Both the major film festivals in San Francisco this year were disappointing; SFIAAFF was too small, and SFIFF had a high percentage of bad movies. Plus, and I still don’t know why, SFIFF is still using those #)*(@&! pencil-in ballots (though I made it a point to tell everyone who offered me a ballot that I wouldn’t take one until they had tear ballots). My reviews for the festival follow:
Posts tagged with film festival
here’s the final set of reviews for SFIAAFF 2009:
- All Around Us – 4 stars
This movie was the clear standout of the festival. It was an intense, understated drama with a terrific cast and a smart script. Though it became a bit tedious near the end, the movie on the whole was excellent. Highly recommended.
- Tokyo! – 3 stars
One of the other lessons we’ve learned through bitter experience is this: never watch a triptych. Anything with three stories sucks. This wasn’t nearly as bad as Love for Share or 3 Needles, nor yet as mediocre as Three Times, though one of the three films featured in this particular triptych, the one in the middle, was flat out terrible. I mean really awful. The first movie, directed by Michel Gondry, was charming and entertaining, and the third, directed by Joon-ho Bong (of The Host fame) was simply the most gorgeously filmed movie at the festival, and the best-filmed movie I had seen in quite some time.
Film festival season has rolled around again, and I’m in the midst of SFIAAFF 2009. Before I dive into the movie reviews, let me share a bit of the wisdom (?) I’ve gleaned over my past 8 years (Really. At least one a year since 2001.) as a film festival attendee.
- Never read the long film guide. Each movie’s description will always be glowing, because it’s most likely written by the person who picked the film for the festival. It will also likely tell you too much about the movie; I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to know what happens before I actually watch the movie. For all these reasons, I usually make all my movie-going decisions from the mini-guide alone. One or two sentences and the picture is usually enough for me.
- Look out for certain red flags in the description:
- existential = depressing
- nuanced = boring
- important = a self-important, preachy, condescending political statement that nevertheless manages to insult your intelligence at the same time.
- Never, under any circumstances, ever see a movie that has won the Grand Jury prize at another festival. It is most likely “important,” or “nuanced,” or—the horror!— “existential.” Also, it is not a “movie.” It is a “film.” It is, without exception, a piece of cinema that is weighed down by its own pomposity and bombast, and so far out of touch with the primary purpose of the movies—to entertain, for God’s sake—as to be laughable. Once you stop crying.
- By contrast, any movie that has won an audience award has a pretty good chance of being enjoyable and entertaining. A good bet.
- It’s not a good film festival until you see something truly awful. I mean, something so terrible that it makes you want to tear your eyes out of your head and wish you’d spent that time clipping your toenails instead, because at least you’d have gotten something out of the time you spent. It’s not really a complete film festival experience without the crap.
For those who may not read Japanese, that means: “I’m home!” Now that SFIFF 2008 is over (as of last Thursday—more on this in a minute), and I’ve spent a couple of days recovering, you’ll be seeing more of me. Aren’t you excited?
About the festival. In direct contrast with SFIAAFF, my happiness quotient with SFIFF has been going down in recent years. I wasn’t sure why, until my friend Jieun hit the nail on the head a little while ago: the festival takes itself entirely too seriously. It’s pretentious, even more than most, which are snooty almost by definition. SFIFF tends to pick films rather than movies, “important” films (a description that makes me want to run in the other direction), serious films, films that are about art almost to the exclusion of entertainment…but isn’t that what movies are about, in the end?
And when they do show movies that are so crass as to be entertaining, they apologize for it beforehand. I mean, come on. 9_9
Anyway. That said, this year was better, mathematically speaking, than last year, and I’ll let you judge for yourself based on my descriptions of each movie:
While it was quite skillfully made, I felt like the story relied too heavily on stereotypes and wasn’t very engaging, which is probably more an indictment of the novel on which the film was based rather than a fault of the film itself (full disclosure: I haven’t read the novel).
Brick Lane is but one of a raft of novels about the Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi immigrant experience that have been so popular in recent years, and I feel reasonably certain that there are other novels (my sister would probably say Jhumpa Lahiri’s) that take a subtler approach than this one seemed to, again assuming that the film is a fair standard by which to judge the book—which is, admittedly, risky, but the director said last night that the author said that the film captured the essence of the book.
Anyway. I felt the plot lacked a certain subtlety, was in fact a bit clunky. Also, the film relied too heavily on flashbacks and camera tricks to get the emotions of the main character across, when they should have relied on the gifted actress that was cast in the role. I’m not sorry I saw the movie, but I was not moved by it—and this film’s subject matter is a topic that has a lot of resonance for me.
The festival is now over, and overall was one of the best ones I’ve seen.
- Desert Dream – 3 stars
Low 3. At first I thought I liked this movie better than director Zhang Lu’s previous offering, Grain in Ear, but now I’m not so sure. I wasn’t a big fan of that movie, and I wasn’t a big fan of this one, and I think it’s to do with Lu’s directorial style.
He has his actors deliver their lines with almost no expression or inflection, preferring to let the viewer guess at the undertones through the context. In that sense, Dream did a better job than Grain, was in fact more engaging overall, but some confusing plotting and some incomprehensible (well, at least to someone who is not Chinese or Mongolian) symbology just left me cold.
In general, while what Lu attempts could potentially be very successful and is certainly intriguing, I don’t really think he’s gotten there yet; in order for his methodology to work, I think that the situation the characters are in needs to be so emotionally fraught, so distressing, that the deadpan actors serve as a soothing counterpoint as well as adding a fine tension to the story, of control barely leashed over powerful emotions. Far better than Grain in Ear, this film shows that potential, but as I said, I don’t think Lu’s there yet.
- Flight of the Red Balloon – 4 stars
What a great way to end the festival! Acclaimed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien’s latest offering, this movie was beautifully realized, with the gratifyingly high production value I’ve come to expect from him.
Hou is a master of light, and this movie was the fruition of the potential in 2003′s Café Lumière, capturing the warm, magical quality of afternoon light in Paris. Lead actress and French cinematic darling Juliette Binoche acted the quietly emotional storyline (Hou’s tensest by far) with typical aplomb and undeniable skill; she is a master in her own right. Hou and Binoche together are a formidable combination, and the result is a gorgeous, warm film that I will definitely be looking for on DVD when it is released. Very highly recommended.
Coming soon: SFIFF 51!
Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara – 5 stars
This is probably my favorite movie of the festival thus far, though it wasn’t quite as tightly produced as Planet B-Boy. A dreamy and contemplative look at the inner life of acclaimed artist Yoshitomo Nara, this documentary followed him to his exhibitions in various cities around the world, culminating in the magical AtoZ exhibit in Hirosaki, Japan, his hometown. Tragically, the exhibit is now closed, preventing me from ever exploring it in person, which saddens me more than I can say.
The movie was bittersweet and beautiful, and gave me a deep appreciation for an artist whom I might never otherwise have taken the time to notice. Wonderful.
Always Be Boyz – 2 stars
I probably would have been—a bit, though not much—more sympathetic to this movie had I not seen it so very soon after Planet B-Boy, to which it paled in comparison. While I will grant that the acting and script weren’t actually that bad (a hell of a lot better than the similarly pop-culture-underworld-themed Quattro Noza, heretofore the third worst film festival movie I’ve ever seen, after Sorry, Haters and Blackout), infantile plotting, extremely low production value (think Powerpoint-style transitions and iMovie effects, not to mention the use of the abominable Comic Sans as the subtitle font) and severe projection problems (the sound kept cutting out; I can’t tell whether this was the fault of a bad DVD print or the projectionist at theater itself) fairly ruined this movie experience for me.
If you really want to learn about Korean b-boy culture, watch Planet B-Boy instead; it has more intelligence, drama and pathos than this fictional drama ever could.
A Gentle Breeze in the Village – 4 stars
I will admit I was expecting a lot from this movie, considering it was directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita, the same man who directed Linda Linda Linda, one of my favorite movies of the last few years. I will also admit that I was a bit disappointed; it’s not as good as Linda3, but has its own charm.
Gently humorous and relaxingly paced, this movie was strongly reminiscent of Shunji Iwai’s Hana and Alice, though not ultimately as good. Yamashita possesses a measure of Iwai’s skill at working with young actors, and it shows in this movie, but while it possessed charm in abundance, it lacked the brilliant hilarity of its predecessor. Very good, but not awesome.
Yasukuni – 3 stars
This documentary was by far the most thought-provoking one of the festival, exposing as it did the festering wound under Japan’s serene exterior, centered at Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, the simultaneous symbol of the nation’s pride and its shame. Director Li Ying took a very interesting approach to this film, using long, unedited takes that started out serene and almost boring (I fell asleep a couple of times), and then exploded into conflict.
The film was profoundly disturbing, and had the most impact of any movie I’ve seen in a good long while, but had two big drawbacks for me: the cheesily-scored montage of Japanese wartime brutality near the end of the film, and the unnecessarily shaky camerawork (I had to look away to keep from losing my dinner more than once).
Amal – 4 stars
This is the best Indian movie I’ve seen in the last 5 years, and it was directed by an Indian who was born and raised in Canada (Richie Mehta, whose brother, Shaun, wrote the short story upon which it was based). Astonishingly well made for a debut film, if a trifle predictable, Amal boasted some powerhouse acting talent, including Naseeruddin Shah and Roshan Seth, and painted a sympathetic and painfully accurate picture of modern India.
You may have heard me say before that I generally am disappointed by director Q&As at film festivals, because the directors are invariably less interesting than their films, and tend to express themselves best in that medium rather than in speech, which has the unfortunate effect of removing some of the lustre from the film itself. Not so with Amal. Mehta is intelligent and well-spoken, and his commentary about the film and its production really enhanced the experience for me; I look forward to the extras on the DVD. He is definitely a director to watch.
Just two more movies to go!
It has begun. SFIAAFF 2008 has gotten off to an excellent but at the same time rocky start; excellent because each of the three features I’ve seen so far has been better than the last, and rocky because they just don’t seem to be very organized.
First, the movies:
- Wings of Defeat – 3 stars
We’re seeing an unprecedented number of documentaries—almost half of our planned 12 showings—this year, and this was the first. A documentary about the Japanese kamikaze pilots in WWII, as told by those of them still living, the subject matter was fascinating and given a delicate, sure-handed treatment by filmmakers Risa Morimoto and Linda Hoaglund. Employing a scrupulously nonjudgmental stance and skillful filmmaking, this documentary struck just the right chord in telling the story without any of the histrionics that could so easily have accompanied the emotionally-fraught narrative.
So why didn’t I give this movie a higher rating? The first half was a bit weak, frankly a trifle boring—I fell asleep through some of it—and the narration was poorly scripted. The highlight of the experience? Three of the WWII vets interviewed in the film—two former Kamikaze pilots and one survivor of the sinking of the USS Drexler—came to the Q&A following the screening and showed every evidence of a lovely camaraderie.
- Borderlines – 2 stars
One word: meh. This shorts program was aggressively mediocre, with me not liking 3 of the 4 selections very much at all. The one I did like, about a North Korean boy who defects to the South in order to pursue his dream of being a rock musician, was very good until about the last 30 seconds, and then it got stupid.
- The Killing of a Chinese Cookie – 4 stars
This documentary about the history of the fortune cookie was magnificently entertaining and at times flat-out hilarious. Some simply masterful editing and an at-first confusing but ultimately well-executed narrative structure really made this documentary stand out. The tongue-firmly-in-cheek sensibility of the story made for an interesting, informative experience. The only drawback was that they used some unnecessary footage that was, though entertaining, not really relevant to the story, and which made the focus meander a bit.
- Planet B-Boy – 5 stars
This movie was awesome, just about the perfect documentary: a interesting, little-known subject—B-boying, more commonly known as breakdancing (but don’t call it that; they don’t like it)—portrayed flawlessly. And I mean flawlessly. Director Benson Lee did a wonderful job of selecting and cutting together 102 minutes of his 400+ hours of source footage, constructing a tightly woven narrative around the Battle of the Year, the annual international B-boy competition held in Germany.
As engaging as Air Guitar Nation and as beautifully put together as Tales of an Osaka Love Thief, this movie is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, put together with energy, pathos and style. Bravo!
About the rocky start: starting with them sending our tickets to the wrong address, the festival staff just seems to be amateurish and disorganized this year. Their crowd control, never very skillful, has broken down altogether, and though each volunteer is sporting a Secret Service-style headset and walkie-talkie kit, they seem, if it’s possible, to be less informed and more confused than if they weren’t talking to each other at all. Yeesh.
SFIAAFF, or the San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival, for short, has quietly been becoming one of the best film festivals of those I regularly attend. This year, happily, looks to be no different.
The festival will run this year between March 13 and 23 here in San Francisco (with different dates in Berkeley and San Jose), and has an interesting lineup again, featuring the latest films from Hou Hsiao-hsien (Café Lumiere) and Nobuhiro Yamashita (of Linda Linda Linda fame). Exciting indeed!
As you’ve no doubt noticed, I’ve been inburrito for the last couple of weeks. The reason was the 50th annual San Francisco International Film Festival, the last day of which is Thursday. I saw a bunch of movies, and here are my reviews:
- Reprise – 4 stars
A most impressive debut from filmmaker Joachim Trier, this movie had that indefinable something that I love about most Scandinavian movies—probably something to do with bleak humor. Gently humorous and beautifully filmed, intense yet understated, this movie sets the bar high for Trier’s future films, which I will definitely be looking out for.
- Crisis & Opportunity – 3 stars
I found something to like in almost every film in this shorts program, though none were spectacular.
- Hana yori mo naho – 3 stars
Entertaining but unspectacular, disappointingly childish in its humor, this samurai/revenge/pacifist movie was worth seeing but not worth writing home about.
- Jindabyne – 4 stars
This Australian movie was a pleasant surprise before it even started. I found out when the movie was introduced that it’s directed by Ray Lawrence, the director of another great movie called Lantana, and my expectations took a jump up as a result. Happily, I was not disappointed. Lawrence has a gift for bringing complex, three-dimensional characters to life in a scrupulously non-judgmental fashion, for portraying all sides of a difficult situation with a meticulous care that makes for an intense, satisfying movie-watching experience. Beautifully directed, cast and acted, it was a great follow-up to 2001′s Lantana, though not, in my opinion, quite as good.
- The Unforeseen – 2 stars
Though in general well put together, I felt like this documentary lost focus in its last half hour, and raised interesting questions that it didn’t try to address. While I have been known to like documentaries that take a strong stand on their subjects (notably The Corporation), this one left me cold—I already know that overdevelopment is bad for the environment, but I don’t know much about practical approaches to solving the urban growth vs. ecological preservation issue. I felt this movie took the easy way out on a number of interesting issues without exploring them in detail. Lastly, a pet peeve: I really didn’t like the score the director chose; it was cheesy and overtly sentimental, so much so that I felt manipulated and preached to about how I should feel by the end of the movie. Big minus there. All that said, I think that this movie’s director, Laura Dunn, has great potential, and I will be looking for her work in the future.
- The Heavenly Kings – 3 stars
This eminently entertaining mockumentary was, yes, absurd and hilarious, but was marred by the periodic insertion of nonsensical and unfunny animated sequences. It was no Christopher Guest masterpiece, but it was worth seeing.
- Frame by Frame – 4 stars
A very well selected animated shorts program. I liked almost all of them, with the exception of Acousticity, Collision and Harrachov. Shorts I especially liked: Loom, Adjustment (probably the most innovative animated short I’ve seen), and The Danish Poet.
- Congorama – 3 stars
I have nothing to complain about with regard to this movie. Really; I can’t find a thing wrong with it. It was well made, but I just didn’t get engaged enough in it to give it anything higher than a 3.
- Paprika – 3 stars
This movie was as stunningly beautiful as all of director Satoshi Kon’s previous work, but not nearly as compelling. It feels like he’s just going through the motions here; there’s just enough plot to keep the movie moving between gorgeous, over-the-top action scenes, but not much else. A stellar cast (the entire core cast of Cowboy Bebop) and a high production value doesn’t save the movie from rehashing Kon’s old saws: the blurred lines between dream and reality, and the ease with which humans mistake one for the other. Great music, though.
- The Monastery – 3 stars
This well made and interesting Danish documentary ensured that my streak remains unbroken—I have yet to see a Danish movie I haven’t liked. By turns funny and sad, it painted a lovingly detailed portrait of protagonist and curmudgeon Mr. Vig. I liked it!
- How is your fish today? – 3 stars
Astonishingly well made for a film with such a low budget (much, much better than my other experience with almost-nonexistent-budget-mainland-Chinese film, Bringing Father Home), and mixing documentary and fictional footage, this movie explored both the inner and outer life of a writer. While I liked the premise and some of the execution quite a bit (some of the movie was just beautifully filmed), it had long boring stretches, and relied rather too heavily on narration. Well done, but could have been better.
- A Parting Shot – 3 stars
Low 3. This movie had an interesting premise, but a poor execution. I don’t know if it was the script, acting or direction that was bad, or a combination of all three (yeah, probably all three), but this movie was faintly absurd. The main character’s motivations were never clear, and as her actions and their consequences drove the plot of the movie, it was hard to get past the confusing beginning to suspend disbelief for the rest. Quite a disappointment.
- Once – 4 stars
When the president of the SF film society himself came up to introduce this movie, and moreover said that not only was this movie his favorite of the festival, but his favorite of 2007 so far, I was duly impressed, and glad I had decided to rush for it on a whim earlier that day. While I don’t think I liked it so much as Mr. Leggat did, I really enjoyed this movie. It was indeed unpretentious, and made with understated grace by director John Carney. The strength of this movie, which can fairly be described as a 90 minute-long music video, was its simply lovely soundtrack, written and performed by its nonprofessional actor, professional musician stars (Glen Hansard, the frontman for popular Irish band The Frames, and Marketa Irglova, an up-and-coming Czech pianist/singer/songwriter). I liked the music so much that I ordered the latest Frames album and the Hansard/Irglova collaboration (which grew out of the movie, btw) called The Swell Season the next day.
A good festival experience, all-told. Nothing I loved, but nothing I hated, either.