Saturday, June 13, 2015


The 39th San Francisco International LGBTG Film Festival (Frameline39)

"There is no place like here." That's an unapologetically proud yet entirely accurate tagline for this year's annual San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival—Frameline39. This 39th edition of world's oldest and largest LGBTQ film festival runs June 18-28, 2015 in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland. With 180 films (74 features) in 117 programs representing 33 countries and regions, Frameline39 showcases an exciting selection of LGBTG films and illustrates how singular this festival is in this unique city of fog.

Frameline 39 Web Site

For another year, Frameline continues its momentum of maintaining the number of films it exhibits without increasing its ticket price, while most other major film festivals in San Francisco have been downsizing number of films and increasing their admissions. Frameline39 also bravely shows a few titles that were just shown at SFIFF58 and CAAMFest2015 couple months earlier. For example, "54: The Director's Cut," "The New Girlfriend," "Sworn Virgin," "Margarita, with a Straw," and "The Royal Road." That certainly is a good news for those who didn't get to see these titles earlier and it further vindicates that "there is no place like here" in San Francisco. So, if you didn't see "54: The Director's Cut" at SFIFF58, you definitely should not miss it again this time on Friday, June 26.

Here are some highlights of the festival:

Frameline39 runs June 18-28, 2015 at Castro Theater (429 Castro Street), Roxie Theater (3117 16th Street), Victoria Theater (2961 16th Street) in San Francisco, Rialto Cinemas Elmwood (2966 College Avenue) in Berkeley, and Landmark's Piedmont Theatre (2966 College Avenue) in Oakland.

The following is my reviews of a few feature films at 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.

  • How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) (Thailand/USA/Indonesia 2015 | in Thai | 80 min.)

    Almost a decade ago, the Korean-American director Josh Kim's clever and charming shorts "The Police Box" and "The Postcard" delighted the festival goers in San Francisco and beyond. Now, festival goers are in for a treat to watch his feature directorial debut "How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)," an absorbing portrait of the bond between an innocent 11-year-old boy and his caring older brother. The film is based on the short stories "At the Café Lovely" and "Draft Day" from the book "Sightseeing" by award-winning Thai-American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap, and was premiered at this year's Berlin International Film Festival.

    The wide-eyed 11-year-old boy is Oat (Ingkarat Damrongsakkul) who looks up his handsome openly gay brother Ek (Thira Chutikul) and hopes that he can beats Ek over a checker game someday. After losing their parents, Oak and Ek have been living with their aunt (Vatanya Thamdee) who has a daughter to raise herself. They struggle with ends meet day by day while the streets are controlled by local thugs.

    When Ek turns 21, like all other young men in Thailand, he must participate a draft lottery. If he draws a black card at the lottery, he can spare the military service and continue to support Oat and his aunt at home. If he draws a red card, he will be drafted and leave everyone behind. In order to keep Ek at home, Oat goes out his own way to help but only finds out later that the real world is much complicated than he can imagine.

    How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) Official Site

    The core of the film lies in the close relationship between Oat and Ek. It's both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and it's beautifully illustrated by subtle and ordinary daily interactions. The director Josh Kim finely crafts his story by staying focus on this core and doesn't get sidetracked by other subplots in the film. For example, Ek's sexuality appears strikingly casual as a matter of fact, and it doesn't provoke any special dramatic plot development.

    That doesn't mean that the film's plot is perfectly convincing at every turn. Considering how young Oat is, it's surprising to see Ek takes Oat to the bar where Ek works. However, that episode also seems necessary to tell Oat's coming of age story. There must be a better way.

    Like his shorts films, Josh Kim's remarkable feature debut creates a few likable characters and tells a touching story that profoundly resonates with the audience.

    Go back to the list of titles

  • Baby Steps (滿月酒 | Taiwan/USA 2015 | in Mandarin/English | 103 min.)

    Tremendous progress has been made for Chinese gays and lesbians since Ang Lee made "The Wedding Banquet" 22 years ago. That becomes evident even by looking at the roles that the legendary Kuei Ya-Lei (歸亞蕾) plays—she played the mother of a closet gay son in Ang Lee's "The Wedding Banquet" (1993); then she portrays the mother of an openly gay son in filmmaker Barney Cheng's terrific dramedy "Baby Steps" (2015). This time, her son in the movie is trying to expand the family by having a baby with his boyfriend. One thing doesn't change over the years is that her performance is fantastic as usual.

    A successful sales professional Danny (Barney Cheng 鄭伯昱) happily lives with his loving artist boyfriend Tate (Michael Adam Hamilton) in Los Angles. On their two year anniversary of being together, Danny expresses his desire for having a baby. At first, Tate is against the idea, but soon he changes his mind and becomes supportive. The couple begin to look for a surrogate mother.

    Having a grandchild is precisely what Danny's mother Grace (Kuei Ya-Lei 歸亞蕾) has been dreaming about, but she is uncomfortable to be open about Danny's sexuality among her friends in Taiwan. When she learns Danny's plan from her maid Mickey (Love Fang), she immediately flies from Taiwan to Los Angles to assume herself the quality control role as every Chinese parent would do.

    Everyone gets on board for a bumpy and emotional journey around the globe and their hearts. The new baby not only adds fresh blood to the family, but also bonds everyone together as tight as never before.

    Baby Steps Official Site Barney Cheng is perhaps best known for his performance in Woody Allen's "Hollywood Ending" (2002). With this impressive feature directional debut, he establishes himself as a talented rising Chinese American filmmaker. The film not only deals with the dilemma that is unique to Chinese culture as shown in "The Wedding Banquet," it also explores the complicity in a surrogacy process.

    But the film's utmost delight comes from Kuei Ya-Lei's outstanding performance. She often can convey her character's complex emotion with only a subtle facial expression without a single word. She seamlessly brings out her character's grace, sensitivity, dignity, and love. Her heartfelt speech in the end of the film is so touching that it might just bring out your tears even this is a comedy.

    In a sense, this film is a sequel to Ang Lee's "The Wedding Banquet," with a new generation of characters. Let's imagine what the subject matter might be in a new movie after another twenty years. Indeed, it gets better.

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  • I Am Michael (USA 2015 | 98 min.)

    Always featuring erotic gay youth images, the XY magazine became very popular among gay men in the late '90s. One of the magazine's founders was a gay activist named Michael Glatze who later created another magazine called YGA (Young Gay America). Understandably what a shock it was when he suddenly denounced his homosexuality in 2007 and became a devoted Christian on a crusade to "cure" other gay men. Based on an article "My Ex-Gay Friend" in The New York Times, the writer-director Justin Kelly recaptures Michale's transition in his provocative directorial debut "I Am Michael" (USA 2015 | 98 min.).

    In the '90s, a prominent gay activist Michael Glatze (James Franco) lives in San Francisco with his boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Quinto). When Bennett takes a job in Nova Scotia, Canada, Michael reluctantly moves with him. Although Nova Scotia is definitely not San Francisco anymore, outgoing Michael continues his gay advocacy work by making a documentary and publishing YGA. Meanwhile, he and Bennett take home another young man Tyler (Charlie Carver) as their lover.

    One day, Michael feels chest pain and he is frightened by the thought that he may die from a heart attack like his father did. That scare triggers him to question about his past, his future, and himself. He turns religion for answers. Soon after, he finds his faith in Christianity. He becomes a priest in Wyoming and dedicates his passion to convince others that homosexuality is wrong.

    I Am Michael Official Site

    The director Justin Kelly certainly picks a fascinating individual's extraordinary story to tell, and it's not an easy task at all. He objectively depicts Michael's transition with neither moral support nor condemnation, as if he has no point to make. While that may be truthful to his character, it also poses challenge to its viewers. No matter you root for the Michael in San Francisco or the Michael in Wyoming, you are left perplexed about which Michael is the real one after you finish the movie. You may still wonder why he makes such a dramatic turn in his life. The film raises more questions about Michael than answering them.

    The casting of the film is a big disappointment. Even the prolific James Franco dyes his hair to blond, he doesn't looks as good as Michael back in the '90s, nor does he have Michael's magnet effect. Despite the best effort, we can hardly sense the chemistry between James Franco and Zachary Quinto, it becomes even worse when their young puppy Charlie Carver joins in.

    In the end, this opening night movie is as mystery as its protagonist—puzzling, detached, yet intriguing.

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  • Beautiful Something (USA 2015 | 92 min.)

    You are surely to find something beautiful in the writer-director Joseph Graham's striking film "Beautiful Something" (USA 2015 | 92 min.) about a few gay men's intertwined searching for love and companionship, as well as themselves.

    The story is set in one chilly night in Philadelphia. Brian (Brian Sheppard) is a poet who is broke both financially and emotionally. Facing a writer's block, he goes to a bar and hooks up with Chris (David Melissaratos) who is married but looking for a quickie. After their loud and passionate but brief encounter, Chris immediately leaves Brian and the poor Brian is devastated because he thinks he must have done something wrong.

    Brian's second hookup with preppy Jim (Zack Ryan) that night further makes Brian to believe that everyone is running away from him. But Jim is having his own turmoil with his famous sculptor boyfriend Drew (Colman Domingo). Jim is about to leave Drew and have a fresh start in New York City. On this same night, Jim meets an elderly talent agent Bob (John Lescault) who cruises around streets in a limousine looking for fresh faces. After Jim strikes a deal with Bob and goes back to Bob's place, Jim is enlightened when Bob candidly shares his wisdom about love. What a busy night!

    Beautiful Something Official Site

    Just when you think the story may be another typical guys hooks up with guys tale, the write-director Joseph Graham illustrates there are something deeper below the surface. These finely constructed and solidly performed characters has one thing in common—they all desperately search for love, yet they all constantly struggle with the meaning of love and where to find it.

    Although the story is based on a true story as claimed by the filmmaker, it's still hard to believe that these four characters can be so fortunate to be able to connect on one single night in a big city. But that coincidence becomes less important when you are immersed in each lively character's artistic expression about desire from the body and the mind.

    This immersive film is poetic and mesmerizing. It's something beautiful indeed.

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  • The Surface (USA 2015 | 79 min.)

    There is something fascinating about 8mm home movies. They often provoke nostalgia sentiment and fond personal memories despite films' quality and contents. The write-director Michael J. Saul clearly recognizes that characteristic and chooses 8mm film to be a vital instrument in his new feature "The Surface" (USA 2015 | 79 min.). It's about an orphaned young student's journey in searching for the meaning of family. However, neither the film's story nor its characters justify the vintage 8mm tape its protagonist delves.

    With long hair like a young and slender version of Fabio, Evan (Harry Hains) is a college student living with his rich boyfriend Chris (Nicholas McDonald) who is controlling and nagging. At a garage sale, Evan buys an 8mm camera from an elderly Harry (Robert E. Weiner). As a result, the camera connects Evan with Harry's middle-aged son Peter (Michael Redford Carney). To Even's surprise, Peter gives Evan some 8mm tapes of his childhood which Harry filmed. Evan edits the material and makes a short film for his school project.

    That short film not only provokes Evan to reflect on what family mean to him after drifting around many years, but also it makes a significant impact on Peter, and it further complicates the relationship between Evan and Chris.

    The Surface Official Site

    It's evident from the film that the write-director Michael J. Saul is affectionate toward both 8mm home movies and actor Harry Hains's slender body. Although the 8mm footage looks artistic and intriguing, it fails to bridge the characters. No one except Evan seems to care about those 8mm films. For no particular reason, the film constantly shows Harry Hains takes off his shirt. That repeated action serves little to the storytelling except it indicates that the filmmaker enjoys the images and cannot cut them in the editing room. However, taking off the shirt may explain why Evan becomes more than just a pool boy for Peter.

    Instead of giving it away, Peter should have kept the 8mm home movies for himself and cherishes his father's fond memory. However, it's crucial for him to give them to Evan. Otherwise, the story would go nowhere and Evan would never find the meaning of family. Poor shirtless Evan.

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