan). Putting aside the farcical elements of the film, Sophie seems like she is in need of serious psychiatric treatment. She exhibits severe manic-depressive symptoms and frequently hallucinates. She is fixated on winning Jeff back only to break up with him on their wedding day. Sophie and Jeff were engaged before the breakup but Sophie hasn't worked up the courage to tell her mother that they're no longer a couple so the wedding plans continue unabated.

Sophie begins her plan of revenge with the half-hearted help of Joanna's ex-boyfriend Gordon. From an objective viewpoint, Sophie stalks her ex at the hospital he works at, illegally enters his home to plant love notes and her brassiere and finally attempts to become Joanna's friend under a false identity. Gordon, for some reason is attracted to Sophie, but looks on in bewilderment and disgust as Sophie plans and executes her machinations.

The sum total of the movie is a series of slapstick scenes - Sophie wreaking unintentional havoc at the hospital, Sophie scrambling to avoid Jeff & Joanna when they arrive home while she is planting the love notes, Sophie out of her element at the gym where Joanna works out, Sophie drunk at a costume party, etc. I'm not even sure what Jeff's appeal is - he seems kind of buttoned down and boring. Gordon on the hand is a perfect match for Sophie but she can't see it because she is fixated on her revenge plans...and it turns out that Gordon is really Joanna's brother and spying on her at Joanna's behest.

Sophie has two best friends, Lucy (Ruby Lin) and Lily (Chen Yao), that serve as her sounding boards and cohorts. Both of them (particularly Lin) make the most of their limited roles although I couldn't get over how sophisticated and beautiful they looked compared to Sophie.

Did I like the film? I laughed a fair amount. The film was interesting for the upscale world that Sophie, et al. inhabit - bright & airy lofts with hardwood floors, stylish clothes, luxury cars, etc. So much for the cold, grey Chinese urban landscapes that you typically see. Who could have imagined that a comic book writer could afford all that? The film reminded me a little of My Best Friend's Wedding with Julia Roberts. The main character in both films were attractive & successful women who behaved deplorably by real-world standards but yet I was able to laugh at their antics and even feel slight bit of empathy.

Ziyi Zhang in Sophie's Revenge

Friday, November 27, 2009

Happily Ever After Plus Linda^3 & The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

I watched my second film at Viz Cinema/New People. I enjoyed Happily Ever After (2007) much better than Battle League Horumô. Sadly, New People isn't introducing many new people to J-Pop cinema. Seven people were in the audience for Battle League Horumô and only four people (including me) saw Happily Ever After on the Tuesday night (7 PM) screening I went to.

The film isn't great by any standards. It starts off silly and veers towards melodrama but provides a nice vehicle for actress Miki Nakatani. Opposite her is the capable actor Hiroshi Abe who I recently saw in Still Walking as the put upon surviving son.

Happily Ever After centers around the long-suffering Yukie Morita. She is suffering because her loutish boyfriend doesn't work, is frequently drunk and has a tendency to flip over the dinner table at the slightest provocation. Her downstairs neighbor (Maki Carousel) counts how often the table is flipped as well as how often they have sex (table flips far outnumber coitus).

Why does Yukie put up with his behavior with a cheerful demeanor and never a complaint? The movie explains it through her backstory - Yukie's father was a convicted bank robber so she was ostracized at school. After graduation, she went to Tokyo to start anew...she started streetwalking and a heroin addiction. For some reason, gangster Isao Hayama (Abe) took a liking to her. Why? I'm not sure what he saw in a strung out whore who mocks his declarations of love but he saw something. After hallucinating that a chicken is pecking her, Yukie slits her own throat but her life is saved when Hayama rushes her to the hospital. Upon release from the hospital, Hayama and Yukie leave to start a new life. Hayama is missing his pinkie finger which is shorthand for saying he has left the Yakuza.

After some undefined period of time, that is where the film begins. Hayama doesn't know how to do anything except be a Yakuza gangster and he's bored, frustrated and resentful about his situation. Yukie tries to ease his pain by being the best wife possible (even though they aren't married). She waitresses at a restaurant to support them and makes dinner every night which he more often than not, overturns when something bothers him.

This description sounds very serious and downbeat but the film is mostly a comedy. Hayama's outbursts and behavior played for laughs and Yukie's boss fruitlessly pines for her (to the point of exclusively visiting a massage parlor to see another woman named Yukie). And of course, it has a happy ending with even an unusual bi-racial couple thrown in for good measure.

Happily Ever After is an entertaining enough film. Apparently, based on a manga series, the film may or may not have captured the spirit of the graphic novels.

Miki Nakatani (left) and Hiroshi Abe in Happily Ever After


In December, New People is screening two films that I have seen and enjoyed.

From December 4 to 10, Linda Linda Linda (2005) is screening. I enjoyed the teenage comedy about an all-girl band performing at their high school's spring festival. The film featured a strong performance by Korean actress Doo-na Bae. I saw it at the 2006 SFIAAFF.

On December 15 & 16, New People screens The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) - an anime whose title says it all. The film, which I saw at the 2007 SFIAAFF, was unusually poignant for an anime (which I am typically not a fan of). I can still recall the scene(s) where she is riding her bicycle down a steep hill to a fateful train crossing.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I was able to catch Defamation (2009) at the Roxie and was mightily impressed. Israeli director Yoav Shamir’s controversial documentary on anti-Semitism has been denounced as anti-Semitic in some circles but I thought it critical but not anti-Semitic. Shamir’s conclusions are that there are Jewish organizations with a vested interest in perpetuating anti-Semitism or maybe more accurately the myth of modern day anti-Semitism. It’s obvious that this has the potential for controversy. To his credit, Shamir tackles this issue and others (such as linking anti-Semitism to anti-Zionism) with a perceptive eye and fair dose of humor.

The two entities that are most criticized in the film are the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Israeli government. Rather than direct criticism, Shamir lets their own words and actions sway the audience. That Shamir was able to capture so many revealing moments on camera is amazing it its own right.

Some of the highlights for me:

A Jewish activist or reporter (he seemed to be both) contended that in Brooklyn, Jewish people were seen as “soft targets.” I liked the way he co-opted terrorist lexicon for his purposes. He said that if a robber sees a Jewish man and a black man walking the streets, he is more likely to target the Jewish man because he doesn’t know if the black man is carrying a weapon. The irony of racially stereotyping black men seems lost upon the man. Shamir takes to the streets to question black men about this assumption. He has the most remarkable interview with a group of black people. First, they contend that a black robber would target the black man in this hypothetical because if a Jewish man was robbed by a black man, it would be prosecuted as a hate crime. Then after some Jewish stereotyping by a black woman, the man invokes The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In my mind, mentioning that book automatically prefaces the statement as satire or hyperbole. It’s like saying, with a straight face, that you won a million dollars in the Nigerian lottery and that you took some pills to enlarge your penis. It’s ridiculous by definition. However, Shamir found a man walking the streets of Brooklyn that was willing to share his beliefs in the "tenets" espoused in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

An ADL representative states that their annual budget is on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars and they have offices all over the world. Later, the ADL claims that there were ~1500 cases of documented anti-Semitism in the US "last year." I thought 1500 was extremely small. Shamir wants to investigate one of the cases for the film. As he goes over the specifics, all except one are cases of Jewish employees not being allowed to take time off for Jewish holidays. On the scale of anti-Semitism, this seems to me to be a rather mild form. I was expecting vandalization of synagogues or crosses burned in people's yards. I have to wonder how many of these cases were actually anti-Semitism vs. not being able to schedule a day off for an employee.

The "money shot" came at the expense of Abe Foxman, the influential National Director of the ADL. Shamir follows Foxman as he travels to meet senior officials of a foreign government (Lithuania, I believe). The ADL is not a government entity of either the US or Israel. Shamir asks Foxman why foreign governments want to meet with him or ADL. Foxman explains (almost apologetically) that there is a perception that the ADL has access to influential lawmakers in Washington, DC. He goes on to say that he has to walk a fine line between perpetuating the myth and maintaining the myth. I think he says something like "We [ADL] are not as powerful as non-Jews think we are and we are more powerful than Jews think we are." As I heard this, I thought this is just the flip side of the International Jewish Conspiracy Theory that there is a secret cabal of Jews that control the money supply and whose ultimate goal is world domination.


For a film dealing with such a sensitive subject, Shamir deftly uses comedy throughout. There is an entertaining side story about Israeli teenagers going to visit the Auschwitz Concentration Camp on a government sponsored program.

He also gets some candid and irreverent moments with Professor Norman Finkelstein, a controversial scholar who has criticized the Israeli government on the Palestinian issue and exploiting the Holocaust for political gains.

The film was very skillfully made - mixing humor and serious discussion on a topic that makes most people uncomfortable. Only an Israeli Jew could make this film because anyone attempting it would be tarred and feathered.

My closing thought on the film is that I wonder how Jewish self-identity will change when the last Holocaust victim passes. A person that has survived the camps will have a different perspective and be treated differently than someone who hasn't. Can someone who wasn't born at the time Auschwitz was in operation, for example, invoke the Holocaust with the same tenor or draw the same response?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

2009 Chinese American Film Festival

The 2009 Chinese American Film Festival closed on November 22. The festival name seems a misnomer since all the films were from China and set in China.

I was able to see 5 of the 8 films. I previously watched Red Cliff (2009) and The Equation of Love and Death (2008) and I mentioned the subtitling problems with Sophie's Revenge (2009). Although not advertised on their website, Sophie's Revenge is opening at the 4 Star on November 25 for at least 8 days. I've been assured by Frank Lee that it will be the English subtitled version.

The five films I screened at the festival were:

The Message; (2009)
The Founding of a Republic; (2009)
Turning Point 1977; (2009)
And The Spring Comes; (2007)
Stirring Trip to Mutuo; (2003)

I believe all the films were in Mandarin with English subtitles.


I was not that impressed with the films except for the relentlessly bleak And The Spring Comes.

Stirring Trip to Mutuo and Turning Point 1977 were formulaic. Stirring Trip to Mutuo was the classic MacGuffin based road trip. A Shanghai reporter and a Shanghai doctor chase after an old man that built a school in the remotest regions of Tibet. They trek by foot for six days days and encounter life and death along the way. They never meet the old man as he has moved on to another town to build another school. The man was near near death when they started the trek and after the arduous journey, you would think they would continue chasing the man. The closest they get to Old Man Do or Lu or whatever his name was is by seeing his blissful visage in the clouds.

The film featured a unbearably selfish, shrill and germaphobic female doctor. She causes an avalanche, she refuses to wear someone's dirty shoes after being rescued from quicksand and she turns up her nose at strange food (seemingly she would rather starve). It was predictable, featured some cheesy special effects and too schmaltzy for my taste. The most groan inducing moment for me was when a boy (15 or 16 years old) is hanging onto a twig on a sheer cliff wall. He has a pack of book bags on his back for the kids (and his sister) at the school the old man built. The party throws down a rope to save the boys. Before the twig gives way, the boy attaches the rope to the bundle of book bags rather than save himself. He subsequently plunges to his death.

Turning Point 1977 was not nearly as overly sentimental and had the benefit of dealing with the Cultural Revolution. Teenagers from the cities were sent to collective farms and factories out in the countryside. A whole generation of Chinese were left without post-secondary education as they spent their formative years plowing fields in the middle of nowhere and learning Communist dogma.

In 1977, Deng Xiaoping returned to power and opened the college admission process to everyone and instituted a national entrance exam. Prior to that, recommendations from local commisars and being from a family without convicted "traitors" were the main qualifications for college admission. Amidst this backdrop, Turning Point 1977 tells the fictitious story of some young men and women struggling to take their exams.

They work on a farm and the farm director doesn't want them to leave. It would destroy the productivity of his farm if all his workers left to go to university. In addition, he has formed a paternal affection for them and is loathe to see them leave. Eventually, his handpicked successor convinces him to let the young people take the exam. There is a subplot involving a female whose father was convicted early in the Cultural Revolution.

Schmaltzy moment - the kids are taking the backup tractor to the train station to go the exam site. The tractor breaks down so they run through the forest catch the only train that will get them to the site. The implacable rail station master refuses to hold the train for the students even as son begs him with tears running down his cheek and the gaggle of would-be students within eyesight. The kids miss the train by seconds; exhausted and dejected, they begin to sob. The farm director (who has a gruff exterior but a heart of gold), drives up in the primary tractor and drives them to the exam site.


The Founding of a Republic was produced by the Chinese government so I was expecting to see Communist propaganda. The film delivered that but wasn't very good. The film relied on quick-fire scenes, jump cuts and the audiences knowledge of events. Character development was nil although Chiang Kai-chek was portrayed more evenly than I expected. Chiang was largely absolved of any wrongdoing from the Communist perspective. His son, Chiang Ching-kuo, was nearly heroic if not naive on his portrayal. The main venon was reserved for dreaded capitalists and graft/corruption, their constant companion.

I saw Jet Li (one scene) and Jackie Chan (two scenes) but missed Andy Lau and Ziyi Zhang. One piece of trivia - Madame Chiang was portrayed by Vivian Wu. In 1997, she played the same role in The Soong Sisters which I saw at the 4 Star as well. Three sisters - "One loved money. One loved power. And one loved China." Madame Chiang love power. Maggie Cheung played Madame Sun (as in Sun Yat-sen) who loved China and played a role in drafting the Chinese constitution after the Communists took over. The third sister was played by Michelle Yeoh. That sister married H.H. Kung who was a financier and the object of scorn in The Founding of a Republic as his family was one of the most corrupt among the Nationalists.


The Message was a bit like a locked room mystery. In 1942 Nanking, the Japanese occupiers are suffering assassinations from local counter-revolutionaries. The Japanese gather all the suspects in a remote, mountainous retreat and aim to flush out the culprit(s). I found the story tedious. One by one, each suspect is accused, tortured, killed and exonerated (after death). It was one of those films where it was confusing but at the end of the movie, they showed the audience what really happened - the argument and attempted rape behind a locked door was actually a cover story so the two conspirators could discuss the situation in a bugged room.

One memorable moment was when they suspected a woman of being involved. For torture, they took a thick rope and suspended it about five feet off the ground. They used a straight razor to fray the surface of the rope slightly. They straddled the woman on the rope in her slip (presumably without panties) and pulled her along the rope. She would get hemp splinters and rope burn on her vagina. Absolutely diabolical! I don't know if that was a real technique used by the Japanese but you have to wonder what kind of person (Japanese interrogators or screenwriters) would think of such a thing.


That leaves my favorite film of the festival - And The Spring Comes. This film is an indictment against humanity. Jiang Wenli delivers an award winning performance as Wang Cailing, an unattractive woman in every sense of the word. Blessed with a beautiful singing voice, she is bereft of everything else particularly compassion and honesty. If this were a US film, the character would be immensely likable to make up for her frumpy appearance and severe acne. Thankfully, it was made in China.

Wang is a voice instructor at local school in a grimy industrial town. Her dream is to be an opera singer in Beijing. In fact, she tells her neighbors that she is soon "returning" to Beijing to take a position with the National Opera. This, of course, is a lie but Wang has convinced herself that it will eventually happen. That doesn't explain her haughty or prideful manner. I think her behavior towards others is a coping mechanism for her self-consciousness about her appearance.

Let's start cataloging the wrongs against her and committed by her. She convinces herself a painter is in love with her when he is actually using her to get a resident permit in Beijing. An alcoholic, he continually fails his art school entrance exams. During one of his stupors, Wang takes advantage of him sexually. Publicly confronted by him, she attempts suicide but only succeeds in breaking her arm.

Next she meets a gay ballet instructor. They strike up a friendship as they are two artists in town that eschews opera and ballet. The man is constantly harrassed and ostracized for his sexuality. He proposes marriage to Wang to solve both their problems as people are "beginning to talk" about her as well. She becomes indignant and turns down his offer. He goes on to "sexually assault" a woman to prove his heterosexuality. The last we see of him is an awkward visit to his prison by Wang.

Next is her next door neighbor, an attractive wife. Largely standoffish, Wang is forced to seek her help when suffering from a severe stomach ache. Again Wang becomes friendly. One nice scene was when the woman gives Wang a vibrator as a gift. Certainly a method for some sexual release but also a backhanded way of saying no one is going to have sex with her. Eventually, the woman's husband leaves her. In despair, the woman comes to Wang for sympathy but she makes offhand comment - "Now, I'll be worse off than you." Wang reacts with callousness. Wang coldly tells the woman that she was only being friendly with her (Wang) because she felt superior and now that her situation has changed, she is trying to console herself at Wang's expense. This was the most painful scene to watch for me because of its complexity. I think both women were right. They did have a friendship but much of it was predicated on one being young, pretty and happy and the other being ugly and unsatisfied.

The final straw is a young girl who comes to Wang. She has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In her remaining time, she wants to take singing lessons from Wang so she can win an "American Idol" type television contest. Despite her better judgment, Wang agrees to help the girl. Wang gives the girl the money she has been saving to bribe her way to a Beijing residency permit. The girl uses the money to bribe her way onto the television show. She eventually wins the contest and Wang is overjoyed. However, the girl confesses that it is a hoax. She doesn't have cancer, she shaved her head to appear she took chemotherapy and she came to Wang not because she wanted singing lessons (she was already an accomplished singer) but to use her connections to get on the show. Wang's lies about her connections at the National Opera have spread around town.

At this point, Wang gives up her dream of singing in the opera and adopts a baby girl (with an authentic cleft palate). Throwing herself into being a mother, the film ends with the girl transfixed by the Forbidden City on a daytrip to Beijing - dreams are eternal and Wang's daughter will have a dream just like she had; presumably with the same results.

This film left me exhausted. Every character lied and had ulterior motives. Each had their dreams crushed (except the television contest winner). Speaking of the television contest winner, I think this was based on a real-life incident.

Life goes on. I guess in a country like China with over a billion people, dreams are devalued as the grinding day-to-day existence mixed with a Confuscian outlook drain the spirit from the masses. At least, that's the message I took away.

Jiang Wenli is the wife of the film's director, Gu Changwei. Here are two photos that show the remarkable transformation of Jiang Wenli for the role. Jiang won numerous awards for her performance including the Golden Rooster Award for Best Actress.

Jiang Wenli in And The Spring Comes

Zhou Xun (left) and Jiang Wenli share the Golden Rooster Best Actress Award.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tokyo Record

My father recently gave me an old copy of "Tokyo Record." The 400 page memoir chronicled the dispatches sent from Tokyo by Otto Tolischus. Tolischus was the Tokyo correspondent for the New York Times and the Times of London beginning in January 1941.

My father raved about the book but I found it quite a slog. Tolischus had been expelled from Germany in 1940 for his reporting. When he arrived in Tokyo (Germany's ally and similar totalitarian state) in January 1941, he embarked on a style of reportage that probably saved his life. Rather than develop confidential sources and back channel communications, Tolischus culled his reports from various official sources such as government press releases, reports and speeches as well news articles and editorials from Japanese newspapers (which were controlled by government agencies). By comparing these different sources, Tolischus was able to coax out nuanced report about the state of affairs in Japan.

Rather than a monolithic government marching in lockstep, Tolischus showed how there were disparate elements among Japanese leaders regarding national policy and in particular, the view towards the United States. This was not news to me. Japan had three cabinet changes or governments in 1941 and there were numerous assassination attempts on political leaders. However, everything is now viewed through the prism of the inevitability of December 7.

Tolischus published "Tokyo Record" in 1943 and after he had been tortured by the Japanese so I will forgive his outmoded and jingoistic prose. The premise and his story are amazing but somewhat lost upon me by page after page of direct quotations of Japanese governmental proclamations in stilted English. The story truly becomes interesting on December 8 when Tolischus is arrested for revealing state secrets in his news dispatches. I found it striking that some of the torture techniques the Japanese police used on him were extended periods in "stress positions" and solitary confinement in a cold cell. It was sobering to see the parallels between Tokyo 1941 and Guantanamo Bay 2005 drawn by someone other than a rabid anti-war activist.

One of Tolischus' main defense arguments was that he only quoted from public sources and submitted everything to a government censor ergo everything he published was public record and de facto not a state secret. Despite these cogent arguments, Tolischus was sentenced to 18 months in prison but the sentence was suspended during a three year probationary period. Soon after sentencing, Tolischus was allowed to leave Japan as part of a prisoner exchange with the US.

It wasn't until Tolischus described in detail his 6 months in captivity that I found the book worthwhile. Regardless, Tolischus threw out some choice bon mots along the way. I chuckled at these three in particular.

"After seeing it [the Tokyo Red Light District], I realized that the Japanese like their loves cold and businesslike; and I understood why the rape of girls in their early teens was a favorite topic of Japanese literati."

"That was the first Japanese I had met who could see himself as others saw him. I thought it must be his French studies that gave him [one of his interrogators] this rare objectivity."

"When she [his interpreter] saw me look around, she smiled and shook hands with herself in congratulation. I always did feel that the Japanese women were a different race from the men."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Previewing the Rest of 2009

As I mentioned, the 3rd Annual Chinese American Film Festival is currently running at the 4 Star. Originally scheduled for November 12 to 19, I was informed (by Frank Lee Jr.) that the festival has been extended through Sunday, November 22. The schedule for November 20 to 22 has yet to be announced

They are screening 8 films at the festival. I've previously seen two of them - Red Cliff at last month's Mill Valley Film Festival and The Equation of Love and Death at this year's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. This festival is referring to the film as Red Cliff II but I'm certain that there is only one English subtitled version. Confusion arises because in China, the film was released in two parts but the English subtitled version is an abridged version of the two Chinese films. I think it is referred to as Red Cliff II because most of the footage in English subtitled version is taken from the second Chinese film.

Of course I shouldn't be so quick to assume subtitles because the 4 Star did it again. What exactly did they do? They screened a Chinese language film without English subtitles. The program guide states "All films are presented in Chinese with English subtitles at 4-Star Theatre unless specified otherwise" and nowhere was it specified that Sophie's Revenge was not subtitled. The 4 Star did this last year with Shanghai Red.

I sat through the first 10 minutes of Sophie's Revenge wondering if I could catch the gist of the Ziyi Zhang comedy but there was too much dialogue.

As I left, I asked Frank if "future screenings" will be subtitled. He said yes. I was referring to future screening of Sophie's Revenge but I wonder if he thought I was referring to future screenings of all the other films at the festival. I didn't realize there may have been a confusion until I was driving home.

Among the films I want to see at the festival are:

The Founding of A Republic - Filmed for the celebration of the country’s 60th birthday, this offering from China Film Board chairman Sanping Han tells the story of the founding of the PRC. The movie talks about a series of stories from 1945 up until 1949 when the PRC was founded. Chinese megacelebrities Chen Kaige, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Andy Lau, Chen Daoming star.

Turning Point 1977 - a ground-breaking drama that won critical and box office acclaim when it opened in China earlier this year. Set at the close of the Cultural Revolution, it tells the story of a group of young people on a remote state-run farm who must fight for the right to determine their own futures.

Sophie's Revenge - Sophie (Ziyi Zhang) is a talented cartoonist who seems to have it all - a successful career, great friends, and the perfect, handsome, fiancé, Jeff (Ji-seob So), a surgeon who her mother adores. So when Jeff is stolen away by Anna (Bingbing Fan), a beautiful actress, Sophie wants revenge. This assumes that an English subtitled version is screened.


The PFA has two series that interest me.

A Woman’s Face: Ingrid Bergman in Europe run from November 4 to December 19.

While many viewers will always remember her for American films like Casablanca and Notorious, there is much more to the work of Ingrid Bergman (1915–1982) than her Hollywood heyday. Bergman’s radiant looks and her distinctive combination of sensual directness and exquisite sensitivity were already evident in the films she made in Sweden in the 1930s; it was her work in Intermezzo (1936) that inspired David O. Selznick to sign her to MGM. The American career that followed was abruptly derailed when she had an extramarital affair with Roberto Rossellini and became pregnant with his child during the production of Stromboli in 1949, causing an international uproar and tainting the reception of the fascinating films the director and actress made together. Bergman eventually returned to the United States, but continued working in Europe on occasion; her last big-screen performance was for that other Swedish Bergman, Ingmar, in Autumn Sonata.

The series consists of nine films and a presentation. The highlights for me are:

A Woman’s Face (1936) - Bergman is cast very much against type in this darkly atmospheric film. Her Anna Holm is a disfigured and embittered young woman whose revenge is to blackmail illicit lovers at the peak of a happiness she can never know—because of her face. But behind her distorted visage and vicious personality crouches a little girl whose world was destroyed, and it is this role that Bergman develops most subtly. With classic soap-opera inevitability, the husband of one of her victims is a plastic surgeon, but now we have a beauty amid beasts—sinister, greedy blackmailers abound—and Anna Holm plotting a murder. In the film’s pivotal scene, a kiss from a child succeeds where a surgeon’s knife failed—and Bergman (with the help of some luminous lighting) transforms “before our eyes” in a wholly internal special effect. “A woman’s face” becomes “a woman’s place.”

Stromboli (1949) - The first of Bergman’s films for Roberto Rossellini, Stromboli was shot on the volcanic island of the title, with the townspeople playing a part in the drama. Bergman portrays a Lithuanian refugee, Karin, who, in order to escape the horrors of postwar internment camps, agrees to marry an Italian fisherman and live with him on his island. Tied to the traditions of marriage and faced with a culture whose profoundly simple way of life is incomprehensible to her, she finds that her new “security” is worse than her former existence as a displaced person. Rossellini sets his tale against stunning natural imagery, including a documentary-like tuna-catch sequence and a dramatic finale, during which Karin, trying to flee, is caught not by her husband but by the island itself.

Autumn Sonata (1978) - The warm autumnal hues of a house on a lake give a false, perhaps wished-for sense of security to the setting, the home of a pastor and his wife, Eva (Liv Ullmann). Very soon the steely tone of love avoided, attempted, and denied overrides any hope. The arrival of Eva’s mother (Ingrid Bergman), a world-traveling concert pianist, for their first meeting in seven years occasions a near-complete opening out of feelings by daughter and mother. Near complete, for Ingrid Bergman subtly portrays the mother’s love, grief, and guilt as mercurial posturings of a virtuoso performer. The better for our understanding of Eva’s sense of abandonment and loss, conveyed in Ullmann’s bruising honesty and echoed in the utterings of Eva’s disabled sister, Helena. Bergman uses a formal combination of flashback tableau and piercing close-up to answer the daughter’s worst fear—that her grief is her mother’s secret pleasure—with the reality of indifference.


The other PFA program that caught my attention is Otto Preminger: Anatomy of a Movie.

As legend would have it, Otto Preminger was a bald-headed baddy scolding helpless actors about flaws in their performance—the tyrant on the set. But Preminger’s films, some thirty-seven in all, bear no sign of this heated temperament, instead sharing a muted detachment that ironically excites our own engagement with his complex characters. A transplant from Viennese theater, Preminger proffered an overarching vision that found its way into almost every genre, whether it be mystery, melodrama, biopic, comedy, musical, or historical saga. From his earliest triumphs, a string of taut noirs like Laura, Fallen Angel, and Whirlpool, through his feisty indie films of the fifties, Saint Joan, The Man with the Golden Arm, and others, to his politically inflected epics like Exodus and Advise and Consent, Preminger promoted a cool take on human nature that simultaneously savored cinema’s expansive visual spaces; over time his eloquent way with the camera grew complex and sensuous. The willful director’s insistence on artistic autonomy compelled him to become one of the first champions of independent film. Beginning with 1953’s The Moon Is Blue, Preminger released a trove of spirited works (Anatomy of a Murder, Carmen Jones, Bonjour Tristesse) notable for their single-minded pursuit of prickly social ills like drug addiction, racism, and promiscuity. Join us for this fourteen-film survey of a director who, when he was bad, was better.

Jam packed with 14 films from November 27 to December 20, I can tell that I'll be spending a lot of time in Berkeley this December.

Advise and Consent (1962) - A riveting political thriller, Advise and Consent is also proof positive that nothing changes. This decades-old drama of Beltway intrigue reads like a contemporary playbook for political maneuvering. When an ailing president (Franchot Tone) nominates a controversial figure (Henry Fonda) to be secretary of state, the confirmation hearing becomes a blind covering cabals of conniving senators bent on achieving self-serving ends. The two camps are led by Majority Leader Bob Munson (Walter Pidgeon), a glib gladhander lining up the liberals, and Sen. Seabright Cooley (Charles Laughton), a smarmy Dixiecrat agitating for the conservative ranks. From the glitzy estates of Washington power brokers to grimy gay bars in Greenwich Village, the subterfuge and scandal never lose hold. Preminger’s screenplay retains the smart precision of Allen Drury’s novel, in which the language of innuendo is as lethal as a Luger. Compellingly caustic, Advise and Consent ends with a simple lesson: “This is a Washington, D.C., kind of lie. It’s when the other person knows you’re lying and also knows you know he knows.”

Saint Joan (1957) - In 1956, Preminger began a search for an unknown actress to play Joan of Arc in an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s flamboyant play. Eighteen-year-old Jean Seberg was selected from the pool of eighteen thousand applicants. As the Maid of Orléans, Seberg stands amidst a compact version of the stinging play, pared down by Graham Greene to a fleet rendition of the testy three-and-a-half-hour original. This handsome black-and-white production, with more circumstance than pomp, follows the cross-dressing saint-to-be as she leads the rout of the British at Orléans. Richard Widmark plays Charles VII, Joan’s patron and a true pretender to the throne in that his retardation makes him unfit to rule. Answering God’s guidance, the butch-coiffed combatant leads the French forces to further victories until she is captured by the British invaders. Joan is tried for heresy in a clerical tribunal that bears the Church’s immense weight. These scenes of theological debate are handled in sprightly fashion by the slight Seberg, who rises to the occasion like an ember in an updraft.

Carmen Jones (1955) - In Preminger’s all-black-cast feature, Dorothy Dandridge is a “hot bundle,” a first-class floozie with a fiery frame. The object of her amorous activation is Joe, played forthrightly by Harry Belafonte, a G.I. heading for flight school. A black man who has succeeded within the white confines of a military at war, Joe is all control. But Dandridge’s infectious pleasure seeker Carmen Jones has enough hormonal heft to undo legions. This darkly jubilant musical is based on an Oscar Hammerstein adaptation of Bizet’s famed opera, transported to a Florida army base and then Chicago in the forties. Except for irrepressible Pearl Bailey, the principal singers are dubbed—Dandridge by Marilyn Horne and Belafonte by Le Vern Hutcherson. But the vernacular lyrics sit surprisingly well inside Bizet’s melodies, especially Bailey’s jumpin’ “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” and Joe Adams’s “Stan’ Up and Fight.” A hip-swirling hedonist, Carmen Jones has a flammable lust for life. And her pilot project? Joe burns, then crashes.

Bonjour Tristesse (1958) - This Jean Seberg is not the butch ascetic of Saint Joan, but a haughty teenybopper idling away her extravagant summer on the Riviera. Her closest companion is her daddy, an aging playboy flawlessly tippled by a decadent David Niven. Indulgent daughter and reckless role model languish in the posh pleasure of the moment. Then Anne (Deborah Kerr) arrives, a stately and worldly wise woman, unlike the nymphets typically trailed by Dad. Based on Françoise Sagan’s notorious novel, the film begins in the black-and-white dreariness of a wintry Paris, then effortlessly revisits the past in a profusion of widescreen Technicolor. When Daddy succumbs to the ripe charms of Anne and marriage is imminent, Seberg’s Cécile attempts to undermine their sobering relationship, to tragic ends. This restored CinemaScope print brings to the fore Preminger’s masterful use of color and composition, but it is a visual delight paradoxically tinted by sadness (the tristesse of the title), the woeful outcome of that long, hot, and ignominious summer.

Although I saw Anatomy of a Murder at a Jazz in Noir Film Festival at the Balboa a few years ago, the print was horrible. The PFA is screening a "Restored Print." I enjoyed the film so much that I've mentally committed to making the December 2 screening.


To complement the PFA's Preminger program, Film on Film is screening The Cardinal - a 1963 film directed by Preminger. The Vatican's liaison officer for the film was the future Pope Benedict XVI. The screening takes place on December 6 at the PFA.


The Castro Theater announced a late addition to its November schedule. On Friday, November 20 (11:59 PM), they are screening Black Dynamite in conjunction with Oakland Underground Film Festival.

Black Dynamite is destined for cult film status. This action-packed comedy is meticulously and lovingly rooted in the great traditions of American Blaxploitation and Kung Fu films. A fresh and outrageous remix of films like Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972), and The Mack (1974), Black Dynamite is wrapped in a delicious and funky original soundtrack.

Directed by Scott Sanders, Black Dynamite is “...a neck-snapping orgy of martial-arts mayhem..." (Film Threat) and "...sustains the comedy while taking a nice big sucker punch at the underlying politics of our time." (Sundance Film Festival) Don’t miss your chance to see this soon-to-be classic film that “…leaves its predecessors in the dust, largely thanks to its filmmakers’ genre expertise, zany plot/sharp comedy writing, and of course, the physical prowess and deadpan hilarity of its co-writer/star Michael Jai White, who is one bad, righteous mothaf*cka.” (Marlow Stern)

Co-starring Tommy Davidson, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Arsenio Hall, Byron Minns, Kym Whitley, and Richard Edson.

Comparing the film to Shaft, Super Fly and The Mack seriously raises the expectations or should I say Blaxpectations? The film also screens at 11:59 PM on Saturday, November 21 at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland.


The Castro is screening Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) on Wednesday, November 18. Having missed every opportunity to see this film on the big screen, I'll try my best to catch this screening.

Welles' finely honed follow-up to Citizen Kane is an opulent, elegiac melodrama about a prominent family and their fall from fortune amidst social change in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis. Though heavily altered by the studio, this strikingly powerful and poignant film still possesses the magic of Welles' vision. With Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Agnes Moorehead, Tim Holt and Anne Baxter.

From November 20 to 22, the Castro is screening a restored print of Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950).

In December, the Castro screens two extended series - A Tribute to Samuel Goldwyn. from December 2 to 10 and Hitch For the Holidays: 13 Masterpieces by Alfred Hitchcock from December 16 to 23.

The Sam Goldwyn series has a few films that look interesting - Bulldog Drummond (1929), William Wyler's These Three (1936) and an Eddie Cantor double feature: Kid Millions (1934) & Strike Me Pink (1936).


The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is holding its Winter Event on Saturday, December 12 at the Castro.

The line-up is:

Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness; filmed in present-day Thailand; (1927)
J’accuse; (1919)
Sherlock Jr. starring & directed by Buster Keaton; (1924)
The Goat starring & directed by Buster Keaton; (1921) - preceding Sherlock Jr.
West of Zanzibar directed by Tod Browning, starring Lon Chaney and Lionel Barrymore; (1928)

West of Zanzibar appeals to me the most.

Like The Unknown, West of Zanzibar is an inspired partnership between director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney. Chaney has never been more affecting than in this fever-pitched nightmare of betrayal and revenge. Moving from the vaudeville stage to the jungles of the Congo, West of Zanzibar tells its story of darkness and redemption with great skill and beauty, investing each of its desperate characters with depth and humanity.


The Roxie is screening the film that gave birth to Italian Neo-Realism or at least introduced the genre to US audiences. I am referring to The Bicycle Thief. In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the US premiere, the Roxie is presenting a new 35 mm print.

I saw the film 6 or 7 years ago (at the Castro I believe) and was suitably impressed but I may try to see it again. Unfortunately, it plays from December 25 to December 31. The Roxie is open on Christmas Day? I may not be able to see the film unless it is held over.


Three well received films from last month's Mill Valley Film Festival have gained a limited release. I have interest in seeing all three at some point.

Precious - the 2009 MVFF Opening Night Film - An illiterate high school student, pregnant by her father for the second time and subject to relentless abuse at home, she's always, "looking up...for a piano to fall." Only the beauty of her resilience tempers the unsettling nature of her harsh existence as her fantasies and aspirations come alive in vibrant vignettes. But life at school is chaos: threatened with expulsion, she transfers to an alternative school where, under the tutelage of Ms. Rain (beautifully rendered by Paula Patton), she finds the strength within herself to determine her own destiny and "tell her story." Director Lee Daniels proves himself a bold voice in contemporary cinema, tackling tough material with uplifting consciousness and insight. And with its riveting cast—newcomer Sidibe's extraordinary performance complemented with passionate commitment by Patton, Mo'Nique as her mother and a glammed-down Mariah Carey-Precious promises to be one of this year's defining films.

Skin - If Anthony Fabian's gripping and extraordinary feature debut were fiction, nobody would believe it. But it really happened to Sandra Laing, a dark-skinned girl born to white Afrikaner parents in South Africa during the apartheid era. With the fragile support of her family and a "white" birth certificate, Sandra faces a strictly segregated racist society that sees her as black—expelling her from her all-white school and glaring at her when she ignores the "whites only" signs. A Supreme Court expert explains, to the gasps of spectators, that "polygenic inheritance," or "throwback," is plausible since most Afrikaners have black blood in them. But this still leaves her trapped between her increasingly conflicted and disturbed father (Sam Neill) and the official color barrier, as Sandra—in an intense, deeply moving performance by Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda; The Secret Life of Bees)—literally experiences the double consciousness of a tragically divided nation.

The Maid - Spanish with English subtitles; In the 23 years Raquel has been the maid for Pilar and her upper-class Chilean family, she's developed some odd habits and even odder attachments. Fiercely territorial, she resents the introduction of new help and, even when exhausted from overwork, still finds a way to lock the new maid out of the house. A class comedy, a chamber play and a story of personal growth, this wonderful grand jury prize-winner at Sundance is as wry as it is surprising. A look at the Upstairs, Downstairs dynamic, the soft jabs at liberal guilt and conservative disinterest are a hoot, but funnier still are the childish antics Raquel employs to get her way. When a free-spirited girl from the country comes to help Raquel after a fall, her creative problem-solving and open-heartedness change Raquel's attitude and make it clear: She's given so much to the family and kept so little for herself.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Prawns, Pods, New People and Loud Talk in Small Cafes

In the past month and a half, I've focused on independent documentary films, Julian Duvivier films, South Asian films, Japanese pinku eiga and films screening in Marin County. I did find time to catch three films not associated with a film festival or retrospective.


District 9; (2009) - Official Website

District 9 got a nationwide release and had a fair amount of box office success so it is well known to most. I caught it at the 4 Star. I don't have much to add that hasn't been echoed by the reviewers. I enjoyed the film; particularly the special effects, the role reversal and cinema vérité style. Sharlto Copley was effective in the lead role as the human who suddenly goes from complacent oppressor to desperately oppressed. One subplot I liked was how the Nigerian lived among the "prawns" in their concentration camp. Actually, this plot point led t a boycott of the film in Nigeria. I guess some governments don't like their citizens being depicted as cannibalistic gangsters and interspecies prostitutes.


We Live in Public directed by Ondi Timoner; documentary; (2009) - Official Website

We Live in Public played at the Roxie. It's a documentary about Josh Harris, an internet pioneer. He founded, the first internet television network to the halcyon days of the late 1990's. After minting millions the way dotcommers did back in the day, Harris moved to an experimental art project called "Quiet" where 100 people lived in an underground bunker in Manhattan. Everything was filmed, each person slept in a pod with a television from which could watch everyone else, there was no privacy (including toilets and showers), there was a gun range and for fun people could submit interrogations conducted with East German Stasi techniques. It sounds exhilarating and stultifying (and a little like Burning Man).

Eventually the project was raided by the cops on 1/1/2000 due to fears it was doomsday cult. Director Timoner (who may have been the videographer on the project) distilled the thousands of hours of footage into even handed chronicling. The thought of living in that environment does not appeal to me at all but apparently, there were many people in the late 90's that were more than willing. Actually, the Quiet project presaged the YouTube/Facebook/Burning Man/streaming video lifestyle that is not so uncommon. Ultimately, Timoner coaxes out the dehumanizing aspects of the project from the participants. The takeaway lesson is that being interconnected 24/7 is a guaranteed way to lose you morale compass and self-identity. I don't think that is particularly insightful but it was fun to watch other people come to that realization.

Harris wasn't done after Quiet was shut down. He wired up his apartment and his live-in girlfriend and him lived the ultimate jennycam life (including the infamous toiletcam). Harris wired his place with 40something camera and microphones and proceeded to live his life on camera. Not surprisingly, his relationship disintegrated although in must have been a lot of fun at the beginning. There was one scene I recall vividly. Josh's girlfriend (can't remember her name) has lost her keys. She asked aloud if anyone had seen them. Within seconds, someone texted her the location (they had instant messaging on multiple computers). Another time, Harris and his girlfriend had a argument and afterwards, they go to their respective computers to see the reaction of their audiences.

After that, Harris disappeared for several years. He lost his fortune in the dotbomb and lived on an apple farm for several years. Later he was soccer coach or something in Africa. His most recent hurrah was a failed attempt at getting funding for an idea from Google or Myspace or some internet company.

Watching the film was like watching a car crash; I knew it would end badly but there was nothing I could do.

Timoner directed an entertaining documentary in 2004 called DiG! about two bands with a love/hate relationship - Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols.


Battle League Horumô starring Chiaki Kuriyama and Takayuki Yamada; Japanese with English subtitles; (2009)

There's not much to say about Battle League Horumô. I didn't like it. It had something to do with invisible imps that fight massive battles in Kyoto. They are led by students from four universities. The students make awkward movements and speak in gibberish to lead the horumo. The two leads were Chiaki Kuriyama (Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Exte: Hair Extentsion - 2008 Hole in the Head) and Takayuki Yamada (Crows: Episode Zero - 2009 Hole in the Head)

The film was notable for me because it was the first time I've been to the new Viz Cinema or New People World Cinema in San Francisco's Japantown. I've been meaning to catch a film there since it opened (in August?). Sadly, there were only seven people in the audience. Actually, I'm glad there weren't that many because there has to be J-Pop films than Battle League Horumô.


On Veterans Day, I stopped in at the Sea Biscuit Cafe on Noriega Street - a funky little cafe that can seat about 15. Anyway, while eating my bagel (with cream cheese because they were out of hummus), I could hear a man across the room talking to the owner or at least the guy I think is the owner. They were talking about obscure horror films and I've seen all them. They talked about Machine Girl, Dead Snow and Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf. The customer looked vaguely familiar but he had this loud & raspy voice that reminded a little of Penn Jillette. I wonder how many people have seen those films and the odds that three of us would be in a small cafe out in the Avenues. I wouldn't even have been there except it was packed at Java Beach.


This gets me completely caught up in terms of documenting the films I've watched. I don't have the count and average cost of the films I've watched in 2009.

For the rest of the month, I'll be at the 4-Star to catch the Chinese American Film Festival or at the PFA to catch the Ingrid Bergman program.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

2009 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival

The 2009 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival ran from November 5 to 8. The first two days were at the Roxie and remaining days at the Castro. I saw 10 films at the festival:

Supermen of Malegaon; documentary; Hindi with English subtitles; (2008)
Warrior Boyz; documentary; (2008)
Love in India; documentary; Bengali/Hindi/Tamil with English subtitles; (2009)
Quick Gun Murugun; Tamil with English subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Full Moon; Urdu with English subtitles; (1960)
Bombay Summer; Hindi with English subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
My Heart Goes Hooray! starring Rani Mukherjee; Hindi with English subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Iron Eaters; documentary; Bengali with English subtitles; (2008)
Mad, Sad & Bad; (2009) - Official Website
Zero Bridge; directed by Tariq Tapa; Kashmiri/Urdu with English subtitles; (2008) - Official Website


Quoting from their website, 3rd I is a non-profit, national organization committed to promoting diverse images of South Asians through independent film. We represent filmmakers and audiences from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, The Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and the South Asian Diaspora. We support our mission by providing film screenings, filmmaking courses, networking resources, and a distribution channel for the South Asian-American film community and our audiences.

That seems a little far afield for me. My interest in Asian films centers on Japanese films with side order of Chinese. I don't think I can identify Bhutan, Nepal and The Maldives on a map. Also, there were a couple languages in the film list that I didn't even know existed. Despite my geographic and linguistic ignorance, I've become mildly interested in films from South Asia.


My favorite film of the festival was Zero Bridge. The film tells the story of two young people in Kashmir. Dilawar is a 17 year old boy. Intelligent and ambitious, Dilawar is also a juvenile delinquent and looks to be a budding sociopath. He steals a young woman's purse including her passport. By coincidence (that can only happen at the movies), he encounters the woman (named Bani) at her travel agency. The two strike up a relationship. It develops into something more than a friendship and less than a romance.

The two have much in common. Bani studied physics at a US university; back in Kashmir, she feels stifled by her second class status. Society and her own family expect her to assume a role of subservience befitting a woman in Kashmir. Dilawar has been abandoned by his mother and lives with his uncle - brutish and ignorant although not entirely uncaring. When Bani's family arrange a marriage for her (with her cousin no less!), she decides to run away. She enlist Dilawar to accompany her as he has had his fill of his uncle. Ultimately, Bani's escape attempt is thwarted and Dilawar, without Bani resolve to steel his spine, skulks back to his uncle's home.

The film is unrelenting in its disconsolate depiction of reality in Kashmir. The audience is left to believe that Bani & Dilawar will live the rest of their lives as domestic chattel and in poverty, respectively. Dilawar in particular, seems to have lost the battle for his own soul. Even after Dilawar becomes friends with Bani, he sells her passport for some quick cash. He knowingly denies her an escape from the country because she can't get a new passport without her disapproving family's permission. Bani is unaware of this action but she becomes aware that Dilawar has been deceiving her. Under the ruse of helping him with his math homework, Bani has been unwittingly doing homework for other teenagers who have paid Dilawar to do their homework. After becoming aware of Dilawar's scheme, Bani forgives him.

The film evoked so many contradictory feelings in me. Towards the end, I was rooting for Bani & Dilawar to become romantic and escape their circumstances. Yet, I couldn't fully commit to the relationship because I knew it was built on Dilawar's lies and deceptions. I found myself so drawn to Bani (or actress Taniya Khan's portrayal) that I surprised myself with my emotional response to her getting caught while trying to avoid her arranged marriage.

Dilawar (Mohamad Imran Tapa) was the more complex character. I am reminded of the phrase "hate the sin, love the sinner." I think that is a Christian precept but applied to Dilawar (a Muslin). I can't recall a film that engrossed me and manipulated my emotions in such a skillful manner.

After the film, director Tariq Tapa (most likely a relative of the actor who portrayed Dilawar) spoke about the film. I found Mr. Tapa to be one of the most eloquent and articulate speakers I've ever witnessed at a film festival. He skillfully deflected a criticism (disguised as a question) from an audience member about his choice of not depicting the martial law currently imposed in Kashmir. Without ever doubting his strong opposition to the current state of affairs, Tapa masterfully argued that by focusing on the story of two individuals, he could better render a critique of Kashmir. After seeing so many agitators and polemicists (on the stage and in the audience) at the various film festivals, it was beyond refreshing to see a thoughtful and affable filmmaker. I look forward to see future films from Tapa. He shared that he is currently working on a miniseries about the FBI.

I guess I should mention that Zero Bridge was Tapa's film project at Cal Arts film school. From film school project to festival circuit darling, Zero Bridge has exceeded all expectations by the director.

Taniya Khan (left) and Mohamad Imran Tapa in Zero Bridge


Another powerful film was Iron Eaters, a documentary about ship dismantling in Chittabang, Bangladesh (fortunately, there was a map at the beginning of the film). Giant container ships are sold to ship-breaking yards in Chittabang that use cheap labor as their biggest asset. Northern farmers head to the southern coasts during the dry season to earn extra money as ship breakers. The work is brutal and only the poorest of the poor will do it. Most of the work involves pulling ships or pieces of ships through mud and muck or shoveling the foulest of sludge from the inner holds of the ships as they are broken apart.

The documentary focuses mainly the migrant workers who handle their dire circumstances with an amazing combination of humor, optimism and pragmatism. The film leads to the inevitable confrontation between the owners and a middle layer of management comprised of local businessmen and the migrant workers. The ending is not a surprise but still moved me. Iron Eaters is a story of poverty that has been told many times in many different ways but still manages to be fresh.


The Bollywood spectacular was My Heart Goes Hooray! starring Rani Mukherjee. Mukherjee is a huge star in Bollywood. Undeniably beautiful, she exhibits a flair for comedy in My Heart Goes Hooray!. Mukherjee plays a cricket playing phenom from a small town. When the Indian national team holds open tryouts, she is denied entry because she is a woman. Fortunately, her family runs a theater/cabaret so she has access to props and makeup - namely a fake beard and a turban. Veera returns as Veer the next day and gains admission.

She's not home safe yet (mixing sporting metaphors). She has to deal with hard-ass team captain Rohan (Shahid Kapur) who doesn't approve of Veer's showboating on the field. Also, when caught (buck naked in the men's locker room), Veera claims to be Veer's sister. You guessed it - Rohan and Veera begin romancing while Rohan and Veer bonds as teammates and potential brothers-in-law. The ending is telegraphed an hour in advance but it doesn't take away from a film like this. Rousing dance numbers and cross-dressing humor carry the film. I will say that when compared to Om Shanti Om or Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, My Heart Goes Hooray! suffered. The song & dance numbers were not quite as ebullient and the laughs not quite as uproarious.

Rani Mukerjee


A few other quick notes.

Warrior Boyz was documentary about South Asian teenage boys in the Vancouver, British Columbia area who fall in with street gangs. What made the film fascinating was that these boys do not come from poverty. Their families are working class & middle class which is not the typical gangbanga profile. More than wannabe gangstas, these Sikhs and Punjabis are dying and going to prison. The film nor the filmmaker answered the question as to why these boys are engaged in this pernicious lifestyle which taken root in the community.

Quick Gun Murugun was high camp and a cult film/character in India. Unfortunately, the reference (and a poor subtitling placement) left me bewildered. Without familiarity of the cultural touchstones in the film, I missed most of the humor (but none of the outrageousness).

Bombay Summer was an unhurried film about a summer in Bombay. The story involved a slow developing love triangle that pitted the sexes and classes (maybe castes would be a better term for an Indian film). Languid in the best cinematic sense of the word, the humid heat of Bombay could almost be felt in the way the characters interacted and drank their cold coconut water. Matters come to a tragic conclusion which left me silently stunned. The three leads turned in strong performances but I was most impressed by Tanishtha Chatterjee as the center of the love triangle.

Tanishtha Chatterjee in Bombay Summer

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pink Cinema Revolution: The Radical Films of Koji Wakamatsu

The YBCA had a program in October called Pink Cinema Revolution: The Radical Films of Koji Wakamatsu. My only exposure to Pinku Eiga was from Indiefest. I described Pinku Eiga as "softcore porn" but the YBCA program was anything but pornographic. I would describe Wakamatsu's works as Godard crossed with Oshima. Indeed, the UC grad student or instructor who introduced two of the films mentioned that Oshima and Wakamatsu were having a cinematic conversation through their films. Wakamatsu was a producer of Oshima's In the Realm of Senses which played at the PFA's Oshima retrospective earlier this year.

More than any other Japanese films, those made by Koji Wakamatsu in the '60s and '70s are deeply rooted in the political and social upheavals of the era. One of the leaders of ‘pink cinema,’ Wakamatsu has always been obsessed with the history of student protest movements. The term ‘pink cinema’ or ‘pinku eiga’ comes from the English word ‘pink’, and the Japanese word ‘eiga’, meaning cinema. The pinku eiga—or Japanese sexploitation—were independent film productions that from the mid '60s to early '70s experimented with a new form of filmmaking that blended sex and violence.

Inspired by the narrative processes, aesthetics and production means of the French New Wave, pink films and their makers are inseparable from the history of the Japanese revolutionary left. This film movement, certainly the most extreme that developed at the time in industrialized countries, is nonetheless comparable to the cinema of Pasolini or Fassbinder, distilling the same subversive tendencies and denunciation of “bourgeois morality.” (Michaël Prazan)


The series started with Ecstasy of the Angels (1972). Advertised as a 35 mm print, the screening was actually a DVD due to mail problems. The film is a stylish political statement. The plot revolves around some student activists (terrorists) fighting for The Cause who steal some weapons from a US military base. Not your run of the mill activists, these students have for formed clandestine cells named after the seasons of the year & each cell leader is named after a month. So they refer to each other as Autumn's October for example. It's all very covert & militant but eventually the different cells begin infighting. The "four seasons" would meet at a swank cabaret. They would exchange some notes and immediately burn them. They hid out at safe houses, tortured each other and eventually lobbed some bombs. Unfamiliar with the leftist causes of 1970's Japan, I found the film to be dated, unfamiliar and boring.

Not willing to give up on Wakamatsu, I next went to Violated Angels (1967). This film was a surrealistic tale of a serial killer that terrorizes a nursing dorm. I think the film represented the killer's delusional thoughts, I once again wondered what I was watching.

I'm glad to say that the third time was a charm. All the films in the series were from the late 60's and early 70's except the final screening - United Red Army (2007). Clocking in at an intimidating 190 minutes, I was hesitant to commit 3 hours of my life to a director whose previous films left me confused and underwhelmed.

United Red Army was nothing like the previous two films I mentioned. First of all, it had a narrative structure. Second, it had the benefit of 35 years of perspective. The film told the story of the Asama-Sansō Incident in 1972. The United Red Army was a communist paramilitary group comprised mostly of college students.

The first third of the film told the story of the formation of the URA and political climate in which it existed. The second third (which was the most powerful) involved the members hiding and training in a remote mountain base camp. Suspicions and petty jealousies eventually led way for the members to engage in brutal sessions of "self-criticism." Nominally intended to critique one's performance so as to improve future group operations, the sessions devolved into opportunities for the leaders and more sanctimonious communists to verbally bully, assault and eventually kill the rank & file as well as the poseurs.

The most disturbing scene in the film occurred when a young woman who seemed more interested in the camaraderie then communist dogma, was forced to self-criticize herself by beating her own face. The camera never showed the impact of her own fist but when she was spent, the leader (standout performance by Akie Namiki) showed her a mirror so she could gaze upon her bloodied and bruised face. The audience shares its first glimpse of her deformed face along with her. It was an outstanding sequence which made me squirm in my seat.

In this climate, a communist had to establish his/her bona fides which was an impossible task given the character flaws of the two main leaders. Eventually, 8 members were "purged." Undoubtedly the beatings would have continued except some of the members escaped. The remaining members dispersed to fight the good fight. They were captured except for five of them.

The final third of the film depicted the Asama-Sansō Incident in which the five fugitives holed up at an inn while holding the innkeeper's wife hostage. They held out for 10 days, ignoring their families pleas and their own self-doubts. Showing tremendous restraint, the police stormed the inn and captured all five fugitives alive (one lost an eye). Reportedly, Wakamatsu's own house stood in for the inn and was destroyed during filming when depicting the siege and storm.

This film reminded me of The Baader Meinhof Complex which was set in a contemporary period and involved similar radicals. The length of the film undoubtedly mirrored the weariness of radicals. After years of struggle, a brutal round of self-criticism and final exhausting siege, the audience felt a fraction of the fatigue as the URA members must have felt. Infighting, pettiness, austere living conditions and unrelenting communist indoctrination did more to destroy the radical left in the 1970's than the establishment. This was the core message in both The Baader Meinhof Complex and United Red Army. Baader Meinhof told the story with more panache whereas United Red Army felt like the cinematic equivalent of the beatings the members received.

United Red Army was one of the best films I've seen this year.

Monday, November 9, 2009

2009 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival (DocFest)

The 2009 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival ran from October 16 to 29 at the Roxie. It was not economic for me to purchase a festival pass at Docfest this year. I missed several days due to the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Julien Duvivier retrospective at the PFA. I ended up buying a 10 film voucher for Docfest and by the end of the festival, I regretted that I was not able to see more of the films. The line-up was top quality at this year’s festival. Kudos to the programmers. Also, attendance was quite strong for several of the screenings.

Feature Programs
Between the Folds; (2008) - Official Website
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virgina; (2009) - Official Website
Cat Ladies; (2009) - Official Website
What’s the Matter with Kansas?; (2009) - Official Website
The Philosopher Kings; (2009) - Official Website
Cropsey; (2009) - Official Website
Vampiro - Angel, Devil, Hero; (2009) - Official Website
The Great Contemporary Art Bubble; (2009)
Pop Star on Ice; (2009) - Official Website


I recommend all the feature films except What’s the Matter with Kansas? which was disjointed. I couldn't figure out what story it was trying to tell. The film takes its title from a 2004 book by Thomas Frank. The book mined the irony of Kansans supporting conservative political candidates despite the belief and some empirical evidence that conservative policies are harming the economy of Kansas. Nominally, that was what the film was also about but I didn't find much in terms of counterfactual evidence. The film did a nice job of chronicling the rise of populism in the early 20th century in Kansas. Most of the film seemed to follow a church congregation as they hitched their financial wagon to an amusement park which eventually folded. There is another subplot following a small farmer who is decided not conservative or at least not a Republican. George Bush get trashed in the film. There was a few eye popping moments. One woman said that 50%(?) of students lose their religious faith while in college. Another family consisting of an amateur gospel singing wife and MD husband invest and lose several hundred thousand dollars in the aforementioned amusement park. Given all the Ponzi schemes of late, I don't find that worthy of a documentary.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? felt like it started with a premise that could not be supported by the film footage.


The 10th program I saw consisted of films from four different countries – UK, Finland, Japan & Russia. The short film program was titled Worldwide Shorts: Snapshots of Life in Five Different Countries. The title was inaccurate for my screening. Originally, a Romanian film called The Flying Shepherd was scheduled but Faye Dearborn announced it was not available for that screening. In its place was a film called The Russian Woman. I believe that was the title. It was about a track walker who seemed to spend most of her work hours tightening lugnuts on railroad ties with a long wrench.

Everyday People
Sweat; Finnish with subtitles
Story of a Businesswoman; Japanese with subtitles
Songs from the Tundra; Russian with subtitles

Other Short Films Preceding Feature Programs
Among the Giants; (2009) - Official Website
Mouse Race; (2009)
The Physics Teacher

Story of a Businesswoman, directed by a SFSU graduate and I believe, UCLA Film School student, stood out among the short films. Chronicling the life of a Japanese businesswoman, the Q&A after the film was fascinating. Subjected to sexism, the businesswoman slowly transforms herself from victim to oppressor. She takes on some of the characteristics that the boorish men exhibit; seemingly unaware of the transformation taking place within her. Director Mikiko Sasaki later revealed that Michiko Nakamura (the subject of the documentary), had cuckolded her husband as seems common among powerful (and would be powerful) businessmen.

Sweat, about a burly competitor in the World Sauna Championships, was a lot of fun. The same could be said about Everyday People. As the opening credits rolled, the film claimed to star Julia Roberts, Tom Jones, Will Smith and a host of other celebrities. I wondered how an independent film could get all these big stars or why they hadn't been sued to remove them from the credits. The films really did feature everyone in the credit...just not the celebrity version. The film was about people who share names with celebrities and how they cope with the coincidence. Lighthearted and full of amusing anecdotes, the film was one of the funniest of the festival which seemed weighted to more serious fare this year.


My favorite film of the festival was Cropsey about a child kidnapper/murderer on Staten Island. The filmmakers (Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio) grew up on Staten Island during the 1980's when a number of children went missing. There were urban legends about an escaped mental patient from nearby Willowbrook Mental Institution. Gerardo Rivera did an exposé on the deplorable conditions at the state-run institution which led to its eventually shuttering. However, the imposing facility remains standing to this day - decaying with the sordid secrets of its past. One such secret is that a former employee, Andre Rand, may have been responsible for the string of abductions and missing persons from the 80's.

The title refers to the urban legend (well known along the Eastern Seaboard) about a maniacal killer hunting Boy Scouts and other campers. The film, like the legend, leave some ambiguity about the identity of the Staten Island Cropsey. Rand was convicted of abducting a young girl in the 80's. Her body was discovered but Rand was not convicted of that crime. As Rand approaches his release date, the DA files new charges against Rand on a decades old missing persons case. Certainly, the circumstantial evidence against Rand is formidable. His unnerving behavior/appearance doesn't help matters. The police, DA and group of parents are convinced of his guilt but the filmmakers uncover inconsistencies in the prosecution's case as well shine a light on some of the biases against Rand.

Ultimately, Rand is convicted of the second crime and will likely spend the rest of his life in prison. The viewer is left to wonder if he was guilty of the crime or perhaps feel he is surely guilty of some heinous crime and this conviction is just as good as any other. In addition to this nagging (or maybe niggling) sense of a miscarriage of the law (but not necessarily justice), the filmmakers bring in a potpourri of side stories - the general sense of inferiority by and towards Staten Islanders, possible connections to Satanist rituals and some disquieting interaction with Rand himself. Indeed, the only criticism I have with the film is that filmmakers seemed involve themselves too much with the story. They were trying to secure an interview with Rand. He seemed to manipulate them for his own means or amusement. I think the film would have been better if they had edited out those scenes.


Cat Ladies also impressed me. It is the story of four women in the Toronto area who have varying number of cats. The woman with the fewest has three; the woman with the most has too many to count. In general, the women's neuroses and anxieties were proportional to the number of cats they owned. In fact, I found that the film somehow managed to reinforce the stereotype while giving a human face to these women. In all four cases, the women were victims of some emotional trauma - one woman was adopted and looked/behaved differently than her family, another was the victim on physical abuse as a child and the woman with the most cats was subjected to anti-German hate crimes in the years immediately after WWII.

The film evoked a lot of sympathy from me. I found myself rooting for these women to abandon the cats so that they could get on with their lives. Invariably, these women were using the cats as an excuse to maintain their dysfunctional lives or to cope with their emotional disorders. Left unstated was what drives some women to cope by accumulating cats as opposed to coping by excessive drug/alcohol consumption, promiscuous behavior, eating disorders, etc.. I also wondered why there are no "cat men" or "dog men."


Vampiro was another film that elicited a strong response from me. The film chronicles a year in the life of Vampiro, a Canadian wrestler named Ian Hodgkinson, that has hit it big in Mexico as a luchador. Actually, he hit it big and by the time we catch him, he is aging and looking for an escape plan. Much like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Hodgkinson is trying to hold on to what he has while making the transition to the next phase in his life. Hodgkinson is tailor made for the documentary. In addition to being pro wrestler and wearing the ghoulish makeup, Hodgkinson has a back story that is compelling. Molested by a neighbor as a boy (then molested by the priest his mother sends him to for counseling), estranged from his father until the very day of his death, bodyguard for Milli Vanilli, still in love with his ex-wife, doting father and would-be wrestling impresario. The film careens from dinghy bars with makeshift wrestling rings to arenas in Mexico as Hodgkinson and others recount his life. Funny, sad, uplifting and everything else in between, the film is anchored by the likable Hodgkinson's (although some references are made to his shortcomings). Ian Hodgkinson is the type of person that documentaries are made about.


At the other end of the spectrum are the distasteful White family in The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virgina. Over the top and audacious, this "documentary" follows a clan of misfits and criminals that could have been the inspiration for Deliverance. Among the more outrageous moments were the scenes where the family snorts cocaine at their matriarch's 85th birthday party and when a mother (still in hospital gown) does line of cocaine in her hospital room the day after she gives birth. Another White is interviewed from jail where he is awaiting trial for shooting his mother's boyfriend in the face. It was impossible to keep track of all the siblings and cousins. All the women had deep, raspy voices as if they had Marlboros and Jack Daniels for breakfast, lunch & dinner. I don't know how much of the film was staged or if they were truly as shameless as they appeared on screen. Regardless, under the rubric of "documentary," the Whites were wildly entertaining. A sheriff described it best by saying that the Whites were a product of their culture - isolated, fatalistic and uneducated, they simply passed down, through the generations, an ethos of "live hard before you die" because they know no other way of life.