Sunday, April 20, 2014


The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival

For the fourth consecutive year, the San Francisco Film Society gets a new executive director. However, year after year, the society's terrific programming team has been consistent in curating excellent world and independent cinema and in presenting the "crown jewel of the society"—the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), the longest running film festival in American.

There is no exception this year either. In fact, the festival only looks better, despite a challenging timing sandwiched between the Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival.

The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival

The highly anticipated 57th San Francisco International Film Festival will surely delight its audience with a grand showcase of extraordinary films in 40 languages that representing 56 countries. During two weeks period, the festival exhibits 73 narrative features, 28 documentary features, and 7 shorts programs.

The festival opens on April 28 with a thriller "The Two Faces of January" (UK/USA/France 2014 | 97 min.). Two weeks later on May 8, the festival concludes with a drama "Alex of Venice" (USA 2014 | 87 min).

Throughout the SFIFF, besides film screenings, there are also tributes and awards, as well as other Live & On Stage events.

Here is a list of my recommendations. 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:

  • Bauyr (Little Brother) (Бауыр | Kazakhstan 2013 | in Kazakh| 97 min.)

    With an observant and affectionate lens, Kazakh writer/director Serik Aprimov (Серік Апрымовтың) humorously tells a heartbroken story in "Bauyr," about an innocent boy's survival and his longing for love.

    In a remote small village in Kazakhstan, round eyed adorable Yerkin (Almat Galym) is quite impressive for living by himself as an eight-year-old boy after his mom passed away years ago. Yerkin tells others that his dad is on a business trip and his bigger brother studies in the city. Obviously, some cold hearted villagers take advantage of him. Although he appears to be emotionally strong carrying on his daily routines, he subtly shows his vulnerability deep inside. He is eager for his brother Aidos's return so that he won't appear to be alone without any relatives to protect him.

    When Aidos finally arrives, Yerkin is extremely excited and shower Aidos with his love. He envisions that he will no longer have to live alone again.

    The director Serik Aprimov brilliantly crafts a charming and arresting character Yerkin, terrifically performed by irresistible Almat Galym. At a young age, Yerkin innocently reacts to the people and events surround him simply like a typical 8-year-old. But his effort to please his brother is beyond touching and heartfelt.

    The film's realism style is powerful and effective. Like how Yerkin's world is, the film contains no music. Well, that's the case until the very last shot, when the sound of a harmonic rises. As if a dam's floodgate is lifted, it unleashes all the emotion the film has built up. It's absolutely a stroke of genies by Serik Aprimov.

    Bauyr at the Festival Site

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  • Tamako in Moratorium (もらとりあむタマ子 | Japan 2013 | in Japanese | 78 min)

    Japanese director Nobuhiro Yamashita (山下敦弘) is well known for his entertaining and charming "Linda Linda Linda" (リンダ リンダ リンダ 2005) and "A Gentle Breeze in the Village" (天然コケッコー 2007). In his latest film "Tamako in Moratorium" (もらとりあむタマ子), he once again delights us with likable characters and gentle humors.

    After graduation from college, Tamako (a terrific Atsuko Maeda 前田敦子) returns back to a sleepy small town where her father (Suon Kan 康すおん) owns a sporting goods store. She spends most of her time sleeping, eating, and doing nothing, which her father doesn't seem to mind. But when she finds out that her father maybe dating a school teacher, her moratorium suddenly begins to crumble. With the help from a shy boy Jin (Seiya Ito 伊東清矢), she examines the situation and evaluates her options.

    Like some of his previous films, Nobuhiro Yamashita has a pleasant style in telling his story by closely observing the daily fabric of his enjoyable characters. Seemingly ordinary and non-eventful routines subtly establish the characters that are full of humor and color. His story often sets in a rural town that is soothing and slow paced. In fact, there is only one scene in this film that a car presents.

    I find that Nobuhiro Yamashita's direction style is similar to the masterful Hirokazu Koreeda (是枝 裕和). Both take time to let their characters develop gradually and both are exceptionally skillful in directing child actors. In this film, Seiya Ito hilariously steals many scenes as an awkward school boy Jin.

    This is a lovely film that make you want to repeat its 78 minutes all over again when the credits start to roll.

    Tamako in Moratorium Official Site

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  • Stray Dogs (郊游 | Taiwan/France 2013 | in Chinese | 138 min.)

    Malaysia auteur Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮) is well known for his long takes in his films. It shouldn't be a big surprise when his tenth feature "Stray Dogs" opens with a shot of a woman watching two children sleeping that lasts about five minutes. This signature style that everything seems frozen in time gets expanded throughout of the film. At one point later in the film, a shot lasts almost fourteen minutes when hardly anything moves. That could easily divide the audience into two disjoint camps depending on how they react to it.

    Although many details about the film's characters are left unexplained, the main narrative is not hard to follow. Set in Taipei, the film is about a homeless family's dire situation. Tsai's career-long collaborator Lee Kang-sheng (李康生) plays the father of the homeless family with two young children, played by Lee's real life nephew Lee Yi-cheng (李奕䫆) and niece Lee Yi-chieh (李奕婕). While the father stands in the rain as a human bill-board for a real estate development, the two children eat free samples at a supermarket. At night they seek shelter in abandoned houses. As for the identities of the three women who appeared in the film, they can be anyone's guess.

    The film focuses more on the quiet moment and characters' emotion than on the coherent of the narrative. Although the long takes might be challenging for many viewers, they are intriguing and even powerful. For those who appreciate Tsai's works, this film reaffirms Tsai's status as a cinema poet. For those who don't have the patience to wait for the director to cut into his next scene, this film might provoke them to give up on Tsai's film completely. It's your call.

    Stray Dogs at the Festival Site

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  • Harmony Lessons (Асланның сабақтары | Kazakhstan/Germany/France 2013 | 114 min.)

    School bullying is just the backdrop in "Harmony Lessons," a beautiful yet unsettling directorial debut by a talented 29-year-old Kazakh filmmaker Emir Baigazin (Эмир Байғазиннің), who is also the writer and the editor of the film. With elegant visual and impressive performance by non-professional actors, the film terrifically tells a gripping story and takes us to a place we know little.

    That place is a remote rural village in Kazakhstan, where education in the classroom may seem behind the rest of the world, but the school yard culture is not any different from anywhere else—bully is a daily torment to many lower classes and outcasts. Reticent 13-year-old Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) is one of those who are constantly bullied by a gangster group led by cocky Bolat (Aslan Anarbayev). Although Aslan doesn't quite express his resentment and keeps his emotion to himself, he is intelligent and quite a genius in science. The film superbly builds up the tension and skillfully constructs the layers toward its climax when Aslan takes his revenge.

    The director Emir Baigazin confidently composes his film with memorable characters and striking images. Who would ever forget the electric chair Aslan made from paper clips to torture a cockroach? It's not a child's play. It's a metaphor for how he gets back to the handicapped education system and corrupted police force. He will be the one in charge.

    Emir Baigazin absolutely establishes himself as an emerging filmmaker that deserves the spotlight in Kazakh cinema.

    Harmony Lessons Official Site

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  • Eastern Boys (France 2013 | in French | 128 min.)

    In the opening scene of director Robin Campillo's gripping drama "Eastern Boys", at an angle of a surveillance camera, we see a gang of Eastern European youngsters roam around Gard de Nord, the main train station in Paris. We can immediately sense that they are up for no good, although it's hard to predict what they might do. So does the film's narrative, which takes unexpected turns almost all the way to the end.

    A middle aged business man Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) is also roaming at the train station looking for his prey. Among the gang, a quiet handsome Ukrainian boy Marek (Kirill Emelyanov) catches Daniel's eyes. Daniel sets up a time for Marek to come to his apartment the next day. However, Daniel gets much more than what he is looking for.

    Daniel is certainly playing with fire when he exploits illegal young immigrants for sex, but he also has a good heart that a trouble young boy can hold on to. For the most part of the film, director Robin Campillo skillfully composes each scene to make them not only captivating but often thrilling. Unfortunately, toward the end of the film, the film loses its firm grip of its storytelling and takes a conventional shortcut. We never get to see the inner transformation process of these characters. That's perhaps why we view them as unpredictable.

    Eastern Boys Official Site

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  • Trap Street (水印街 | China 2013 | in Chinese | 94 min.)

    It's obvious that NSA is not the only one who is secretly spying. In this digital age, no matter where you are, it's almost impossible not to be under some sort of surveillance. Chinese writer/director Vivian Qu's (文晏) impressive directorial debut "Trap Street" tells an enigmatic tale in modern China when secrecy and surveillance collide in a young man's life.

    In the film's opening scene, young Li Qiuming (Lu Yulai 吕聿来) is trained for his new job at a mapping company to survey the fast changing urban streets. Instead of focus on the parameters of the streets, he spots a beautiful young woman Guan Lifen (He Wenchao 何文超) through his equipment. To gain access to his new love interest, Qiuming begins to follow her around and he is led to an unmapped street—the opposite of a so-called trap street which is a fake street that a mapping company intentionally puts on a map to protect its products.

    Never mind Qiuming is savvy about spying himself with a side job as a candid camera installer. His every move, including his romance with Lifen, is closed watched by others.

    The film's first half efficiently pulls us into the mystery surround characters like Qiuming and Lifen. Lu Yulai is terrific playing the sunny protagonist who is naive and romantic. He looks like a selfie of any young men on the streets in contemporary China. Lu Yulai remains to be convincing during the second half of the film despite a plot that becomes less plausible. If Lu Yulai looks familiar, that's because he is an indie darling with "The Red Awn" (红色康拜因 2007) and "Soundless Wind Chime" (无声风铃 2009) listed in his resume. Filmmaker He Wenchao also gives a fine performance as the reserved Lifen.

    Trap Street at Festival Site

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  • Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss | Iceland 2013 | in Icelandic | 81 min.)

    Iceland's submission for last year's Oscar is Benedikt Erlingsson's fantastic directorial debut "Of Horses and Men" which should have been nominated. The film is an exquisite feast on the beauty of animal, human, and nature in an exotic place.

    Set in an isolated and expansive valley, a horse community is sparsely scattered around yet tightly connected. They know each other's business not through social media on the Internet, but by binoculars.

    The film unfolds a few stories that reflect on the fabric of villagers' lives and they are all related to their beautiful horses. It's better not to describe these stories and leave them for you to experience firsthand. They are full of beauty, surprises, humor, and drama.

    The horses are sometimes tamed and sometimes wild, but they always look elegant and handsome. So does the film's cinematography. No matter the camera zooms in to the reflection in a horse's eye, or it swallows the magnificent landscape, the visual is constantly striking and fascinating.

    As if these quirky characters and intriguing horses are not enough to entertain the audience, the film's music score is definitely becomes a character all by itself and adds more dramatic layers to the film's storytelling.

    "Is that for real?" That's the question I asked myself when I first saw the film's still shown here. You should go to see the movie and find out yourself. This rare, original, and strangely funny film is not to be missed. What was the last Icelandic film you saw? Can't name one? That will be another reason for you to see this film, and you might want to move there afterward.

    Of Horses and Men Official Site

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  • Last Weekend (USA 2014 | 94 min.)

    The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival seems to be the perfect choice for the world premiere of irresistibly entertaining and enormously enjoyable "Last Weekend," not only because the film is about a San Francisco family's Labor Day Weekend gathering at their fabulous vacation home in Lake Tahoe, but also because much of film's humor can be appreciated more by San Franciscans.

    The film is superbly written by Tom Dolby and co-directed by Tom Dolby and Tom Williams. Patricia Clarkson gives one of her best performances as the hilarious and complex mother Celia Green, joining with the solid performance by other cast members such as Zachary Booth and Joseph Cross as her two sons.

    Last Weekend at the Festival Site

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  • The Overnighters (USA 2014 | 100 min. | Documentary)

    Worshipers often refer their churches as the house of God. I always wonder why God needs so many houses and keeps their doors locked at night when there are so many people need a shelter. Isn't serving the poor part of what is preached? In director Jesse Moss's compelling documentary "The Overnighters," charismatic Pastor Jay Reinke did just that. Despite the oppositions from local residents and member of his congregation, Rev. Reinke opens the door and the parking lot of Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, South Dakota. He allows migrant workers, newcomers, and anyone in need to stay overnight. In return, he pays a heavy price.

    Although the year is still young, this intelligent and powerful film is surely to be this year's best documentaries. The Oscar buzz can never be too early to ring.

    The Overnighters Official Site

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  • Club Sandwich (Club sándwich | Mexico 2013 | in Spanish | 82 min.)

    Mexican writer/director Fernando Eimbcke's delightful "Club Sandwich" humorously depicts an adolescent boy's awakening to love and his uneasy drifting away from his mom's domain.

    Taking on an off-season promotion in a hot summer, 15-year-old Hector (Lucio Giménez Cacho) and his 35-year-old mother Paloma (María Renée Prudencio) checked in an almost empty resort. They either spend the time lying around the empty pool or mindlessly surf the channels on television. However, they don't seem to mind the boredom. They find amusement from their own silly games, they enjoy club sandwiches ordered from the hotel kitchen, they keep each other's company, and they share great level of intimacy between a mother and a son.

    That relaxing routines are disrupted when Hector meets a Jazmin (Danae Reynaud) who is staying with her strange family, which are probably the only other guests at the resort. Through subtle hints and awkward actions, Hector shows his desire to be with Jazmin alone instead to be with Paloma. That shakes up the status quo between Hector and Paloma.

    Director Fernando Eimbcke pitch perfectly positions his lens to capture the subtlety among the trio's intriguing relationship. He uses few words in the film, but each small move and reaction tells much more. When his characters do speak, they sound quirky and funny. The three actors effortlessly deliver the comic effects and they are utterly convincing playing these odd but likable characters.

    This is a little gem at the festival that you certainly don't want to miss, and it doesn't seem to come to a theater near you anytime soon.

    Club Sandwich at Festival Site

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  • Hellion (USA 2014 | 93 min.)

    Expanded from her short film, writer/director Kat Candler's superbly tells a heartbroken tale about a grief-stricken family in "Hellion." However, the film belongs to Josh Wiggins who gives an outstanding acting debut as the troubled titular hellion.

    After Hollis Wilson's wife (Aaron Paul) died, he is not doing well in taking care of his two young sons, 13-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins) and 10-year-old Wes (Deke Garner). When Jacob is getting in trouble with the law, the family faces the reality that Wes may be taken away by his aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis).

    15-year-old Josh Wiggins gives a raw and stunning performance as Jacob. Although often stone faced, he is able to brilliantly convey the character's anger, sorrow, resentment, hope, and love, all captured by shaky camera movements that effectively echo his restless physical and psychological being. His acting breakthrough at such a young age reminds me of Leonardo DiCaprio, although Josh Wiggins probably gets an Oscar before Leonardo DiCaprio does.

    Hellion at the Festival Site

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  • Watermarks: Three Letters from China (Switzerland 2013 | in Chinese | 80 min. | Documentary)

    Swiss documentarian Luc Schaedler's fascination about China is evident by each documentary he made every eight years—"Made in Hong Kong" (1997), "Angry Monk: Reflections on Tibet" (2005), and the latest "Watermarks: Three Letters from China" (2013). In this final installment of the trilogy, he tells three stories that represent millions of ordinary Chinese people who live in the rapid changing contemporary China.

    Among the three letters, the first story is the most poignant and heartfelt one. Wei Jinhua works in a dirty coal mine and lives with his wife and young son far from his hometown—a severely drought village in Northern China where his elderly parents live. Being the only son, Jinhua is torn between the responsibility to take care of his aging parents and the obligation to provide a better future for his young family. They all work extremely hard yet hardly make ends meet and live in harsh conditions. Their story draws a sharp contrast to the new riches who benefit the most from the booming economy in China. However, the love in this three generation family is heartfelt and deeply touching.

    The second letter comes from Guangxi (广西), in Southern China, with words from a retired intellectual. He is opinionated and outspoken about China's past, present, and its future, particularly addressing the devastation and lasting effects caused by the Culture Revolution. His voice surely strikes a chord with many Chinese people.

    The final letter is composed in Chongqing (重庆), focusing on a 19-year-old free spirited girl Chen Chaomei. She was found on a tree when she was an infant by her adopted parents. Despite being punished by the one-child policy, they brought her up as their own child. Chaomei is surprisingly at peace with her past and presents herself with a carefree persona, often dressed as a boy. But deep down, she concerns about if she might be abandoned again by the changing society and if she can finally find her place in an unsettling China.

    Through these three stories, the director Luc Schaedler paints striking portraits of regular Chinese people and their daily struggle to cope with the fast moving world and to search for a better future. These stories are both touching and inspiring.

    Three Letters from China Official Site

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The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival takes place April 24 - May 8, 2014 in San Francisco at Sundance Kabuki, New People Cinema, and Castro Theater, in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive, and other venues around the Bay Area.

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