Saturday, February 16


Direct From Asia

I prefer to organize my viewing choices principally around following the careers of directors who intrigue me. (I know-- how boring! I'd surely be a much more interesting cinephile if I spent as much energy following boom operators' filmographies instead.) To this end, I love a local film festival with a sense of loyalty to the directors whose films it features. Facing facts, not every film on the festival circuit makes its way to a Frisco Bay screen. (Is anyone ever going to bring La Blessure around? I guess not...) So I'm thrilled when, after seeing a terrific film at a film festival, I get a chance a year or two or four later to see the director's next film at another edition of that festival.

I haven't crunched all the numbers on this, but my sense is that the SF International Asian-American Film Festival is currently the best in town at consistently showcasing new work by directors whose films have been programmed there before. As evidenced in the festival's newly-announced line-up, this loyalty applies to various sections of the festival; this year's Narrative Competition section, for example, brings local filmmaker Richard Wong back with Option 3. Two years ago, he had the biggest hit of the festival with his debut Colma: the Musical, which will be reprised this year at a special sing-a-long screening at the Kabuki Theatre. Gina Kim, whose Invisible Light screened the festival in 2004, returns with her latest Never Forever. In the Documentary Showcase section, I'm excited to see that Cambodia's greatest documenter Rithy Panh is back with Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers, his fourth film in five SFIAAFFs.

But the festival section where this trend is most notably evident to this observer is in the International Showcase section. This is usually the section where I focus most of my attention, and this year nearly half of the 15 films programmed come from directors whose films have been personal highlights of previous SFIAAFFs. Let me quickly look at these one-by-one:

881, which looks to put the "Sing" back into Singapore.
Director: Royston Tan, whose unflinching, gripping 15 played the festival in 2004.

Desert Dream, a family drama featuring North Koreans in Mongolia.
Director: Zhang Lu, whose heartbreaking 2006 festival film Grain in Ear suggests an affinity for putting Korean characters in spare, hostile environments outside their homeland.

Flight of the Red Balloon, a tribute to Albert Lamorisse's classic short the Red Balloon (which, to prepare you if you've never seen it, will play the PFA March 8th)
Director: Hou Hsaio-Hsien, the master Taiwanese filmmaker whose excursion to Tokyo Café Lumiere was a highlight of the 2006 SFIAAFF. This Paris-set film featuring Juliette Binoche marks Hou's first time working outside of Asia.

A Gentle Breeze in the Village, with its rural, teenage milieu, is from its program description bringing to mind certain films of the great Japanese auteur Mikio Naruse.
Director: Nobuhiro Yamashita, the man behind one of my very favorite SFIAAFF films, the 2006 selection Linda Linda Linda.

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, a strange-sounding romance between a kleptomaniac and a self-identified cyborg.
Director: Park Chan-wook, one of South Korea's hottest auteurs going right now. Truthfully, his 2005 SFIAAFF selection Oldboy was my own least favorite of Park's so-called "Vengeance trilogy", but now that he's finished with that project I'm very interested in what kind of elaborate camerawork and color schemes he'll use to showcase his critiques and characterizations next.

Three Days to Forever, described in the program mini-guide as a "controversial coming-of-age story."
Director: Riri Riza, whose work I last sampled with the 2003 SFIAAFF selection Eliana, Eliana, still one of the best Indonesian films I've encountered.

The Unseeable, a ghost story said to be a tribute to classic Hollywood takes on the supernatural.
Director: Wisit Sasanatieng, whose second film Citizen Dog played the SFIAAFF about a year prior to last year's long-awaited theatrical release of his debut Tears of the Black Tiger. The Unseeable is not expected to be as candy-colored as these previous films, but I've been hotly anticipating a chance to check out Wisit's new direction for over a year now.

There's a lot more to anticipate, but I would be remiss in ending this post without mentioning two more established auteurs whose films are to be featured at the 2008 SFIAAFF. Wayne Wang, whose Chan is Missing is probably the most-frequently-cited early success of the Asian-American filmmaking movement, will see his two new films a Thousand Years of Good Prayers and the Princess of Nebraska play the festival, and will also be on-hand for an on-stage conversation March 15th. Two of his previous films, the Joy Luck Club and Life Is Cheap...But Toilet Paper is Expensive will complete the Wang spotlight.

Much more bittersweet is the tribute to Edward Yang, whose untimely death last year at age 59 has inspired a touring retrospective of his films. SFIAAFF has selected three of them to play: the Terrorizer, a Brighter Summer Day, and his final masterpiece Yi Yi: a One and a Two. Yi Yi is the only one of his films I've seen before, but its beautiful universality convinces me that this tribute is likely to be the highlight of the festival for anyone who samples it. When voting for it in a fairly recent poll of the greatest foreign-language films of all time, I predicted that Yi Yi would go down in history as one of the great last films of all time, and I'm planning to reconfirm that claim with a big-screen viewing at the Pacific Film Archive on March 20th.

Speaking of the PFA (and now we're briefly going to move away from SFIAAFF talk, just because I can't resist scoops), though the new March-April calendar is not online or available in print yet, I couldn't help but notice something while attending a screening of Godard's Weekend last night. Before the film the venue showed slides advertising the upcoming programs to expect over the next couple of months: an artist-in-residence for Pedro Costa will begin March 1 (hot on the heels of the Terence Davies residency you probably already know about), retrospectives for both Orson Welles and Frank Tashlin (just as I was starting to sense a slight turn away from classic-era Hollywood in the PFA programs, they disprove my hunch), a series of films relating to the events of 1968 in Europe (most likely a touring version of this series), and of course the 51st SF International Film Festival, which runs at the PFA and several other venues April 24-May 8th.

No SFIFF films playing the PFA have been announced yet, but the festival has just announced the opening night film at the Castro: Catherine Breillat's the Last Mistress. SFIFF's annual silent-film/rock-star pairing has been revealed to be Paul Wegener's The Golem scored by Black Francis a.k.a. Frank Black a.k.a. frontman for the Pixies. This event will be held on April 25th, also at the Castro. Finally, the festival's KinoTek spotlight will bring performance artists Chi-wang Yang, Miwa Matreyek and Anna Oxygen to Kanbar Hall May 1st.

Anyway, back to the SF International Asian American Film Festival. Anything else in particular in their program that I shouldn't overlook?

No one articulates anticipation with such finesse as you do, Brian. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with a directorial focus. If auteur theory was good enough for Sarris, it's good enough for me, especially as it is a welcome tool to handle the sensibility of any body of work.

I've already made my apologies to the programmers of SFIAAF as I will be in Austin when this event takes place; but, I'm looking forward to catching some of the press screenings before heading out of town; especially Wisit's ghost story!
Thanks, Michael! I figure, as long as I'm not organizing my viewing based on box-office totals, I'm doing okay.
a series of films relating to the events of 1968 in Europe

This looks really fascinating! I would love to attend this if it is the series you linked to. I've had some trouble seeing films at the PFA because they seem to sell out sometimes so I should plan my film watching better and buy tickets in advance. I'm determined to get out more and see some films this year! I'm really looking forward to the upcoming Nikkatsu Action series and the "midnite for maniac" Peter Bogdanovich event at the Castro looks like a lot of fun, but I don't know if I'll make it into the city for that.

I know I'm going to try and make time for Lawrence of Arabia when it plays at the Rafael in March. It's a sentimental favorite and I've never had the chance to see it in a theater.
What what! So I'll get my chance with Pedro Costa after all. And _A Brighter Summer Day_ in a theatre.

And, cinebeats: I think in a theatre is the only way I've ever seen _Lawrence_; and I'd have it no other way.

(Missed you at _Out 1: Spectre_ -- a completely different movie than _Out 1: Noli me tangre_. Maybe more on that later.)
Cinebeats: I hope I'm right about my 1968 Europe hunch, because that series looks terrific (the Jansco and Pasolini especially beckon me). I'm also excited about the Bogdanovich series even though it looks like I'll have to miss my childhood favorite (seen only once on television, probably British television while my family was doing a month-long house-swap in 1984, but remembered very fondly) Nickelodeon. I haven't seen most of the others at all though: They All Laughed, Paper Moon, and even the Last Picture Show have all eluded me thus far. Thanks for the info. on the Nikkatsu series at YBCA. Any clues yet on which films are particular standouts? I have a hunch I'll only have time to sample a few, sadly.

I'm with Ryland on Lawrence of Arabia: theatrical or bust! So the Rafael Lean spotlight is welcome. Not sure I can actually make it up there but I'll see.

Ryland, I do regret missing both versions of Out 1 that have played in the past year at PFA, but those are the hazards of my current job. Doesn't make me any less excited to learn more about the upcoming PFA calendar. Should be update on their website any day now...
Hi Brian,
Like yourself, I'm pretty thrilled about this year's SFIAAFF line-up (especially after last year, when I posted a 25-film wish-list prior to the press conference and not a single one of my desired films appeared in the line-up). I also love that sense of continuity you mention and could hardly believe that they programmed the new Hou Hsiou-hsien, Zhang Lu, Nobuhiro Yamashita and Wisit Sasanatieng (all from the SFIAAFF class of 2006). Unfortunately, Jia Zhang-ke continues to remain Bay Area persona non grata. Will we ever get to see STILL LIFE? DONG? USELESS? It'll be interesting to see what the festival programs in the 3/15 9:15 slot at the Castro, now that the Harold & Kumar movie has been moved to the Kabuki earlier in the day.

The new PFA calendar is on-line and holy cow!!!
Michael ain't lying: that new PFA calendar... well, SHIT! haha.

Hopefully I'll get to all those Costa films: Girish and everybody else in the 'sphere sure have gotten me excited to see his work. And on a big screen! Hopefully you and I (and any other takers) will get together before, during, and after at least one of the screenings for foods and drinks and cinephilic merriment.

Also: Welles!
Michael, I really liked your festival preview, which was considerably less navel-gazing than my own. I hadn't realized that in fact NINE of the fifteen films in the International Showcase section are by returning SFIAAFF directors. I left out Buddhadeb Dasgupta (the Voyeurs) and Hur Jin-ho (Happiness) because I'd never seen their films at SFIAAFF before, and in Hur's case didn't even realize he'd had films at the festival before (You note that Christmas In August played back in 1999, but I caught up with it on DVD). I guess it pays to attend the press conference, or at least read the full program guide, before putting together one of these previews.

I'm still holding out hope for the Jia backlog to be unleashed here one way or another relatively soon. I've always assumed, in the absence of hard facts on the matter, that the main reason why we didn't get to see Still Life last spring was that it would have interfered with Tribeca's US premiere. I was a tad surprised to see Jia omitted from this SFIAAFF lineup, but with so many other potential treats I'm not really disappointed.

And count me in on that PFA calendar-love. It appears I was wrong about the nature of the 1968 series, but again, there's enough raw awesomeness in the actual lineup that I'm not complaining at all.
I can't help it, I can't stop thinking that maybe Zhang-ke's films will show up in a combined omnibus called: USELESS DONG--STILL LIFE.

Oh dear. You and your puns, Michael! Having a blog as a Platform can sometimes bring some real Unknown Pleasures.
I'm not as excited by the shorts programs, but I can enthusiastically recommend the one film I've seen: the Oscar-nominated Salim Baba, playing on the By Hand program. Here's what I wrote on the film earier:

Tim Sternberg's Salim Baba is my sentimental favorite in the [documentary short Oscar] category, probably because it's also the one with the least chance to win. It's the shortest and its subject the least consequential, at least upon first glance: a man who pushes a portable cinema cart through the streets of Kolkata, India, where he exhibits spliced-together fragments of old Bollywood films to the delight of children who can't afford to go to a "real" cinema.
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