The 51st San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF51) has just concluded. Unlike the previous two years, this year I didn”t work at the Festival, so I had no insider information to use in selecting films (nor did I have free tickets). You can see my chronicles of the 49th and 50th in the archives of this site.
For SFIFF51, I relied on the Program Guide for my selections, as well as chatting up members of the SFFS staff at the Members Night previews. The Program Guide has descriptions of each film, along with one picture. They are not reviews, but promotional descriptions meant to entice ticket buyers to buy tickets.
Here, I include the Program Guide entries for the films I saw, and append a paragraph called My Take — for my reaction to the film. I”ve rated the films, as well, from * to **** with ~ being a half star. I”ve noted the films that have distribution. Some will gain distribution due to their exposure here, some may never be seen again.
The films are presented in the order I saw them, April 25 through May 8, 2008.
UP THE YANGTZE
On a cruise ship gliding up the Yangtze River, European and North American tourists get a relaxing firsthand view of changing China. The perspective is markedly different, however, for two Chinese teenagers working on the boat. Chen Bo (assigned the gringo-friendly name Jerry) is a good-looking, supremely self-confident urban dude with a quick appreciation for the newly introduced practice of tipping. Downstairs in the galley, meanwhile, the shy country girl Yu Shui (aka Cindy) grapples with the demeaning drudgery of dirty dishes. Yu Shui would much rather be in school, but it’s not in the cards.
The imminent completion of the massive Three Gorges Dam, one of the biggest and most controversial engineering projects in human history, will submerge the meager plot of land on which her dirt-poor family ekes out its existence. Not only is there no money for her schooling, her parents will need a chunk of her check to get by. The dam is a source of pride for many Chineseâ€”even a shop owner in a village destined to disappear beneath the water refers to ‘sacrificing the little family for the big family.” But reality trumps philosophy: voice cracking, the same man laments, “China is too hard for common people.” Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang displays a lyrical eye for landscape and detail that doesn”t shy from hard truths. His haunting film leaves us mourning what is lost and wondering what is gained. Alas, progress is like a ship steaming up a river: There is no way but forward.
My take — As the cruise ship company moved from port to port on the Yangtze River to recruit workers, the filmmaker Yung Chang was given full access to find suitable subjects for his documentary. He chose wisely with the selection of Yu Shui and Jerry. While cruising the often-spectacular beauty of the river, he weaves in the stories of his subjects seamlessly. The awesome scope of the project is vividly portrayed as we watch Yu Shui’s father carry a wooden closet on his back from their shack by the river, up, up and up over the stone rip-rap to where the waterline will eventually be. But where, on the Yangtze is the dam? And where in China is the Yangtze? He doesn”t tell us, so I looked it up.
Three Gorges Dam is at Yichang, at the pink slash marks.
PS: Larry is still entertaining on cruise ships and loving the tips. Yu Shui is in high school, paid for by the film production company.
The lapping of waves, the tart sweetness of shaved ice and the meditative pleasures of “twilighting” all await visitors to Naoko Ogigami’s Glasses, a Zen comedy that wryly observes a bespectacled teacher’s vacation at an eccentric island resort. When Taeko (Satomo Kobayashi) first checks into the Hamada Inn, she can only surmise she’s arrived somewhere peculiar. The owner (Ken Mitsuishi) intentionally draws bad maps when giving directions to his beachside getaway because he likes the lack of business. Fellow guest and glasses-wearer Sakura (Masako Motai) leads people through daily “merci exercises” and takes to kneeling at Taeko’s bedside every morning to greet her when she wakes. Ogigami scrutinizes yet doesn”t quite adopt Taeko’s inquisitive if reserved reaction to her idiosyncratic surroundings. The stark soundtrack, meanwhile, which sets a recurring mandolin melody next to a variety of ambient sounds, suggests a change on the horizon, as Ogigami exploits the island setting to explore a longing for idyllic escape from the traps and trappings of modern urban society. Like her earlier hit, Seagull Diner (which also starred Kobayashi and Motai), Glasses has a healthy appetiteâ€”even while mining the awkwardness of a lobster dinner, it triggers the taste buds, and the sensory effect runs deep. Taking in her human landscape with as much relishâ€”including the memorable Haruna (the winsome Mikako Ichikawa), another Hamada Inn regular who defies her initial appearanceâ€”Ogigami even manages an inventive take on the musical dance number. Ultimately, like her protagonist, she displays a nascent gift for weaving the air.
â€”Johnny Ray Huston
From Scoop du Jour (the daily rundown of SFIFF51 activities)
Focused Elsewhere_Director Naoko Ogigami’s Glasses is a transcendental escape into a world of crystal clear blue waters, sublimely still warm afternoons and one luxurious and delectably refreshing meal after another. The gentle story of a young, bespectacled professor who retreats to a small island to find a place with no cell phone reception is as delightful and sweet as the shaved ice the characters languidly enjoy at the ocean side each afternoon. Ogigami studied filmmaking in Southern California in the 1990s but found the Western style didn”t encompass the type of story she wanted to tell. “For my first and second features I wrote screenplays in a very traditional Hollywood style and I felt that there were limits. I don”t feel you necessarily have to have the main character have some conflict,” she told the audience at the Clay. “I realized there’s a different way of telling stories. That’s what I”ve been trying to do with my subsequent films.” Her charming story weaves humor and kindness together with the simple human need to relax, to take a moment on an island where there don”t have to be answers to life’s problems. In fact, the island dwellers frequently pose questions left unanswered. One matter that was resolved in Friday’s Q&A was her inspiration for the title. “Oh,” she said, “there’s just something special about people that wear glasses.” —RNA
My take — “Why did you come here, Taeko?”
“I wanted to find a place out of cell phone range,” she replied.
There is a stark, yet warm beauty in Glasses, punctuated by mouthwatering meals prepared Hamada Inn owner. When asked about the emphasis on food, Naoko Ogigami said that the inn offered no other amenities, so the food was king. ****
THE MAN FROM LONDON
Sinister strangers lurking in shadows. A pilfered suitcase jammed with cash. Dubious alibis, criminal cover-ups and world-weary detectives. Could these well-worn tropes of film noir possibly surface in a Béla Tarr flick? Best knownâ€”and often feared, by all but the staunchest cineastesâ€”for epic-length existential dazzlers such as the seven-hour SÃ¡tÃ¡ntangÃ³ (SFIFF 1995), the legendary Hungarian director does indeed venture into previously uncharted territory here, adapting a pulp fiction by prolific Belgian paperbacker Georges Simenon. Tarr isn”t so much taken with genre conventions, however, as he is fascinated by the disastrous impulses that lead his characters into mortal, and moral, danger. The story is superficially simple: Malion, a switchman at a seaside railway station, witnesses what appears to be the robbery of a satchel and the deliberate drowning of its rightful owner. In the aftermath of this mysterious incident, our inscrutable antihero absconds with the sought-after valise, shocks his wife and daughter with his newfound riches and ultimately pays a psychic price for his transgression. This noir narrative provides ample opportunity for Tarr to tarry in the gray zone of right and wrong, chance and destiny; his cops-and-robbers ruse is not so much a whodunit as a why. With its endless tracking shots, wheezing accordion score, bleakly beautiful chiaroscuro and unflinching close-ups of faces straight out of Eastern European art film central castingâ€”not to mention a surprising performance by Academy Award—winner Tilda Swintonâ€”The Man from London is, for patient viewers, a hypnotic, oddly invigorating anti-thriller that rewards far more than the British banknotes blamed for its hapless protagonist’s turmoil.
My take — Dark, brooding, mystery, creeping, slowly, into, my, soul. Slowly and gloriously unfolding in rich black and white, at 132 minutes this is a long film, with long tracking shots and long unflinching close-ups, but I was never bored, never said to myself, “when, how will this end?” (Meanwhile, the woman next to me in the packed house slept loudly.) Don”t look for The Man From London in a theater near you. This noir film is for film festival aficionados.
A GIRL CUT IN TWO
Caude Chabrol has been at the top of his game for so many years we”re beginning to suspect it’s not a game after all but serious, wicked sport. A Girl Cut in Two has a contemporary setting (almost all his films do) but a period mood; we can feel the ghost of Stendhal in the entrenched class warfare (or is it class trench-warfare?) at play as Chabrol moves his characters around an exquisite social setting. FranÃ§ois Berléand stars as a jaded novelist and too happily married ladies man whose latest conquest is poor but honest TV weathergirl Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier). At once naÃ¯ve and unstoppable, Gabrielle doesn”t need to be convinced to enter into a sordid May-September relationship with a celebrated member of the intelligentsia. However, tugging at her other arm with the pull of the entire haute bourgeoisie is young Paul (BenoÃ®t Magimel), the cute but dangerously schizophrenic scion of a Lyon pharmaceutical magnate. What’s a girl to do? Chabrol solves the problem in his usual methodical way, ending with a set piece worthy of Guy Maddin. Appropriately, the story takes as its starting point a famous Gilded Age crime of passion, the murder of Madison Square Garden architect and notorious womanizer Stanford White.
From Scoop du Jour (the daily rundown of SFIFF51 activities)
The Gourmand Auteur_The bubbly and vivacious Ludivine Sagnier, star of New Waver Claude Chabrol’s latest film, A Girl Cut in Two, shared several anecdotes at Sunday’s screening about her first experience working with the famed director. “He’s not the kind of man who gives indications,” she explained. “He would say, â€˜You can read the script. You”ve played Tinkerbell. So you know what it’s like to play an angel. Pretend you are Tinkerbell among the pirates.” Those are the only instructions I received.” Chabrol, though swiftly approaching 85, retains a lusty appetiteâ€”for dining. “When I first met with Chabrol, I was very intimidated,” Sagnier recounted. “So I asked a lot of serious questions: Who will be the director of photography? Who is your costume designer? He said, â€˜Shhh! The catering will be excellent! That is all you need to know.”” At the film’s wrap party, Chabrol invited cast and crew to a restaurant. “He got on stage and was playing this character of a bad singer,” Sagnier recalled. “I didn”t know what was going on. Everyone was screaming, â€˜Shut up! Get off the stage! You”re a bad singer!” He had a napkin thrown at his face. And he seemed to love it.” —JP
My take — A video cameraman backed quickly down the aisle, the light on his camera glaring into my aisle seat eyes. His subject was a pert blonde dressed in a white shirt and pants. Ludivine Sagnier bounced onto the stage, all bubbly and so very French, to introduce A Girl Cut in Two. In many ways, her character was like her entrance in the Clay theater, bouncing with great joy into the unknown. It’s too bad that her older lover and young Paul, thrusting his love at her like a sword, were just not likable characters. Paul’s mother, on the other hand, the obscenely wealthy and controlling head of the family, is hatefully wicked, and plays her role to the hilt. The film is fun, but empty. The best parts were Mme. Sagnier’s appearances before and after. ***
GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON
USA, Closing Night, West Coast Premiere
Nixon was a werewolf. Las Vegas is filled with reptiles. We are all doomed. After several documentaries and biographies, and two book-to-film adaptations, you almost pity anyone who attempts another take on gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson. Yet Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (SFIFF 2005), dives in and gives us the most unflinching and complete version to date of a man who at one time was the most popular writer in America. Armed with support from producers Graydon Carter and Mark Cuban, Gibney’s team clearly sought all available source material to get this story right. He focuses on the years of Thompson’s rock-star zenith, roughly 1965 to 1975, and reintroduces us to an incredible era of social history, from hippies and bikers to Vegas excess and the “72 presidential campaign, supported by rare clips and Thompson’s own words, narrated by Johnny Depp. Jimmy Carter and George McGovern give context alongside Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Buffet, Tim Crouse, Sonny Barger, Ralph Steadman and Jann Wenner, who at one point (thanks to Thompson) even catches a fire extinguisher blast to the face. While Gibney doesn”t spare details of Thompson’s eventual decline, ending up hostage to his own persona, he also explains how this unorthodox patriot and rowdy from Kentucky ended up such an enduring icon of maverick journalism and pop culture. Much like Thompson at his best, this film will make you want to yell in frustration at America’s continuing parade of liars, pimps and thieves.
My take — WOW, who knew? Not me. I knew he was a drugged out hippie, I knew he wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and a bad movie was made of it, and that Duke in Doonesbury was based on his persona. I didn”t know he lived with the Hell’s Angels for a year and wrote a book about it, which Tom Wolfe used as source material for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I didn”t know of his influence on Ralph Steadman’s art… one of my favorite graphic artists. I didn”t know he ran for Sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and went on to make his bones chronicling the presidential races of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter for Rolling Stone. I learned a lot, gained respect for the man and was enraptured by the thorough, passionate and thrilling presentation. By the end I was standing and applauding — alongside the packed Castro audience — the director’s appearance on stage. Warren Zevon’s Bring Lawyers, Guns and Money musically closed the film and the 51st International. How appropriate. In theaters soon. ****