Friday, April 5, 2019

 

SFFILM Festival 2019

The longest running film festival in America and an iconic fixture in the city's film culture, SFFILM Festival (also known as San Francisco International Film Festival), presents its 62nd edition April 10-23, 2019. This year, the festival showcases 163 films, including 46 narrative features, 40 documentary features, 3 episodic programs, and 70 shorts, in 36 languages representing 50 countries and regions. (Click on each still image for corresponding screening or event.)

The 62nd San Francisco International Film Festival

On Wednesday, April 10, for the first time in its history, the festival kicks off with an episode of an upcoming streaming mini-series. However, it is not just any mini-series, it is "Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City" (USA 2019 | 57 min.), which is based on Armistead Maupin's novels that have captured San Francisco's heart and soul for decades.

About a week into the festival, on Thursday, April 18, the festival's centerpiece presentation features writer-director Lulu Wang's acclaimed Sundance hit "The Farewell" (USA 2019 | in English/Mandarin | 98 min.), a slightly fictionalized and heartfelt experience about her extended family bidding farewell to her grandmother.

Although the festival runs through April 23, its closing night presentation, the writer-director Gavin Hood's political thriller "Official Secrets" (USA 2019 | 112 min.), is scheduled for Sunday, April 21. It tells the story about a British spy Katharine Gun who blew the whistle on the voting of a UN resolution regarding the Iraq War.

Opening Night: Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City Centerpiece: The Farewell Closing Night: Official Secrets

The year's festival pays tribute to the following four outstanding artists with an on-stage conversation followed by a film screening:

A Tribute to Laura Linney A Tribute to Claire Denis A Tribute to John C. Reilly A Tribute to Laura Dern

Besides these Big Nights, awards and tributes, the festival divides its films into the following sections:

  • Marquee Presentations includes nine narratives, 15 documentaries, and one episode of a TV series that have recently captured the headlines and stimulated excitement in film festival circles.

    The winner of U.S. Grand Jury Prize for documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival "One Child Nation" (China/USA 2019 | 85 min. | in English/Chinese | Documentary), directed by Wang Nanfu and Zhang Jialing, explores the ramification of China's one-child policy which lasted more than three decades.

    Premiered at this year's SXSW, Olivia Wilde's hilarious directorial debut "Booksmart" (USA 2019 | 105 min.) tells the story of two straight-A students behaving badly.

    The director Rachel Lears's timely "Knock Down the House" (USA 2019 | 86 min. | Documentary) takes an inside look at the extraordinary grassroots campaigns in 2018, featuring the new congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) from New York City.

    One Child Nation Booksmart Knock Down the House

  • Masters consists of six feature films from influential filmmakers around the world and half of them this year are documentaries.

    The winner of Directing Prize for U.S. Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival "American Factory" (USA 2019 | 115 min. | in English/Mandarin | Documentary), directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, tells a story about a Chinese billionaire's endeavor of manufacturing car window glass in America's economically struggling heartland, Ohio.


    Known to many as the director of "Lan Yu" (藍宇 | 2001), arguably the first film portraying gay relationship in Beijing, the Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan (關錦鵬) has been on almost a decade-long hiatus from filmmaking. Returning to the commanding chair, his latest film "First Night Nerves" (八個女人一台戲 | Hong Kong 2018 | in Cantonese/Mandarin | 100 min.) is a colorful melodrama set in contemporary Hong Kong.

    The drama starts to unfold a week before the premier of a play called "Two Sisters," directed by a transgender woman. The play's two lead actresses Yuan Xiuling (Sammi Cheng) and He Yuwen (Gigi Leung), a pair of old time rivals, have plenty of resentment to resolve before the collaboration on stage. To complicate the situation, many more women are involved in the off-stage drama including Xiuling's late husband's sister Cheng Cong (Angie Chiu) who financed the production and Xiuling's obsessed fan Fu Sha (Bai Baihe), a lesbian from a wealthy family. As the play's premier approaches, the off-stage drama takes the center stage in the film.

    Visually, the film is exquisitely colorful with the vibrant contemporary Hong Kong as the backdrop. Of course, everything moves really fast in Hong Kong, so are the characters showing up in this film. As a result, it takes a while to figure out who is who and what is their relationship to each other in their chaotic and gossipy entertainment circle, and what they are fussing about. But a more pressing question might be if these characters deserve the attention we give them when they are off-stage.


    After 28 years since the Soviet Union's collapse, the 87-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev (Михаил Горбачев), becomes the subject of the documentary "Meeting Gorbachev" (UK/USA/Germany | in Russian/English/German/Polish | 90 min. | Documentary). Directed by veteran documentarians Werner Herzog and Andre Singer, the film revisits historical events and converses with the man who played a vital role decades ago.

    American Factory First Night Nerves Meeting Gorbachev

  • Global Visions assembles nine narratives and ten documentaries—a noticeable reduced number of films compared to previous years#8212samples contemporary world cinema. There are three films from Asia.

    The Singaporean director Eric Khoo (邱金海) brings a sentimental family drama "Ramen Shop" (情牽拉麵茶 | Singapore/Japan/France 2018 | in Japanese/Mandarin/English | 79 min.) to the festival, featuring food images that you probably often see on Instagram. He crafts a story revolving around cooking, which his characters use as the vehicle during journeys to uncover family mysteries, to reconcile conflicts, to rebuild family ties, and to express love.


    The Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (濱口 竜介) returns to the festival with a much shorter film than his previous almost five-and-half-a-hour long "Happy Hour" (ハッピーアワー | 2015). Based on a novel, he tells an unusual love story in "Asako I & II" (寝ても覚めても | Japan/France 2018 | in Japanese | 119 min.).

    When Asako (Erika Karata) meets handsome Baku (Masahiro Higashide) on a street in Osaka, they kiss and fall in love at first sight. But one night, Baku leaves the apartment to buy shoes and never returns. Two years later, moving on with her life, Asako relocates to Tokyo where she runs into a polite business man Ryôhei (also Masahiro Higashide) who looks exactly like Baku. After initial resistance, she falls for him hard. A few years later, Ryôhei gets transferred to work in Osaka, the couple looks forward to a new chapter of their lives. Then Baku, now a heartthrob model, shows up. Asako faces an agonizing choice.

    Despite an only-in-a-movie plot, the superb performances from Erika Karata and Masahiro Higashide make the movie afloat. Even though it's hard to rationalize the characters' behaviors, it's much easier to resonate with their emotions.


    Although the Korean director Hong Sang-soo is absent from this year's festival, his influence and style is vividly on display in the Korean writer-director Jang Woo-jin's (장우진) third feature "Winter's Night" (겨울밤에 | South Korea 2018 | in Korean | 98 min.). This slow-burn quiet film explores the evolving relationship between a middle-aged married couple.

    After 30 years of marriage, Eun-ju (Seo Young-hwa) and Heung-ju (Yang Heung-ju) return to a temple where they first met when they were young students. That visit doesn't seem to ease the tension between the couple. When Eun-ju realizes that she misplaced her phone, she insists on going back to the temple to search for it. The night is falling, and the temple is closed. They have to stay at a bed and breakfast to drink, sing, and talk over their relationship. Overnight, they meet another young couple who resembles the early years of themselves.

    Even though a frosty night at a remote location is quite different from a soju fueled urban cafe setting in Hong Sang-soo's film, the conversational storytelling style is very much similar and the focus is never far from dealing with relationship. Interestingly, the director's use of a young couple not only serves as a parallel to the older couple's past, but also coincides with the craft in another film at the festival—"Suburban Birds." This film might challenge the patience of some viewers but certainly will delight the fan base of Hong Sang-soo.

    Raman Shop Asako I & II Winter's Night

  • Golden Gate Award (GGA) Competition nominates nine narratives and ten documentary features, as well as a handful of short films for the generous cash prizes totaling nearly $40,000.

    The winner of World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography, and World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Impact for Change at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Honeyland" (Macedonia 2019 | in Turkish/Bosnian/Macedonian | 85 min. | Documentary) stunningly captures the story of a mother and daughter beekeepers living in a remote mountain in Macedonia. This extraordinary directorial debut from Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov intimately portrays a disappearing way of life that maintains a healthy relationship between human and nature.


    The enigmatic mind-teaser "Suburban Birds" (郊区的鸟 | China 2018 | in Mandarin | 118 min.) is the noteworthy directorial debut from the Chinese writer-director Qiu Sheng (仇晟). He starts with a story about a civil engineering team surveying leaning buildings, but abruptly switches the story to a group of young kids playing in and out of school while keeping the characters' names unchanged. He playfully constructs the film and mysteriously intertwines the two narratives into an alluring craft.


    Based on Leelo Tungal's autobiographic novel, the writer-director Moonika Siimets's terrific directorial debut "The Little Comrade" (Seltsimees laps | Estonia 2018 | in Estonian/Russian | 99 min.) illustrates the horror in Estonia's history when it was ruled by Stalin's iron fist in 1950.

    Curious six-year-old Leelo (Helena Maria Reisner) begins to learn the world around her when Estonia just became part of the Soviet Union in 1950. Her dad Feliks (Tambet Tuisk) is an accomplished athlete earning plenty of medals for Estonia. Her mom is a beloved school teacher. But under Stalin's rule, it's forbidden to assume the identity as an Estonian. As a result, Leelo's mom is arrested by the KGB and Leelo desperately tries to be a good girl in order to make her mom return.

    With an affectionate lens, Leelo's subtle and innocent reactions to daily happenings is wonderfully captured on screen. The director Moonika Siimets tells her story from a child's perspective and depicts how the six-year-old makes sense of the cruel reality and horrific political atmosphere. Leelo believes that by becoming a pioneer for the communist party, she will be rewarded by her mom's homecoming. Her naive effort is both charming and heartbreaking.

    The film is a felicitous tribute to the centennial anniversary of Estonia.

    Honeyland Suburban Birds The Little Comrade

  • Dark Wave has four films that continue to feed the appetite of midnight horror and sick pleasure seekers.
  • Vanguard shows three experimental films that remind you to keep the mind open and challenge your brain either in connecting the dots in the filmmakers' storytelling, or simply in finding those dots.
  • Short Films curates 70 short films into eight programs which tell stories in narrative, documentary, animation, or experimental forms.

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

The SFFILM Festival takes place April 10 - April 23, 2019 in San Francisco (at the Castro Theater in the Castro; the Dolby Cinema, SFMOMA's Phyllis Wattis Theater, the YBCA Screening Room, and the Theater at Children's Creativity Museum around the downtown area; the Roxie Theater, and the Victoria Theatre in the Mission neighborhood), Berkeley (at Pacific Film Archive), Oakland (at Grand Lake Theater), and other venues around the Bay Area.


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