Sunday, May 15, 2011

2011 San Francisco International Film Festival

I only saw 11 films at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. That compares to 21 which I saw in 2010. I saw two films at the Viz, two films at the PFA, two at the Castro and the remainder at the Kabuki.

After a busy first quarter, I didn't have the energy to go for broke with SFIFF. The crowds and likelihood that the films would be released were enough to dissuade me. I watched 11 films on 8 different days. The festival ran 15 days so I only attended it on half of the days. That's a very leisurely pace for me. Among the non-cinematic memorable moments, I saw two men get into a racially charged yelling match in front of the Kabuki and an elderly lady fall ass over teakettle in the PFA theater during the film. The lady was actually sitting directly next to me. I thought she left at the intermission but several minutes into the second act, I heard her tumble a few rows behind me. I thought an ambulance would be needed as it took an extremely long time for her to regain her feet but eventually she hobbled out. Frequently, I see the staff at PFA lead people to their seats with flashlights after the film has started. I'm not sure why this was not the case this time.

I can report on one unofficial announcement which drew gasps of excitement from the audience. Prior to the screening of The Stool Pigeon, programmer Sean Uyehara stated there is a good chance that the San Francisco Film Society would add a Hong Kong film series to their fall offering of programming which includes French, Italian, Taiwanese, animated and local films.

I read a statistic which surprised me. It was glommed from the SFIFF wrap report. The report did not give an exact audience count at the festival but a blurb at the bottom stated "Held each spring for 15 days, the International is an extraordinary showcase of cinematic discovery and innovation in the country's most beautiful city, featuring 15 juried awards, 200 films and live events with upwards of 100 participating filmmakers and diverse audiences of 75,000+ people."

I thought the number would have been larger because I recall Cinequest stating that over 90,000 people attended their festival this year. I though SFIFF was more well attended than Cinequest. It just adds to my growing appreciation of Cinequest. Comparing the two festivals, I give the edge to Cinequest in just about every category. I just wish it wasn't held in San Jose.

By the way, Cinequest has already announced that the 2012 festival will be held from February 28 to March 11. I hope it doesn't overlap with the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival which will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2012.

Prior to the screening of Fassbinder's World on a Wire at the PFA, curator Susan Oxtoby announced that PFA was planning a program of Fassbinder films during the 2011-12 academic year. She went on to say that Fassbinder was one of her favorite directors.

The 11 films I watched were:

The Stool Pigeon starring Nick Cheung and Nicholas Tse; directed by Dante Lam; Cantonese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Living on Love Alone starring Anaïs Demoustier & Pio Marmai; directed by Isabelle Czajka; French with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Love in a Puff starring Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue; directed by Pang Ho-cheung; Cantonese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
The Dish and The Spoon starring Greta Gerwig; directed by Alison Bagnall; (2011)
Sound of Noise; Swedish with subtitles; (2010) - Official Facebook
World on a Wire; directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; German with subtitles; (1973)
Hospitalité; directed by Koji Fukada; Japanese with subtitles; (2010)
La Dolce Vita starring Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg & Anouk Aimée; directed by Federico Fellini; Italian with subtitles; (1960)
13 Assassins; directed by Takashi Miike; Japanese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
The High Life; directed by Zhao Dayong; Mandarin & Cantonese with subtitles; (2010)
Outrage starring & directed by Beat Takeshi; Japanese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website


Perhaps because I saw so "few" films, the festival didn't live up to expectations. That's grading on the curve though. I expect the oldest film festival in North America to deliver consistently great films. Thinking about my subjectivity objectively, I enjoyed 9 or 10 of the 11 films I watched.

My festival favorite was the Hong Kong crime/suspense film, The Stool Pigeon. The major participants were director Dante Lam, Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung who made the wildly entertaining The Beast Stalker which I saw in 2009. The Stool Pigeon was slightly less entertaining but still a taut suspense film which kept me engaged throughout. Nick Cheung plays the cop and Nicholas Tse plays the criminal in The Stool Pigeon (their professions were reversed in The Beast Stalker). Whereas I would characterize The Beast Stalker as an action film, I consider The Stool Pigeon to be closer to Infernal Affairs - some action elements but mainly a suspense/thriller film.

The Stool Pigeon focuses on Don Lee (Cheung), a cop who uses confidential informants to break up crime gangs...frequently with dire consequences for the CIs. In his latest investigation, he latches on to Ghost (Tse) a wheel man who is getting out of prison. Ghost's sister is forced into prostitution to pay off their father's debt to loan sharks. Lee offers to pay off the debt if Ghost will infiltrate the gang of Barbarian, a vicious robber planning a jewel heist.

There are plenty of action scenes and some romantic tension between Ghost and Barbarian's girlfriend (Guey Lun-mei) but most of the psychological heavy lifting is performed by Don Lee who has seen his most recent CI nearly killed and now insane, living on the streets like a bum. In addition, Don Lee caught syphilis which he transmitted to his wife. Distraught, she attempted suicide. She survived but now has amnesia. She works at a dance studio where Don Lee attends just so he can glimpse his wife. That part was superfluous and could have been cut been the point is Don Lee is under tremendous pressure from his CIs, his supervisor, his wife's family but most of all his own conscience.

Start with some chase and fight scenes, throw in a dash of romance and a large help of internal conflict and you get The Stool Pigeon which I though was well worthwhile.


The copy for Living on Love Alone made reference to Godard's Pierrot le Fou but while watching it, I was reminded more of Breathless. Anaïs Demoustier plays Julie, a young woman who is confused about her life. She can't get excited about the jobs she takes which involve babysitting her supervisor's children on her day off or selling door-to-door magazine subscriptions. She does, however, show an aptitude to one night stands with older men.

Then she meets Ben. He is more age appropriate for her but the source of his livelihood is dubious. Julie finds a handgun in his kitchen but that doesn't dissuade her from continuing the relationship. In fact, it may even excite her although her detached demeanor gives little insight. The ending is telegraphed but its the journey that excites. Demoustier gives an amazing performance (which reminded me a little of Jean Seberg in Breathless) that is alternately cynical and naïve. Still waters run deep with Julie and her seeming passivity must be tamping down her aggressiveness. At least, that's the impression I had while the film and it was ultimately confirmed in the end (as well as a telling scene with her mother and brother).


The Stool Pigeon and Living on Love Alone were the two films I would unequivocally recommend. La Dolce Vita is also on that list but I can't add anything to the voluminous commentary on that classic film.

There were a number of films that I enjoyed that were a notch below those.

Love in a Puff was a fun romantic comedy that had two twists - it was set during the time Hong Kong enacted public smoking bans so smokers had to huddle in hidden and remote spots in order to smoke and they formed social units based around their smoking circle. Two of them, Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and Cherie (Miriam Yeung) embark on a romance which has much to overcome. First Cherie is older than Jimmy which is probably more an issue in China than here. Second, Cherie is asthmatic so she has even more reason to quit smoking than most. Jimmy, on the other hand, is on the rebound as her girlfriend has taken up with the French manager at their company. Their romance has its ups and downs and the film takes some interesting side trips than are not directly related to Jimmy & Cherie. The effect is an enjoyable lightweight comedy that was a big hit in HK. In fact, the programmer who introduced the film mentioned they are shooting the sequel.

The Swedish film Sound of Noise is a pastiche of various genres - romance, policier and avante-garde. The plot, such as it is, centers around "six guerilla percussionists whose public performances are terrorizing the city." The cop who is assigned the case is tone deaf. Not only that but his family lineage includes several noted symphony directors. Silly and surreal, Sound of Noise probably has something serious to say about television pundits, banks, high society activities such as the symphony and modern life but I wasn't looking for those messages. I "suspended disbelief" and went along for wacky and hilarious ride.

Hospitalité also likely had a serious message about hypocrisy and the pitfalls of adhering to social politeness but it was overwhelmed by preposterous plot that I can't quite identify. I've seen a few films where a stranger plants himself in the middle of a family and causes pandemonium. That is the plot for Hospitalité. The family has several secrets and shortcomings which the stranger exploits but overall his brief and notable stay leaves the family better off than before he arrived. The film had its moments but overall, I wasn't too impressed. Nice performances all around so it must have been the story or the moral that left me luke warm.

The High Life was a Chinese film about the underclass in China. We're not just talking about gangsters but con men and naive girls from the country who learn life's lesson the hard way and then some. The second half of the film shifts to a jail or low security where the guard forces his charges to read his poetry as part of their rehabilitation program. That he is susceptible to flattery is obvious in his self-serving penal techniques. However, he falls under the charm of a young female prisoner whose transfer to another facility distracts him from his duties.

The High Life was director Zhao Dayong first non-documentary feature film. In hindsight, the film felt more like documentary as if he let the story follow whatever path it would follow. However, The High Life was narrative fiction and the plot could have used some help. Programmer Rod Armstrong mentioned that Zhao would be available for Q&A after the film and alluded to the sharp turn the story takes midway but I wasn't able to stay for the Q&A.

13 Assassins and Outrage were two well made genre films (samurai and yakuza, respectively) from Japan. Directed by the prolific Takashi Miike, 13 Assassins was actually a remake of a 1963 film. The story involves a ridiculously evil lord whose atrocities go too far and motivate a group of samurais to plan his assassination...and what a plan it is! An entire town is turned into a giant trap as the brave and noble 13 take on hundreds of foes in the extended climax.

Outrage is one of those films where everyone double crosses and kills everyone else. Johnny To has made a few similar films set in the world of Hong Kong Triads. I recall seeing a similar film set in NYC and involving the Mafia. Actor, director, television talk show host, standup comedian Takeshi Kitano (aka Beat Takeshi) stars and directed Outrage. There were some nice violent, Tarantino-esque flourishes including a memorable scene at a dentist's office. The film seemed to drag on as one gangster after another was killed. I will say that Kitano has a face that looks made for Yakuza films - weathered, emotionless (except occassional eruptions of rage) and great eyes that can express emotion or glaze over to become inscrutable.

World on a Wire was a German television miniseries directed by Fassbinder. I'm not sure if Fassbinder pioneered the sci-fi techniques which would later be used in countless film. Regardless, in 2011, the 1973 production looks quaint, clichéd and extremely dated. At nearly 3.5 hours, the film also seemed self-important. Fassbinder visually style and adept handling of what can only described as melodrama were impressive enough to partially salvage the experience for me.

World on a Wire is getting at least a one-week run at the Roxie starting July 29.


That only leaves The Dish and The Spoon which is long on indie film street cred. The film itself came up short for me. The much touted performance of star Greta Gerwig left me wondering if I missed something. Actually, I did miss something because the film put me to sleep. I find that falling asleep during a film is actually quite an accurate indicator for my likes and dislikes. I fell asleep during The Dish and The Spoon, then I had dinner and watched Sound of Noise. I stayed awake every minute of Sound of Noise (on a full stomach).

I assmume The Dish and The Spoon with its reference to the nursery rhyme was intended as an adult fairy tale. The two main actors (Gerwig and Olly Alexander) play act at being a couple by switching gender roles and dressing in Colonial Era costumes. The films moves along disjointedly which some describe as quirky. However, I could never quite believe Gerwig's performance. She has a tremendous transformation though. At the beginning of the film, she looked like a teenager. By the end, she looked like a woman approaching 30. I'm not sure if that was intentional or not.

Getting back to her performance, her anger, frustration and despair was not believable to me. It looked like she was acting and her skills couldn't quite muster the inner rage and pain needed for those scenes. Her co-star Alexander also looked young but didn't age as the film progressed. He was definitely the second banana because his backstory was developed so he remained a mystery. Who is he, what is he doing in Delaware with his English accent, why was he past out in a lighthouse?

These two young people don't share physical intimacy but develop a strong bond as they pretend to be a couple. Ultimately Gerwig's character decides to return to her philandering husband (after she confronts his lover). By this point in the film, I was apathetic. I was awake but I can't recall the ending. Summarizing my criticisms of the film - Gerwig's performance wasn't as great as billed, Alexander's character could have used more development, the plot was a series of scenes which didn't tell much of a story but was supposed to sketch out Gerwig's character's journey but I could never empathize with Gerwig's character.

I will admit that the night I saw The Dish and The Spoon and The Sound of Noise at the Kabuki, SFIFF screened Toby Dammit (directed by Fellini and starring Terence Stamp) at the Castro. The screening was not announced until after the festival started and by that time I had purchased the tickets to The Dish and The Spoon and The Sound of Noise. I had a serious case of buyer's remorse which may have clouded my judgment of The Dish and The Spoon. I doubt it because I have no regrets about seeing The Sound of Noise.

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