The Fest Intentions

Digesting a few gems among the 220 films offered up for the SFIF

The San Francisco International Film Festival is now up and running, and as usual the Pacific Film Archive is accommodating a two-week program culled from the fest, reducing an impossible-to-digest bazaar of 220 films (76 narrative features, 27 documentaries, 117 shorts) to a grand banquet of 35 features and some two dozen shorts. The unwieldiness of the SFIFF has always been one of its main drawbacks for me; assuming the fest chooses wisely and actually finds 220 films worth seeing, there’s never enough time for a person who works for a living to take advantage of it all. The PFA solves this dilemma by whittling down the list, eliminating the high-profile, big-studio publicity vehicles and succès-de-scandale items–and screening, well, the same sort of material for which the Archive has always been noted: adventurous international films with a decidedly noncommercial flavor.

This seems to be a banner year for the fest. Outgoing artistic director Peter Scarlet, leaving the SFIFF after nineteen years to assume the prestigious job of head of the Cinematheque Française, is firing all of his guns at once and exploding into Paris in a shower of meteors. A few of those meteors are set to catch fire in Berkeley beginning Friday, April 20. Here’s a choice smattering of “SFIFF at the PFA” highlights:

Kon Ichikawa, the awesomely prolific director of such films as The Burmese Harp (1956), Tokyo Olympics (1965), and The Makioka Sisters (1985), is still making movies at age 85. His 74th film, the deceptively swordy Dora-Heita, is a sly samurai character study of a minor official in the Tokugawa Shogunate who makes a major splash in a provincial town by using his wits as well as wielding his katana. Remember Koji Yakusho, the mild-mannered ballroom hero of Shall We Dance? Picture him wading into a houseful of bad guys and hacking away until there’s nothing left but a pile of dead bodies.

Dora-Heita, as magistrate Koheita Mochizuki is nicknamed (it means “alley cat”), reminds us of Lt. Columbo: he shambles around, seemingly hung over and preoccupied with incessant gambling and whoring instead of tending to government business, but his real mission is to clean up the notorious Horisoto district, where vice flourishes because of crime bosses’ links to corrupt officials. This he does with maximum style, aided and abetted by subtle shadings of character (an Ichikawa specialty), especially among the various yakuza and lowlifes. Surprisingly, Dora-Heita sat on the development shelf for 31 years waiting to be made; it was written by “The Committee of Four Knights”–Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi, and Ichikawa–in 1965 but remained unproduced until now. But the film has much more than mere historical value. Dora-Heita receives its US premiere this Friday at 9:15 p.m.

On Wednesday evening the SFIFF takes us to the West African nation of Mali for a two-hour immersion in its rich musical and storytelling cultures. First, world music star Ali Farke Touré returns to his roots and incidentally uncovers what he insists are the African roots of the blues: the jangly, guitar-based folk music of the Bambara and the Tuaregs, the sound of the one-stringed gurkel, desert music of the sub-Sahara. Close your eyes and you can hear Mississipi John Hurt in Touré’s blue moans and down-home country picking. Ali Farka Touré: Springing from the Roots is full of aphorisms as well, as when Touré warns that a certain style of music “mustn’t be listened to after midnight” (because of its emotional hold on the listener), and offers this piece of advice: “If you’re looking for God and find the prophet, you should still be happy.”We plunge still deeper into Mali with director Mousse Ouane’s documentary The Spirit of Mopti, a scintillating mixture of ethnography and parable weaving together the everyday routines and folkways of four men from different tribes–a fisherman, a cattle herder, a farmer, and a lower-caste market helper–as they converge on the trading town of Mopti on the River Niger. Again, Muslim proverbs and stately, deliberate actions are shown to typify the Mali way of life. Fascinating footage, too, in a village picture with grit.

Circle Thursday, April 26 in red on your film calendar. That’s the night two remarkable films come to the PFA: one from France, the other from China. Moroccan-born cinéaste Philippe Faucon’s Samia tackles the familiar cross-cultural strife and yearning of newcomers to the First World with sympathy and wit in its story of a family of Algerian immigrants in Marseille. The title character is the third of four daughters of a strictly religious (some might say smothering) household in which the father and eldest brother, against all odds, attempt to keep watch over every minute of the girls’ lives for the slightly dubious honor of their chastity–and trouble ensues. Actor Lynda Benahouda is particularly good as the rebellious Samia, but Marseille is the real star of the pic, as usual. Samia possesses all the real-world sizzle of cinema-verité.

The second feature of the evening is from China, but a different China than the one in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the latest Wong Kar-Wai stylemobile. Actor-turned-director Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep has a bit of visual style, all right, but its stock in trade is deadly black humor about one of China’s most horrific modern eras–the WWII invasion by Japan. Jiang is familiar with the territory from his roles in such pics as Red Sorghum. Here, in a dusty village (what other kind is there?) in the northeast of China called Rack-Armour Terrace, a guy named Ma Dasan (Jiang) is interrupted in the middle of the night (while he’s bonking the village widow) by a shadowy partisan known only as “Me.” Me dumps a bag into Ma’s house containing two captured enemy soldiers–a Japanese sergeant and a Chinese collaborator –and Ma and his friends are obliged to keep the hostages hidden under the noses of the occupying Japanese troops until someone decides what to do with them. No one ever does.

The only problem with Devils on the Doorstep is that apparently, since Jiang is considered “the Robert De Niro of China,” nobody had the nerve to tell him that almost every scene goes on too long. Thus, the bitterly funny wartime satire runs a stretched-out two hours and nineteen minutes –evidently cut back from its 162-minute running time at Cannes. If the filmmakers could find a way to cut twenty more minutes and still retain the brilliant performances of Jiang, Teruyuki Kagawa (as the captured sergeant), Yuan Ding (the Chinese collaborator), and Kenya Sawada (the cruel, vain Japanese commander), this film could rank with Three Kings as one of the finest antiwar pieces of recent years. As it is, it’s still powerful stuff, loaded with ironic perspectives and slapstick laughs balanced against the requisite horrors of war–a fine example of Chinese cinema’s new era of story sophistication.

María Novaro’s Danzón was a delightful surprise a few years ago, so it’s a pleasure to see Novaro’s latest, Without a Trace (Sin dejar huella), rise above its “Mexican Thelma & Louise” outline and shine on its own as a modern adventure story of two women grabbing life by the lapels–one that doesn’t need to resort to cheap pathos or suicidal plunges into the Grand Canyon. Aurelia (Tiaré Scanda) leaves her abusive husband, parks her older son with her sister, and takes her baby boy for a ride in her Jeep Cherokee. On the road, she runs into Ana (Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), a well-educated but out-of-luck ex-prostitute being hounded by the usual narco-federale crime boss (Jesús Ochoa) with the hots for her. The girls decide to head for the Yucatán, where it all comes down–but not necessarily the way it would in a Sam Peckinpah movie. There are drug references galore, especially in the soundtrack tunes, and a naturalistic, roots-Mexican tour of such towns as Mérida and Ticul, as well as a distinct lack of melodrama. Score another winner for María as well as Novaro. Without a Trace screens Saturday, April 28, at 9:30 p.m.Also potentially worth a look: George Butler’s documentary The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, a revival of Jacques Rozier’s rollicking 1985 French road movie Maine-Océan Express, Bruce Weber’s latest homoerotic doc, Chop Suey, and Mexican master Arturo Ripstein’s stagey, melodramatic, let-it-all-hang-out tale of marital disaster, Such Is Life (Así es la vida). Of course, these are only a few of the films from the fest’s huge 2001 lineup, purportedly its strongest in years. Take a chance–try a movie you’ve never heard of. For complete listings of each week’s SFIFF events at the PFA, check “One-Night Stands” in the film listings section. See you at the movies.

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