[Our thanks to Michael Hawley for providing these SFIFF54 screener reviews.]

The 54th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54) gets underway this Thursday, April 21 and runs until May 5. Since the Opening Press Conference three weeks ago, the fest has announced that Oliver Stone will receive the 2011 Founder's Directing Award, in a program that will include an onstage interview, clips reel and screening of 1986's Salvador starring James Woods. It has also been revealed that actors Zoe Saldana (Avatar's Na'vi princess) and Clifton Collins Jr. (Perry Smith in Capote) will accept this year's Midnight Awards, in a late-night talk show-styled ceremony hosted by Beth Lisick at the W Hotel. Still waiting to be announced is the recipient of SFIFF54's Peter J. Owens Acting Award. Since posting my two-part overview of the full line-up, I've previewed 10 films on DVD screener. Here are some impressions.

The SFIFF54 Latin American selections were mostly a field of unknowns (at least to me), so priority #1 was checking out some of those. I had little interest in Tatiana Huezo's The Tiniest Place, until I read Robert Koehler's rave in an indieWire report from the recent Guadalajara Film Festival. Indeed, the film is a revelation. It's one of those documentaries that does more than cogently impart information and exists as a work of art. This is the story of Ciquera, an El Salvador mountain village that was bombed into non-existence during the country's civil war. The director starts us off in the present day, rendering a tranquil, thriving village and the quotidian goings-on of its inhabitants. Just as you become impatient and start wondering if the film is merely an innocuous ode to rurality, the villagers begin to speak--both on camera and in voiceover--of their experiences during the civil war years (1980-1992). Captivating storytellers all, their personal tales escalate in horror as the film progresses, until it becomes nearly unbearable. No archival footage is used, just some faded photographs and the villagers' words disconcertingly contrasted against the idyll of contemporary Ciquera. Miraculously, Huezo manages to end her film in a place of hope. Huezo, whom Koehler called "one of the bright new talents of Latin American cinema," will be at the festival to present her film. The Tiniest Place is beautifully shot and will be screened in 35mm, a rarity for documentaries these days. Don't miss it.

I was also impressed by Ulysses, Oscar Godoy's fictive portrait of a Peruvian immigrant establishing a new life in Santiago, Chile. Before the opening credits, we see Julio wake up on a busy sidewalk with his head resting in a pool of blood. How this came about is never really explained, and it's the first of several nice touches of ambiguity in Godoy's screenplay. Ulysses is more than another grim case study of a downtrodden immigrant, although there are certainly elements of that. Julio's story is more complex--a former history professor whose reasons for immigrating seem born more of escape from personal tragedy than fiscal necessity. We observe as he battles loneliness, first with prostitutes and then in a promising relationship with a music store clerk, and watch as he gradually improves his economic lot. The result is a quietly heartbreaking, but ultimately optimistic film that achieves its full power cumulatively.

Two other Latin American films are recommended as well. Alejandro Chomski's Asleep in the Sun plays like a sumptuously art-directed Twilight Zone episode involving dogs, trepanation and the migration of "diseased" souls. Then in Carlos César Arbeláez' straightforward but affecting The Colors of the Mountain, a Colombian boy's new soccer ball gets booted into a minefield, an apt metaphor for a place where adults navigate the treacherous choice between allegiance to guerrillas and government soldiers. Young actor Hernán Mauricio Ocampo is unforgettable in the lead role.

Every year the SFIFF line-up includes a few movies--about the movies. And Mila Turajlic's Cinema Komunisto is "the story of a country that no longer exists, except in the movies." In 1948, Marshal Tito's slightly more benevolent brand of Yugoslav communism caused a rift with the USSR. The Soviets stopped the flow of Russian films to the renegade republic, and of course, Hollywood happily filled the void. Soon Yugoslavia developed its own successful homegrown industry of WWII "partisan" films, which helped kickstart an era of international co-productions. Starting with Jack Cardiff's The Long Ships in 1962, these epics brought in western currency and jet-setting movie stars. Tito himself was a movie buff, handpicking Richard Burton to star in The Battle of Sutjeska, a hagiographic biopic about Tito's WWII exploits.

Providing a nifty frame of reference in Cinema Komunisto is Levic Konstantinovic, Tito's personal projectionist for 32 years who asserts that he screened 8,801 films for the leader between 1949 and 1980. His personal recollections, combined with choice movie clips and archival materials, make this a breezy examination of one nation's brief cinematic legacy.

If you've seen the films of Wong Kar-wai, Hirokazu Koreeda, Tran Anh Hung, Jian Wen and especially Hou Hsiou-hsien, you've no doubt exalted in the visual aesthetics of cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin. In Kwan Pun-leung and Chang Hsiu-chiung's documentary Let the Wind Carry Me, they seek insight into the Taiwanese DP's artistry, which Lee himself ascribes to a balance between "visual poetry and realism." All the aforementioned directors go on camera to discuss Lee's artistry and work methods, praising his use of natural and household light, and his adaptability to fickle weather conditions. Actors Shu Qi and Romain Duris speak of his ability to accommodate his camera to their movements, which Mark claims is unintentional and unconscious. For me, it was a pleasure to finally see the man who's given me so many moments of cinematic ecstasy, like for starters, the opening scene of Hou's Millennium Mambo with Shu Qi's trance-inducing strut along a neon-lit urban skywalk.

Lee, it turns out, is a long-haired, bearded man with a rugged frame and deep voice who speaks about how pottery taught him color and how his chosen profession is a lonely one (he has an American wife and young son who live in L.A.). Unfortunately for a film about someone as visionary as Lee, this documentary is somewhat perfunctory and artless, filled with static talking heads, awkward edits, ill-fitting music cues and moments of superfluousness. Also, many of the clips are of poor quality, at least on the DVD screener I watched (but verified by Russell Edwards in his Variety review from the Tokyo Film Festival).

Of the 10 films I previewed, the biggest surprise was Hong Sang-soo's Hahaha. I am not a fan of this Korean director's work. For me, they have an exasperating sameness--full of immature, narcissistic, sexist, alcoholic intellectuals and their codependent female counterparts, all rampaging through fractured narrative structures. Hahaha has all of that, but it's been dialed way down. There's almost--dare I say--a sweetness to it, making this the first Hong film I've enjoyed without reservations. Here's the set-up. Two friends, an unemployed wannabe film director who's about to emigrate to Canada, and a depressed, married film critic meet for drinks to reminisce about their summer holidays in the port city of Tongyeong. This reunion is only heard in voiceover, and only seen via B&W snapshots. The bulk of the film consists of their separate tales being dramatized on-screen. It's a bit confounding how the two narrative strands connect until Hong slips in a revelatory a-ha moment and then runs with it for the film's duration. If you've never seen a Hong Sang-soo film, this would make as good an entry point as any.

I previewed two more documentaries and one narrative feature. From French actor/director Romain Goupil comes Hands Up, a timely tale of 5th graders plotting to prevent the capture and deportation of a Chechen classmate. It's like a classic caper film as conceived by the minds of stealthy children, with coded text messages and ring tones only kids can hear. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is wonderful as always, playing the cool Mom who's in on it. Also from France is the documentary Detroit Wild City, an outsider's portrait of a city that's lost 25 percent of its population in the last decade and where nature is reclaiming its stake. Director / cinematographer Florent Tillon has a tremendous skill for photographing the city's once-majestic buildings now in ruin, as well as an eye for the absurd (a bus whose sign alternately flashes "Have a nice day" and "Not in service"). The film's profiles of Detroit's remaining denizens, however, vary greatly in interest and relevance--a major exception being a poetic young urban explorer whose observations and laments perfectly compliment Tillon's visuals.

And finally there's The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, Marie Losier's oddly touching documentary about industrial music pioneer Genesis P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV). While the film begins with a nifty overview of his music career, the greater part is given to P-Orridge's all-consuming relationship with Lady Jaye, a nurse / dominatrix almost half his age who died in 2007. "You know how it is. You fall in love madly with someone and there's this moment when you just want consume each other and not be individuals anymore. We wanted to pursue that. Not just talk about it, but live it." And "living it" involved extensive plastic surgery, matching breast implants and beauty mark tattoos, not to mention identical hairdos and wardrobes. Losier effectively uses a mix of home movies, interviews and concert footage to recount this strange tale in a completely non-judgmental way.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.
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