Geneva Anderson digs into art

Film review: Lixin Fan’s “Last Train Home”—In China, a teenage daughter’s rebellion crushes her parents and points to the extreme vulnerability of migrant workers

Lured by the promise of money and an exciting urban life Zhang Qin, 17, quits school against her parents' wishes, leaves her rural village, and travels to Guangzhou to join the throngs of migrant factory workers. Once on this track, it will be very difficult for Qin to return to school.

In China, over 120 million migrant workers have sacrificed everything for a country that barely acknowledges them and they lead precarious and very fractured family lives.  This is China’s dirty little secret and Chinese-Canadian Director Lixin Fan exposes it brilliantly in his thoughtful documentary “Last Train Home” which has won nearly every award there is to win on the film festival circuit, including the prestigious Golden Gate Award for best investigative documentary feature at SFIFF 53 ( 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival).  The film opens this week across the Bay Area and it well-worth seeing, particularly for families with children who are old enough to read subtitles and curious about other cultures and their connection to our American way of life.

“Last Train Home” is Fan’s directorial debut but he is well-respected for his previous work on the award-winning “Up the Yangtze,” also shot in China and pointing to the perils of modernization for the poor. “Last Train Home”  represents the filmmaker’s brilliant immersion into his subject to capture a poignant story of one Chinese family that could easily be the story of any of China’s 120 million migrant factory workers who lead lives of extraordinary hardship to offer their children a way out of poverty.  Fan focuses on the Zhang family—Zhang Changhau (father) and Chen Suqin (mother)—from a rural village in Sichuan province who have been piece workers in clothing factories in Guangzhou for 15 years.  They made the difficult decision to leave their infant children with their grandmother in the family’s ancestral village in countryside and let her raise them.  She survives on subsistence farming and the money the Zhangs send back from the city.  In life, the Zhangs have been confronted with a series of choices that all lead to undesireable outcomes.

The film captures the Zhang’s herculean efforts to get back home for the Chinese New Year, their much-awaited annual two-day train journey that provides their only chance to see their two children for a day or so until the next New Year rolls around.  Every year, 120 million workers leave China’s cities and return to their rural homes too, making this the largest recorded human migration.  In 2007, a horrific storm shuts down most of China’s transport and the Zhangs barely make it.  Fan’s beautiful cinematography, wideangle pans and occasional close-up shots of distress, show  these people as they must appear to the Chinese government—amorphous pixels in a larger whole.

Lxin Fan, director of "Last Train Home" (2009), chose the backdrop of the annual Chinese New Year exodus of migrant workers to the countryside to examine the shameful plight of Chinese migrant workers who have enabled China's economic development.

What awaits the Zhangs upon their return home is their disrespectful and resentful teenage daughter, Qin, who doesn’t see the value in pursuing her education and announces she too is going to become a factory worker.  Their younger son Yang is less anxious, bearing the constant chiding of his grandmother to study more.  He proudly shows his report card to his parents and announces that he is among the top in his class.  They respond by asking why he is not number one.  

 The Zhang’s want the best for their children but their absence in their daily lives has created resentment and the pain of abandonment.  In phone calls home, they obsessively focus on their children’s school performance–and they are both uneducated—and fail at forging a real connection.  Like many, they are a family in name, held together by sweat equity and set to crumble.  Multiply that story by 120 million and it becomes the plight of a country, a country that is catapulting forward with its migrant workers as shock absorbers. This is the new China and like it or not, we here in America are part and parcel of it.  Watch and learn.

Opened Friday, September 24, 2010, in Bay Area theatres.

Directed by Lixin Fan; Edited by Lixin Fan, Mary Stephens; Director of Photography, Lixin Fan; Camera Operators, Lixin Fan, Shaoguang Sun; Music by Olivier Alary; Produced by Mila Aung-Thwin, Daniel Cross; Zeitgeist Films release.  87 minutes.  In Mandarin and Sichuan dialect with English subtitles.  This film is not rated.

Geneva Anderson: Why did you focus on this particular subject matter—migrant workers?  I suspect it’s because it hits on the inherent tensions in the society itself and within families…this rapid paced economic transition has real consequences for individuals.

Lixin Fan:  Yes, but it’s also personal.   I began to work for China’s CCTV as a journalist early in my career and I used to travel across the country a lot with many peasants and migrant workers on trips to remote areas all over the country.  When I  came back to Beijing, the city where I lived, the great disparity between the rural China and urban metropolis China was almost unfathomable and it struck me every time.  I started to think where does all this economic advancement come from, at what price and where is it leading?  I realized that there are 160 million migrant workers who have been contributing, sacrificing on an individual level for three decades since China opened up its market.  I don’t think the government has done enough to help them on either an individual or national policy level.  Also, the urban residents don’t really appreciate or understand the hardship they have and that’s why I started to make this film–to tell the story of migrants to create awareness for those who live in the city and also for the government and outside the country as well. 

GA: What message do you hope that an American audience will come away with after seeing his film?

Lixin Fan:  The film is about migrant workers and the workers’ lives at the other end of the world, which is actually very connected to our life here in the West because of this process of globalization where everything they make is shipped out to the West and consumed by us.  I really hope that after watching the film, that audiences in the West will take some time to rethink our lifestyle here and what we can do in our own lives to change certain things.

GA:  Your budget for the film was about $1 million.  As a newcomer, how did you get your film funded and what issues were involved in that?  I understand that in China you were accused of taking foreign money and therefore being subject to foreign influence?  Do claims like these really carry weight in China?  What was your reaction?

Lixin Fan:  I felt extremely lucky, being a newcomer, to get external funding to make the film that I always wanted to make.   I moved to Canada 4 years ago and I worked on “Up the Yangtzee” as the Associate Producer and I got to know the production company, Eyesteelfilm, through that work in Montreal.  I started my research and filming in 2006.  The first phase of shooting was funded by my friend in China, not any official or broadcaster funding, rather through individual private investment that I was able to make a trailer, put together a really tight proposal, and to complete the first years of filming.  The production company had faith in this project so we teamed up and travelled to many festivals to pitch this to broadcasters and funding agencies all over the world.  Funding-wise, we had Telefilm funds in Canada, the Quebec Province Art fund, and many broadcaster pre-sales and in the States, ITVS and Sundance documentary funds.  When all this came together, we were able to sustain the filming for three years, a very nice budget for a documentary.

When I went back to show the film in China, there were accusations that I was taking the Western money to essentially reveal the bad/shameful side of China.  I don’t think of it that way but given how important the notion of saving face is culturally in China, I can understand that this occurred.  I think of like this—if my mother were very ill and she needed some unpleasant medicine and if I, as a loving son, had the choice of giving her this medicine or sort of tricking her and telling she was ok when she wasn’t, my mother might be unhappy with that bitter medicine but it’s going to help treat her in the long-run whereas a lie will do nothing.  I believe in what I do because telling the truth is better for China and for the world.

GA:   Were these claims made by people your age?  I hope not because it’s people of your generation who all this is going to fall on like a ton of bricks.

Lixin Fan:   Exactly.  I can tell you that these comments were mostly made by elderly people, the older generation.  When I showed the film in Vancouver, Canada, an old Chinese lady, an immigrant to Canada, was furious after the Q&A.   She pointed her finger at me and called me out on showing this dark side of China to Canada.  I was surprised and very sad that she had not gotten any distance from all of this.

GA:  What is the general level of receptivity in Asia, HK and China to a film that address these serious issues and their social consequences?

Lixin Fan:   We already screened it in Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival and it went quite well.  The audience thought it was a very truthful accounting of this situation.  Many of the audience were university students who had come from the countryside and they were very moved by it.  A boy told that me that it was the story of his life because his elder sister was working in a factory while he was at university.  We will screen it in Shanghai too.

I gave a copy of the film to the Zhangs, who were both working in the factory.  At the end of the film, the mother has returned to the village but she actually returned to the factory last year.  The father later told me that he was very sad watching three years of their life on screen.  And the mother said she still cannot understand why Qin, their daughter, hates them so much while they have sacrificed everything for her.  This is a very tragic situation.

GA:  What has happened with Qin since you shot the film?  She was very vulnerable.

Lixin Fan:  Qin quite her job at the bar and went to find work at a hotel in Hubei province in Central China.  At the last Spring Festival (2009), the mother told me that Qin had called them and said she was ok and was making friends in the city but that she was not coming home for the New Year.  She’s a very rebellious girl but she’s smart and she’s claiming her independence in the city. Obviously, she’s chosen in an entirely different way than her parents had planned for her which way to escape through university education and have a good job and security in the city but she had to have it her way.

GA:  Qin drew a line in the sand.  Isn’t this symbolic of that whole generation, who might be looking at the lives of sacrifice their parents and grandparents have lived and not wanting all that responsibility put on them?   

Lixin Fan:  China is setup so that the older generations sacrifice for the younger and in their old age, the elderly are cared for by the younger.  The parents’ generation really sacrificed everything.  You see it in the film–the parents are far from home, living in meager circumstances and they send all their savings back home to the grandmother and kids.   After either getting old so they can’t work any longer or the competition weeds them out, they would go back to their village and start farming on a small plot of land.  This is in essence their retirement from the government in the absence of any social benefits.  This land is it for the rest of their lives.  Qin’s generation, grew up in the opening up period, a much freer society, with TV and hamburgers.  They pretty much adopted the liberal ideas from the West.  I do not know if they will shoulder this responsibility as their parents did, but this is a looming problem.  The very immediate issue is how they will survive in the city with no education, no skills and compete against the much better educated city kids.  This is a problem with no easy answer.  After the financial crisis, the state had to come up with a stimulus plan and a portion of that is dedicated to education benefits for these migrant workers.  I spoke about this with a friend of mine here who is an economist and he is very skeptical about this approach. 

GA:  So this impetuous rebellion of Qin could have a permanent impact that puts her on track for a very precarious life.

Lixin Fan:  Yes, I would agree with you.  I can’t say there is no hope, but once she took that track, it is going to be very difficult to go back and get an education.

 GA: Can you describe the situation of shooting in the train station?  It looked very dangerous and frightening.

Lixin Fan:  It was like a war-zone.  The police and army were all there trying to restore order. That was in 2008 when China got hit by a big snow storm which basically threw out the half out the country’s railway system.   Me, the crew and cast–we all got stuck in that station for three days.  It was really challenging to shoot there.  Whenever the crowds start to move, they really lift you and you literally get carried away in different directions and there is no control at all.  At night, there are so many people shuffling that it’s impossible to keep your eyes on the subject, no matter how close.  Everyone was wearing a wireless microphone and I gave them all a bunch of batteries and told to change every few hours to make that we could stay connected.  I told the mother and father “If you don’t see us, talk into the mic and we’ll find you.”  And we did lose each other and find each other again and again.

GA: Is there anything the Zhangs asked you to edit out of the film?

Lixin Fan:  I had total editorial control and the Zhangs were very good and trusting people.  I think you are asking about the fight and that was a very tense moment but they never asked me to edit that at all.  In fact, we sat down and talked for hours after that and, in the end, I ended up asking them if I could use that and they said yes.

GA:  What is your next project?

Lixin Fan:  I am trying to combine energy with the philosophy of Chinese Taoism in the storyline so that it is all about finding a balance between human beings and nature.  I will film at a wind farm construction site in the Gobi desert.  I will also film in a Taoism martial arts school in a remote area where the Taoism philosophy originated.

September 27, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFIFF 53 review: “The Invention of Dr. Nakamats,” Japan’s Mr. Gadget is eccentric, rich, and a national hero but he’s no Thomas Edison.

The Invention of Dr. Nakamats (Opfinsdelsen Af Dr. Nakmats) (Dir. Kaspar Astrup Schröder, Denmark, 2009, 57 min)

Dr. Nakamats, the focus Kaspar Astrup Schroder's documentary THE INVENTION OF DR. NAKAMATS, is obsessed with self-promotion.

With over 3,300 patents to his name, Japanese inventor Yoshiro Nakamats holds the record for the more patents than anyone else dead or alive and is the subject of Danish director Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s humorous documentary, “The Invention of Dr. Nakamats.”  This is one of 28 documentaries screening at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival

 With the energetic Dr. Nakamats as its guide, the film follows this extraordinary Japanese celebrity as he explains his creative process, his mission to elongate life and his many zany inventions.  With no feedback from the filmmaker or any other credible sources to validate his claims, it’s hard to know how to this take this hour-long display of self-promotion.   Fact or fiction?  The ride is enjoyable enough but frankly, the puzzlement is annoying.

As this straightforward point and shoot film progresses, it becomes obvious that it is controlled entirely by Nakamats, who presents as a goofy self-made mad scientist of sorts who makes grievous errors in presenting himself as a person of substance.  There’s something that seems common among inventors that Nakamats seem to lack—humility.   It is a fundamental tenant of science that you stand on the shoulders of others and that others will stand on your shoulders.  Over claiming your contribution is a violation a basic tenant of the creative process.  Nakamats walks all over this.  Overall, the film is entertaining but misses it potential.  It delivers a confusing if not shallow portrait of an individual whose patent portfolio is as zany as he is.   At the end of the film, you’re likely to be asking– Is Nakamats for real?  Did he pay for the film?  Did he really invent the floppy disk, the compact disc, the digital watch, a unique golf putter, a water-powered engine, the “Love Jet” (arousal enhancer) and an invisible “b flat” bra?   Why haven’t I ever heard of him before?  

Screens: 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival—Friday, April 30 (9:30 PM, Sundance Kabuki), Monday, May 3 (1:30 PM, Sundance Kabuki), Wednesday, May 5 (6:30 PM Sundance Kabuki) tickets $12.50,

May 5, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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,

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

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:   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.

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