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.

Monday, January 20, 2020



If the San Francisco International Film Festival and other film festivals year round in the City are not indie enough for you, there is actually an annual SF Independent Film Festival (SF INDIEFEST) where you can indulge yourself in indie films even more. The 22nd SF INDIEFEST takes place January 29 - February 13, 2020 at the Roxie Theater and the Victoria Theatre in the Mission neighborhood. This year's edition presents 57 shorts and 47 features of new independent films from 21 countries.


Here are a few Asian flavored films at this year's festival.

  • The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会 | China/France 2019 | in Chinese | 113 min.)

    The Wild Goose Lake on IMDB The only Chinese language film in competition at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Chinese director Diao Yi'nan's (刁亦男) grim "The Wild Goose Lake" tells another underground crime story in China.

    Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is a gang leader who has been absent from his wife (Regina Wan) and his young son for five years. When a brawl between motorcycle theft gangs goes out of hand, Zenong is injured and on the run from police's dragnet led by Captain Liu (Liao Fan). There is a thirty-thousand-yuan reward money for Zenong's capture. After he meets a prostitute Liu Aiai (Kwei Lunmei), they team together to outsmart the gang and police by sacrificing himself for the reward money to be given to his wife.

    The director Diao Yi'nan has been known for crafting crime stories in modern China in realistic form, despite the fact that there are far less violent organized crimes over there, especially with the heightened surveillance security in recent years. You have to rely on his storytelling to overcome your skepticism about the unconvincing plot. Yet, the film is irresistible to watch with the help of an exquisite cinematography by Dong Jingsong.

  • Mellow (メロウ | Japan 2020 | in Japanese | 106 min.)

    Mellow official site The prolific Japanese writer-director Rikiya Imaizumi's (今泉力哉) quiet and bitter-sweet dramedy "Mellow" is a charming delight portraying its characters' unrequited love.

    The artistic and polite Natsume (Kei Tanaka) is a passionate florist running a boutique flower shop called Mellow. He frequently patronizes a young woman Kiho's (Sae Okazaki) ramen shop. Surrounding their seemingly ordinary daily routines, plenty of admiration and unrequited love are floating around involving both themselves and their customers. They deal with each incident, often comical, with candid honesty and earnest grace.

    Rikiya Imaizumi assembles his characters the same way as Natsume stylishly puts together a collection of lovely flowers from the shop. Each character has their unique quirkiness and persona, yet they share a common trait that is kind and likable. Together, they brighten the world and lift the spirit.

    Watching this feel-good film may have the same effect as you bring home a bunch of beautiful flowers. Treat yourself.

  • Come As You Are (USA 2019 | 106 min.)

    Come As You Are official site Bay Area filmmaker Richard Wong's new road-trip comedy "Come As You Are," tells an extraordinary story about three disabled young men. The film is a remake of "Hasta la Vista" (Belgium 2011) that is inspired by a true story.

    In order to lose their virginity by visiting a brothel in Montreal that caters to disabled men, wheelchair-bound Scotty (Grant Rosenmeyer) and Matt (Hayden Szeto), joined by blind Mo (Ravi Patel), hire a driver Sam (a terrific and hilarious Gabourey Sidibe) to take them up north.

    Good at heart, the film is enjoyable to watch despite some cliché moments.

  • Things I Do For Money (Canada 2019 | 89 min.)

    Things I Do For Money official site Claimed to be the first Japanese-Canadian-cello-crime-heist-caper-music-movie by the writer-director Warren P. Sonoda, "Things I Do For Money" is more impressive for its wonderful music than its farcical crime story.

    To audition for the Banff Conservatory, 17-year-old Eli Yaguchi (Theodor Aoki) composes a duo-cello piece that he is going to perform with his older brother Nick (Maximilian Aoki). But their rehearsals leading to the audition are constantly side-tracked by Nick's involvement with an underworld crime organization. The two become the lookout for a gangster Alexi Raduli (Dax Lough).

    Before you get lost in the overstuffed plot, money exchanges hands, people get shot and kidnapped, painting is stolen, and fantastic music is performed.

    Music is the best part of the film, the rest of it is actually quite dreadful. The two talented siblings Theodor Aoki and Maximilian Aoki not only give a terrific acting debut, but also write and perform the film's music. This would have been a pretty good movie if it got rid of all the implausible crime subplot nonsense and told just the interesting story about two young cellists making music and pursuing higher education as Japanese Canadians.

    Of course, that wouldn't be a Japanese-Canadian-cello-crime-heist-caper-music-movie.

  • Vise (Manriki | Japan 2019 | in Japanese | 78 min.)

    Vise official site Silly, bizarre, comical, explicit, and gory Japanese B-movies are never short in supply at the SF INDIEFEST. This year's selection is Japanese director Yasuhiko Shimizu's (清水康彦) "Vise" about a surgeon's unique solution for women's desire for a smaller face.

    A young cashier (Julian Koike 小池樹里杏) at a supermarket keeps failing her audition for modeling and she blames it on her face for being too big. She comes to a cosmetic surgeon (Takumi Saitoh 齊藤工) for help to make her face smaller. But the surgeon's method for doing it is nothing you can imagine.

    The film might be a social commentary toward Japanese' culture, but the language used in expressing its view might also be lost in translation. The over the top horror-comedy scenes perhaps can only be appreciated by the faithful fans of Japanese B-movies.

Saturday, December 28, 2019


Top Ten Films in 2019

It's time for the annual top-ten list again. Here are the ten best films among the 339 feature-length narrative and documentary films I watched during the calendar year of 2019, no matter when and if a film was released in the US during 2019.

  1. The Guilty (Den skyldige | Denmark 2018 | in Danish | 85 min.)

    The writer-director Gustav Möller astonishingly composes a thriller set entirely inside a room where an emergency dispatcher receives a call from a kidnapped woman.

    The Guilty Official Site

  2. We the Animals (USA 2018 | 94 min.)

    The director Jeremiah Zagar crafts a lyrical and dreamy movie about three siblings living in poverty.

    We the Animals Official Site

  3. Joker (USA 2019 | 122 min.)

    Joaquin Phoenix's tour de force performance creates a mesmerizing character in the director Todd Phillips's psychological thriller.

    Joker Official Site

  4. Birthday (생일 | South Korea 2019 | in Korean | 120 min.)

    With powerful performances by the lead actors, the director Lee Jong-eon's (이종언) unapologetic tearjerker depicts the unbearable grief from the parents of the victims of the horrific Sewol ferry disaster (世越號沈沒事故) on 16 April 2014.

    Birthday Official Site

  5. Marriage Story (USA 2019 | 136 min.)

    The writer-director Noah Baumbach's outstanding divorce drama features a few of this year's best performances.

    Marriage Story Official Site

  6. A Dog Barking at the Moon (再见, 南屏晚钟 | China/Spain 2019 | in Mandarin | 107 min.)

    Loosely based on her own experience, the writer-director Lisa Zi Xiang (相梓) strikingly unwraps an engrossing family saga.

    A Dog Barking at the Moon Official Site

  7. The Harvesters (Die Stropers | France/South Africa/Greece/Poland 2018 | in Afrikaans | 104 min.)

    Etienne Kallos's beautiful directorial debut explores a boy's struggle with masculinity in South African culture after a street boy joins his family.

    The Harvesters Official Site

  8. Parasite (기생충 | South Korea 2019 | in Korean | 132 min.)

    The Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho's (봉준호) Palme d'Or winner brilliantly injects social commentary into an arresting and sometimes amusing story.

    Parasite Official Site

  9. So Long, My Son (地久天长 | China 2019 | in Mandarin | 185 min.)

    The sixth generation Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai's (王小帅) epic unfolds a heart-wrenching tragic tale in a couple's life that reflects the decades of social and economic changes in China since the '80s.

    So Long, My Son Official Site

  10. 1917 (UK 2019/USA | 110 min.)

    With stunning technical achievements, Sam Mendes's masterpiece "1917" (UK/USA 2019 | 119 min.) will guarantee you a breathtakingly immersive war experience. My review.

    1917 Official Site

Until next year...

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