Monday, April 22, 2013


The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival

Carrying on the torch from Graham Leggat and Bingham Ray, led by its new Executive Director Ted Hope, San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) once again presents the "crown jewel of the Society"—56th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), April 25-May 9, 2013.

After more than half a century, this American's longest running film festival continues to be a grand showcase of current international cinema. This year's exciting program consists 61 narrative features, 30 documentary features, and 7 shorts programs, represents works from 51 countries and regions.

The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival

Being sandwiched between the Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival in timing, it is quite a challenge to secure prime films into SFIFF's program. That probably explains why SFFF-supported award-winning new film "Fruitvale" (USA 2013) is missing from this year's festival, while it is selected by both Sundance and Cannes. However, I am delighted by the excellent overall selection in this year's program. The quality of the select films should make the SFFS's programming staff, as well as Graham Leggat and Bingham Ray, proud.

On Thursday, April 25, the festival opens with a heartfelt drama "What Maisie Knew" (USA 2012 | 93 min.), about a little girl who is caught in the middle of her neglect parents. The festival continues to run for two weeks and closes on May 9 with a highly anticipated "Before Midnight" (USA 2013 | 108 min.), the third film in the terrific "Before Series."

Throughout the festival, besides film screenings, there are also tributes and awards, as well as other live events.

Although I am excited about plenty films in this year's program, I will mainly cover Asian films here, with a few exceptions for films I have seen.

As always, each film title is linked to the festival program, where more details about the film including showtime and venue information during the festival can be found. Each film's still image is linked to a film's official Web site if it's available (in random order):

Note: There is a possibility that more titles to be added to this list in the next few days.

  • Frances Ha (USA 2012 | 86 min.)

    Always looked innocent and sincere, Greta Gerwig possesses an uncanny appealing that simply irresistible. When she plays the eccentric and adorable titular character in director Noah Baumbach's hilarious and endearing comedy "Frances Ha," she becomes even more charming and outrageously funny.

    Indie darling Noah Baumbach shots this quirky comedy in stylish black-and-white and equips with a playful soundtrack, based on a script co-written with his real life partner Greta Gerwig. This beautiful film follows a 27-year-old not-so-successful New York City dancer Frances's day to day struggle in relationship, job, career, and, growing up in general.

    It's impossible not to be enchanted by the film's colorful characters, witty one-liners, and the fantastic Greta Gerwig.

    Frances Ha official site

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  • Our Homeland (かぞくのくに | Japan 2012 | in Japanese/Korean | 100 min.)

    In director Yang Yong-hi's (양영희) fascinating documentary "Dear Pyongyang" (Japan 2005), she tells her personal story as a second-generation Korean-Japanese (Zainichi Korean) with a charismatic pro-North Korean father. Her father indeed sent her three teenager brothers back to North Korea under a "repatriation program" in the 1970s.

    Selected as Japan's Oscar entry for the Best Foreign Language film, Yang Yong-hi's terrific narrative feature directorial debut "Our Homeland" is more heartbreaking to watch if you know the facts in her previous documentary. Clearly, the film's characters root deeply in director Yang's personal life experiences.

    In "Our Homeland," Rie (Sakura Andô 安藤 サクラ) and her pro-North Korean parents operate a family coffee shop in Tokyo. Rie's brother Sungho (Arata 井浦新) was sent to North Korea in the 70s when Sungho was 16 years old. Twenty five years later, Sungho finally gets a chance to come back to Japan to visit his family temporally for medical treatment, accompanied by a North Korean "supervisor" (Yang Ik-June 양익준). The visit turns out to be anything but a happy family reunion.

    Yang's heart-wrenching tale is too real to be regarded as a fiction. She superbly unfolds her story and depicts a family separated by both physical distance and ideology. Quite often, even there is no word spoken by the actors, profound emotions are pouring out from these characters.

    No matter whom I resonate with, Rie or Sungho, I am devastated by the dilemma, because I see no hope in sight, only tears and broken hearts.

    Our Homeland official site

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  • Stories We Tell (Canada 2012 | 108 min. | Documentary)

    We all love a good story. We love a good story even more if it's told by eloquent storytellers. Oscar nominated director Sarah Polley and her family members are no doubt such terrific storytellers when they tell a deeply personal story in her brilliant documentary "Stories We Tell." And, what a touching, engrossing, fascinating, intriguing, and amusing family story they tell in this film!

    Director Sarah Polley skillfully crafts this genre-bending documentary into a true gem. You should experience her storytelling yourself without knowing what the story is about. One thing is certain that you will appreciate that she and her family share their story in this film, intimately and candidly.

    Stories We Tell official site

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  • What Maisie Knew (USA 2012 | 93 min.)

    The opening night film is the fifth collaboration of directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel "What Maisie Knew." A loose contemporary adaption of Henry James's 1897 novel, this terrific drama tells a heartfelt story dealing with her neglect parents from the perspective of a six-year-old girl Maisie (Onata Aprile).

    Throughout the film, the camera almost never leaves Maisie's innocent presence. Although she doesn't complain much, and only cries once (quietly and alone), she knows all too well how her rock star mom (Julianne Moore) and art dealer dad (Steve Coogan) are not there for her and use her as a weapon against each other. Luckily, she finds love and a safe haven from her ex-nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and a her mom's bartender friend Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård).

    It's definitely a better choice to open the festival compared to past few years.

    What Maisie Knew official site

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  • Before Midnight (USA 2013 | 108 min.)

    In "Before Sunrise" (1995), director Richard Linklater introduces us to two fascinating characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), a young couple meet on a train in Europe then spend the night walking and talking on streets in Vienna before sunrise. Nine years later, Jesse and Julie get a second chance and continue their conversation in director Richard Linklater's "Before Sunset" (2004).

    Another nine years past. Jesse and Julie show up in Greece in director Richard Linklater's latest "Before Midnight" (2013). They continue on their walking, talking, laughing, arguing, and challenging to each other's philosophy. Eighteen years later, these two arresting characters become more mature physically, but they are also more charming, charismatic, intellectual, cultured, and illuminating.

    Even the year is still early, I am quite certain this closing night film will be on my top-ten-list for films in 2013.

    Before Midnight official site

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  • Key of Life (鍵泥棒のメソッド | Japan 2012 | in Japanese | 128 min.)

    In this lighthearted and cleverly crafted comedy "Key of Life," director Kenji Uchida (内田けんじ) shows that he can entertain the audience with a decent story without high tech effects-laden or bloody violence.

    Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa 香川 照之) is a professional assassin; Sakurai (Masato Sakai 堺雅人) is a struggling actor; and Kanae (Ryôko Hirosue 広末 涼子) is a publishing company CEO who is determined to get married within a month. They have nothing in common, but an accident in a public bath pulls them together, and forever changes their lives.

    What's remarkable about the storytelling is that even the plot sounds far-fetched, yet every detail seems reasonable and convincing, and the perfect execution makes the film a delightful entertainment.

    Key of Life official site

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  • A River Changes Course (ក្បង់ទឹកទនេ្ល | Cambodia/USA 2012 | in Khmer | 83min.)

    The winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival, Bay Area filmmaker Kalyanee Mam's brilliant feature directorial debut "A River Changes Course" brings us to places that seem to be forgotten and fast disappearing.

    The globalization is like a forceful tsunami, it first passes through China, now it reaches Cambodia, and mercilessly destroys the culture and the environment along the way.

    The film reflects the destruction through three families. Sav Samourn's family depends on the forest for their livelihood, but logging companies are clearing out the forest day by day. Sari Math's family can no longer survive solely on fishing along the Tonle Sap River, Sari has to leave the water and be a ditch digger at the age of 15. Khieu Mok's family cannot pay back the debt by farming, Khieu has to find a garment factory job in Phnom Penh.

    Contrasting to the soon vanishing natural beauty captured in the movie, the human stories in these often forgotten places are devastating and despairing. The movie shines a light to the price people have to pay in the name of economic development and globalization.

    A River Changes Course official site

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  • Memories Look at Me (记忆望着我 | China 2012 | in Chinese | 87 min.)

    Mentored by the acclaimed filmmaker Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯) who is also credited as a producer of the film, Song Fang's (宋方) feature debut "Memories Look at Me" tells a story about her visit to her aging parents. The film has been traveling the festival circle, and generating plenty positive buzz. This is one of the films I have not seen but looking forward to at the festival.

    If Song Fang looks familiar to you, that's probably you remember her in Hou Hsiao-Hsian's (侯孝贤) poetic "Flight of the Red Balloon" (Le voyage du ballon rouge 2007).

    Memories Look at Me

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  • Juvenile Offender (범죄소년 | South Korea 2012 | in Korean | 107 min.)

    Director Kang Yi-kwan's (강이관) affecting "Juvenile Offender" maintains the characteristic of a typical Korean melodrama, without being overly sentimental.

    Ji-gu (Seo Young-joo 서영주) is a troubled teenager. When he is about to be released from detention, the police finds his mother Hyo-seung (Lee Jung-Hyun 이정현) who is completely unknown to him. Although Hyo-seung appears to be happy-go-lucky and tries to rebuild the relationship with Ji-gu, the reality is often hash and difficult to control.

    Although the film doesn't quite present the top-notch Korean cinema, its engrossing characters and a fine performance can keep you captivated.

    Juvenile Offender official site

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  • Inori (祈 | Japan 2012 | in Japanese | 72 min. | Documentary)

    After winning numerous awards with his docudrama "Alamar" (SFIFF53), Mexican director Pedro González-Rubio turns his lenses from the sea in Caribbean to the mountains in Japan. His new docudrama "Inori" intimately observes the daily lives in an aging town in Nara Prefecture. It effortlessly blends in his characters into a scenery surrounding.

    Even this tidy town quietly sits in the middle of beautiful mountains, there are almost none of the younger people left. Yet, the aging population carry on their daily lives as it used to. One old lady in the film continues to let her faucet run non-stop, perhaps because water never dries up from the mountains. Life is slow, simple, and quiet, almost in a meditating stage.

    This life-affirming docudrama elegantly transcends the beauty of nature into the rhythm of life, and it makes you pause and wonder why people ever want to leave a place like this.

    Inori official site

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  • Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (범죄와의 전쟁 | South Korea 2012 | in Korean | 133 min.)

    There are plenty excellent gangster films being made around the globe, even in South Korea. Yet, this genre shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. In his third feature "Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time," South Korean director Yoon Jong-bin (윤종빈) brings us another gangster who doesn't look or even talk like a gangster.

    The film chronicles the rise and fall of a corrupt customs officer Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik 최민식) from the early 80s to the 90s in Busan. After he teams up with a gangster Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo 하정우), Ik-hyun regards himself as the brain of the gang. That attitude dooms him in this dog-eat-dog world, especially when he doesn't have his own "boys" to push around in town.

    While the performance is solid and the storytelling is easy to follow, the film lacks the thrill and energy a great gangster movie demands. But no worries, now at the age of 28, director Yoon Jong-bin has a long career ahead of him, and he has plenty time to catch on works by masters like Martin Scorsese.

    Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time official site

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  • Penance (贖罪 | Japan 2012 | in Japanese | 300 min.)

    No, that 300 minute running time is not a typo. That's indeed the actual running time of director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's (黒沢 清) latest work "Penance." It's a five-episode made-for-TV series but to be shown as a feature film in its entity at one screening, with a 10-minute intermission.

    The story begins with the murder of a 9-year-old school girl Emili when she is playing with her four classmate friends. Instead of turning the outrage to the murderer, Emili's mother Asako (Kyōko Koizumi 小泉 今日子) feels that the four little girls bear some responsibility for the failure of catching Emili's killer, she asks the four girls to promise her to penance themselves. I am not kidding.

    Fast forward fifteen years later, the four girls are grown into young woman. Each of the first four episodes focuses on each of these girl's "penance," titled "French Doll," "The PTA Meeting," "Brother and Sister Bear," and "Ten Months Ten Days" respectively. Then finally in the last episode, titled "Atonement," the story reaches its climax and reveals everything, perhaps more than you want to believe.

    Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's fans might feel disappointed if they are expecting something similar to Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata" (2008). Especially that may be the case when you sit through the first three hours, when the story ranges from strange to bizarre. As if to compensating the agony in the first three episodes, you feel that penance is finally redeemed in the last two hours, when the story picks up speed, and when twists begin to tangle, and when the plot goes wild. Wouldn't that be better just wrapping the last two episodes into a two-hour-long feature film?

    And, you may start to wonder if staring by Teruyuki Kagawa (香川 照之) is a necessary requirement for a Japanese film to be selected by the SFIFF (see "Key of Life"). It that were the case, it would be perfectly fine by me.

    Penance official site

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  • The Patience Stone (سنگ صبور | Afghanistan/Germany/England/France 2012 | in Persian | 102 min.)

    Selected as Afghan's Oscar entry for the Best Foreign Language film, based on his own novel, France based Afghanistan director Atiq Rahimi's absorbing "The Patience Stone" serves as a voice for Afghani women who are often muted behind their burkah and closed doors.

    Set in Kabul, the film's protagonist is a young woman (Golshifteh Farahani) who attends her unconscious husband due to a gunshot wound. She also needs to raise her two young daughters in this war zone. Since her husband is unresponsive, she begins to pour out her suffering, desire, anger, hope, and pretty much her every possible human emotion. She treats her vegetation-state husband as her patience stone, which means a magic stone that shields her from unhappiness, suffering, pains and miseries according to Persian mythology.

    While the movie can be easily viewed as a calling for the humanization and liberation of repressed Afghan women, I feel it's more of a story told from a Western culture point of view rather than from an Afghani woman's perspective. Perhaps that's exactly the point of this film—to change our perception about Afghani women and unveil from their burkah.

    The Patience Stone official site

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  • Fill the Void (למלא את החלל | Israel 2012 | in Hebrew | 90 min.)

    Selected as Israel's Oscar entry for the Best Foreign Language film, director Rama Burshtein impressive feature directorial debut "Fill the Void" tells a sympathetic story about a teenager girl's sacrifice of her own wish to religious law and traditional culture.

    Set in Tel Aviv, the protagonist is the 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron) who is very excited after she first time sees the man she is about to marry. But a tragedy in this Orthodox Hasidic family shatters her dream, she has to make a tough decision between either follow her own wish or fulfill her obligation to what her family expects and what the powerful rabbi advises.

    The film gives us a close look inside the close-knit and strikingly insular Orthodox Hasidic community. It's certainly an eye opening opportunity to experience a unique culture and community while to resonate a theme that is remarkably universal.

    Fill the Void official site

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  • Cold War (寒戰 | Hong Kong 2012 | in Cantonese | 102 min.)

    A big winer (Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor) at the 32nd Hong Kong Film Awards earlier this month and the opening night film at the 17th Busan International Film Festival, "Cold War" is a sleek directorial debut from Lok-man Leung (梁樂民) and Sunny Luk Kim Ching (陸劍青).

    The film tells a story about a police internal investigation to uncover a mole after a hostage and bombing incident. Two rival Vice Deputy Commissioner (Aaron Kwok 郭富城) and (Tony Leung Ka-fai 梁家輝) clashes over the rescue operation code named "Cold War."

    The film appears to be another Hong Kong cop movie following the footsteps of the excellent "Infernal Affairs" (無間道 2002) and its prequel (2003). With a rapid pace (same thing can be said about notes and subtitles appearing on the screen), the somewhat confusing plot can be challenging to be followed (unless you understand Cantonese). But the film's energy and a strong performance by the most recognized Hong Kong super-stars keep the film afloat.

    Cold War

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  • Rent a Family Inc. (Lej en Familie A/S | Denmark 2012 | in Japanese | 77 min. | Documentary)

    It's a well-established fact that a society's technology and financial advance is negatively correlated to human connection and family tradition. That fact can be once again validated in Danish director Kaspar Astrup Schröder's engrossing and surprisingly touching documentary "Rent a Family Inc." The documentary takes a closer-look at a booming "stand-in" business in Japan, especially its operator, Ryuichi Ichinokawa, a 44-year-old husband and the father of two teenage sons.

    It's appalling that the filmmaker seems to know more about Ryuichi and his "stand-in" business than Ryuichi's family. Even Ryuichi's family have dinner together every day, they hardly talk to each other. Yet, strangely, they may pay attention to a program on TV that discusses human relationship and communication.

    Ryuichi provides the bacon to his family, as well as "professional stand-in" human beings to his clients regardless the role. A requested stand-in could be a fake husband, a father, a friend, a relative, or an entire troop attending a wedding.

    Working on his kitchen table, as if his wife doesn't exist in the room, Ryuichi builds a web site for his clients called "I Want To Cheer You Up." He regards himself as "a handyman fixing people's social relationships." Indeed he can be a good actor and can carry out a gig like a conductor leading a skilled orchestra. But ironically, he is the loneliest person without any friend, and his family members are invisible in front of his eyes. Occasionally, he expresses more affection to his dog than any other human being.

    It seems the society has more to be fixed than Ryuichi and his business are capable of. Ryuichi also needs an urgent fix himself.

    Rent a Family Inc. official site

    Click here to go back to the list of titles

The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival takes place April 25-May 9, 2013 at in San Francisco at Sundance Kabuki, San Francisco Film Society Cinema, and Castro Theater, and in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive, and other venues in the Bay Area.


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