2003 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
seen prior to the festival
The Best of Times (Chang Tso-chi, Taiwan) 
I don’t remember this film very well, except that it was rather boring and incoherent. It had some graceful twists near the end, but it felt like early Hou without the visual chops.
Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand) 
See #3 on my 2002 Top Ten.
Cry Woman (Liu Bingjian, China / South Korea) 
Despite a rather transparent premise, the film is impressively ballsy and obnoxious prior to petering out. Liao Qin, as the titular protagonist, has the comic swagger of the young Lucille Ball. She makes the film.
Doing Time (Yoichi Sai, Japan) 
“Sort of a P.R. piece for Japanese prison,” Jason Sanders said to me after a screening in Vancouver, sort of making me rethink my appreciation for this wry, controlled comedy. But political correctness be damned. The directorial rigor on display is impeccable on its own, but it’s a quiet thrill when you consider how perfectly it expresses the film’s content. As for soft-pedaling Japanese correctional reality, ask yourself this: would you want to spend two years inside a Mondrian painting?
Hukkle (György Pálfi, Hungary) 
See March 2003 new releases.
10 (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran / France) 
The interpersonal dynamics between the driver and the other characters (especially her son) were compelling enough to obviate any visual boredom. Granted, I watch films far more “minimalist” than this all the time, so I’m like, big deal. I’d have to see it again to verify Steve Erickson’s claims regarding screen-time as the chief structural element, but it sounds right.
seen at the festival
The Trilogy I: On the Run (Lucas Belvaux, France / Belgium) 
Quite disappointing. After an interminable hour of arch, in-quotation-marks “thriller” moves, the film sort of came to life, mostly due to the performances of Frot and Belvaux. A sincerity set in which overcame the directorial genre-aping. Nevertheless, this can only go so far when the film itself (despite Michel Ciment’s in-person claims) has fuck-all to say about terrorism or political dissent. The ending – though I should have seen it coming in some form or another – was pretty awesome.
The Trilogy II: An Amazing Couple (Lucas Belvaux, France / Belgium) 
An improvement, if only because the artifice-laden, clever-clever directorial style is far better suited to a farce than a thriller. I’m being a little over-generous on the grade, given that the film was seldom funny-ha-ha, more often (to quote Kevin Costner re: Madonna) “neat.” Tape-recorder shtick tiresome. Gains points for how it plays against the first film; it makes the theoretical point that the world can only be “funny” by keeping certain things (politics, violence, true life-and-death suffering) scrupulously off-frame.
The Trilogy III: After Life (Lucas Belvaux, France / Belgium) 
While this one has a few inspired moments – notably Belvaux’s staging of Dominique Blanc’s withdrawals – mostly it hinges on an impossible indentificatory task. After making Pascal (Gilbert Melki) an utter buffoon in the last picture, Belvaux expects us to care deeply for him here, just because the background music has changed. Or, Belvaux is asking us to recognize that we can’t care about him, precisely because of our knowledge from the other films – which would make The Trilogy that much more of an empty film-school exercise. I sense that Belvaux isn’t a mature enough director to pull this off. He is so busy orchestrating this Big Picture that he lets niggling details, like subtlety in performances and image / sound relationships, get away from him. Also I was distracted by the fact that Melki reminds me so much of Rob Estes from Melrose Place, and is about as soulful.
Fear and Trembling (Alain Corneau, France) 
Sure, this had flaws. It’s pretty broad and cartoonish in spots, occasionally relies on well-trod “office humor,” and makes ill-advised use of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, a film, shall we say, in another league. Still, the true butt of the joke is Amelie (Sylvie Testud), a paragon of self-absorbed Western cluelessness. The endless narration is played nicely against the situational humor, for a shallow, pleasant diversion. The opening credit sequence, which consists of extreme close-ups of Testud’s face in full geisha make-up, is guaranteed to make Mike D’Angelo cum in his pants. And Mike, that’s just the beginning.
Squirtgun / Step Print (Pat O’Neill, 1998) [s]
PO’N filled a water-gun with developer and shot it at the film, resulting on various fields of swimming gray dots. No thanks.
Coreopsis (Pat O’Neill, 1998) [s]
This short was far more impressive. It begins with white and orange lines, scratched directly onto the emulsion. Lovely enough in itself. But then the abstract patterns start dancing, grouping and regrouping, hinting at representational images (a woman’s face, furniture, buildings . . .) and just as I was really digging its funky groove it ended. A strong abstract film.
The Decay of Fiction (Pat O’Neill) 
As concrete as the two shorts were abstract, this film roots itself in the specific space of the Ambassador Hotel and excavates its historical memory. The ghosts of 1940s and 50s Hollywood glamour wander around defunct ballrooms and dilapidated terraces, spouting lines from bygone noir films – dead transparencies in fedoras. What appears to be “real life” (solid people and buildings, in color) moves in super-fast motion, implying that the dead really do share our space, but not our time. (This scheme breaks down, though, as the “real” slow down and the “dead” speed up.) The film is nicely punctuated with creepy Lynchian inserts, transitional devices which serve no clear function, but are cool as hell. Decay overstays its welcome a bit, with a final reel that starts spelling its themes out a little too blatantly. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect is meditative, forlorn, and disturbing. A major work.
In My Skin (Marina de Van, France) 
. . . in which our heroine, best known from her Ozon work, looking like a sort of Angelina Jolie / P. J. Harvey hybrid, proceeds to turn a random injury into a relentless exploration of her own status as walking steak tartar. Amazing partly for the fact that it never really turned silly. I suppose one could see it as a tale of a middle-manager suddenly discovering her inner Goth girl. But there is no larger community here for her to escape into, so it’s really just her and the razor’s edge. Although Trouble Every Day crossed my mind, the recent film this has most in common with is American Psycho. Both address the need to go to extremes in order to feel anything under the anesthesia of capitalism, but of course, Esther’s masochist is the flipside of Patrick Bateman’s sadist. Just when I thought it had gone as far as it could, the film turns the final reel or so into a direct ethical challenge to the audience, like Noé or Haneke reimagined as brutal, feminist performance art. I would rate it higher, but some of the other characters (Esther’s beau and her doctor, especially) are too conveniently insensitive to lend verisimilitude to the world Esther is trying to escape. On that note, Laurent Lucas, an actor I usually like, was sort of dead here. Somebody stick a fork in him.
-So Close (Cory Yuen, Hong Kong) 
“I like action movies, as long as they aren’t boring, and have fresh ideas.” I dunno, this one failed for me, even on its own frivolous terms. Plot twists are seen a mile away, the exposition is laughably clunky and needlessly Byzantine, and none of the three leads really transcend mannequin status. Fine if you’re McCloud and have been quaffing Guinness, but at home, it was hard to keep my finger off the FF button.
Friday Night (Claire Denis, France) 
Something of a disappointment. This has the taut, elliptical construction of a fine short story, and despite some murky patches, Agnes Godard’s cinematography is lovely as ever. (The first reel, mostly showing Laure packing her apartment, is particularly fine.) But for all that, I found Friday Night surprisingly unengaging. It plays a bit too deliberately as a European Art Film Concerning Desire from a Female Point of View. All ECU details and swishing neon and ill-timed step-printing. Well-made and well-acted, but too much like standard festival fare, perhaps even a calculated response to the Trouble Every Day backlash. In short, a Denis film for non-Denis fans. [Second viewing, 3/2/04 -- This was a bit better than I thought the first time. In addition to being more attuned to its reductive narrative frame, thereby noticing the subtle changes in Laure's "relationship" with Jean, I was actually able to concentrate more on its purely plastic virtues (even on DVD). Still, I had forgotten about the Amélie-on-mute subjective-fantasy elements (the twitching anchovy, the rearranging letters on the back of the car, etc.) that really do not belong in a Denis film of any stripe.]
[Second viewing, 3/2/04 -- This was a bit better than I thought the first time. In addition to being more attuned to its reductive narrative frame, thereby noticing the subtle changes in Laure's "relationship" with Jean, I was actually able to concentrate more on its purely plastic virtues (even on DVD). Still, I had forgotten about the Amélie-on-mute subjective-fantasy elements (the twitching anchovy, the rearranging letters on the back of the car, etc.) that really do not belong in a Denis film of any stripe.]
Bus 174 (José Padilha, Brazil) 
A riveting portrait of how a criminal is systematically produced by a social apparatus which could not dispose of him fast enough. At times, Padilha’s direction (particularly his use of ominous TV-news music) undercuts one of the major prongs of his critique – that irresponsible media served to foment Sandro’s violence and the tragic outcome of the busjacking. At other moments, though, Padilha shows himself to be an attentive student of Errol Morris. The reverse-image “Any Jail in Rio” sequence is sure to be one of this year’s most memorable film moments.
A Peck on the Cheek (Mani Ratnam, India) 
About an 8 or a 9 for the first hour, during which fantastic kid-centric song-and-dance numbers brush up against finely wrought details of middle-class domestic life in Madras. But then, the film develops whiplash as it becomes a melodrama about the plight of Tamil rebels in the Sri Lankan civil war. It’s not just that this literal shotgun wedding of frivolity and seriousness doesn’t work. It relies on preposterous lapses in narrative logic (most obviously, would a loving father take his family into a war zone just to allow his adopted daughter to meet her birth-mother?) which undercut the film’s strengths. All the same, Ratnam is clearly in control of his medium, and I look forward to checking out other films by him.
Owning Mahowny (Richard Kwietniowski, Canada / U.K.) 
Usually not aggressively bad, just pointless. The film is most successful in conveying the tension of watching a man pissing everything away at the craps table. But then, that tension may be so inherent to the situation as to reduce Kwietniowski’s “success” to a mere failure to screw it up. Elsewhere, the film is rife with cartoonish stereotypes (swishy gay man, helpful Negro cypher, frumpy Canadian woman with bad perm) and alleged humor that is mostly embarrassing. Hoffman is okay, but his patented shtick – shuffling, sweating, muttering, looking ingratiatingly doughy – is getting old even faster than Luis Guzman’s.
Virgin of Lust (Arturo Ripstein, Mexico / Spain / Portugal) 
This was the biggest surprise of a dismal festival. It’s so accomplished, so gorgeously stylized and deftly written, I can’t really understand how anyone could hate it. I suppose if you like strong narrative through-lines, Virgin will frustrate, since it is very much a film of dispersal. Characters and ideas come and go, move from center to periphery and back again, and the whole thing has a kind of all-over presence, like concepts and images suspended in a flotation tank. The visual design is impeccable, melding the shadowy mise-en-scène of film noir with the hazy colored interiors of Hopper paintings. Paz Garciadiego’s script continually amazes with sharp dialogue and cutting insights, and always resists simple allegory. Generalissimo Franco hovers as an idea, and as a real historical personage whose impact is felt on everything we see. But the film does not belittle its characters by making them mere functions of capital-H History. Toward the end, it did begin to feel a little meandering and overlong, but mostly it was a joy. Highlights: the opening and closing trailers, of course. Guy Maddin does 1940s Mexican melodrama? So totally awesome.