A Sassy, Irreverent Film Festival

A new executive director brings a fresh perspective to the 56th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Please excuse the TV-commercial metaphor, but there appears to be a fresh new breeze blowing through the San Francisco International Film Festival this spring.

Just a year ago, the Western Hemisphere’s oldest continuous film festival opened under a cloud after the loss of Graham Leggat and Bingham Ray. The untimely deaths of two executive directors in one calendar year put the festival in a somber, reflective mood. Never mind that the San Francisco Film Society’s staff of programmers and enablers remained more or less the same, carrying out the day-to-day work of running a complex, year-round schedule of film-related events and programs. The public face of such an organization is the one people see, and that face was missing.

But now Ted Hope is in town. The 51-year-old former New Yorker is the first working movie producer to hold the top job in San Francisco. He has collaborated with such talents as Ang Lee (The Ice Storm), Todd Solondz (Dark Horse), Tamara Jenkins (The Savages), Greg Mottola (Adventureland), and Sean Baker — whose Starlet was one of the best films of this past winter season. Hope’s taste tilts decidedly indie. This can only mean good things for a venerable film festival trying to hang on to its cultural cachet in the brave new world.

The SFIFF doesn’t need any new coffee-table pics, it needs more Nicole Holofceners and Sean Durkins. Hope understands the complicated marketplace. Combine that with his filmography and his multi-pronged web presence (HopeforFilm.com and HammertoNail.com) and suddenly the 56-year-old film fest acquires a sassy, irreverent, more bohemian point of view. Not a moment too soon.

The true spirit of the San Francisco fest has always been its grassroots appreciation of art for art’s sake, the more rough-edged the better. Bay Area audiences are not especially impressed with glitz. Filmmakers mean more than movie stars here. This year’s event opens Thursday, April 25 (7 p.m.) at The Castro Theatre with the Julianne Moore-Steve Coogan starrer What Maisie Knew, but the heart of the festival is to be found in strange little items like The Search for Emak Bakia. Spanish writer-director Oskar Alegría pays whimsical tribute to artist Man Ray’s 1926 cine-poem Emak-Bakia (“leave me alone” in Basque) by wandering the pathways of Biarritz and Paris in search of the “meaning” of Ray’s original film. Might as well watch a plastic glove blow down the street — which Alegría does. It’s kind of a surrealist scavenger hunt, with clowns, tombstones, eyelids, happenstance, and coincidence. Showing May 4 and May 6 at the Sundance Kabuki, May 9 at New People Cinema.

In a similar vein is Nights with Théodore, Sébastien Betbeder’s murky, somnambulistic romance featuring two restless lovers (Pio Marmaï and Agathe Bonitzer) who can’t resist sneaking into Paris’ Buttes Chaumont park in the midnight hours for a little cave exploring. Contrast and compare that to Before Midnight, the third film (so far) in director Richard Linklater’s series detailing the fleeting amorous encounters between a girl (Julie Delpy) and a guy (Ethan Hawke) just passing through, à la Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. In this installment, the on-again, off-again sweethearts, played by Delpy and Hawke, are pushing middle age — next title in the series: Before I Have to Take My Sleeping Pill. Nights with Théodore plays the Kabuki, April 28-29 and May 5. Before Midnight is the festival’s closing night offering, May 9 at the Castro. Additionally, Linklater holds forth in “A Conversation with Richard Linklater,” live on stage at the Kabuki, May 8.

Speaking at the SFIFF’s press conference about the Founder’s Directing Award and its recipient, veteran helmer Philip Kaufman (May 5, Castro), Hope expressed his enthusiasm for “intelligent movies for grownups, complex and deep.” Two impressionistic glimpses into the workaday lives of ordinary individuals also fit that descriptive.

Leviathan throws us onto the slick, wet deck of a Massachusetts fishing trawler working the North Atlantic (occasionally throwing us overboard), for an extremely subjective, narration-less, sometimes spooky tone ode to hard work at sea. Quite often it’s a fish-eye view, courtesy documentarians Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, who must have spent the entire voyage soaked. The crewmen never stop slicing, ripping, selecting. Caution: could provoke sea-sickness in audiences. It screens at the Pacific Film Archive on April 29. Sofia’s Last Ambulance takes us for a ride with that Bulgarian city’s most intrepid team of emergency medical techs as they navigate the bumpy streets en route to a decomposed body, a broken leg, and ER care in an auto garage. Filmmaker Ilian Metev’s kaleidoscopic tour has the feel of a scripted cinema vérité hybrid, but no, it’s being sold as the real thing, an actuality. Whatever else it may be, it’s a big hit for fans of documentary realism. The PFA has it, April 30.

The large German family in Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat never stops moving, talking, and bumping into each other as friends and relatives drop by its cramped apartment one weekend morning. The place is a hive of nonstop activity and yet nothing overtly dramatic happens, so we watch what’s going on around the edges, and the beauty of Zürcher’s construction opens up. Mom (Jenny Schily) seems preoccupied, Grandma (Monika Hetterle) sleeps all the time, but the household’s conscience is the cat, the only one that isn’t bustling around telling stories. Anyone who grew up in a family can relate. Catch it at the Kabuki, May 1, 5, and 8.

Rick Prelinger of San Francisco’s Prelinger Archives operates one of the world’s foremost repositories of archival film images. For the amusement of SFIFF audiences, Prelinger has for the past few years assembled a marvelous montage of found footage — mostly home movies — from 20th-century America. He then urges the audience to comment on and heckle the images. With No More Road Trips? the subject is traveling: people in cars, pedestrians, a long-haired woman combing her locks on the street, numerous establishing shots, a New York City bagel man, some lazy bears in the road, etc. — “a silent movie in 639 shots.” The effect is raw but full of narrative possibilities. It runs one time only, May 5, at the Castro. No More Road Trips?, along with the other movies described above, represents the type of movie you’ll only find at a film festival or a well-stocked museum: offbeat, out-of-the-ordinary, and hard-to-classify — the sublime antithesis of the pre-sold commercial fare in the popcorn pits. But you’ll have to get up, go out, and see it with a crowd to make it work.

What happens when a Tokyo slacker and a part-time actor named Sakurai (Masato Sakai) exchanges identities after a bathhouse accident with an amnesiac corporate hit man named Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa), and they both meet Kanae (Ryoko Hirosue), a buttoned-down career woman looking for a husband in a hurry? We get Key of Life, one of the most entertaining movies in the festival. Writer-director Kenji Uchida’s well written, ideally cast screwball comedy is a splendid combo of rom-com and gangster yarn that fits together tightly as the three befuddled urbanites crisscross each others’ lives half a beat behind the pace. If it had been made in 1970s France it would have starred Gérard Depardieu and Pierre Richard, but this may be better than any of their farces. It plays April 28 at the PFA.

Key of Life‘s Kagawa, one of Japan’s busiest movie stars, also fits into the huge cast of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Penance, but the similarity between the two projects ends there, abruptly. Kurosawa’s 2012 psychological thriller, which weighs in at almost five hours — it was made as a mini-series for Japan’s Wowow Television — travels down the director’s familiar thematic avenues in the long, involved story of a nine-year-old girl who gets raped and murdered after school, and the curse placed upon her four classmates, witnesses to the crime, in the years that follow by the victim’s mother (played by veteran scene-stealer Kyoko Koizumi). The first of the five episodes, titled French Doll, is guaranteed to make the hair on your arms curl.

Kurosawa’s revenge saga is formulaic in the extreme, but with brilliant, diamond-hard moments of dread and anxiety touching on a variety of chilling motifs, including the Japanese propensity for following orders with no questions asked. The filmmaker has commented that he is finding it more and more difficult to make the sort of films that gave him his international reputation as a wrecker of nerves (Cure, Séance, Pulse, Doppelganger), but if this forbidding story — adapted from the novel by Kanae Minato — is any indication, Kurosawa has not lost his touch. Penance is at the PFA on April 27.

This year’s San Francisco International evidently has a thing for hoodlums, as evidenced by vivid representatives of that genre — in addition to the aforementioned Key of Life — from South Korea, Russia, Japan, Hong Kong, and Hollywood. The latter is exemplified by William Friedkin’s brilliant 1985 cops ‘n’ crooks actioner To Live and Die in L.A., which arrives for a retrospective screening outfitted with one of Friedkin’s patented in-person bull sessions, following the show at New People (May 7).

Of the others, we recommend a pair of wild and wooly South Korean numbers. Juvenile Offender takes a matter-of-fact look at a young delinquent named Jang Ji-gu (played by Seo Young-joo). Bad boy Ji-gu just can’t stay out of trouble, and even though he remains devoted to his aged grandfather, the combination of his mother’s loosey-goosey lifestyle and his house-burglar buddies seem to doom him to perpetual police trouble — at least until he finds that special girlfriend. Director Kang Yi-kwan’s second feature film burns its style in a big hurry, full of damped-down fury. See it May 3, 6, or 7 in SF.

Yoon Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time is another matter entirely. Veteran character actor Choi Min-sik (I Saw the Devil, Lady Vengeance, Oldboy) turns in a whirlwind performance as a 1980s-era government customs official who swings both ways, eventually becoming the turncoat godfather (daebu) of Busan-area crime in partnership with several full-fledged mobsters, amid much slapstick back-stabbing. Director Yoon’s ultra-violent farce borrows liberally from Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas and Casino in spots, but don’t let the clowning and silly hair fool you. The deceptively athletic actor Choi takes numerous realistic beatings throughout this frantic, style-drenched anti-buddy movie. No time to catch your breath in any of its 133 minutes. Nameless Gangster plays only the Kabuki, April 27 and May 2-3.

Of the many worthwhile documentaries in the 2013 SFIFF, Ben Lewis’ Google and the World Brain stands out for its sizzling topicality. Using as his starting point an archival film clip of sci-fi author H.G. Wells explaining his visions (circa 1947) of an all-powerful artificial intelligence, filmmaker Lewis (Poor Us: An Animated History of Poverty) investigates Google Books and its epochal project: to scan every page of every book ever published in the history of the world. The project has its ups and downs — sloppy procedures, resistance from rival orgs in Europe as well as Silicon Valley, etc. — but the true objectives of this data-mining operation get a full airing-out. Futurists and similar pundits insist, among other things, that Google exists to monetize knowledge, and that despite its paid publicity, Google Books is not a library but a bookstore. If Google were somehow to own every book, all knowledge would carry a price tag. Further, author Jaron Lanier asserts: “The insane structure of modern finance is exactly the same as the insane structure of modern culture on the Internet.” Hmm. Just the topic for a leisurely post-screening skull session over green tea in Japantown. It screens April 27 at the Kabuki, May 5 at New People.

While we’re in Wonkville, let’s not forget Steven Soderbergh’s State of the Cinema report, Saturday, April 27, at the Kabuki (1 p.m.). It might be fun hearing what the future holds for the world of film from an auteur who has already announced that he’s quitting the scene at the top of his game. Is this Soderbergh’s “farewell address” after years of provocative movies — including a methodical updating of popular genres à la Side Effects, Magic Mike, Haywire, and Contagion? Or is it one last candid chance to peer into the thoughts of one of this country’s very few ground-breaking creators? Anyone who could carry Full Frontal, Ocean’s Eleven, and The Girlfriend Experience in his filmography would be worth spending an afternoon with, at face value. Also recommended for wonks and worriers: the May 4 screening of Jacob Kornbluth’s Inequality for All, a documentary expansion of Robert Reich’s writings on the dangers of America’s widening rich-poor gap (6:30 p.m., Kabuki). Kornbluth and Reich are expected to attend.

One of the purest examples of the documentary art, and also an exalted variation on that perennial festival staple, the Village Picture, is A River Changes Course, an earthy Cambodian film by cinematographer-turned-director Kalyanee Mam. Without narration, the camera visits different locales in that country’s varied landscape — northern jungles, the Tonle Sap inland sea, a village near Phnom Penh, a Muslim fishing community — and takes notes on the lives and prospects of the inhabitants. A drought has hurt crops, so poor country folk are taking factory jobs ($61/month). Meanwhile, the wild animals are disappearing, forests are being cleared for their timber, and people in the country are getting sick. “We’re no longer afraid of animals and ghosts,” complains a farmer, “we’re afraid of people.” A River Changes Course is at the PFA on April 29.

Also recommended: Youth, a blithe, observational character study of a headstrong university student named Juliette (Esther Garrel from 17 Girls), directed in classic mid-20th-century French style by Justine Malle, daughter of the late master Louis Malle, showing May 1, 3, and 4 at the Kabuki. Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, in which a meek museum guard (Bobby Sommer) and a Canadian visitor (Mary Margaret O’Hara) become friends in contemporary Vienna amid numerous digressions (including a lecture on Pieter Bruegel the Elder), plays the Kabuki, April 28. Sergei Loznitsa’s grim, taciturn WWII drama In the Fog slogs through the forest with anti-Nazi partisans in Belarus, April 26 at the PFA. Then there’s Good Ol’ Freda, the happy documentary portrait of Freda Kelly, a quiet Liverpool teenager who became president of The Beatles’ fan club and number-one keeper of the flame. She knows Ringo Starr well enough to call him Richie. It’s directed by Ryan White. At the PFA, May 5.

Finally, Night Across the Street (La noche de enfrente) is a must-see for devotees of the late Portuguese director Raúl Ruiz, an anti-realistic, dream-friendly account of the interior life of a Chilean author (Sergio Hernández) whose memory floats from his school days and long-ago encounters with Long John Silver to nightmares about members of Chile’s military junta. It’s the great Ruiz’ last film, based on stories by Hernán del Solar, and it screens May 4 at the PFA. For the latest info and schedules, visit SFFS.org

Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Sean Baker teamed with DJ Devereux on the film Starlet. In fact, Baker did the film by himself; Devereux is working on his own film of the same name. This version has been corrected.

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