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SFIFF 53 review: Abandonment Cold Turkey– In Ounie Lecomte’s “A Brand New Life,” a Korean girl is dumped at an orphanage when her father starts over

“A Brand New Life” Dir. Ounie Lecomte (South Korea/France, 2009, 92 min)

A scene from Ounie Lecomte's A BRAND NEW LIFE, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010.

Abandonment is hard at any age but it is particularly harsh when a child who has bonded with a single parent is rejected suddenly without explanation. That is exactly the situation in Korean-born Ounie Lecomte’s debut film “A Brand New Life,” a drama set in the 1970’s, in an orphanage near Jeonju, a Korean provincial city.  The film opens with heartwarming scene that is universally familiar—a young Korean girl Jin-hee (Kim Saeron) is smiling ear to ear while riding in the front of a bike that her dad is steering.  As she passes the day with her dad, they shop for new clothes together.  At lunch, she sings tenderly to him but her song is one that eerily foretells their future “You’ll never know…how much I loved you.  You’ll regret it one day when time has passed…”

Later, while on a bus trip in the countryside, her dad lovingly washes mud from her feet and shoes. At a bakery, she is asked to choose a cake but is confused and we soon learn why.  As it turns out, these fatherly acts of kindness are not benign—her dad is intent on presenting Jin-hee spic and span, cake in hand, to a Catholic orphanage, where he is abandoning her.  We later learn it’s because she does not fit into his brand new life with his new wife and infant.  To top it off, it appears all he told her was that she was “going on a trip” and didn’t explain what was going to happen.  And so begins Jin-hee’s brand new life as an orphan.

A rattled young Jin-hee, who presumably has already lost her mother, is now facing the incomprehensible double whammy of loosing of her father—a man who is very much alive and well and in whose love and care so she has felt so secure.  She copes with orphanage life through stoic withdrawal and denial, clinging to the belief that her father is coming back for her.

A scene from Ounie Lecomte's A BRAND NEW LIFE, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010.

Slowly an older girl, Sook-hee (Park Doyeon), earns a place in her heart and the two girls bond as they sneak late night bites of cake, spy on others and attempt to nurse an injured bird to health.  Sook-hee tenderly educates Jin-hee about life and adoption–the ticket out of the orphanage. Sook-hee is 12 or 13 and has started her period but carefully hides this fact from everyone to appear younger to prospective adoptive families seeking pre-teen children.

Kindly Western couples visit the orphanage routinely.  Sook-hee wants a shot at family life offered by foreign adoption and tries hard to impress by touting her ambitions and interests.  Shy and forlorn Jin-hee does all she can to avoid being noticed but is always central. Those girls chosen for adoption appear petrified and leave by automobile for their new lives while those remaining gather round and sing a farewell round of Auld Lang Syne with a beautiful second verse immortalizing the orphanage:

In the flowery hills

With peach and apricot blossoms

Like a palace full of pretty flowers

How I miss playing there

Eventually, adoption touches both Sook-hee and Jin-hee and their lives are forever altered and we hope happy.  The film is tightly focused on their experiences at the orphanage.

“A Brand New Life,” depicts the pain and grief facing a young child in Jin-Hee’s situation but it does so in a rather flat storyline. Well-worn metaphors play out with priests delivering sermons to the girls about Jesus’ suffering and his plea “Father, Father? Why have you forsaken me” and the girls caretake a wounded bird.    

The film stands entirely on the exceptional performances of its child actors. Preteen Kim Saeron as Jin-hee is remarkably believable, delivering a stoic and traumatized child who can also be moody and willful.  Her smile and porcelain skin light up the screen.  Park Doyeon also shines as the brave and centered Sook-hee.

Sadly, there is little grounding information imparted about the situation facing Korean orphans in the 1970’s.  The adoption of orphan children actually started because of the devastating Korean War (1950-1953) and soon became something of an industry, with over 150,000 adoptions processed since the 1950’s.  The topic is explored in riveting detail in Dean Liem Borshay’s documentary In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee which just picked up the best feature documentary award at the 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.  Because the bloodline runs through the father and has been so vitally important in Korea, it was not common for a father to relinquish his child after losing his wife unless the loss was due to infidelity or he was unable to provide for the child.  The circumstances surrounding Jin-hee’s relinquishment are left purposefully vague.  It becomes painfully clear in one of the film’s most compelling scenes that Jin-hee believes that she was sent to the orphanage as a result something she did to her infant step-brother that caused a rift in her family.  Her guilt is astonishing.  

Other cohorts at the orphanage represent a spectrum of relinquishment experiences.  Sook-hee never met her parents and was left with an aunt who subsequently relinquished her.  The orphanage’s oldest ward, Yeshin (Ko A-Sung), a young adult, is crippled and her adoption prospects are so bleak that she believes that she has been taken in by a Korean family solely to cook and clean.

In all, life at this particular Catholic orphanage is good, perhaps exaggerated—food and gifts are plentiful and there is little fighting or rivalry between the girls who call each other “sis” and spend late nights throwing fortune cards.  The staff is approachable and seems genuinely concerned for the girls’ welfare.  For the most part, the discipline seems minimal. In her early days at the orphanage, Jin-hee climbs the fence to the top of a high concrete pillar and teeters in front of all the children, appearing ready to jump. When she won’t come down, a nun opens the orphanage gate and tells her she is free to go.  She and all the children then walk away.  Jun-hee is left alone, with no place to go, but back to the orphanage.  

For Jin-hee, letting go of her family and past is too much to ask.  But until she accepts that there will be no white-knight rescue by her father, she will not embrace the prospects or love awaiting her.  But then, she never asked for a brand new life…everything is out of her control.   A poignant film about loss that falls short of its vast potential.

Screens: 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival—Saturday, April 24 (1:45 PM, Sundance Kabuki), Sunday, May 2 (12:15 PM, Clay Theatre), Tuesday, May 4 (Sundance Kabuki) tickets $12.50, www.sffs.org

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April 28, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFIFF 53 review: In Iranian Mohammad Rasoulof’s disturbing new film “The White Meadows,” allegory abounds as villagers cry their tears into bottles…what exactly are we watching?

The White Meadows (Keshtzar haye sepid)(Iran, 2009, 93 min)

In Mohammad Rasoulof's new film "The White Meadows" people living on the remote salt islands of Iran's Lake Urmia cry their tears into bottles. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

Mohammad Rasoulof’s “The White Meadows,” set in the Iran’s remote Lake Urmia region near Azerbaijan, is a surreal poetic fable that addresses the messy topics of sin, guilt, judgment and confession.  In fact, the story has such a strong Biblical feel to it that it’s difficult to discern the Muslim factor but there are several veiled references to contemporary Iran.  The story concerns an old boatman Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) who travels among the desolate salt islands and waterways of Iran’s Lake Urmia (the third–largest saltwater lake in the world) and ceremoniously collects people’s tears in a glass vial and mysteriously takes them away, only to later pour them into the sea.  What the precise role of this man is, we never know, but he is entrusted to hear secrets.  As people unburden their sorrows to him, somehow, they are cleansed.  It all sounds simple and beautiful but in Rasoulof’s world, this shaman is powerless to intervene or give advice against the vast injustices he encounters. 

Rasoulof, 37, from Shiraz, was recently among more than 100 prominent Iranian political figures and activists who were put on a mass trial in Tehran following the crackdown on opposition supporters claiming President Ahmadinejad fraudulently won the June 2009 election.  Rasoulof was imprisoned in March of this year and released March 18, 2010, just before the New Year holiday on March 21, 2010.  Despite his and other prominent Iranian filmmakers’ tricky relationship with the post-revolutionary powers that be, the Iranian film industry manages, under extreme repression, to produce over 60 films annually.  A rigorous vetting process entails censorship that begins with the script and follows a film through distribution.  The result is a rich set of low-budget films with an allegorical bend that offer some means of exploring social, political and religious codes within Muslim society.  “The White Meadows” carries on this tradition by offering a fable that can have as many real world applications as a poem–or–it can be taken as just as a story about strange people living in a strange land with stange customs.

The old boatman arrives to gather tears when tensions are most high—first, at a funeral for a young woman who has died suddenly and was buried in a mountain of preservative salt until he can transport her body off the island.  The male elders of the village mourn her but declare all is for the best because she was a temptress “to beautiful to live among us.”  Even the presence of her corpse on the island would cause men to dig her body up.   After collecting their tears, he takes her wrapped body off the island and then sneaks a forbidden peak.  He discovers that a fraud has been played out and that he is transporting a young boy Nassim (Younes Ghazali “Among the Clouds”) who intends to escape this bleak island life to find his father who also left the island.  An arrangement is made whereby the young man can accompany him by pretending to be his deaf and mute son. 

Remembering that tears turn into pearls, the boys steals a jar full while the old man sleeps and it is just a matter of time until he is caught.  They arrive next at an island where a young virgin is about to be cast out on a raft and offered as a bride to the sea, destiny unknown–the perfect metaphor for the unpredictable route that Iranian women travel.  Despite her mother’s pleadings, the old man does nothing to stop this act and the more tears that flow, the faster his vial fills.  Before the girl is carried off, the male elders certify publicly, one by one, that she is an undefiled virgin, worthy of sacrifice.  It is soon discovered that the boy has set out to rescue her but has been intercepted.  He is barbarically stoned to a bloody pulp by the village elders.  He survives but the old man proves to be more interested in protecting his position as confidant than in protecting the boy.  At this point, we glean another reference to contemporary Iran– a group of men in power are dictating the terms of societal behavior to their own advantage and ignoring universal moral rules.  

The next village is even more bazaar…inhabitants whisper their secrets into glass jars and then tightly cap the lids.  The crippled village dwarf (Omid Zare) is chosen to deliver these secrets to the fairies deep in a well before daylight.  With dozens of jars tied to his body, and carrying the symbolic weight of an entire village’s woes, he moves slowly through the crowd and down into the dark well.  When it is feared he will not make it in time, his rope is cut and he perishes.  This sacrifice allows the secrets of others to be assuaged but he leaves behind a young bride who will surely face a horrible future alone and ostracized.

In Mohammad Rasoulof's new film "The White Meadows," screening at SFIFF 53, a painter is punished for using red instead of blue paint for the sea. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

On the next island, a painter is buried up to his neck in sand and left to bake in the sun for the crime of painting the sea “red” instead of “blue.”  He refuses to alter his reality to avoid punishment and the tear gatherer transports him and the boy to an island penitentiary. And on it goes…the tension builds into a set of heart-piercing scenes and bizarre circumstances where ritual and senseless judgment, have more importance than compassion or real justice.  In the end, all is for not, as the tears collected so carefully are used to bath the feet of a dying man and then tossed into the sea.  As an allegory for contemporary Iran, a society pressured to empty its very soul and aware of the sad farce imposed upon it, this film does its work.  

Some viewers may be put off by the lack of clarity and slow meandering tempo of the film.  Those who can pace themselves and handle high levels of ambiguity will be mesmerized by images that are both picturesque and eerily disturbing.  Ebrahim Ghafouri’s camerawork makes the film—much is shot from a distance, capturing darkly clad and covered women moving across the barren salt flats with some close-ups that provide clues for elements that come full circle at the close of the film. The sound is handled simply but eloquently enhancing the sense of isolation in a remote setting.  Extemporaneous guttural wailing has haunting power.  On one level, this is an exceedingly simple film expressing a human dilemma that should be comprehensible to all but whose solution remains incomprehensible… this about sums up contemporary Iran.

Screens: Friday April 23, 6:30 PM, Kabuki Theatre, Saturday April 24, 9:30 PM, Kabuki Theatre, Sunday April 25, 8 PM, Pacific Film Archive

April 24, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Bouquets to Art” – 5 Days of Flower Power at the de Young Museum, April 20–24, 2010

 

Ron Morgan, Berkeley, created this hat of leaves, succulents and purple cala lilies to correspond with the repeating turban in Julia Margaret Camoeron's "Portrait of a Woman (Louise Beatrice de Fonblanque)," 1868 in the de Young's permanent collection. FAMSF image.

Having missed last year’s Bouquets to Art, there was no way I was going to miss it again, especially after a great conversation with a friend who attended Monday’s spectacular gala at the De Young Museum and described it as “the best party in town” and “worth every penny.”

“Bouquets to Art” is a 26-year fundraiser initiated by the San Francisco Auxiliary of the Fine Arts Museums that has become one of the country’s leading floral events and the most popular annual event at the De Young.  Every year, for five days, floral designers from all over the world, but mainly from the greater Bay Area, organize their loveliest and most exotic blooms into creative arrangements that respond to works in the museum’s permanent collection.  The show is complimented by a series of daily lectures by noted Bay Area, national and international floral designers and special luncheons and high teas.   This year’s show includes 161 arrangements spread throughout the museum that celebrate the upcoming landmark French Impressionism exhibitions from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris that will be on view at the de Young Museum shortly after the close of Bouquets to Art 2010.  (Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, May 22- September 6, 2010 and Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, September 25, 2010- January 18, 2011.)

When I arrived on Wednesday promptly at 9:45 AM,  the museum was already bustling.  I brought my mother, 85, along–she’s an avid gardener, loves French Impressionism and relishes the De Young.  Soon, we were

Twigs and Ivy Floral Studio, Phyllis A. Brady and Joe Brady of San Ramon designed two floral costumes corresponding to David Park's "Two Bathers," 1958 in the de Young's permanent collection. FAMSF image.

 literally rubbing elbows with what seemed like hundreds of other early-bird enthusiasts who were gathered around Wilsey court taking in the view of this year’s hallmark piece–an enormous circular creation by Bay Area designer Orna Maymon, of Ornamento, comprised of dangling fuschia-purplish-hued silk ribbons with flowers at the ends, resembling some sort of giant breezy sea flower.  I didn’t think too highly of its clothesline effect but frankly, there aren’t any temporary works that I’ve seen installed in this area that have really clicked for me.

Onward to the galleries!   The event is well-organized and in addition to a printed map–which became impossible to navigate due to the swarming crowds– each floral arrangement has a placard listing its floral and other components as well as the team that assembled it and their inspiration.  As we strolled through the museum galleries, we heard many lively discussions about art, gardening,  floral design and identification.  Baffling names like “aquilegia” (common name “black barlow”) or “craspedia” (common name “billy balls).    In fact, it was downright inspirational to hear so many opinions being batted about.  And since this is the one event where cameras are welcome, people were eagerly snapping pics on their iphones and cameras.   Many of the floral designers were there watering their tender creations and were available for questions. 

detail: Phyllis A. Brady and Joe Brady's wire corset frames are woven with an elaborate combination of red-orange flowers that compliment the hues in David Park's "Two Bathers," 1958. Image Geneva Anderson.

 Tuan Tran, a Bay Area multimedia artist who works with recycled materials repeatedly and patiently answered questions about his tribute to sculptor Ruth Asawa whose signture looped and tied open forms were the basis of a spectacular solo show at the de Young in 2006-7.   Tran had hand-crocheted old plastic-coated colored twisted-pair telephone wire into two drooping Asawa-like forms and complimented them with a few stark white cala lilies.  Prior to fiber optics, all telephone communication was enabled via this wire consisting of two conductors twisted together for the purpose of   cancelling out interference, or crosstalk, from external sources.  A rich metaphor but relating it back to French Impressionism requires some effort.   

How do designers get matched up with paintings?   Since some designers have been participating for 20 years, they were happy to share about how important getting matched with the “right” artwork is.   I learned that they either submitted (repeatedly) a request for a specific artwork or they were given a list of several works to choose from and they ranked their choices and then waiting on the powers that be to match everyone with an artwork.   After the artwork was assigned, most designers labored long and hard to find the appropriate container and then selected their flowers based on color and lasting power for a 5 day stint.   

Svenja Brotz of Chestnut and Vine Foral Design, Berkeley, created an elaborate living memory box in response to Eadweard Mybridge's, "Plate 490 (Self-Portrait), 1884-1887 in the deYoung's permanent collection. FAMSF image.

For some participants, like Berkeley designer Svenja Brotz of Chestnut and Vine Floral Design, it was a matter of constructing a black laquer memory box andputting it on a stand and filling each partition with a floral design and then discretly attaching tiny vials of water to the structureto support the stems and vines that encircled this box.   This partitioning corresponded very well with Eadweard Muybridge’s, Plate 490 (Self-Portrait)” –a sequence of photos adding up to a human locomotion study of a nude male (Muybridge himself) sitting down, sprinkling water, stooping for the cup and then drinking.   

For many, this year’s impressionist theme led them to select painterly hues of very closely-matched color palettes ranging from the softest pinks to bold deep almost black purples.  When flowers were tightly arranged next to each other, the result was a very rich and textural flower carpet.  Sadly, because most of these flowers are hot-house grown there was not much fragrance in the air.   There were also plentiful use of variegated foilage with striking contrasts.   

Some standout creations were—

Ron Morgan, Berkeley created a fantastic hat of tea leaves, flax leaves, succulents and deep purple cala lilies based on the repeating turban in Julia Margaret Cameron’s “Portrait of a Woman (Louise Beatrice de Fonblanque),” 1868. (Concourse Level, Gallery 12A)

Pico Soriano, Alexandria Christakos and pia Ramos created a lampshade of yellow billy balls that corresponds to Elmer Bischoff's "Yellow Lampshade," 1969 in the de Young's permanent collection.

Pico Soriano and assistants Alexandria Christakos and Pia Ramos created a cheery bright yellow lampshade of yellow craspedia (billy balls) with dangling crystal beads that corresponds to Elmer Bischoff’s “Yellow Lampshade,” 1969. (Concourse Level, Gallery 14C)

Twigs and Ivy Floral Studio, Phyllis A. Brady and Joe Brady (San Ramon) fabricated two glorious suits of deep purple carnations and bright pink , red, orange and apricot carnations and red ti leaves with pin-cushion orange proteas, woven on wire corset frames with satin ribbon straps eloquently echoing the lovely bathers in David Park’s “Two Bathers,” 1958. (Concourse Level 14D)

J. Miller Flowers and Gifts, Valerie Lee Ow; co-exhibitor Maureen Owens; assistant Robin H. Lee, Oakland “Super Size Me” giant colorful balls of spray roses, blue thistle,

Geneva Anderson and Evelyn Severson marvel at J. Miller Flowers and Gifts, Valerie Lee Ow and co-exhbiitor Maureen Owens of Oakland's floral gum balls that correspond to Wayne Thiebaud's "Three Machines," 1963 from the De Young's permanent collection.

statice, billy buttons, carnations, reindeer moss, mini carnations, brown chrysanthemums that correspond to Wayne Thiebaud’s “Three Machines,” 1963 (Concourse Level, Gallery 14J)

 Leila Simms “Word of Mouth” is made from birch, Spanish moss, lichen, reindeer moss, nuts and bolts, small tiles, air plants and cacti and is inspired by Sono Oasto’s “Meena,” 2005. (Concourse Level, Gallery 16H)

Orchard Nursery & Florist, Carolyn Russell and Wanda Nash, Lafayette created an orchid and hummingbird that correspond to Martin Johnson Heade’s “Orchid and Hummingbird,” ca 1885.  (Second Floor Gallery 26D)

Laurelle Hartley Thom’s (Lafayette) magnificent landscape arrangement of hawthorne’s, forget-me-nots, tweedia, orchids, monte cassino, hydrangea, gypsophyillia (baby’s breath) and belladonna capturing the pastoral and sublime beauty of  Albert Bierstadt’s “California Spring,” 1875. (Second Floor Gallery 26J)

Laurelle Hartley Thom’s (Lafayette) magnificent landscape captures the calm pastoral beauty of Albert Bierstadt’s “California Spring,” 1875 in the de Young's permanent collection.

Monday night’s gala  included exquisite French cuisine, live music by Moodswing Orchestra and a parade of models wearing gowns and accessories made entirely of real flowers created by environmental design students at participating Bay Area colleges.  Next year, I am going to attend  the “real party.” 

Over its 26th years, Bouquets to Art has attracted nearly 550,000 visitors and raised over $4.52 million in net proceeds, which have funded an impressive roster of special exhibitions, art acquisitions, educational programs, and projects at the Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum.  Recent exhibitions supported by Bouquets to Art include International Arts and Crafts: William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright, 2005, Marie-Antoinette at the Petit Trianon, 2007, and The State Museums of Berlin and the Legacy of James Simon, 2008.  funds have enabled the acquisition of the Crown Point Press Archive, a rare Nimrud ivory from Mesopotamia dating from the 8–9th century, an exceptional early 20th-century French glass vase by Emile

Orchard Nursery & Florist, Carolyn Russell and Wanda Nash, Lafayette created an orchid and hummingbird that correspond to Martin Johnson Heade’s “Orchid and Hummingbird,” ca 1885 in the de Young's permanent collection.

Galle, a Paracas turban and a Naxca Colombian woven band. The Fine Arts Museums’ Education Department has also received support from Bouquets to Art for its Get Smart with Art program, and in 2007 it received a substantial gift of unrestricted funds.
 

Schedule for the rest of the week–

Friday, April 23:  9:30 am–8:45 pm: Floral exhibits and, at noon, the popular Hat Day, presided over by Jan Wahl, KRON TV and KCBS radio personality. Visitors are encouraged to wear hats adorned with flowers.  Prizes will be awarded in categories that include Moulin Rouge or Soiree hats, Boating on the Seine River, Can-Can, and Glamorous Garden Party Hats, with a separate judging category for the professional hat designers that the event attracts.

Saturday, April 24:  9:30 am–5:15 pm: Floral exhibits, benefit drawing.
 

Visiting the de Young:
Address: Golden Gate Park 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive San Francisco, CA 94118
Hours: Tuesday–Thursday, Saturday and Sunday: 9:30 am–5:15 pm Friday: 9:30 am–8:45 pm; closed on Monday
Admission: $20 adults

April 22, 2010 Posted by | de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFIFF 53 — 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22- May 6, starts Thursday with an Impressive Line-up of Global Cinema

It’s film festival season again and nothing beats the San Francisco International Film Festival for exceptional global cinema.  The festival, now in its 53rd year, runs April 22-May 6, 2010 and offers 177 films from 46 countries in 31 languages with 9 North American premieres, 5 world premieres and one international premiere.   I am especially attached to SFIFF because the programming is wonderfully diverse offering narrative features, feature documentaries, works from new directors, and shorts from all over the world that can loosely be divided into over 20 niche causes– animals, the arts, civil liberties, environment, family issues, human rights, science and technology, world culture, war, youth, and Cinema by the Bay (locals).  All screenings include engaging audience Q&A with the directors, actors, and film crews.  

The festival always includes a number of “big nights” with special gala screenings and events.  This year, the opening night film at the Castro theatre is Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s MicMacs, a David and Goliath story about extracting revenge from weapons manufacturers who have reeked havoc in the life of man with a bullet lodged in his head.

The centerpiece screening on May 1 is Happythankyouplease, the feature debut film by Josh Radnor, star of the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.”  The story involves a struggling Lower East Side writer who strikes up a touching friendship with a lost child he meets on the subway and whose orbit includes an engaging group of twenty-somethings whose lives exemplify a generational shift for post-9/11 Manhattanites.  The festival closes on May 6 with an appearance by the amazing Joan Rivers and a screening of Joan Rivers–A Piece of Work.  At 76, this unflappable, courageous, quick-witted dynamo has been entertaining us for 55 years and is not about to abdicate her role as America’s reigning queen of comedy. 

Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek starring in Aaron Schneider's GET LOW, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010. Image courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

The Film Society Awards Night on Thursday April 29, 2010 honors achievement in acting, directing and screenwriting.  Robert Duvall will receive the Peter J. Owens Award for brilliance in acting.  His latest film Get Low (Dir. Aaron Schneider, USA, 2009, 102 min) screens on Friday, April 30 and is sure to garner Oscar attention. 

 This year’s Founder’s Directing Award goes to Brazilian director Walter Salles whose trademark semi-documentary style was honed in memorable films like Central Station (1994) and The Motorcycle Diaries (2004).  The festival will screen his most recent film Linha de Passé (2008) and In Search of the Road, a work in progress based on Kerouac’s On The Road on Wednesday April 28, 2010.  James Schamas will receive the coveted Kanbar Award for screenwriting and his 2009 Director’s Cut of Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil will screen on May 1, 2010.

Tilda Swinton starring in Erick Zonca's JULIA, will screen at An Evening with Roger Ebert and Friends at the Castro Theatre on May 1 as part of the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010. Image courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

Chicago film Critic Roger Ebert, who has been commenting on and championing movies professionally for over 4 decades will receive the Mel Novikoff Award recognizing his enhancement of filmgoer’s appreciation of world cinema.  An Evening with Roger Ebert and Friends at the Castro Theatre on May 1, will include a screening of Ebert’s 2009 fav—Erik Zonka’s thriller Julia, starring Tilda Swinton as a boozed-up abrasive kidnapper who attempts a double-cross but finds herself overwhelmed.  

SFIFF takes place in San Francisco (Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Castro Theatre, and Landmark’s Clay Theatre) and Berkeley (Pacific Film Archive).  Most of these films sell out, so buy your tickets in advance.

Here are my must-see flicks, biased by my interest in global politics, human rights, environmental concerns and penetrating storytelling.  I will be posting full reviews of several of these films in coming days. 

 
 
 
 
 

A scene from Ciro Guerra's THE WIND JOURNEYS, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010. Image courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

The Wind Journeys (Dir. Ciro Guerra, Columbia/Netherlands/Argentina/Germany, 2009, 117 min) Every year SFIFF offers a must-see “journey film”—an inspiring and unforgettable road trip through cloud-capped mountains in a remote and mystic locale.  The Wind Journeys takes us on a final trek with elderly Columbian juglar (migrant musician) Ignacio who, after his wife’s death, sets out to return his accordion to his mentor before he dies.  He travels through Columbia’s mountain villages and spectacular forests with Fermin, a pesky and unwelcome young follower who hopes to become his apprentice and successor but lacks musical talent.  When tragedy strikes, the two men discover they actually need each other.  Aside from its beautiful music and rich ethnographic context, this slow moving but perfectly-paced film is infused with references to sorcery–Ignacio’s accordion is said to be cursed.  Screens: Sunday, May 2, 8:45 PM, Kabuki Theatre, Tuesday May 4, 8 PM, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, May 6, 5:15 PM, Kabuki Theatre.

 

Marwencol (Dir. Jeff Maimberg, USA, 2010, 82 min) As a result of a brutal beating in April 2000, Mark Hogancamp awoke brain-damaged with no memory of his life before the attack, unable to walk, speak or rely on his motor skills.  As something to pass the time while nursing himself back to health, Hogancamp began to build

A scene from Jeff Malmberg's MARWENCOL, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010. Image courtesy of san Francisco Film Society.

 Marwencol, a 1/6 scale fictional Belgium WWII era town in his backyard.  Populated with life-like Barbi dolls who he has painstakingly and tenderly given identities, Hogancamp plays out scenes from life and WWII and then photographs them.  The result is an amazing collection of gripping photographs that would hold their own next to any war photojournalism.  This engrossing documentary takes us into the brilliant creative mind of a remarkable man whose play therapy has captured the attention of the fickle art world.  I had the pleasure of watching this with my 85 year-old step-father, a veteran, who was so moved by the enactments and Hogancamp that he began to share his own remarkable war stories.    Screens: Saturday May 1, 4:10 PM, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday May 2, 6:45 PM, Kabuki Theatre, Tuesday May 4, 4:15 PM Kabuki Theatre.  

A scene from Andrei Dascalescu's documentary CONSTANTIN AND ELENA, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010.

 Constantin and Elena (Dir. Andrei Dascalescu, Romania, Spain, 2008, 102 min)  Only if we could all be so lucky to reach our twilight years with the love, energy and genuine affection of Constantin and Elena, a Romanian couple who have been married happily for 55years.  This delightful documentary feature film, made by their grandson Andrei Dascalescu, follows them over the course of a year as they live simply but richly side by side–making sausage, weaving carpets, milking cows, going to church, nurturing each other and bursting into song and laughter.  Not that they don’t bicker but they do so lovingly.   They talk constantly about everything, even death– which they accept is coming but oh to keep living because they’ve got things to do.  Screens: Friday April 23, 4:15 PM, Kabuki Theatre, Sunday April 25, 12 noon, Kabuki Theatre, Tuesday, April 27, 6:45 PM, Kabuki Theatre, Saturday, May 1, Pacific Film Archive.  

Ordinary People (Dir. Vladimir Perisic, France/Switzerland/Serbia, 2009, 80 min) An unforgettable and utterly numbing debut film that about a group of young soldiers, including Dzoni (Rejila Popovic)

A scene from Vladimir Perisic's ORDINARY PEOPLE, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010. Image courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

a twenty something recruit played by, taken on a bus ride to a remote locale–unstated but presumably somewhere in the Balkans—where their horrific task is to execute a large group of civilians.   As the act gets underway, the characters various responses to it will stay with you for days.  Dzoni refuses at first and fails at his first kill–a shot to the back of a bound man—but before our eyes, he slowly evolves into a brutal killing machine with hardened features to match. The film explores the familiar ethical defense that in war soldiers cannot always be held responsible for their actions when they are obeying orders.  In this case, the secretive slaughter of civilians violates international law and all moral codes.  We realize that these young men have been so brain-washed by their military training and their need to be accepted by their comrades that they will blindly follow any order.  In the end, they come to treat the act of killing as drudgery.  While this excellent film depicts an abstract massacre, it should spark an interest in the genocide trials now going in The Hague where actual heinous acts are being prosecuted.  Screens: Friday April 30, 9 PM,  Kabuki Theatre, Monday, May 3, 8:55 PM, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, May 5, 7:15 PM, Kabuki Theatre.

 
 
 
 

A scene from Satyajit Ray's 1958 film THE MUSIC ROOM, playing at the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010. Image courtesy of Aurora Film and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences.

The Music Room (Dir. Satyajit Ray, India, 1958, 100 min)  Every year, SFIFF offers a restored classic.  One of the greats of Indian cinema, this lovely slow film is based on Bengali writer Tarashankar Banerjee’s novel of the same name.  It tells the story of a turn-of-the-century zamindar, an Indian semi-feudal landlord in Bengal, whose wealth is dwindling but who continues to spend lavishly on concerts in his opulent jalsaghar (music room).  There is excellent footage of Hindustani classical vocal and instrumental music by Vilayat Khan, Asis Kumar, Robin Majumder, and Dakhin Mohan Takhur, as well as classical dance.  The iconic lead actor Chhabi Biswas delivers a stunning performance—of a man hell-bent on preserving his image of grandeur as he recklessly spends it all on one last musical orgy.   Satyajit Ray’s work occupies a special place in the history of SFIF.  Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali, had its U.S. premiere at the very first SFIFF in 1957. Since then, the festival has screened more of his films than those of any other director.  Screens: Saturday May 1, 2:30 PM, Castro Theatre, Sunday, May 2, 6:15 PM, Pacific Film Archive.  

Get Low (Dir. Aaron Schneider, USA, 2009, 102 min)  Robert Duval plays Felix Bush, a elderly recluse who has exiled himself in the back woods for 40 years, crippled by a tragic event that has kept him in a prison of his own making.  Stirred by the death of a one-time friend, Bush makes a rare trip to town and discusses plans to “get low” or make funeral plans.  He wants a funeral party where everyone who has a story to tell about him will have a chance to speak and he wants to watch it all go down. Co-starring Bill Murray as the greasy funeral home director and Sissy Spacek, as a jilted love interest, this story will leave you thinking twice about self-imposed baggage we all carry with us through this life.  Screens: Friday April 30, 7:30 PM, Castro Theatre.

Ticket Information:
Tickets are $12.50  Online: sffs.org   By phone: 925-866-9559 (Monday–Friday, 9:00 am–5:00 pm)
In Person: Main Ticket Outlet: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post Street (at Fillmore)
Pre-Festival: April 1–22, 3:30–7:30 pm
During the Festival: April 23–May 6, open one hour prior to the first screening of the day.

April 20, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment