Sunday, March 26, 2017


The 60th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILM Festival)

As if it cannot wait any longer to celebrate its 60th-birthday milestone, the longest running film festival in America, the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILM Festival), is held couple of weeks earlier than usual this year, April 5 - April 19, 2017.

This beloved festival has been an iconic fixture in the city's film culture, and a significant element to the city's rich diversity and history. Year after year for six decades, the festival embraces, enriches, and celebrates the creativity and excellence in cinema art, and it affirms that art is essential to us. Now, the festival stands out as a strong voice in resisting the Trump administration's anti-art, anti-culture, and anti-humanity rhetoric.

In this monumental edition, the festival showcases 173 films, including 66 narrative features, 36 documentary features, 75 shorts in 39 languages representing 51 countries and regions.

The 60th San Francisco International Film Festival

Instead of the traditional Thursday, this year the festival opens on a Wednesday, April 5 with writer-director Gillian Robespierre's second feature "Landline" (USA 2017 | 97 min.), a comedy about two sisters from a dysfunctional family in the '90s Manhattan.

A week into the festival, on Wednesday, April 12, the festival's centerpiece presentation features this year's smash hit at Sundance, Geremy Jasper's directorial debut "Patti Cake$" (USA 2017 | 118 min), about a twenty-something hip-hop singer's quest to stardom in New Jersey.

Although the festival runs through April 19, its closing night presentation, "The Green Fog - A San Francisco Fantasia with Kronos Quartet," is scheduled on Sunday, April 16. In this new commission by the SFFILM and Stanford Live, the world-renowned Kronos Quartet will perform composer Jacob Garchik's new score accompanied by a visual collage directed by celebrated filmmaker Guy Maddin and his collaborators Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson. It promises to be an endearing tribute to the city and a love song to the SFFILM Festival's 60th birthday.

Opening Night: Landline Centerpiece: Patti Cake$ Closing Night: The Green Fog - A San Francisco Fantasia

Besides these Big Nights, the Festival groups its films into the following sections:

  • Marquee Presentations includes 12 narratives and 8 documentaries that have recently captured the headlines and populated the social media sphere of independent filmmaking. This year's selections include many award winners at the Sundance Film Festival. Winning the best director award at Sundance, writer-director Eliza Hittman's second feature "Beach Rats" (USA 2016) about a New Jersey teenager is highly anticipated. Also a Sundance winner, Amanda Lipitz's documentary "Step" (USA 2016) about a high school girls step dance team is surely to be an inspiring crowd pleaser.
  • Masters consists of 9 narratives and 1 documentary from a few influential filmmakers around the world. Yes, Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo (홍상수) is back with another episode of soap about man-women relationship in "Yourself and Yours" (당신자신과 당신의 것 | South Korea 2016). The Belgium brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne tell a story about a young doctor who tracks down the identity of a dead woman in "The Unknown Girl" (La fille inconnue | Belgium/France 2016).
  • Golden Gate Award (GGA) Competition nominates 10 narratives, 10 documentary features, and short films in six shorts programs for the generous cash prizes totaling nearly $40,000. Many emerging filmmakers around the world tell compelling stories in this category, even though many stories in this year's films seem gloomy (perhaps reflecting on the stage of the reality around the world).
  • Global Visions assembles 21 narratives and 6 documentaries that give us a taste of the most contemporary world cinema. Japanese writer-director Miwa Nishikawa (西川美和) adapts her own novel into a family drama "The Long Excuse" (永い言い訳 | Japan 2016). The Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov (Кирилл Серебренников) provocatively tells a chilling story about a religious fanatic running amok in "The Student" (Ученик | Russian 2016). Already a winner of a few awards in Asia, Hong Kong director Wong Chun's (黃進) feature directorial debut "Mad World" (一念無明 | Hong Kong 2016) tells a story about a stockbroker with bipolar disorder.
  • Dark Wave has 4 films including one documentary that continue to feed the appetite of midnight horror or kung-fu action thrill seekers.
  • Vanguard shows 4 experimental films including two documentaries that break the norm in watching a film and challenge your brain either in connecting the dots in the filmmakers' storytelling, or in finding those dots in some cases.

Throughout the festival, besides film screenings, there are also awards and special tributes, live & on stage performances, as well as three Master Classes.

The 60th San Francisco International Film Festival takes place April 5 - April 19, 2017 in San Francisco (at the Castro Theater in the Castro; the Dolby Cinema, SFMOMA's Phyllis Wattis Theater, and the YBCA Screening Room around the downtown area; the Alamo Drafthouse, the Roxie Theater, and the Victoria Theatre in the Mission neighborhood), Berkeley (at Pacific Film Archive), and other locations around the Bay Area.

Here are my reviews (or capsule reviews if they are under hold-review status) of a few films at this year's 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:

  • Sieranevada (Romania 2016 | in Romanian | 173 min.)
  • Life After Life (枝繁叶茂 | China 2016 | in Chinese | 80 min.)
  • The Student (Ученик | Russia 2016 | in Russian | 118 min.)
  • Half Life in Fukushima (Switzerland/Japan 2016 | 61 min. | Documentary)
  • The Next Skin (La propera pell | Spain/Switzerland 2016 | in Spanish/French/Catalan | 103 min.)
  • Motherland (USA/Philippines 2016 | in Tagalog | 94 min. | Documentary)
  • Maudie (Ireland/Canada 2016 | 115 min.)

  • Sieranevada (Romania 2016 | in Romanian | 173 min.)

    If you think your Thanksgiving dinner gathering is too dramatic to endure, wait until you sit through almost three hours of Romanian writer-director Cristi Puiu's "Sieranevada" (Romania 2016 | in Romanian | 173 min.) in which an extended family gathers to commemorate the death of a family member.

    Forty days after the death of Emil, father of neurologist Larry (Mimi Branescu), Emil's wife Nusa (Dana Dogaru) summons the entire family back to her small apartment for a ritual that is administered by a priest and followed by a feast.

    Even before Lary arrives at the apartment, his argument already started in the car with his wife about trivial matters. And once he enters the apartment, other people's non-stop arguments completely take over. While waiting for the delayed priest to come, they argue just about everything from 9/11 to communism and from adultery to suit sizes. I am sure Trump would be included in the discussion if the film were made today. The priest comes and goes, but the arguments never stop.

    After almost three hours, by the time they can finally sit down to have some food, they look exhausted, just like the viewers. Then they get up again because new crises arise. What's new?

    Sieranevada Official Site

    Like a little kid that has been dropped off at the intersection of a busy market, the film's camera is often placed in the central corridor of the apartment. What a place to be! The doors of different room open and shut constantly, and people get in and out while talking without a break. You are dazzled by the carefully orchestrated chaos. If you surrender to your patience, you will eventually learn many details about these characters.

    Perhaps the chaotic family gathering is a metaphor for today's society in Romania. Much of these characters' arguments appear to be blown out of proportion and result in little resolution. Sometimes the quarrels don't make sense, just like the film's title that the director Cristi Puiu randomly made up. Life can often be messy and you need to patiently wait for your family dinner to be over; Cristi Puiu skillfully makes that point with this film by purposely stretching-out its length.

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  • Life After Life (枝繁叶茂 | China 2016 | in Chinese | 80 min.)

    Many people believe in the doctrine that after death, one's soul will come back to life by reincarnate anew in the body of another human or animal. That's what the English title refers to in Zhang Hanyi's (张撼依) directorial debut "Life After Life" (枝繁叶茂 | China 2016 | in Chinese | 80 min.). This gloomy slow-paced film follows an unusual quest of a pair of father and son, plus the ghost spirit of the dead mother in an remote village in China. However, it neither has the philosophical depth of "After Life" (Japan 1998), nor provides any new outlook about contemporary China.

    On a gray winter day in a small village surrounded by heavy industries and mining, Mingchun (Zhang Mingjun) and his discontent son Leilei (Zhang Li) collect branches in the woods to heat their crumbling house. Then the script on the screen tells us that the soul of Leilei's deceased mother Xiuying suddenly possesses Leilei's body. Leilei's voice changes to Xiuying's and Mingchun starts to communicate with the soul of his wife who died young in an accident.

    Xiuying feels sad about the disappearing of their village and asks Mingchun to preserve the tree in the yard that they had planted when they got married. To fulfill her wish, Mingchun makes extra effort to relocate the tree with Leilei/Xiuying in a desolate rural landscape.

    Life After Life Official Site

    In addition to the depressing yellow and gray hue that reflects the mind-set of his characters, the director Zhang Hanyi frequently uses long shots from a distance to quietly observe his characters. That certainly creates a grim look, but it also keeps us detached from these characters. As a result, it's almost impossible to make any emotional connection to these characters. The viewers become merely onlookers who are just passing by.

    Yes, China is changing rapidly, including the rural regions. As a consequence, such changes have taken a devastating toll to the environment and traditional culture. The lives of millions similar to Mingchun and Leilei have been changed forever, for better or worse. However, we are able to witness all of it in plain sight even without the perspective from a ghost.

    The film's Chinese title "枝繁叶茂" means "profuse branches and bountiful leaves"—often used to describe a thriving and prosperous family. Obviously Mingchun's family presents anything but. Replanting the tree may not bring significant changes to Mingchun and Leilei's lives, but it might plant a little hope for a better future.

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  • The Student (Ученик | Russia 2016 | in Russian | 118 min.)

    Religious fanatics are not hard to find, just go to a war zone nowadays. But one who is a teenager in a Russian high school? That's exactly what Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov (Кирилл Серебренников) portrays in his latest captivating film "The Student" (Ученик | Russia 2016 | in Russian | 118 min.).

    The Student Official Site

    When Veniamin (Pyotr Skvortsov is asked why he refused to go to swimming class, his answer is that it is due to his religion. He isn't kidding. With a bible in hand, he provokes debates in school while citing scriptures as his reasoning. He declares war on anyone who disagrees with his ideology, especially a determined atheist teacher Elena (Viktoriya Isakova).

    From start to finish, the director Kirill Serebrennikov unflinchingly confronts the issue and tells an extraordinary story with arresting performance from a fine cast.

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  • Half Life in Fukushima (Switzerland/Japan 2016 | 61 min. | Documentary)

    It has been five years since the devastating Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster happened, and there is still no relief in sight. Extraordinarily, some people still live in the highly contaminated red zone. A striking "Half Life in Fukushima" (Switzerland/Japan 2016 | 61 min.) from directors Mark Olexa Francesca Scalisi provides us with a rare look into the post-apocalyptic region and the lives that remain.

    Naoto Matsumura and his aging father perhaps are the only ones left in the radioactive zone after everybody else fled following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Even though there seem to be nobody on those once thriving streets, he patiently waits for the traffic lights to change at an intersection, perhaps to retain a little sense of normalcy. He occasionally feeds the starving livestock with the limited food he can find, and attends to the neglected grave-yard of his ancestors.

    Half Life in Fukushima Official Site

    Even though the filmmakers surprisingly accessed the forbidden dangerous zone, they seem to be unable to get more stories out of their main subject, Naoto, as if he has put up an emotional red-zone himself. We know little about his family and his past, or the motivation for him to remain in the radioactive zone without regard for any health concerns.

    It looks bleak no matter which direction Naoto turns. Even the sound of the ocean resembles an elegy being sung. What have they done to his hometown? What's next? Has any lesson been learned? Is there any hope for the future?

    No one has an answer.

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  • The Next Skin (La propera pell | Spain/Switzerland 2016 | in Spanish/French/Catalan | 103 min.)

    Even though you have to take a leap of faith to believe the setup, you won't be able to escape the engrossing storytelling in "The Next Skin" (La propera pell | Spain/Switzerland 2016 | in Spanish/French/Catalan | 103 min.), co-directed by Isa Campo and Isaki Lacuesta. You can't help but to speculate constantly about what the truth really is beneath the inked skin of the enigmatic teenage protagonist.

    Troubled 17-year-old Léo (a little older looking but a terrific Àlex Monner) has been suffering from amnesia since he became a missing child eight years ago. When his social worker Michel (Bruno Todeschini) tells him that they have found his mom Ana (Emma Suárez) in a ski mountain town in the gorgeous Pyrenees in Spain and that his name was actually Gabriel, Léo is nervous about the reunion because he doesn't remember his mom, his family, his hometown, and what happened eight years ago.

    Judging from Léo's presence, if you suspect whether Léo actually has amnesia, you are not alone. Ana's brother-in-law Enric (Sergi López) also thinks Léo is an impostor and not the real Gabriel who went missing, and wants him to go away and leave Ana and the family alone. However, Léo seems to remember Enric's son Joan (Igor Szpakowski) very well from their childhood, perhaps for some personal reason.

    The Next Skin Official Site

    Is Léo really Gabriel? The film intentionally makes you ask that question and playfully makes it more and more ambiguous as the story unfolds. Meanwhile, the more we know about the personalities and secrets of these characters, the more questions are raised as the air of truth becomes foggier.

    Watching this film is like watching a well-delivered magic performance, while you are intrigued by what happens during the show, you are also entertained, despite the fact that you know too well that you have been tricked.

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  • Motherland (USA/Philippines 2016 | in Tagalog | 94 min. | Documentary)

    Five years ago on the closing night of the 55th SFFILM Festival, documentarian Ramona S. Diaz brought down the Castro Theater with her energetic "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey" (USA 2011) which tells an extraordinary story about a Filipino singer Arnel Pineda. Now she returns the festival with an arresting "Motherland" (USA/Philippines 2016 | in Tagalog | 94 min. | Documentary). With compassion and empathy, the film gives us a jaw-dropping and intimate look at the operation behind the walls of the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila, nicknamed "Baby Factory."

    Motherland Official Site

    On any given day, the hospital delivers 60 to 100 babies for the poor. It's remarkable to see how the doctors and nurses move smoothly to care for these women in a chaotic environment. What's even more remarkable is the compelling stories about a few new mothers who deal with poverty and hardship while facing the new daunting challenge of caring for and raising their new-born babies.

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  • Maudie (Ireland/Canada 2016 | 115 min.)

    Without any doubt, Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis's life story is nothing but extraordinary, and her story is affectionately presented in the biopic "Maudie" (Ireland/Canada 2016 | 115 min.), directed by Aisling Walsh. A warm, talented, and strong-willed Maud Lewis is exceptionally performed by Sally Hawkins, who deserves another Oscar nomination.

    Maudie Official Site

    The film chronicles the adult life of Maud (Sally Hawkins), who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. After she responded a help-wanted flier, she moves in to the shabby house of rugged fish-delivery man Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), who speaks short sentences in a deep voice like Billy Bob Thornton in "Sling Blade" (1996). Gradually, Maud warms Everett's heart. They find comfort in each other's company and get married. Meanwhile, Maud gains fame as her painting becomes more and more popular.

    In addition to telling a remarkable story about the duo, the film provides a canvas for Sally Hawkins to convincingly portray the heart and soul of Maud. Her performance is everything worth seeing about this arresting film.

    As part of the tribute to Ethan Hawke, the film's screening is followed by a conversation with Ethan Hawke on stage about his career.

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