Sunday, April 4, 2021


SFFILM Festival 2021

What a terrible year it has been! The pandemic not only has taken millions of lives and livelihoods, but it also caused the cancellation of the longest running film festival in America last year. It's the first time that SFFILM Festival (previously known as the San Francisco International Film Festival) has paused in its history of more than six decades. As we gradually recover from the carnage, the festival also returns April 9-18 2021 in a new hybrid format: the festival will show films both online and at in-person events. While a majority of the films will be screened by online streaming across the country through the SFFILM website, select films and live performances will take place at the Fort Mason Flix drive-in theater next to the waterfront in San Francisco.

The 64th edition of the festival presents 107 films, including 26 narrative features, 20 documentary features, 56 short films, and 5 mid-length films (30-50 minutes in running time). These films represent 41 countries and regions in 28 languages. Compared to previous years, this year's festival is at an almost 50% reduction in terms of the number of films shown. Also, perhaps because of the pandemic, this year's awards and attributes are cut down dramatically both in numbers and the monetary amount.

2021 SFFilm Festival

(You may click on each still image for the corresponding screening or event's show time and ticketing information.)

On Friday, April 9, both online and at the drive-in, the festival opens with the world premiere of Chase Palmer's feature directorial debut "Naked Singularity" (USA 2021 | 93 min.). It tells the story of a New York City public defender who deals with drug cartels and corrupt cops in his chaotic world.

On Saturday, April 10, the festival presents this year's centerpiece "Socks on Fire" (USA | 93 min. | Documentary). The film's director Bo McGuire tells his personal family story involving his homophobic aunt and his drag queen uncle. The film will be shown both online and at drive-in, with the in-person event being accompanied by a live performance featuring local artists Rock M. Sakura and FREDDIE, and emceed by the director Bo McGuire.

On Sunday, April 18, the festival closes with Marilyn Agrelo's documentary "Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street" (USA | 107 min. | Documentary). It tells a fascinating story about the creation of the beloved children's television series in the '60s.

Opening night: Naked Singularity Centerpiece: Socks on Fire Closing Night-Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

This year, the festival simplifies the categorization of its selections, basing simply on feature vs. shorts, domestic vs. international, and narrative vs. documentary. In addition, for the first time, the festival creates a new category called mid-length films in which a film runs 30-50 minutes.

  • Narratives: International

    There are 16 international narrative features selected in this year's festival, including three flashback titles from last year's canceled lineup.

    One of last year's selections is Nicolás Rincón Gille's neorealism drama "Valley of Souls" (Tantas almas | Colombia/Brazil/Belgium/France 2019 | in Spanish | 137 min.). It unfolds a devastating story of a grieving father's journey searching for the bodies of his two sons who are killed by the right-wing militia in Colombia.

    The only film from Asia at this year's festival is South Korean director Lee Ran-hee's feature directorial debut "A Leave" (휴가 | South Korea 2020 | in Korean | 81 min.). It depicts a mid-aged workers' struggle to fight for worker's rights while raising two children.

    The winner of the 2020 GdA Director's Award of Venice's Giornate degli Autori, Russian writer-director Philipp Yuryev's feature directorial debut "The Whaler Boy" (Китобой | Russia/Poland/Belgium 2020 | in Russian/English | 93 min.) is not to be missed. It terrifically tells a captivating story of a 15-year-old boy in a remote fishing village who falls in love with a webcam girl from the United States, and he takes on an incredible journey to meet his love.

    Valley of Souls A Leave The Whaler Boy

  • Documentaries: International

    There are 10 documentaries in this section covering a wide range of subjects around the world through compelling storytelling.

    The Oslo-based Turkish-Norwegian director Nefise Özkal Lorentzen tells an extraordinary story of the first female imams in Europe in her new documentary "Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam" (Norway 2021 | in Turkish/English/German/Chinese/Norwegian | 81 min. | Documentary). The Turkish-German lawyer Seyran Ateş takes on her personal and ideological fight against radical Islam's sexual oppression by creating a modernized Islam environment at her liberal mosque where there is no gender segregation and individuals of all sexual orientations are welcome, but with heavy police protection.

    Taking more than five years, the director Roberto Salinas follows a Cuban teenager Alexis from Havana's Cuban National Ballet School to Florida, and unwraps Alexis's coming-of-age story in "Cuban Dancer" (Italy/Canada/Chile 2021 | in Spanish/English | 90 min. | Documentary), with many elegant and delightful dance sequences.

    The winner of the Audience Award and the Impact for Change Special Jury Award in the World Documentary category at this year's virtual Sundance Film Festival, the empowering and inspiring "Writing with Fire" (India 2021 | in Hindi | 92 min. | Documentary) covers the only online newspaper run by women in Indian reporting on the lowest class Dalits, also known as the Untouchables. The co-directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas follow the newspaper's reporter Meera and show us how Meera and her team make a powerful impact with their smartphones.

    Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam Cuban Dancer Writing with Fire

  • The Rest

    10 US narratives, 10 US documentaries, 5 mid-length films, and 56 short films make up the rest of the festival selection.

    Meet Lily Hevesh, the only female domino artist in her field who designs many fantastic domino projects. She is the subject of the director Jeremy Workman's crowd pleasing documentary "Lily Topples the World" (USA 2021 | 91 min. | Documentary). The film follows Lily, as well as her dreams and passion, for three years and showcases some of her amazing work.

    "Homeroom" (USA 2021 | 90 min. | Documentary), the third chapter of documentarian Peter Nicks's Oakland trilogy, zooms in on Oakland's public high school. The film captures the challenges the Class of 2020 faced last year and the resilience that these students exhibited during the pandemic.

    Renowned contemporary artist Trevor Paglen travels in the Nevada desert, and the director Yaara Bou Melham tags along and listens to him talking about his new project—launching a satellite. The result is an intriguing documentary "Unseen Skies" (USA 2021 | 98 min. | Documentary) that reflects Paglen's stunning body of work.

    Lily Topples the World Homeroom Unseen Skies

The 2021 SFFILM Festival takes place April 9 - April 18 at Fort Mason Flix drive-in theater in San Francisco and online.


Monday, October 5, 2020


The 43rd Mill Valley Film Festival

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is still devastating every fabric of our society. Numerous lives and livelihoods are tragically lost. Yet, more than ever, the storytelling in cinema must continue, despite the fact that most of the theaters are still closed. One of the most celebrated film festivals in the Bay Area, the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), will join force with the previously postponed DocLands Documentary Film Festival (both presented by the California Film Institute) to showcase its 43rd edition Oct. 8-18, 2020. Of course, adapting to these trying times and social distancing guidelines, the festival will stream most films online in virtual CAFilm Streaming Room, as well as exhibit a few titles in a drive-in cinema located at the beautiful Lagoon Park-Marin Center in San Rafael.

The 43rd Mill Valley Film Festival

Given the circumstances, it's not a surprise that the 43rd MVFF has slimmed down quite a bit compared to other years. It presents only 44 feature length narratives and 20 feature length documentaries, as well as 54 shorts. Nine films will be shown in the Drive-in Cinema. In addition, the DocLands presents 15 feature length documentaries and 12 shorts.

(You may click on each still image for ticketing information.)

Unlike usually opening the festival with two films, the 43rd MVFF opens with five(!) movies plus one that opens the DocLands. They include

  • "Blithe Spirit" (UK 2020 | 95 min.), a Noël Coward adaptation starring Judi Dench
  • "The Heist of the Century" (El robo del siglo | Argentina/Spain 2020 | in Spanish | 114 min.), a wild ride through one of the greatest bank heists in Argentinian history
  • "Sweet Thing" (USA 2020 | 91 min.), a bittersweet portrait about two young sisters' struggle and their runaway from their troubled family
  • "Veins of the World" (Die Adern der Welt | Germany/Mongolia | in Mongolian | 96 min.), a young Mongolian boy's coming-of-age story
  • "The Boys Who Said NO!" (USA 2020 | 90 min. | Documentary), a documentary looking back at the draft resistance during the Vietnam War
  • "Public Trust" (USA 2020 | 96 min. | Documentary), the opening film for DocLands which examines the American public lands under threat

Blithe Spirit The Heist of the Century (El robo del siglo) Sweet Thing
Veins of the World (Die Adern der
                        Welt) The Boys Who Said NO! Public Trust

This year's festival shines spotlights on Clare Dunne with her new film "Herself" (Ireland/UK 2020 | 97 min.) in which she plays a young mother who escapes her abusive husband. The centerpiece presentation is Regina King's highly anticipated film "One Night in Miami" (USA 2020 | 114 min.), a fictional account of four iconic figures discussing civil rights movements during a night out in 1964.

Spotlight: Herself Centerpiece: One Night in Miami

This year, the festival pays tribute to four extraordinary female artists: Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, Viola Davis, and Sophia Loren, with online virtual conversations.

Tribute conversation: Kate Winslet Tribute conversation: Dame Judi Dench Tribute conversation: Viola Davis Tribute conversation: Sophia Loren

Perhaps due to the pandemic which derailed a few major film festivals earlier this year, the World Cinema section only has 25 feature narratives and Asian films are almost completely absent. Even though it's a bit disappointing, there are still a few films that promise to entertain the audience in addition to the opening films:

  • "The Father" (UK/France 2020 | 97 min.) examines the dynamic relationship between a daughter and her aging father, played by Oscar winners Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins.
  • "Master Cheng" (Mestari Cheng | Finland/China 2019 | in English/Finnish/Mandarin | 114 min.) tells a story of a Chinese chef's visit to a remote village in Finland.
  • "Spring Blossom" (Seize printemps | France 2020 | in French | 73 min.) tells a 16-year-old's affair with an older man.
  • "Three Summers" (Três Verões | Brazil/France 2019 | in Portuguese | 94 min.) follows a housekeeper's three eventful summers at her scandal filled employer's luxury home.

The Father Master Cheng
Spring Blossom Three Summers

If you are tired of reading subtitles, then don't miss these two films in the US Cinema section:

  • "Nomadland" (USA 2020 | 108 min.) follows a woman's journey through the American's west in her RV, directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances McDormand. Having already won the Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival, this may well be a front runner in the upcoming Oscar race, whenever that might take place.
  • "Shithouse" (USA 2020 | 100 min.) unfolds a homesick freshman's shitty night which is turned around after meeting a girl at a party house. The SXSW Grand Jury Award winner, this comedy is a welcomed antidote for the depressing reality.
Nomadland Shithouse

With cinema and art for the soul, with science and medicine for the body, with kindness and humanity for each other, we will get over this difficult time. We will prevail, together.

Friday, June 26, 2020


2020 Pride Streaming

It's Pride month! Even though theaters are still closed, you can still celebrate it by streaming many terrific LGBTQ films for free—if you have a San Francisco Public Library Card, or subscribe to Netflix, or have an Amazon Prime membership. Of course, you can also join Frameline44 online!

In random order:

  1. Vito (USA 2011 | 93 min. | Documentary | My capsule review | Available on Kanopy and Amazon Prime)

    Vito Official Site

  2. Baby Steps (滿月酒 | Taiwan/USA 2015 | in Mandarin/English | 103 min. | My review | Available free on IMDB TV)

    Baby Steps facebook Site

  3. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La vie d'Adèle | France 2013 | in French | 179 min. | My capsule review | Available on Netflix)

    Blue Is the Warmest Color Official Site

  4. Disobedience (Ireland/UK/USA 2018 | 114 min. | Available on Kanopy)

    Disobedience Official Site

  5. Stranger by the Lake (L'inconnu du lac | France 2013 | in French | 97 min. | Available on Kanopy)

    Stranger by the Lake Official Site

  6. The Half of It (USA 2020 | 104 min. | Available on Netflix)

    The Half of It Official Site

  7. The Way He Looks (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho | Brazil 2014 | in Portuguese | 95 min. | My review | Available on Kanopy)

    The Way He Looks

  8. A Single Man (USA 2009 | 99 min. | My review | Available on Netflix)

    A Single Man Official Site

  9. Cloudburst (Canada 2011 | 94 min. | My My capsule review | Available on Kanopy)

    Cloudburst facebook Site

  10. Moonlight (USA 2016 | 110 min. | My capsule review | Available on Kanopy and Netflix)

    Moonlight Official Site

  11. I Killed My Mother (J'ai tué ma mère | Canada 2009 | in French | 96 min. | Available on Kanopy)

    I Killed My Mother Official Site

  12. Dear Ex (誰先愛上他的 | Taiwan 2018 | in Mandarin | 100 min. | Available on Netflix)

    Dear Ex on Netflix

  13. XXY (Argentina/Spain/France 2007 | in Spanish | 91 min. | Available on Kanopy)


  14. Departure (UK/France 2016 | in French/English | 109 min. | Available free on TubiTV)


Friday, March 13, 2020


The Hunt

The Hunt official site In the deeply divided United States of America nowadays, many right-wing individuals are more likely to fit the profile of being violent and extreme. But the director Craig Zobel's satirical bloody thriller "The Hunt" (USA 2019 | 89 min.) turns the table around and pokes fun at the liberals, without sparing the right-wing as the butt of the joke. This is the most violent movie I have seen in a while. In fact, its violence is part of the reason for the original delay of the film's release last summer when two mass shootings took place in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. But despite a thin plot line and the over the top gore, the movie is quite amusing and exciting.

Just think about the following scenario for a second. In order to find an outlet to release the anger and frustration, a bunch of elite liberals come up with a scheme to kill a dozen of people from the right part of the political spectrum, for fun. They round up a few gun-toting, immigrate-hating, global-warming-denying, Trump-supporting, redneck-talking individuals to a secret location and then hunt them for sport. It sounds absurd, doesn't it? But the film remarkably pulls this plot off, while having a lot of fun in the mindset of these liberals who think their targets are a basket of deplorables who deserve to be eliminated.

Gagged like attending the Folsom Street Fair, a group of people showed up at an unknown location. Before they know where they are and why they are here, they get shot, stabbed, blown up, and chased after.

But Crystal (Betty Gilpin) is smarter and tougher than the rest. She outplays her hunters and closes in on the ring leader Athena (Hilary Swank). Once they face each other with Beethoven's music in the background, they finish off the game by a brutal physical fight without sorting off their ideological differences.

The Hunt Official Site
Hilary Swank and Betty Gilpin in The Hunt. Photo: Patti Perret/Universal Pictures.

The director Craig Zobel keeps the killing spree on the screen lean and efficient. Just a few minutes into the movie, you will lose count of how many of these "deplorables" have been killed. And many of these deaths are quite messy. In fact, some killings are so violent that they appear to be comical. Fans of Japanese gore genre will definitely have a good time watching the hunt in this movie.

Obviously the film isn't providing a feasible solution to the deep division in politics. Rather, it pokes fun at both sides. While it stereotypes people from the right, it also sharply pokes fun at the left. It's hilarious to hear the NPR-listening hunters talking about the need for kidnapping a black victim for the sake of diversity among their victims. That kind of comical tone nicely matches the over the top gore and provides ample amusement.

So, how to resolve the political divide if the hunting game in the film should not be the path for us to take? The coronavirus might offer a clue.

"The Hunt" opens on Friday, March 13, 2020.

Friday, February 7, 2020


Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey official site As if to support the point made by the legendary director Martin Scorsese about superhero movies, the director Cathy Yan's latest DC Comics adaptation "Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)" (USA 2020 | 109 min.) is a noisy over-the-top farce. Watching this film is more like flipping through a comic book written for a teenage girl. The film is written and directed by women, has an all-female leading cast, and has a plot centered around female characters. But if the film is meant to proclaim women's empowerment, it misfires and adds another repetitive addition to the crowded comic book adaptations.

Before the poker-faced Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) even appears on the screen, her rapid-fired voice-over already takes over the house explaining her psychologist background and her recent break up with Joker, accompanied by animation. She needs to release her grievance by going out in Gotham City and making some destruction.

Other characters are introduced one by one with their names and grievances written across the screen. They include a cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a revenger Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a night club singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a pick-pocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and a nightclub owner Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). After Cassandra steals a diamond from Roman, these characters run around the city, even raid the police station, to get the diamond back. In almost every scene, women kick asses and defeat every male villain in their way, no matter how mean these men look and how big they appear. Speaking of girl-power.

Birds of Prey Official Site
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell in Birds of Prey. Photo: Claudette Barius / Warner Bros.

Despite being hailed as the first Asian woman to direct a major studio-backed superhero film, the director Cathy Yan ((阎羽茜) should have made a better choice for her second feature to be a real cinema project. Her award-winning first feature "Dead Pigs" (海上浮城 | China 2018) is a terrific film that crafts a few mesmerizing and lovely characters and tells an engrossing story. But that vision and style in her first feature is nowhere to be found in this loud and ridiculous superhero installment.

Even serving as an action flick, the fighting sequences in the film are repetitive and last too long. They kick, flip, then kick and flip, and on and on. I am not sure why this is labeled as a superhero movie, because besides winning every fight, there is nothing super about these women. But they are surely all angry as hell. Harley's voice-over hardly stops throughout the film and you just want her to shut up. Who cares if she has a Ph.D. in psychology, she rarely has anything meaningful to say anyway.

Judging from Cathy Yan's two features films, you cannot help but to agree with Martin Scorsese's opinion wholeheartedly. Let's hope Cathy Yan will show her immense talent in her next feature like she did in her first feature, by making cinema instead of comic books.

"Birds of Prey" opens on Friday, February 7, 2020.

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