Friday, April 15, 2016
The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFiFF59)
The festival opens on April 21 with writer-director Whit Stillman's period comedy "Love & Friendship" (USA 2016 | 92 min.), an adaption of Jane Austen's novella about a social climber who finds a way to marry her daughter off. In the middle of the festival on April 30, the festival's centerpiece presentation, James Schamus's directorial debut "Indignation" (USA 2016 | 110 min), tells the struggle of a Jewish young man from New Jersey who attends a small college in the Midwest to avoid being drafted to the Korean War. Finally on May 5, the festival closes with Jesse Moss's documentary "The Bandit" (USA 2016 | 84 min. | Documentary) about the friendship and collaboration between actor Burt Reynolds and stuntman Hal Needham who together created a series of films starting with "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977).
- Marquee Presentations—13 narratives and 5 documentaries that sample the top talent and buzz-worthy titles in festival circles and in the film industry, including the stories of President Obama and the disgraced politician Congressman Anthony Weiner.
- Masters—6 narratives and 4 documentaries from renowned filmmakers such as Hong Sang-soo (홍상수), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (黒沢 清), and Chantal Akerman who sadly committed suicide last October.
- Golden Gate Award (GGA) Competition—10 narratives, 11 documentary features, and short films in six shorts programs are nominated for the generous nearly $40,000 cash prizes. This year's feature film nominations are packed with terrific gems created by emerging film-makers around the world, such as "The Demons" (Les démons | Canada 2015) "Thirst" (жажда | Bulgaria 2015) "A Young Patriot" (少年*小赵 | China 2015 ), and "Thithi" (ತಿಥಿ | India/USA 2015). The competition is going to be fierce.
- Global Visions—18 narratives and 14 documentaries that highlight the globe-trotting peeking effort into contemporary cinema, including the unforgettable "Paths of the Soul" (གངས་རིན་པོ་ཆེ | China 2015).
- Dark Wave—4 films for midnight horror thrill and silly laugh seekers.
- Vanguard—5 experimental films that bring new and challenging cinematic experiences.
- Added Programs—4 added films that are not included in the above sections, nor in the printed film-guide, including Todd Solondz's "Wiener-Dog" (USA 2016).
The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival takes place April 21 - May 5, 2016 in San Francisco at Castro Theater, the newly renovated Alamo Drafthouse in the Mission neighborhood with Roxie Theater and Victoria Theatre, in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive, and other venues around the Bay Area.
Here are a few films I have watched through the 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:
- Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다 | South Korea 2015 | in Korean | 121 min.)
- Paths of the Soul (གངས་རིན་པོ་ཆེ | China 2015 | in Tibetan | 115 min.)
- A Young Patriot (少年*小赵 | China 2015 | in Mandarin | 105 min. | Documentary)
- Thithi (ತಿಥಿ | India/USA 2015 | in Kannada | 123 min.)
- Under the Sun (Russia/Germany/Latvia/Czech Republic/North Korea 2015 | in Korean | 105 min. | Documentary)
- The Demons (Les démons | Canada 2015 | in French | 118 min.)
- Thirst (жажда | Bulgaria 2015 | in Bulgarian | 90 min.)
- Home Care (Domácí péče | Czech Republic 2015 | in Czech | 92 min.)
Right Now, Wrong Then
| South Korea 2015 | in Korean | 121 min.)
The characters in South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo's (홍상수) films are like the hundred-year-old yeast culture starter used by the Boudin to bake their sourdough bread. He just massages them into his films every other year, if not annually. He lets his characters slowly ferment and develop, through boozing, smoking, and chatting. Then he brings freshly baked goods back to SFiFF year after year. If you are loyal to the director, even though you have seen his finished products numerous times, you might continue to be marveled by each round of his labor, just like some people can never quit Boudin's tasty sourdough bread, while some others can't care less.
His latest film "Right Now, Wrong Then" definitely looks familiar to those who have seen the director's work. Again, in the film, a film director meets a painter, then they go out to drink and eat, often in one single long take. Just when you think nothing really happens, he pulls the rug from under your feet and surprises you by letting them meet again and give them a second chance. No, it's not the projectionist hitting the replay button. Apparently, it's the director's buy-one-get-one-free special for today's special.
Paths of the Soul
| China 2015 | in Tibetan | 115 min.)
You clap your two hands together above your head, in front of your chest, and a third time in a lower position. Then you throw yourself to the ground with your head touching the ground—so called kowtow (叩头). Repeat after you get up and walk a few steps, until you reach Lasha in Tibet. You complete the 750-mile journey regardless of the weather condition and no matter how tough or dangerous the roads are, if there actually is a road, that is. That's the pilgrimage story told in Chinese writer-director Zhang Yang's (张扬) stunning docudrama "Paths of the Soul."
The film's Chinese (冈仁波齐) and Tibetan (གངས་རིན་པོ་ཆེ) titles simply refer to the name of Mount Kailash, while its English title reflects the spiritual ritual portrayed in the film more closely. Following the incredible odyssey of a group of Tibetan villagers, the film not only captures the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, but also reveals the devotion of these believers. No matter their physical conditions—old or young (one girl is simply a child!), weak or strong—they are determined to complete the inconceivable journey. They do this with one single goal in mind: to pray for the happiness and longevity of others. Whether you are religious or not, their dedication will profoundly touch and inspire your soul.
A Young Patriot
(少年*小赵 | China
2015 | in Mandarin | 105 min. | Documentary)
No matter where you look in China, it's hard to find a 19-year-old as passionate as Zhao Changtong (赵昶通) at being a zealous patriot. He dresses in uniforms you may only see during the notorious Cultural Revolution; he waves a giant national flag on the streets of his hometown Pingyao (平遥); he cheerfully sings traditional communist tunes; and he shouts patriotic slogans as if he is at a protest rally. And what is more remarkable is that the expression of his patriotism is completely genuine and sincere. After he is spotted by Chinese documentarian Du Haibin (杜海滨) in 2009, he agreed to be filmed for five years, and the process of him evolving and growing-up is nicely packed in Du's captivating new film "A Young Patriot."
It's not uncommon for young people to be idealistic and full of dreams. However, the extrovert Zhao seems a little extreme. He is determined to become a soldier to protect the motherland. After he failed the college entrance exam, he repeated his senior year in high school. On his second try, he passed the exam and was admitted to Southwest University for Nationalities (西南民族大学) in Chengdu (成都).
During his college years, the change in Zhao becomes apparent, both physically and mentally. Gradually, his patriotic rhetoric begins to tone down. His dreams begin to be more realistic. His view of the government and the communist party begins to shatter, especially after the confrontation with the local authority regarding the demolition of the house where he grew up. He transforms into a new person.
Zhao never appears to be camera-shy, and the director Du Haibin takes full advantage of that and let him candidly talk into the camera whenever he feels like doing so. It's surprising how frank and open Zhao is at expressing himself, without any trace of acting.
The younger generation in China may hardly resemble Zhao in personality and ideology, but they all undergo the profound transformation as Zhao exhibited in the film, which reflects the rapid and dramatic changes in China.
Thithi (ತಿಥಿ |
India/USA 2015 | in Kannada | 123 min.)
Even though people in a small village in southern India have begun to use cellular phones, their simple way of living, their deeply rooted tradition, and their harsh living environment are hardly changed in anyway. The lives of that part of often unseen world is vividly on display in director Raam Reddy's impressive directorial debut "Thithi." He straightforwardly tells a simple story by using non-professional actors with plenty charm.
After the sudden death of Gowda who was over 100 years old, his elder son Gadappa inherits the land. But Gadappa has no interest in tending to it. Like a long haired '60s hippie, Gadappa hilariously roams around with booze in hand. Gadappa's son Thamanna is eager to own the land, but he feels helpless when his father Gadappa stands in his way on paper. The drama reaches its grand finale during Gowda's thithi ceremony when the entire village gathers together.
The lives in the village may look different, but the human spirit captured in the film is universal.
Under the Sun
Korea 2015 | in Korean | 105 min. | Documentary)
Acting like a double agent that pleases handlers on both sides during the cold war era, the Russian documentarian Vitaly Mansky's (Вита́лий Ма́нский) fascinating documentary "Under the Sun" provides an undercurrent social commentary about the North Korean government while pleasing its propaganda agenda.
Flashed quickly at the beginning of the film with hardly readable capitalized letters, the film explains its background—the filmmaker was given a script by the North Korean government to shoot a documentary about a perfect ordinary family in the best country in the world—North Korea. The film crew is escorted during the filming and film's footage is thoroughly examined by the government. However, the end product may not be what it appears to the North Korea authority.
The "Sun" refers to the great leader Kim Il-sung (김일성), and his birthday is regard as the moment when the sun rises. To celebrate his birthday, a young girl Zin-mi joins the Children's Union to mark the first step to become a faithful patriot. The documentary is supposed to capture the exciting moment and the reaction in her family and community.
In terms of how it gets made, this film is certainly quite different from a terrific documentary "A State of Mind" (UK 2004), but it nevertheless gives us a rare opportunity to peek into a mysterious closed society dictated by an unpredictable and dangerous authoritarian.
The Demons (Les démons |
Canada 2015 | in French | 118 min.)
What might be inside a 10-year-old boy's head? Probably a whole lot more than you may expect. It's an age when factual knowledge mixes with imagination or even fantasy that can stir all kinds of emotion, including intense fear. That sensible and complex emotion is beautifully captured in the writer-director Philippe Lesage's spellbinding "The Demons" through the excellent performance by a newcomer Édouard Tremblay-Grenier.
Set in the '80s in the suburb of Montréal, 10-year-old Félix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier) is an observant and sensitive young boy. Like a sponge, he quietly and eagerly absorbs every piece of information, but then he often feels bloated and unable to probe or to make sense of it. He worries about so many things even at such a young age. However, he is not baseless—he picks up clues like a true detective. He inquisitively gazes at everything that comes into his view.
He worries about his parents' marriage after he spots his dad's (Laurent Lucas) affair with his best friend Mathieu's (Yannick Gobeil-Dugas) mom. He is scared of the dark after hearing his brother François (Vassili Schneider) casually talk about kidnapping stories around the neighborhood. He is afraid that his love for his beautiful teacher Rébecca (Victoria Diamond) may be found out. He is terrified by believing that he has AIDS after hearing a classmate's presentation in class.
Despite the love by his family and friends, Félix feels isolated. He is not always nice to others either. On more than one occasion, he bullies an eager-to-please Patrick (Mathis Thomas), but not without remorse.
Lest you think the film is an easy viewing into a child's fragile mind, the unsettling sound track and the slow moving camera should cue you that something else is going to happen, sooner or later.
This is the second narrative feature from the write-director Philippe Lesage who has made four documentaries before. He demonstrated his superb skill of storytelling by gazing into his subjects just like how Félix stares back. He meticulously constructs each frame and patiently lets the story play out inside that frame. It brilliantly creates an intimate and thrilling atmosphere, with many mesmerizing shots, such as when the camera glides along the swimming pool and then comes back again.
This is one of the best films I have seen so far this year, and definitely not to be missed at the festival, especially because it hasn't been set to release in the US yet.
Bulgaria 2015 | in Bulgarian | 90 min.)
One of the best films at this year's festival is Bulgarian director Svetla Tsotsorkova's (Светла Цоцоркова) wonderful directorial debut "Thirst" which is more of a character study than merely telling a story.
The story is rather simple. On the top of the hill in a drought-stricken village, lives a family of three. The mother (Svetla Yancheva) and their 16-year-old son (Alexander Benev) wash sheets for local hotels for a living. But the shortage of water supply poses a serious threat to their survival. Although the father (Ivaylo Hristov) is an able handyman, he can't fix the water problem.
So they hire a well-driller (Vassil Mihajlov) and his teen daughter (Monika Naydenova) to dig a well. The family's seemingly quiet and idle life is suddenly disturbed not just by the noise of well drilling, but by the two strangers.
Although these characters have no names, you have no trouble remembering who they are and getting to know them extremely well. The director Svetla Tsotsorkova brilliantly composes each scene to show how these characters are constantly observing each other carefully with inquisitive eyes. Even though they don't say much, their desires and emotions are hard to hide. It's a delightful and mesmerizing experience to watch how the director skillfully developed her characters in such a simple story.
In the end, there is no question that these characters are not just thirsty for water, but for love and a new life beyond that deserted hill.
Home Care (Domácí
péče | Czech Republic 2015 | in
Czech | 92 min.)
No matter where you look, you probably won't find a home care nurse as wonderful as Vlasta (Alena Mihulová), the mesmerizing protagonist in the Czech writer-director Slávek Horák's splendid directional debut "Home Care." Vlasta is amiable, competent, dedicated, hard-working, humorous, and efficient. You know you will be in good hands if she is in your house with two big duffel bags.
In the wine country in South Moravian, Vlasta lives with her husband Láda (Bolek Polívka) who is insensitive and complaints that Vlasta has devoted too much of herself to her patients. Every morning, Vlasta cheerfully takes a shot of vodka with Láda, washes the cups (because Láda is not going to do that), and then heads out the door to see her patients by bus or on foot. She diligently performs her duty both at home and at work, but never thinks about herself. On the other hand, even though his deep love for Vlasta is quite obvious, Láda is unable to express it in words. He can only subtly show it by doing little things in the house such as making a folding bed. After an accident, Vlasta is forced to confront her own health and rediscover herself, with help from an alternative healing advocate Hanácková (Tatiana Vilhelmová). But that doesn't mean she would compromise her duty to her husband and her patients. She wants to live the life she has and continues the work she loves.
The film's hilarious opening may give you the impression that this is going to be a light-hearted comedy. However, the director Slávek Horák takes no time to switch the course. He lets you ride the emotional roller-coaster with his delicately crafted characters that are fantastically performed by a superb ensemble cast. The film is both funny and poignant, sometimes even thought-provoking, and always life-affirming. Speaking perfectly written lines that are both refreshing and original, each character is lively and often eccentric.
The delightful film was selected as Czech Republic's entry for the best foreign-language film at the Oscars last year, it certainly deserves the honor. Much of the credit should also goes to Alena Mihulová's graceful and dignifying portrayal of Vlasta's profound warmth and humanity.
Friday, April 8, 2016
My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse)
The film's French title "Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse" (Three memories of my youth) seems more appropriate to summarize the film's narrative structure. The three memories are "Childhood," "Russia," and "Esther" from an anthropologist Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric) who has been living in Tajikistan. In "Childhood," the film briefly flashes back to Paul's turbulent childhood dealing with his estranged mother. In "Russia," like telling an espionage tale during the cold war, the film recalls an episode where a teenage Paul (Quentin Dolmaire) helps a Jewish teenager escape the Soviet Union by using Paul's identity. Although it's slightly longer, it only qualifies as the second course of a multi-course meal and merely introduces the flavor of its young characters that will be served in the main course.
The delicious main course is "Esther" which reflects the time period in the film's English title. It spellbindingly unfolds Paul's first love affair with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), a seductive, beautiful, and immature 16-year-old who enjoys being the center of attention of other boys at school. Although handsome and charming Paul is no match physically to Esther's other boyfriends, he is determined to impress her and win her over. After he left his hometown Roubaix for Paris to study in a University, they write letters to each other daily to keep the love alive. But how long can that first love survive?
The first two memories quickly disappear to give way to the love story between the attractive Paul and Esther, superbly performed by the two new comers. Their passionate pursuit of love is both fascinating and appealing to watch. I can't help but wonder what it would look like if their story is set in today's digital age. Will their story still be as romantic and nostalgic as the scene where Paul reads out loud his hand written letters? Or perhaps a facetime call will end all the longing and desire that inspired those words on paper.
The screen time of the adult Paul isn't as compelling as the teenage Paul. Being a regular collaborator in Arnaud Desplechin's films, Mathieu Amalric seems to be a must-have condiment in the director's each exquisite offering. Let's hope that the terrific Quentin Dolmaire becomes the director's newly found must-have ingredient in crafting his future delights in French cinema.
Friday, April 1, 2016
The film opens with an AMBER Alert shown on TV that 8-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is kidnapped from a cult ranch in Texas. We immediately learn that this isn't an ordinary kidnapping when Alton's father Roy (Michael Shannon) calmly asks Alton: "It's time, are you ready?" Alton cheerfully gets in the car with Roy and Roy's childhood buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who is helping out with the mission, and Alton's mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) also joined them later.
But where they are going and what the mission is about is anyone's guess. The most we can speculate is that Alton, who is sensitive to light, might not be one of us. Certainly the FBI and Agent Sevier (Adam Driver) from the Homeland Security are also eager to find out. During the investigation, the FBI rounds up all members of the cult who have been regarding Alton as their messenger from God and desperately want to get him back from Roy.
The cat and mouse chase begins and the conflict escalates as the story proceeds, and the film keeps us guessing about the truth and why they are on the run.
Even though this film tells a sci-fi themed story, it rarely goes out of its way to show-off special effects. However, it does have a few spectacular scenes that are nothing short of breathtaking, and has an effective and unsettling music score (by David Wingo) throughout. The writer-director Jeff Nichols masterfully grasps our attention by footing firmly on the ground instead of "out there" and investing screen time in its characters instead of awe-striking visuals. He effortlessly makes them ordinary yet intriguing. In the end, there is no question that this is a film about humans more than anything else out there.
The bright eyed Jaeden Lieberher surely will shine brighter after his unforgettable acting in this film as the mature and adorable Alton. Similar to "Mud" (2012), the director once again exhibits his superb ability in directing young talents to yield brilliant performances.
So, are "they" really out there? The film will let you know, eventually.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Set in 1980 in a university in Texas, a group of baseball players assemble in a run-down house two days before classes begin. But instead of getting ready for classes or actually playing baseball, all they do is to look for parties and girls, or to play juvenile games and pranks with each other. There are quite a few people living in the house. Although it's not hard to distinguish them by their distinct facial hair and personalities, it's hard to figure out what their names are and why they are in the house. They are pretty much a bunch of horny guys who live up to the tradition of a college fraternity house except that they neither live in one nor look like a frat boy.
However, two guys' names actually stand out and stick around: one is Jake (Blake Jenner), the blond freshman who is always called out and picked on by other housemates; the other is Beuter (Will Brittain), Jake's cowboy roommate who appears clueless while being made fun of because of his name. The rest, you can just call them lascivious, immature, cocky, and freaky guys.
There isn't really a narrative to follow in the film, except Jake's wooing of a theater-major Beverly (Zoey Deutch). The film leisurely and loosely follows these ballplayers from one party to another, and eventually catches them playing baseball for once. It's a big relief that the '80s is finally behind us after two hours.
This isn't the first time for the write-director Richard Linklater to tell his stories and to craft his characters with the most ordinary everyday happenings. His Oscar-nominated "Boyhood" (2015) and Before Trilogy all created fantastic characters via small yet philosophical talks in daily lives. But that's not the case in this film. This film's characters appear to be nothing more than being dumb, drunk, and obnoxious. The film might trigger some people's memories about college life, but it fails to remind me why I should care about that period or about these guys.
But the film's biggest problem is casting. These actors are in their late 20s if not in their 30s while playing college kids. With their awkward mustaches, you would think they might be occupying the college campus while visiting their nephews or nieces. They look absolutely ridiculous and pathetic when they chase college girls and get wasted. If you witness a real fraternity party on a college campus, even though it won't be pretty, at least they might be easier on the eyes than these bums in the film. Maybe it's true that everybody wants some, but I want nothing from these guys in the film.