San Francisco International Film Festival 2002

The 45th San Francisco International Film Festival took place from April 18 to May 2, 2002. Of the 186 films total (according to the trailer), I saw the 10 that played in Menlo Park plus 4 in San Francisco. They are listed below in descending order of preference.

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  1. Cet Amour-là (3.5 stars, SFFS link, 2001, seen 4/28/2002, 1:40, in French with subtitles):
    This film tells what I gather is the true story of the relationship between the French author (and screenwriter, director, and even composer) Marguerite Duras and a much younger man, Yann Andréa, based on his novel. Many people wrote to her, but Yann's frequent letters stood out. After some time, he went to meet her, and ended up living with her. She was a woman of extreme and rapid mood swings, and yet somehow Yann is able to weather these storms. Marguerite is played exquisitely by Jeanne Moreau. There was one particular transition that she made from one emotion to another, using only her facial expression, that simply blew me away, and the film is well worth seeing just based on the strength of her performance. From what I can tell on IMDb, Jeanne Moreau has actually worked in films with the character she is playing here, which gives additional credibility to her portrayal.
  2. Shurayuki-Hime (3.5 stars, SFFS link, English title: The Princess Blade, 2001, seen 4/29/2002, 1:32, in Japanese with subtitles):
    The background needed to truly follow the story is given quickly at the start of the film. Too quickly for me to absorb, but happily that doesn't interfere too much with enjoying the film. Yuki is one of a band of assassins whose mother was killed before the film begins, leaving her as the princess-elect, or something like that. She tries to leave the group and is chased by the others, who don't like to take the chance of any of their secrets being revealed. The fight style is very much like Hong Kong sword films, which is not surprising given that the action choreography is done by Donnie Yen, who also choreographed Iron Monkey, among other films. Unlike some Hong Kong films, the cinematography here is beautiful, with some very striking compositions, and the melodrama seems a bit thicker. Some minor faults include a main character who doesn't physically seem capable of what she does, some mildly uneven pacing, and some fairly graphic violence in two or three places. But on the whole this is great fun and is highly recommended.
  3. Swimming with Sharks (3.5 stars, SFFS link, 1994, seen 4/24/2002, 1:41):
    Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey) is a Vice President at a major Hollywood studio, and Guy (Frank Whaley) is his new assistant, replacing Rex (Benicio Del Toro). Buddy treats his assistants like dirt (for example, telling Guy at one point that some pencils are more important than he is), but Guy puts up with it because Buddy's assistants (including Rex) all move on to bigger and better things. The one other significant character is a producer named Dawn Lockard (Michelle Forbes), who also abuses Guy when they first meet until she finds out that he works for Buddy, which she knows is bad enough. The story is actually told in flashback, from when Guy has taken Buddy hostage, in a scenario somewhat reminiscent of Nine to Five. But while that film is a fairly conventional comedy, this film is a pitch black comedy, and is not for all tastes. What makes it all work is Kevin Spacey, who you can really believe is a monster given how well he inhabits the Buddy character. The writing, by the director (George Huang, who was once such an assistant himself), is also very good, and apparently is real enough that many people have thought that the Buddy character is based on their bosses, even though he is really a composite of many people.
  4. De la calle (3 stars, SFFS link, English title: Streeters, 2001, seen 4/24/2002, 1:25, in Spanish with subtitles):
    This is a film set in present day Mexico City, where the teen aged main characters have little to live for except maybe drugs and sex. The main character is named Rufino, who learns that his father might be alive, and even though he had always been told otherwise, he becomes obsessed with finding him. Near the beginning of the film he comes into some drug money that shouldn't really be his, so he tells his girlfriend Xóchitl that she, her son, and Rufino can get away from the city, perhaps to see the ocean for the first time. But no one in this film really goes anywhere. The Ferris Wheel that they ride near the beginning of the film is the perfect image, since it goes around and around, but there is no real escape. Everyone is just getting by, living day to day. The acting by Maya Zapata (Xóchitl) and Luis Fernando Peña (Rufino) is excellent, and the rest of the young cast is also very natural. The camera is mostly handheld and the feel is very realistic and gritty. The first time director was not at the screening, but the SFFS person did read some comments from him, which included the words "open wound." I think that sums up the film, which is worth seeing but is certainly not uplifting.
  5. Bomnaleun ganda (3 stars, SFFS link, English title: One Fine Spring Day, 2001, seen 4/21/2002, 1:56, in Korean with subtitles):
    This isn't a film about plot, so I'll concentrate on describing the main characters. Sang-Woo is a single sound engineer living with his family. Eun-su is a radio show host who lives about 4 hours away, by herself in a small, somewhat messy apartment. They meet to record the sound of wind in a bamboo forest for her radio show, and a relationship develops between them. The film observes them over the course of the changing seasons in Korea, starting in the Spring both in terms of the calendar and their relationship. The pace is deliberate, and the characters don't really change much, but the film is beautiful and, not surprisingly, lovely to listen to, and it's definitely worth seeing. I think that the male lead (Ji-tae Yu) is particularly good in his role. My understanding is that the film won the top prize at Korea's equivalent to the Academy Awards. The earlier showing at the festival was the U.S. premiere. The director was present to answer questions, through an interpreter, and one of his responses indicated that viewers who are more experienced in love tend to identify with the female lead, while those less experienced see themselves in the male character.
  6. Rigtigt menneske, Et (3 stars, SFFS link, English title: Truly Human, 2001, seen 5/1/2002, 1:35, in Danish with subtitles):
    Walther and Charlotte are a not-so-happily married couple with a daughter named Lisa, and would have had an older son if they hadn't chosen to abort him. Lisa imagines that her brother lives inside the wall of their apartment. As this Dogme95 film opens, the building that they live in is about to be torn down, and when it is torn down, we see someone crawl out of the rubble. He thinks he is Walther and Charlotte's son and he appears to be in his early 20's, but he doesn't know his own name or have any idea about even the most simple aspects of daily life. How this simple man interacts with the not-so-simple world is reminiscent of Chauncey Gardner in Being There, while the strange aspects of his origins makes it feel just a little like The Sixth Sense. This fantasy aspect makes this an unusual Dogme95 film, and would seem to break rule #8 (genre movies). It seems likely to me that rule #2 (sound) was also broken at times, and I'm not sure about #5 (optical work and filters). As far as the acting, which is normally what makes or breaks a Dogme95 film, the parents and other "normal" people were fairly good, while the main character was a bit weak. If you're a fan of Dogme95 films or if the description sounds intriguing, this film is definitely worth seeing.
  7. Teknolust (3 stars, SFFS link, 2002, seen 4/30/2002, 1:25):
    Tilda Swinton plays Rosetta Stone, a biogeneticist, who invents a way to create Self-Replicating Automatons, and she secretly creates three of them using her own DNA. The three are named Ruby, Olive, and Marine (all also played by Swinton, with clothes and makeup matching the colors that are their names, for easy audience identification). They regularly need male sperm to survive, and Ruby has been programmed to go out into the real world to get it, while the other two SRAs stay in permanent seclusion. Complications ensue, although the film does feel like it was stretched out a bit longer than the material warranted. It was all great fun, mind you, as well as inventive and slickly produced, but it just didn't feel like there was too much below the surface. The director/writer was at the screening to answer questions. She indicated that the idea started as a joke, and came out of the Frankenstein story. It was shot in 20 days on high definition, 24 frames/second progressive video (aka "24P"), which made the extensive digital compositing easier. The budget was under $2 million. It is expected to be released in the Fall, and there was also talk of a DVD, which will be direct from the digital sources rather than scanned from the film.
  8. Divoké vcely (3 stars, SFFS link, English title: The Wild Bees, 2001, seen 4/24/2002, 1:34, in Czech with subtitles):
    The main character is named Kaja, who lives with his father (who is obsessed with religion, in a humorously philosophical way) and grandmother. His (presumably older) brother is Petr, who is home after dropping out of college. Kaja has a crush on Bozhka, who has a child and is attached to Ladya, who in turn does a killer Michael Jackson imitation, which reminds me to mention that the film has a good soundtrack. The first time director, Bohdan Slama, was at the screening to answer questions. He indicated that many of the actors had not acted previously, and that the budget was much less than $1 million. He said that yes, they did drink extensively during the shooting, and that one of the messages of the film is the danger of losing your traditions and roots. The title is apparently related to love and to the need bees have to live together in hives. I'm not familiar with other Czech films, but apparently there are many references here to many other Czech films, including The Fireman's Ball. This is a sweet film that I was glad to have seen, but be warned that it doesn't really have much of a conclusion. The earlier showing at the festival was the North American premiere.
  9. Sur mes lèvres (3 stars, SFFS link, English title: Read My Lips, 2001, seen 4/28/2002, 1:55, in French with subtitles):
    Carla is a secretary who is essentially deaf without her hearing aids. When she finds herself overloaded at work, she is able to hire Paul to help her out. Paul is just out of jail, and his past is not entirely behind him. To say too much more about the story, which has many twists, would be a mistake. The most interesting thing about this film for me is how sound is used to indicate when Carla can hear and when she can't -- a sort of "point of hear" (like point of view). The early scenes that set this up, as well as the early character development of Carla and Paul, was more interesting to me than the twists and turns later on, some of which were hard to follow and/or stretched credibility a bit. There is also some unpleasant violence. Back to the positive side, the cinematography was very good. The film is worth seeing, but perhaps not seeking out.
  10. Heng shu heng (3 stars, SFFS link, English title: Go for Broke, 2001, seen 4/28/2002, 1:27, in Chinese with subtitles):
    This film feels like a documentary, but isn't, quite. The actors all generally play themselves in their own lives, at the original locations with natural light. The story is of a group of Chinese workers in Shanghai who are laid off by the various companies that they worked for. They form a construction company using some savings and lots of borrowed money, and find the business to have some rather significant ups and downs. There are numerous humorous scenes, such as when they decide to save money by moving some boards to an upper floor apartment themselves, and then find that the boards are too long to be taken up the stairs (their solution is funny, but exhausting). The down moments are also done well, but are somewhat difficult to watch since by then you find yourself rooting for them to succeed. The look of the film is of a documentary, with extensive if not exclusive use of handheld cameras, but it was shot on film rather than video. The earlier showing at the festival was the U.S. premiere.
  11. Spagnola, La (2.5 stars, SFFS link, 2001, seen 5/1/2002, 1:27, in Spanish, Italian, and English with subtitles):
    Lucía is a 14-year-old girl living in Australia with her beautiful Spanish mother, Lola (the title refers to her and means "Spanish woman"), while her Italian father (named Ricardo) has run off with an Australian woman. Lola is a woman of fiery emotions, which she demonstrates very quickly by throwing herself on top of and then in front of the car as Ricardo attempts to drive off. She wants him back, or at least for him to pay her bills, and failing that she wants revenge. Lucía would just like a normal family and to spend time with the family chickens and the goat named Elvis. But that barely gives a hint of the flavor of the film, which is very quirky, often darkly humorous, and sometimes dramatic. I enjoyed individual bits (Lourdes Bartolomé steals the scenes she's in as Lucía's aunt Manola), but on the whole it didn't really work for me. Still, there's enough here to give it a mild recommendation. This was Australia's nomination for the best foreign language film of 2001, which is an interesting concept in that Australia is an English speaking country, but this is in fact a foreign language film. It is currently playing in Europe, but the director (who was at the screening to introduce it but not for questions) does not expect it to get distribution in the U.S.
  12. Lait de la tendresse humaine, Le (2.5 stars, SFFS link, English title: The Milk of Human Kindness, 2000, seen 4/29/2002, 1:33, in French with subtitles):
    Christelle recently gave birth to her third child, and one day is overwhelmed with motherhood and simply runs away. She ends up in the upstairs apartment of Claire, who is very sympathetic and lets Christelle stay even though she was planning to have a romantic evening with her married lover. Christelle's husband is forced to take care of the children, not knowing where she has gone. As the hours turn to days, Claire begins to wonder how long Christelle is going to continue imposing, and Christelle's husband also finds the situation increasingly difficult. There are also other characters who make the story more complex, but, at least for me, didn't add much to the film. The acting by the adults is fine but nothing special, while the children seemed quite natural. On the whole I would only recommend the film to people with a particular interest in the subject matter.
  13. Perdición de los hombres, La (2.5 stars, SFFS link, English title: The Ruination of Men, 2000, seen 4/30/2002, 1:46, in Spanish with subtitles):
    As the film opens, we see two men preparing to ambush a third man, who is walking along a trail with a wheelbarrow. They kill him, take him to a house, and steal his fancy boots. Later we are introduced to the victim's widow and his girlfriend. To me, the film started slow, and didn't become very interesting until at least halfway through, although it was often funny throughout. Near the end we see the opening scene again, with context to understand better what was really happening. This dark comedy is filmed in a dusty looking black and white. It's possible that if I had been less tired that I would have liked it better, but as it stands I can only give it a very marginal recommendation.
  14. Pier Paolo Pasolini (2 stars, SFFS link, 2001, seen 4/28/2002, 1:30, in Italian and French with subtitles):
    I'm sure if I knew anything about the director profiled in this documentary, I would have gotten more out of it. Pasolini was a poet, philosopher (very leftist and Marxist), and a filmmaker who tended to make films with rather provocative images. His final film was Salò (the DVD of which is so rare that it recently sold for $700 on eBay), based on the work of The Marquis de Sade, and Pasolini was murdered shortly after it was made. This documentary didn't feel like a documentary to me, seeming to deal more with presenting Pasolini's philosophy and words than with documenting his life. The look of the film was also a major distraction, looking at times like it was shot on old 8 mm film, transferred to VHS, and then transferred back to film for projection. Really, at times it was so fuzzy that you weren't sure what you were seeing, and I don't think that was an intentional effect. This is not recommended except to fans of the subject.
Kevin Spacey interview and tribute, 4/24/2002:
I've generally admired Kevin Spacey's ability to pick good films to work in, and so when I heard that the San Francisco Film Society was planning to give him the Peter J. Owens Award, I decided to attend. The evening was structured as an interview, then questions from the audience, and finally a screening of the film Swimming with Sharks. It was wonderful. The couple sitting next to me has been to this event for several years and said that this was by far the best one. A few notes:

Filmography links courtesy of IMDb and the San Francisco Film Society.

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Copyright © 2002-2003 by Michael S. Weston. All rights reserved.