Friday, September 21, 2018
The 41st Mill Valley Film Festival
From much-anticipated award season contenders, to exquisite new works around the globe, and to the local Bay Area filmmaking, the 41st edition offers a variety of independent films that tell compelling stories. The festival showcases 204 films, including 94 narrative features, 24 documentary features, and 96 shorts that represent 46 countries and regions.
(You may click on each still image for showtime and theater information.)
As usual, two films will open the festival, and both are biographical this year. One is the documentarian Matthew Heineman's narrative feature debut "A Private War" (USA 2018 | 106 min.) about one of the most celebrated war correspondents Marie Colvin, played by Rosamund Pike.
The other opening night film is director Peter Farrelly's period drama "Green Book" (USA 2018 | 130 min.) telling a story between jazz pianist Don Shirley, played by Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali, and his chauffeur Tony Lip, played by Viggo Mortensen.
Midway into the festival on October 8, the centerpiece presentation takes place with the Golden Lion winner at this year's Venice International Film Festival, the director Alfonso Cuarón's visually striking "Roma" (USA/Mexico 2018 | in Spanish | 135 min.) about a maid working for a middle-class family in Mexico City in the '70s.
On October 14, the festival closes with the "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins's new film "If Beale Street Could Talk" (USA 2018 | 117 min.) about a 19-year-old pregnant girl fighting for her wrongly incarcerated husband's release in Harlem during the 1970s.
This year, the festival pays tribute to the acclaimed Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski featuring an on-stage conversation with the director followed by a screening of his "Cold War" (Zimna wojna | Poland/France UK | in Polish | 88 min.), a love story set during the Cold War era. The film won him the Best Director Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival and is selected as Poland's submission for foreign-language Oscar.
The charismatic Timothée Chalamet returns to the festival with an Oscar buzzed performance as a drug-addicted teenage boy in the director Felix Van Groeningen's drama "Beautiful Boy" (USA 2018 | 112 min.), which is shot in San Francisco. He will join the director and other cast members in attending the festival's special presentation program.
By showing their most recent works in six spotlight programs, the festival honors seven accomplished artists: actress Amandla Stenberg, actor-director-writer-producer Joel Edgerton, actor-writer-director Richard E. Grant, actress-producer Maggie Gyllenhaal, writer-director-producer Karyn Kusama, actress-producer Carey Mulligan, and actor-writer-director-producer Paul Dano.
The Palme d'Or winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival and selected as Japan's submission for foreign-language Oscar, "Shoplifters" (万引き家族 | Japan 2018 | in Japanese | 121 min.) is the latest work from the renowned Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda (是枝 裕和). He compassionately tells another family tale. This time, he focuses on a family which survives by stealing and lives below the poverty line. It also features the last performance by the director's long time collaborator, beloved actress Kirin Kiki (樹木 希林) who died of cancer recently.
The winner of the International Federation of Film Critics Award (FIPRESCI) at this year's Cannes Film Festival and selected as South Korea's entry for foreign language Oscar, "Burning" (버닝 | South Korea 2018 | in Korean | 148 min.) unfolds a love triangle masterfully crafted by the acclaimed director Lee Chang-dong (이창동).
Two Chinese language films in this edition of MVFF come from each side of the Taiwan Strait. Once again, the Chinese director Jia Zhangke's (贾樟柯) "Ash Is Purest White" (江湖儿女 | China 2018 | in Mandarin | 150 min.) tells a violent story involving gangsters in modern China. As usual, he casts his wife Zhao Tao (赵涛) playing the main character.
Perhaps the first film from Taiwan featuring a transgender protagonist, "Alifu, the Prince/ss" (阿莉芙 | Taiwan 2017 | in Mandarin/Paiwan | 97 min.) from the director Wang Yu-lin (王育麟) timely echoes the progress in LGBT rights in Taiwan such as the expected legalization of same-sex marriage. Alifu (Utjung Tjakivalid ) works as a hairdresser in Taipei hoping to complete her sex-reassignment surgery someday. But back home, her Paiwan tribe chief father is hoping to pass the throne to his only son. Surrounded by a supportive LGBT community, Alifu navigates her way in finding herself and happiness.
The works by two prominent Iranian directors are also shown at the festival. Asghar Farhadi's first non-Persian language film "Everybody Knows" (Todos lo saben | Spain/France/Italy 2017 | in Spanish/English/Catalan | 132 min.) is a mystery thriller performed by an ensemble of fine cast.
The winner of the Best Screenplay Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, "3 Faces" ( سه رخ | Iran 2018 | in Persian/Azeri | 100 min.) enables the director Jafar Panahi to be in front of the camera again driving a car as in his previous film. In this slow burn drama, he drives a famous Iranian actress to a remote village to investigate a suicide video sent by a young girl who wants to attend a drama conservatory but is forbidden by her family. The setup and some of their behavior might be hard to comprehend beyond the Iranian culture, but the director's social commentary is quite pointed.
Coincidentally, there are also two films by Greek directors but only one of them is in Greek. The winner of Grand Jury Prize and Best Actress Award at this year's Venice International Film Festival, "The Favourite" (Ireland/UK/USA 2018 | 121 min.), by the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, takes the audience back to England's Royal court in the early 18th century where a fascinating power play among three women takes place.
The other Greek director Babis Makridis offers an intriguing character study in his offbeat "Pity" (ΟΙΚΤΟΣ | Greece/Poland 2018 | in Greek | 97 min.). His unhappy protagonist (Yannis Drakopoulos) can only be content when others express pity toward him. He surely gets a lot of pity at first when his wife lies in a coma after an accident. But when that situation changes, he desperately seeks new ways to obtain pity. If the character seems too out of ordinary, perhaps that is because the script is co-written by Efthymis Filippou, who is also the writer of other eccentric films by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos such as "The Lobster" (2015) and "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" (2017). No matter how much you might be disturbed by the character, you won't forget him any time soon, with pity or not.
Oscar-nominated actor Lucas Hedges plays leading roles in two films at MVFF41. In the director Joel Edgerton's sophomore feature "Boy Erased" (USA 2018 | 114 min.), he plays a gay teenage boy who is send to a gay conversion camp by his father (Russell Crowe).
In the other film "Ben Is Back" (USA 2018 | 103 min.), written and directed by his father Peter Hedges, Lucas Hedges plays a young boy who is suffering from drug addiction. When he is back home on Christmas Eve, his mother (Julia Roberts) goes fanatic in trying to save him.
Academy award-winning actress Nicole Kidman also comes to the festival with two outstanding performances. Besides playing the mother in "Boy Erased," she is almost unrecognizable in Karyn Kusama's "Destroyer" (USA 2018 | 123 min.), in which she plays an unlikable LAPD detective who is battered both mentally and physically by a dark past. Despite the film's implausible story line and sleepy pace, her performance stands out in her long and extraordinary filmography.
If Nicole Kidman looks too grim in that film, you can find some antidote in director Steve McQueen's entertaining "Widows" (UK/USA 2018 | 128 min.). It tells a story about a group of widows who must come up with $2 millions cash after their crock husbands got killed during a heist job.
Based on the horrific massacre in Norway on July 22, 2011 that killed 77 people, the director Paul Greengrass depicts the heinous crime and its aftermath in "22 July" (Iceland/Norway/UK 2018 | 137 min.). It powerfully shows how and why Norway deals with such national tragedy so differently.
Winning the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival and selected as Lebanon's submission for foreign-language Oscar, "Capernaum" (کفرناحوم | Lebanon 2018 | in Arabic/Amharic | 121 min.) zooms in at the humanitarian crises we face today. The director Nadine Labaki uses non-professional actors to tell the story of a 12-year-old boy suing his parents for bringing him into this miserable world.
The 41st MVFF will take place October 4-14, 2018, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge at Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, CinéArts Sequoia in Mill Valley, and Lark Theater and Century Larkspur in Larkspur.
Friday, September 7, 2018
The only time when the film's protagonist Riley North (Jennifer Garner) smiles is five years ago, when she is celebrating her 10-year-old daughter's birthday. Her smile is gone forever after her daughter and her husband are gunned-down by a drug cartel. After the corrupt legal system sets the gun men free, Riley goes hysterical and takes the matter into her own hands.
She disappears from her bank teller job and trains herself to become a gun-toting, kick-boxing, tough-looking assassin. On the fifth anniversary of her family's deaths, she comes back to hunt down those who are responsible and single-handedly takes them out one by one.
The FBI and the LAPD are no match to Riley in terms of efficiency and accuracy. She runs around better than a CIA operative, solely fueled by her grief and anger. No matter how inconceivable the scenario on screen might be, you still find yourself rooting for her without questions and wanting to believe in her every move.
With the film's setup, you may expect the director Pierre Morel to showcase a fast-paced action thriller. Instead, the film seems to be muffled by an attached silencer and the energy level is subdued most of the time. Watching Riley pacing through the nest of the drug cartel is like watching someone playing a virtual computer game. She robotically points and shoots, then changes weapons and repeats. She looks like an action figure in a computer game without much personality to speak with, and her targets are merely pop-up figures on a computer screen.
To avoid losing your attention in watching this computer game, the film constantly brings back the images of Riley's daughter to remind you the noble justification for Riley's revenge and hoping that your empathy would cloud your logic. Well, that certainly works for Riley as her daughter inspires her to carry on with the mission with great success over and over.
When the game is over, you'll feel pretty good having watched Jennifer Garner seriously kicks some ass, as if she is the character you picked for yourself in a computer game.
Thursday, April 26, 2018
Despite the shift in time, the festival continues to provide a platform for exhibiting CAAM's productions, new works by Asian American filmmakers, and contemporary Asian cinema. Now in its sixth year after evolving from its predecessor, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, CAAMFest has become more mature than ever in catering a 15-day long indulgence of film, music, food, and digital media. Taking place May 10-24, 2018 in San Francisco and Oakland, this year's festival has a fitting tag-line: "CULTURE, IN EVERY SENSE."
Compared to the past, not only has the festival extended its duration by a few more days, but it has also dramatically increased the number of participating venues across San Francisco and Oakland. These changes both increase the visibility of the festival throughout the Bay area and infuse more excitement to the festival. They provide more opportunities to expand the music and food aspects of the festival as well.
For Asian cinema lovers, this year's film screenings mainly take place in San Francisco at AMC Kabuki 8 and New People Cinema in Japantown, as well as the Roxie Theater in the Mission, and in Oakland at the Piedmont Theater.
On Thursday, May 10 at the Castro Theater, the festival opens with Dianne Fukami's documentary "An American Story: Norman Mineta and His Legacy" (USA 2018 | 60 min.), about the life and career of Japanese-American politician Norman Mineta from San Jose.
Two weeks later on May 24, the festival closes with a live performance "Aunt Lily's Flower Book: One Hundred Years of Legalized Racism" at the historic Herbst Theatre.
In between, along with music and food, the festival screens 119 films and videos, including 17 feature narrative films, 14 feature documentaries, and 8 shorts programs, as well as other CAAMunity Screenings.
Here are my reviews (or capsule review if they are under hold-review status) of a few films. 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:
- Dead Pigs (海上浮城 | China 2018 | in Mandarin/English | 130 min.)
- People's Republic of Desire (China/USA 2018 | in Mandarin | 94 min. | Documentary)
- A Little Wisdom (China/Canada/USA 2017 | in Nepali | 92 min. | Documentary)
- Looking For? (你找什麼？ | Taiwan 2017 | 61 min. | in Mandarin | Documentary)
Dead Pigs (海上浮城 | China 2018 | in Mandarin/English | 130 min.)
Winning the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Acting at this year's Sundance Film Festival, the writer-director Cathy Yan's (阎羽茜) engrossing feature directorial debut "Dead Pigs" provides a vivid snapshot of lives in today's China where the inequality has become more evident than ever. Using the 2013 incident of 16,000 floating dead pigs in Shanghai's Huangpu River as the backdrop, the film seamlessly connects a handful of colorful characters across the economic spectrum.
One of the farmers who dump dead pigs into the river is Old Wang (Yang Haoyu), who raises pigs in the outskirt of Shanghai, and is also a victim in a fraudulent housing development investment scheme. Meanwhile his sister Candy (the terrific Vivian Wu, who is also credited as the co-producer), a salon owner, stalls a development project by refusing to sell her house that stands alone in the middle of a rubble of demolished houses. Candy insists that her motivation for standing her ground is not for money, but to preserve her cultural heritage and the pride of her identity.
Old Wang's son Zhen (Mason Lee) works as a waiter in a luxury restaurant in Shanghai where affluent young crowds frequently visit. At work, he meets a rich girl Xia Xia (Li Meng) and falls hard for her. Xia Xia treats Zhen as a muse at first, but after they become closer following her hospitalization due to a traffic accident, she begins to realize that the class gap between them is impossible to bridge.
Desperately needing cash to pay off the loan shark, Old Wang asks Candy to sell the doomed house they co-owned, but Candy firmly refuses. Running out of options, Zhen goes to the extremes in order to help his father get out of the crisis.
After the pigs are fished out of the river, life seems to go on as if that never happened. Will these people be able to say the same after what they have gone through?
The writer-director Cathy Yan impressively crafts her story, at the same time injecting sharp social commentaries. She convincingly weaves several stranger than fiction phenomena into the plot and delivers them with dark humor and deep empathy. She reveals the struggle by those have-nots underneath the grand achievements shown daily on TV and in the news media.
That focus and undertone come with no surprise when Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯) is on board as the film's executive producer, but the film has a distinctive voice that belongs to Cathy Yan. Both her sense of humor and her heartfelt empathy toward her characters are rendered frame by frame.
The film also gives the audience a refreshing look at daily life in China. For example, the motivation exercise in front of Candy's salon is indeed a very common scene no matter how funny and ridiculous it might look on screen. And the story surrounding Zhen strikingly reflects millions of young people's lives in modern China. That makes this film resonate with them because it speaks volume for those many who have little to no voice.
People's Republic of Desire (China/USA 2018 | in Mandarin | 94 min. |
After the intimate portrait of a group of students at the prestigious Central Academy of Drama in "The Road to Fame" (成名之路 | China 2013), the molecular biologist-turned-documentarian Hao Wu returns to the festival with "People's Republic of Desire," capturing the phenomenon represented by another group of fame seekers in the digital age—attempting to become live streaming superstars on YY.com (YY语音).
Winning the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary at this year's SXSW Film Festival, the film follows a few YY super-stars and their faithful followers and captures these characters' mental and physical beings. It's both shocking and thought provoking to see how the social media technology is able to produce super rich celebrity without the necessary of possessing any talent, to provide cheap entertainment for the new generation, to transcend crowds similar to spectators of sporting events into virtual reality voyeurs, and to disconnect people in real life and rejoin them online.
A Little Wisdom
(China/Canada/USA 2017 | in Nepali | 92
min. | Documentary)
You must have heard of stories about orphans growing up in Christian ministries, but what about orphans in a Buddhist monastery? Director Kang Yuqi's (康宇琪) closely observed documentary "A Little Wisdom" will give a rare and heartbreaking look inside those colorful walls where children are abandoned with little adult supervision.
Hopakuli is one of these abandoned children. At the age of two, he was left at a monastery in Lumbini to live with his older brother Chorten and 20 other young children. The film follows the now five-year-old Hopakuli around the isolated monastery and the deserted harsh surrounding where they play, sleep, eat, read, and poignantly seek love and affection, which, like other commodities such as food, are hard to find.
| Taiwan 2017 | 61 min. | in Mandarin |
Can you imagine what it would be like to have a Stonewall Uprising in today's digital age since gay bars are no longer the primary hang-outs for the gay community? People have been glued to their smart phones for years, and it's no exception for the marginalized-but-becoming-mainstream gay population, especially when it comes to dating and cruising. The social media dating apps have gained tremendous popularity and become the go-to "place" for most LGBTQ people to connect, explore, and unite nowadays.
Taiwanese director Chou Tung-yen's (周東彥) timely documentary "Looking For?" takes a closer look at the impact of these dating apps on the lives of new generations of gay men, and get some perspectives from those who experienced the era of Stonewall Uprising.
The director Chou Tung-yen turns his camera towards dozens of gay men (mostly Asian and Caucasian) in seven big cities around the world and lets them candidly share their experience of using dating apps. Some of their stories are touching, some of them shocking, and some of them simply resonate with anyone who has ever opened one of these apps on their phones.
While the film doesn't shed any more insight than what we already know about the usage of gay dating apps in terms of motivation or frequency, it does provide a few statistics that may give you pause and you think about how these apps have empowered the newer generations to liberate their sexuality, compared to the resources that were available to the older generations.
Most of the people interviewed in the film are ordinary gay dating app users, except for Geng Le, the founder of a Chinese gay dating app. It seems to be a missed opportunity that the film did not involve any academic scholars or experts to further study the social and psychological effects of these apps on the gay community at a higher level. Perhaps because of the large number of people interviewed during the merely one hour running time, the film also comes up short in digging deeper about any of its subjects. The end result resembles the experience of browsing profiles on a gay dating app—Surely there are a few eye catchers along the way, but you may only know each of them skin-deep with just a few tag lines and a mug shot.
Nevertheless, this is the first of its kind film that tells a story which is often neglected. For better or worse, these apps have become an integral part of gay life and gay identity in the digital age. The film's effort in telling these gay men's stories in association with these apps is admirable.
Friday, March 30, 2018
SFFILM Festival 2018
From April 4-17, 2018, the festival will showcase 183 films, including 57 narrative features, 37 documentary features, and 83 shorts, in 46 languages representing 45 countries and regions.
This edition of the festival opens on Wednesday, April 4 with director Silas Howard's timely drama "A Kid Like Jake" (USA 2018 | 92 min.), about a family's dilemma on their young son Jack's school choice when Jack starts to express transgender tendencies.
A week into the festival, on Thursday, April 12, the festival's centerpiece presentation features Bay Area filmmaker Boots Riley's social critique comedy "Sorry to Bother You" (USA 2018 | 105 min.), about a telemarketer's story in a socially unjust environment.
Although the festival runs through April 17, its closing night presentation, writer-director Gus Van Sant's new film "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot" (USA 2018 | 113 min.) is scheduled for Sunday, April 15. It tells the extraordinary story of the quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix).
Accompanied by the screening of director Jason Reitman's "Tully" (USA 2018 | 96 min.), the festival pays tribute to the Academy-award winner actress Charlize Theron who plays an exhausted mother welcoming a nanny home.
Renowned Asian-American writer-director Wayne Wong is the other tribute recipient at the festival with the screening of "Smoke" (USA 1995 | 112 min.), about happenings centering at a cigar shop in Brooklyn.
Presentations includes 14 narratives and 8
documentaries that have recently captured the
headlines or populated the social media sphere of
Chloé Zhao's award winning drama "The Rider" (USA 2017 | 104 min.) beautifully portrays a cowboy who continues to pursue his rodeo dream after a terrible accident, terrifically played by local residents.
consists of 7 narratives from a few influential
filmmakers around the world.
Unlike his usual feel-good and life-affirming family drama, the renowned Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda (是枝 裕和) tells a much darker tale in his latest gripping crime drama "The Third Murder" (三度目の殺人 | Japan 2017 | in Japanese | 125 min.). It shakes the moral authority of justice while unfolding its twisted plot.
Like it or not, the prolific festival darling writer-director Hong Sang-soo (홍상수) comes back with yet another talking soap "Claire's Camera" (클레어의 카메라 | France/South Korea 2018 | in Korean/English | 69 min.). This time it's set in Cannes where his characters constantly run into each other on the streets and then they sit down to talk about art, career, or nothing significant.
The Hong Kong director John Woo (吳宇森) also returns to the festival with his latest action thriller "Manhunt" (追捕 | Hong Kong/China 2017 | in Mandarin/English/Japanese | 111 min.). It's a remake of the Japanese movie "Manhunt" (君よ憤怒の河を渉れ | Japan 1976) that made Ken Takakura (高倉 健) a household name in China decades ago.
Visions assembles 14 narratives and 14
documentaries that give us a taste of the most
contemporary world cinema.
In light of the recent revelation about data harvesting from Facebook, it can't be more timely for directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck's insightful documentary "The Cleaners" (Germany/Brazil/Netherlands/Italy/USA 2018 | in English/Tagalog 88 min.), which investigates how the social media companies hire workers in the Philippines as the content police. It is mind boggling to witness the devastating global impact these social media platforms fail to foresee.
Iranian director Vahid Jalilvand's (وحید جلیلوند ) sophomore feature "No Date, No Signature" (بدون تاریخ بدون امضا | Iran 2017 | in Persian | 104 min.) constructs a captivating drama centered on a doctor's moral consciousness.
Chinese writer-director Vivian Qu (文晏) comes back to this year's festival with her arresting and poignant drama "Angels Wear White" (嘉年华 | China/France 2017 | in Mandarin | 107 min.) about an undocumented motel employee who witnesses the government corruption and abuse of school girls. Her confident work earned her the Golden Horse Award for best director.
Gate Award (GGA) Competition nominates
10 narratives and 10 documentary features, as
well as a handful of 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.
Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó's documentary "The Next Guardian" (ཤུལ་ལས་བདག་འཛིན་འབད་མི། | Hungary/Netherlands 2017 | in Dzongkha | 74 min.) intimately observes the generational conflicts in the digital age in Bhutan. While the father hopes that his son will carry on the family tradition as the care-taker of a family monastery, the teenaged boy is more interested in connecting to the Internet, playing soccer with his tomboy sister, and checking out girls.
The Russian director Elizaveta Stishova's (Елизавета Стишова) impressive feature directorial debut "Suleiman Mountain" (Сулейман гора | Kyrgyzstan/Russia 2017 | in Kyrgyz | 103 min.) unfolds a captivating story in the titular UNESCO World Heritage Site about a boy who is taken out of the orphanage abruptly as the long-lost child of a couple of con-artists.
Danish director Simon Lereng Wilmont's poignant documentary "The Distant Barking of Dogs" (Denmark/Sweden/Finland 2017 | in Ukrainian | 90 min.) depicts life near the front line of the Russia-Ukraine conflicts. Through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy Oleg who lives with his grandmother and his cousin, the film reveals the dire reality and the devastating trauma caused by the war.
- Dark Wave has 4 films that continue to feed the appetite of midnight horror and sick pleasure seekers.
- Vanguard shows 4 experimental films and one shorts program 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 SFFILM Festival takes place April 4 - April 17, 2018 in San Francisco (at the Castro Theater in the Castro; the Dolby Cinema, SFMOMA's Phyllis Wattis Theater, the YBCA Screening Room, and the Theater at Children's Creativity Museum around the downtown area; the Roxie Theater, and the Victoria Theatre in the Mission neighborhood), Berkeley (at Pacific Film Archive), Oakland (at Grand Lake Theater), and other locations around the Bay Area.