Sunday, March 26, 2017
The 60th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILM Festival)
This beloved festival has been an iconic fixture in the city's film culture, and a significant element to the city's rich diversity and history. Year after year for six decades, the festival embraces, enriches, and celebrates the creativity and excellence in cinema art, and it affirms that art is essential to us. Now, the festival stands out as a strong voice in resisting the Trump administration's anti-art, anti-culture, and anti-humanity rhetoric.
In this monumental edition, the festival showcases 173 films, including 66 narrative features, 36 documentary features, 75 shorts in 39 languages representing 51 countries and regions.
Instead of the traditional Thursday, this year the festival opens on a Wednesday, April 5 with writer-director Gillian Robespierre's second feature "Landline" (USA 2017 | 97 min.), a comedy about two sisters from a dysfunctional family in the '90s Manhattan.
A week into the festival, on Wednesday, April 12, the festival's centerpiece presentation features this year's smash hit at Sundance, Geremy Jasper's directorial debut "Patti Cake$" (USA 2017 | 118 min), about a twenty-something hip-hop singer's quest to stardom in New Jersey.
Although the festival runs through April 19, its closing night presentation, "The Green Fog - A San Francisco Fantasia with Kronos Quartet," is scheduled on Sunday, April 16. In this new commission by the SFFILM and Stanford Live, the world-renowned Kronos Quartet will perform composer Jacob Garchik's new score accompanied by a visual collage directed by celebrated filmmaker Guy Maddin and his collaborators Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson. It promises to be an endearing tribute to the city and a love song to the SFFILM Festival's 60th birthday.
- Marquee Presentations includes 12 narratives and 8 documentaries that have recently captured the headlines and populated the social media sphere of independent filmmaking. This year's selections include many award winners at the Sundance Film Festival. Winning the best director award at Sundance, writer-director Eliza Hittman's second feature "Beach Rats" (USA 2016) about a New Jersey teenager is highly anticipated. Also a Sundance winner, Amanda Lipitz's documentary "Step" (USA 2016) about a high school girls step dance team is surely to be an inspiring crowd pleaser.
- Masters consists of 9 narratives and 1 documentary from a few influential filmmakers around the world. Yes, Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo (홍상수) is back with another episode of soap about man-women relationship in "Yourself and Yours" (당신자신과 당신의 것 | South Korea 2016). The Belgium brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne tell a story about a young doctor who tracks down the identity of a dead woman in "The Unknown Girl" (La fille inconnue | Belgium/France 2016).
- Golden Gate Award (GGA) Competition nominates 10 narratives, 10 documentary features, and short films in six shorts programs for the generous cash prizes totaling nearly $40,000. Many emerging filmmakers around the world tell compelling stories in this category, even though many stories in this year's films seem gloomy (perhaps reflecting on the stage of the reality around the world).
- Global Visions assembles 21 narratives and 6 documentaries that give us a taste of the most contemporary world cinema. Japanese writer-director Miwa Nishikawa (西川美和) adapts her own novel into a family drama "The Long Excuse" (永い言い訳 | Japan 2016). The Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov (Кирилл Серебренников) provocatively tells a chilling story about a religious fanatic running amok in "The Student" (Ученик | Russian 2016). Already a winner of a few awards in Asia, Hong Kong director Wong Chun's (黃進) feature directorial debut "Mad World" (一念無明 | Hong Kong 2016) tells a story about a stockbroker with bipolar disorder.
- Dark Wave has 4 films including one documentary that continue to feed the appetite of midnight horror or kung-fu action thrill seekers.
- Vanguard shows 4 experimental films including two documentaries that break the norm in watching a film and challenge your brain either in connecting the dots in the filmmakers' storytelling, or in finding those dots in some cases.
The 60th San Francisco International Film Festival takes place April 5 - April 19, 2017 in San Francisco (at the Castro Theater in the Castro; the Dolby Cinema, SFMOMA's Phyllis Wattis Theater, and the YBCA Screening Room around the downtown area; the Alamo Drafthouse, the Roxie Theater, and the Victoria Theatre in the Mission neighborhood), Berkeley (at Pacific Film Archive), and other locations around the Bay Area.
Here are my reviews (or capsule reviews if they are under hold-review status) of a few films at this year's festival. As always, each film's title is linked to the festival program which has the showtime and venue information. Each film's still image is linked to a film's official web site if it's available. In random order (more to be added through out the festival):
- Sieranevada (Romania 2016 | in Romanian | 173 min.)
(Romania 2016 | in Romanian | 173 min.)
If you think your Thanksgiving dinner gathering is too dramatic to endure, wait until you sit through almost three hours of Romanian writer-director Cristi Puiu's "Sieranevada" (Romania 2016 | in Romanian | 173 min.) in which an extended family gathers to commemorate the death of a family member.
Forty days after the death of Emil, father of neurologist Larry (Mimi Branescu), Emil's wife Nusa (Dana Dogaru) summons the entire family back to her small apartment for a ritual that is administered by a priest and followed by a feast.
Even before Lary arrives at the apartment, his argument already started in the car with his wife about trivial matters. And once he enters the apartment, other people's non-stop arguments completely take over. While waiting for the delayed priest to come, they argue just about everything from 9/11 to communism and from adultery to suit sizes. I am sure Trump would be included in the discussion if the film were made today. The priest comes and goes, but the arguments never stop.
After almost three hours, by the time they can finally sit down to have some food, they look exhausted, just like the viewers. Then they get up again because new crises arise. What's new?
Like a little kid that has been dropped off at the intersection of a busy market, the film's camera is often placed in the central corridor of the apartment. What a place to be! The doors of different room open and shut constantly, and people get in and out while talking without a break. You are dazzled by the carefully orchestrated chaos. If you surrender to your patience, you will eventually learn many details about these characters.
Perhaps the chaotic family gathering is a metaphor for today's society in Romania. Much of these characters' arguments appear to be blown out of proportion and result in little resolution. Sometimes the quarrels don't make sense, just like the film's title that the director Cristi Puiu randomly made up. Life can often be messy and you need to patiently wait for your family dinner to be over; Cristi Puiu skillfully makes that point with this film by purposely stretching-out its length.
Thursday, March 9, 2017
Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) has been a leading force in bringing Asian Americans' stories to light and conveying the richness and diversity of the Asian American experience to the public. For the fifth year, or the thirty-fifth year if you count the festival's former name San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, CAAMFest 2017 once again offers eleven days of film, music, and food. While it looks back and screens a few milestone Asian American films, the festival continues to provide a platform that exhibits CAAM's productions, tells compelling Asian American stories, and showcases new works by both Asian American filmmakers and artists from Asia.
On March 9 at the Castro Theater, the festival opens with Lena Khan's directorial debut "The Tiger Hunter" (USA 2016 | 94 min.), a comedy about an Indian immigrant who landed in Chicago back in 1970. Ten days later on March 19, the festival returns to the Castro Theater and closes with an informative documentary "The Chinese Exclusion Act" (USA 2017 | 130 min.) that chronicles the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act which echoes today's headlines.
Here are my reviews (or capsule review if they are under hold-review status) of a few films, mostly in my favorite CinemAsia section, in this year's program. As always, each film's title is linked to the festival program where you can find the film's showtime and venue information. Each film's still image is linked to a film's official Web site if it's available. In random order:
- Hang in There, Kids! (只要我長大 | Taiwan 2016 | in Mandarin/Atayal | 90 min.)
- Harmonium (淵に立つ | Japan 2016 | in Japanese | 116 min.)
- Plastic China (China 2016| in Chinese | 82 min. | Documentary)
- My Next Step (一個武生 | China/Hong Kong 2015 | in Mandarin | 66 min. | Documentary)
- The Chinese Exclusion Act (USA 2017 | 130 min. | Documentary)
- The Family (家 | Australia/China 2015 | in Chinese | 280 min.)
Hang in There, Kids!
Taiwan 2016 | in Mandarin/Atayal | 90 min.)
Taiwanese writer-director Laha Mebow's (陳潔瑤) sophomore feature "Hang in There, Kids!" (只要我長大) is a pleasing charmer. It's probably the most delightful film you will see at this year's CAAMFest. It warms your heart, brings out your smile, and moistens your eyes. It's Taiwan's entry for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. With amiable lenses and an adoring tone, the film tells an arresting story surrounding three irresistible boys living in an indigenous tribe in a gorgeous mountain.
Wadan (Buya Watan 陳宇) is the most naughty and cheerful one among the trio. He is the natural leader for any mischief or noble mission the three can come up with. He also has a big crush on his wheel-chair bound teacher La-wa (Albee Huang 小薰). Chen-hao (Watan Silan 林晨皓) is the kind and quiet one who has a big plan during his school field trip to Taipei. The third is the goofball Lin Shan (Suyan Pito 吳瀚業) who wishes his alcoholic musician father (Mudi 柯曉龍) could stop drinking.
The three young boys often goof around and seem to be happily growing up in a picturesque mountain, but each of them struggles with their own emotional burden that is too heavy for an innocent mind to bear.
The director Laha Mebow tells a touching and arresting story about life in an indigenous tribe, while creating three adorable young characters who begin to learn the complexity of growing up. She provokes our sympathy toward the boys without being sentimental. She takes us for a joy ride with the boys' carefree attitude, at least that's the mentality the young characters are trying to project. She terrifically captures the stunningly natural performances by the three young actors who effortless convey the emotions of their characters.
This film will bring back fond memories of your childhood. But if you are as young as the characters in the film, the film probably resonates you even more.
(淵に立つ | Japan
2016 | in Japanese | 116 min.)
Reticent Toshio (Kenji Yamauchi) has little to say to his wife Akié (Mariko Tsutsui) and his daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), but they nevertheless seem to get along alright with their quiet family life. But when Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano suddenly shows up at the door of Toshio's shop, Toshio breaks his silence and tells Akié that Yasaka will be a live-in employee to work in his shop.
That's the beginning of a series of chain events that spin out of control when more and more secrets are revealed.
Despite the fact that a few plot twists are too coincidental to be convincing, the characters are finely crafted and superbly performed. The film unfolds a family tale with the gravity of a Greek tragedy.
Plastic China (China 2016 | in
Chinese | 82 min. | Documentary)
When you make yourself feel better by recycling your daily plastic waste, do you know where those plastic eventually ends up? The opening scene of director Wang Jiuliang's (王久良) heart-wrenching documentary "Plastic China" shows you that they probably arrive in China which is the largest importer of plastic waste from Korean, Japan, and the United States. Plastic waste, even when "recycled," continues its legacy to further damage the environment and ruin people's lives.
Upon arrival in China, the enormous amount of plastic waste is divided up and a small portion of it arrives at Kun's home in a village in Shandong Province. It seems every household in the village is doing the same kind of work—while polluting the air and water-way, they cruelly process plastic waste and turn it into reusable raw material to make a marginal profit. He works hard along with his wife and his mother hoping to provide a better future for his young son. Kun also hires a migrant worker Peng and Peng's pregnant wife with a minimal wage that Peng often spends on booze.
Day after day, they work and live inside this disgusting pile of plastic waste while inhaling the toxic fume from plastic burning. However, they are not the only ones in this extremely hazardous environment. Kun's young son and Peng's three young children literally grow up among the dirty plastic. As soon as Peng's new born daughter arrives, her life is surrounded by plastic waste. Peng's eldest daughter dreams about going to school, but Peng refuses because he cannot afford it.
Like the constantly arriving plastic waste, their misery appears to have no end in sight.
The director Wang Jiuliang takes us to a place that's usually invisible. He zooms in his camera to the two families that struggle to make a living on plastic waste that people discard every day without giving much thought. On a very micro level, this unflinching documentary tackles the devastating environmental problem due to massive usage of plastic that impacts the lives of future generations.
On the surface, plastic waste seems to provide these families a livelihood. But in reality, plastic is destroying their lives, especially their health. If the plastic were not there, the two families could have been doing something else for a living, perhaps less harmful.
The images of the film alone will make you sick to the stomach just by simply looking at them, not to mention the thought of those children living in that reality. That is precisely why this film is a must-see and it's too important to be missed at the festival.
My Next Step
China/Hong Kong 2015 | in Mandarin | 66
min. | Documentary)
Even though most millennials enjoy singing karaoke, probably none of them will choose to sing a tune in Kunqu (昆曲), one of the oldest form of traditional Chinese opera that is regarded as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In this modern day and age, it may be hard to imagine that a young man will pursue Kunqu as a life-long career. Understandably, 28-year-old Yang Yang faces a difficult dilemma about his future. He is the last Wusheng (a male performer specializing in martial arts characters) performer in China and the subject in Cheuk Cheung's (卓翔) documentary "My Next Step" (一個武生).
If Yang Yang were born decades ago, being a Wusheng in a prominent Kunqu Opera company in China would have been a stable and glamorous job. But in today's rapidly changing China, Kunqu is losing its appeal to the newer generations. Only a handful of artists remain full-time professional performers of Kunqu that keep this ancient art form from being extinct. But these artists are struggling themselves. Yang Yang is no exception. The outlook of his career path seems grim. He begins to look for an opportunity to exit, despite that he is marked as the last Wesheng in today's China, a claim that deserves a fact check.
Although not always eloquent, Yang Yang candidly talks about the future of Kunqu from his perspective and expresses his desire and ambition in making art. Eventually, he finds his own way in making the old art anew.
This is director Cheuk Cheung's second documentary after "My Way" (乾旦路 2012), a story about two male Dan (男旦 a male performer in a female role) actors in Cantonese Opera (粤剧). By making this documentary, he continues to shed light on traditional Chinese opera performers that are as intangible as the art itself. He effectively shows that without a systematic funding support from the government, it's simply unsustainable for these treasures to thrive when their artists can barely survive. Yang Yang is a vivid testimony to the urgency of saving Kunqu and other world cultural heritage. Hopefully this plea for awareness is not overshadowed by the fact that film itself could benefit from better writing and editing. (No Trailer is available.)
Chinese Exclusion Act (USA 2017 | 130
min. | Documentary)
Some of the recent shenanigans from the Trump administration strikingly resemble a singularly notorious law in US history that bared immigration from a specific ethnic group—the Chinese Exclusion Act. Although it was repealed in 1943, 61 years after being signed into law, its lasting impact remains significant today and it becomes more relevant than ever. Directors Ric Burns and Yu Li-Shin's new documentary "The Chinese Exclusion Act" offers us a timely history lesson and reflects on how this outrageous law shapes today's America.
Through thoughtful and enlightening interviews of historians and scholars, the film chronicles the rise and fall of the Chinese Exclusion Act, analyzes the social and economical background behind the anti-Chinese sentiment when the law was introduced, and explains the legacy of the fights for justice by Chinese immigrants. Accompanied by historic political cartoon and archived footage, the film vividly brings us back to more than a century ago when the political atmosphere was remarkably similar to today's political struggle.
As if sitting through an important lecture, you will gain a great amount of knowledge about the Chinese Exclusion Act if you pay attention. However, the visual aid could be improved to make the lecture more captivating. It is no surprise how difficult it is to obtain historic film footage, but the slow-moving camera gliding over photos (sometimes even on the same photo) becomes tiresome and distracting quickly. The large amount of interviews also could have been further organized to be more coherent and compelling.
Despite these imperfections, the film delivers its core message loud and clear—history has taught us that discriminating and marginalizing people according to their ethnicity is downright wrong. It's against the fundamental value upon which this nation was founded. It's un-American.
This film should be a requirement in every school's curriculum, and a required lesson for every one currently in the White House.
The Family (家 | Australia/China 2015 | in Chinese | 280 min.)
If you can win over your patience and sit through almost five hours of film, you will learn a great deal about today's China through the lenses of Liu Shumin (刘庶民) in his directorial debut "The Family" (家 | Australia/China 2015 | in Chinese | 280 min.). This slow-burn film focuses on an elderly couple and follows their visit to their adult children, and takes a long exposure shot of life in modern China.
The soft-spoken elderly couple are the constantly cooking Deng Shoufang and her husband Liu Liu Lijie, both in their 70s. In a shabby apartment in Jiangxi Province, they live with their eldest daughter Liqin Huang Liqin, a single mother with a teenage son Pengpeng (Liao Zepeng).
Like many Chinese families in China, they plan to move to a new apartment Liqin has just bought in the outskirt of the city. Before they move in, they need to finish the interior construction which needs more money. Living on modest pensions, the couple decides to seek other family members for help. They take a trip to visit their two other children whom they make connections with infrequently—the younger daughter Xiaomin (Liu Xiaomin) in Fuzhou and their son Xujun (Liu Xujun) in Shanghai.
The couple's journey serves as a thin thread that barely holds the family together.
The film's plot has been compared to the story line in Ozu Yasujirō's (小津 安二郎) masterpiece "Tokyo Story" (東京物語 1953), but the storytelling style reminds us of auteur Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮) who frequently uses extremely long takes. Sometimes you wonder if a camera was left on by mistake, but that's precisely how the cinematographer-turned-director Liu Shumin wants you to experience his story. For some, it might be unbearable; but for others, it might be embraced with enthusiasm.
Remarkably realistic, the film cuts deep into the family dilemma and reflects the complex relationships among generations in modern China. You may argue that same result could be achieved within a typical running time of less than two hours. Obviously, the writer-director has his own vision and insists on showing the entirety of what his camera is capturing.
While the non-professional cast gives a reasonable performance, the characters they play appear to be difficult to be related to. The voyeur camera often keeps us as on-lookers from a distance or behind obstructions, while challenging our patience.
Nevertheless, the film will probably inspire you to watch "Tokyo Story" again, and remind you what a timeless masterpiece that movie was.
Friday, March 3, 2017
Land of Mine (Under sandet)
The story is based on little known events that people would rather forget. After five years of German occupation, Denmark was liberated by the Allies. However, under the sand of its coastal beaches, Denmark was left with more than two million land mines that Germany had buried in order to fend off possible Allies invasions. The British and the Danish decided to use German POWs to defuse the land mines during May-October 1945. 2600 Germans, many of them as young as 13 years old, were forced to clear the land mines on the sandy beaches and half of them were killed or injured.
Enraged by the German occupation, hot tempered Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) has nothing left but hatred toward the Germans. When he is given a group of German teenagers to get rid of 75000 land mines on a deserted beach, he does not hesitate to take his vengeance on these young boys, even though their innocent looks may not reflect heinous crimes that the Nazis have committed. He locks them up at night and herds them to the danger zone during the day.
The boys have little experience or knowledge about defusing land mines, and they are given little food to survive, provided that they have not been blown away by mines. Sebastian Schumann (Louis Hofmann) emerges as a natural leader of the bunch and offers some comfort to a dreamy Wilhelm Hahn (Leon Seidel) and the inseparable twins Ernest (Emil Belton) and Werner Lessner (Oskar Belton). Through the terrible ordeal, some of them remain hopeful of returning home after they are done, although the hostile Helmut Morbach (Joel Basman) seems more realistic about the outlook.
The war continues when it has ended.
The writer-director Martin Zandvliet superbly creates a thrilling atmosphere following every step of these boys. We normally see the brutality of Nazis in World War II movies, but in this film, he turns the table around and shows us how the POW is miserably treated after the devastating war expunges any compassion one might have. Even though the story seems straightforward, the film is incredibly suspenseful and its intensity is almost unbearable at times.
Roland Møller subtly and convincingly depicts the transformation in Carl's mindset and the awakening of his humanity. The fine group of young actors also give an outstanding performance as the battered teenagers who keep up their hopes and dreams about their future, despite the inhumane treatments while performing a daunting task. When the film unfolds each heartbroken moment without sentiment, we have to wonder how human beings could do such horrible things to each other during, and after, the war.
There is no winner in a war, except hatred. All we can do is to learn from the past and not let the evil episode repeat. We can only hope, just like those German teenagers in this film.
Friday, February 17, 2017
The Great Wall (长城)
Never mind that the Great Wall was built for generations to guard China against invasions from the north, the script writers in Hollywood came up with an absurd explanation about the wall's purpose by recycling materials from previous Hollywood monster movies. They claim the wall is built to fight Taoties (饕餮), which are horrible-looking flesh-eating monsters, and "the Great Wall is the only barrier to bring the world safe."
Despite that statement, mercenary soldier William Garin (Matt Damon) looks pretty safe from Taoties on the other side of the Great Wall while roaming in the desert with his pal Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) searching for gunpowder to get rich. That is, until they are captured and brought inside the wall by emperor's army called Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu).
Don't speak Chinese? No problem. The film conveniently installs an English speaking character Commander Lin (Jing Tian). She has learned English from another westerner Ballard (Willem Dafoe) who has been living in the fortress for 25 years while looking for an opportunity to escape with gunpowder. As soon as William and Pero get behind the wall, Taoties begin to attack. William and Pero earn the trust from the Chinese army and join their battles led by Shao and Lin, as well as other Chinese commanders (Andy Lau, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng, Huang Xuan).
As the brilliant creator of the 2008 Beijing Olympics's magnificent opening and closing ceremonies, Zhang Yimou certainly knows how to put together an extravagant show. In this film, he doesn't fail to impress us with splendid visuals when he lines up the soldiers in the grandest setting—the Great Wall. It's almost like he is continuing the Olympic performances on top of the Great Wall. The movie would have been a much better entertainment if that were all it tries to accomplish.
But no. The movie is trying to use the director's visionary talent to tell a thin and ludicrous story that is stuffed with monstrous creatures similar to those in many other Hollywood blockbusters. It is not only these monsters look familiar, but some of the battle scenes also appear to be recycled. If you replace Taoties with zombies that climb up a wall, you will probably wonder if you are watching a rerun of "World War Z" (2013).
This film is no comparison to some of Zhang Yimou's terrific early films such as "Red Sorghum" (红高粱, 1987) and "Raise the Red Lantern" (大红灯笼高高挂, 1991), in which he told compelling stories that are definitely authentic Chinese. Unfortunately, instead of continuing to cook in a kitchen soaked with Chinese history and culture, he decided to come to Hollywood to cook broccoli beef to feed the appetite of Panda Express patrons, who readily accept it as Chinese. They probably also think the Great Wall was indeed to be built in order to fend off the apocalyptic attack from Taoties.
Let's hope that Zhang Yimou will come back to his Chinese roots soon after visiting Hollywood, and that there won't be any new walls to be built in this world.