Sunday, April 20, 2008
The 51st SFiFF
The 51st San Francisco International Film Festival (SFiFF) will begin next Thursday, April 24th with Catherine Breillat's "The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse)." The festival will end two weeks later on May 8 with a documentary "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney. During the festival, film lovers will have the opportunity to indulge themselves with more than 100 films and programs from over 50 countries.
OverwhelmedIndeed, there are many films to choose from. The program guide is like a big novel to read—a novel that changes its plot at every turn of the page. To come up an ideal screening schedule can be overwhelming to anyone who does not have a personal assistance. I have been thinking about writing a computer program to do the scheduling. I shall see how far this computer assistance idea can be developed, perhaps it won't go anywhere before the festival is over.
However, even if I had a computer program, I would have to answer this question first: "What to see during the festival?"—I get asked by that question a lot. The answer can never be easy.
Before answering anybody that question right away, I always ask what their favorite movies are, unless I already know. After getting their answers, I might be able to find some films at the festival that are highly correlated to their liking.
To explain this in another way, avoiding statistical concepts, consider that I ask somebody this question: "What is your favorite food if you dine out?" If the answer is a Big Mac from McDonald's, you probably never see me to dine out with this person.
Therefore, my picks at the festival might be quite different from others. Or, quite similar. But before I roll out the list, I would like to discuss SFiFF's "Asian flavor."
Although this oldest film festival in America is seemly partial to French cinemas (about 20% of this year's films are from France if including co-production), SFiFF always bring forth new excitement from Asian cinemas.
Films about Three GorgesOnly history can tell the significance of the Three Gorges Dam (长江三峡大坝) that is currently being built in China. Its social and economical impact will generate more Ph.D. theses and motion pictures generations to come.
Before Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯) went on to make two documentaries ("Dong (东)" and "Useless (无用)") in a row, his latest narrative feature "Still Life (三峡好人)" (China 2006, 108 min.) won the top Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 2006.
I doubt that anybody would miss Chinese Canadian Yung Chang's documentary "Up the Yangtze" (Canada 2007, 93 min.). It observes how ordinary Chinese people's lives are affected by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and shows people's sacrifice. After seeing "Still Life" in China last year, I am looking forward to this documentary at the festival.
There are other documentaries at the festival that are related to the environment and its social consequences. For example, "Flow: For Love of Water" (USA, 2007, 93 min.) will push global warming to the back burner, when it examines the water shortage crisis around the world.
More on ChinaAnother documentary about rapid changing China is Du Haibin's (杜海滨) documentary "Umbrella (伞)" (China 2007, 93 min.). After competing at the Venice International Film Festival in 2007, this new cut at the festival trims off 30 minutes from its original running time. The documentary tells a compelling story about the revolutionary urbanization in China with the migration of peasants into cities like an open umbrella.
The Only Korean DramaSouth Korea has produced great amount of excellent films in recent years. I am surprised to see only one film (a 50% decrease from last year) in this year's program. That translates (without any subtitle) into one thing—Do not miss "Shadows in the Palace (궁녀)" (South Korea 2007, 113 min.). Filmed on the same set of "The King and the Clown (왕의 남자)," "Shadows in the Palace" is a detective story about a murder mystery in the palace during the Joseon era.
Story about A LegendGenghis Khan is such a fascinating historical figure that new films will continue to be made about him centuries later from now. Oscar-nominated (for Best Foreign Language Film) "Mongol" (Germany / Kazakhstan / Russia / Mongolia 2007, 124 min.) is another epic film about this legend.
Last year, audiences in San Francisco had a chance to see the Japanese-Mongolia film "Genghis Khan: To the Ends of Earth and Sea" at the San Francisco Asian Film Festival. I am eager to see how the Russians tell Genghis Khan's story this time in "Mongol."
Kids as ProtagonistsWinning the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Liew Seng Tat's debut feature "Flower in the Pocket" (Malaysia 2007, 97 min.) tells a story about two street smart brothers without their parents' guidance, drifting in their own world.
Watching them in this trailer makes one wonder what else they might do (or taste) in the film.
Another film at the festival with young boys as protagonists is "Orz Boyz (囧rz男孩)" (Taiwan 2008, 110 min.). In hilarious "Orz Boyz," two mischievous school boys either are busy at school playing pranks on other kids, or imagining themselves off to a faraway world. This is director Gillies Ya-che Yang's (楊雅喆) debut feature, although many know him by his novel "Blue Gate Crossing (藍色大門)," which was later adapted into a feature film. After watching "Orz Boyz," you'll laugh at the trickeries from these two kids, or their teacher.
Big Stars, with Kung Fu or NotWinning seven (out of 13 nominations) Hong Kong Film Awards (香港電影金像獎), including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, "The Warlords (投名状)" (Hong Kong 2007, 110 min.) will be a treat for festival goers on Castro Theatre's giant screen, where this epic film ought to be seen. Director Peter Chan's (陳可辛) previous film "Perhaps Love (如果 · 愛)" was the opening night film at SFiFF two years ago. Talented Takeshi Kaneshiro (金城武) once again stars in Chan's film, with added star power from Jet Li (李连杰) and Andy Lau (刘德华). "The Warlords" surely will be a big hit during the festival. No, there is no chance that Hollywood will remake this film. Period!
If "The Warlords" doesn't have enough star power for film goers, super pop star Jay Chou (周杰伦) offers his directorial debut "Secret (不能说的秘密)" (Taiwan 2007, 101 min.) to his fans at the festival. Chou directs, acts, plays a lot piano, and even cooks in this lavish looking melodrama about high school romance. Eventually, he reveals the "Secret" of his characters.
Japanese CinemaIn this still from "Glasses (めがね)" (Japan, 2007, 106 min.), people are either dancing or practicing Yoga on the beach. Regardless what they are doing, I am already drawn to this film, because it's about lives in Japan that are far away from busy city living and fancy gadgets. After the delightful "A Gentle Breeze in the Village (天然コケッコー)" at the SFIAAFF, I am craving for more Zen moments.
The festival offers two more Japanese films. "Black Belt (黒帯)" (Japan 2007, 95 min.) promise to be more an in-depth drama than just a martial art film; and an odd goofy mockumentary "Big Man Japan (大日本人)" (Japan 2007, 113 min.) will guarantee to entertain its cult followers.
My Picks at the FestivalThe word "international" is significant in "San Francisco International Film Festival." Therefore, my picks at the festival will go beyond Asian films. Based on available reviews and trailers, my research, my instinct, and my preferences, these are my picks at this year's SFiFF.
Now back to the idea of computer assisted scheduling.