Recently my blogging pace slowed to a crawl while I went to see 17 films over 2 weeks.
The occasion for the films was the 49th annual San Francisco International Film Festival. I believe my peak attendance was 33 films in 1997. So I was taking it easy this year. Based on my sampling, the 49th edition was a bit humdrum. There were moments when I wondered (as I do with the regular commercial releases) if cinema is simply an art form past its prime. Even alternative cinema tends to be formulaic now.
One film I liked was the French debut feature of Pascale Breton, Illumination. Set in the somewhat bleak landscape of Brittany, it follows an odd young man as he tries to find a path into ordinary happiness. The film is perhaps 10 minutes too long, but it offers an absorbing experience of character and place.
Another favorite was Perpetual Motion by Beijing filmmaker Ning Ying. The setup is like a 1930s film comedy: to celebrate Chinese New Year's Eve, a woman invites three women friends to her house in the hope of discovering which one of them is sleeping with her husband. The characters are middle-aged, traveled, cultured. Instead of professional actors, the director cast prominent Chinese women who are her friends. It was a good choice. The film loses some momentum in the last half hour, but overall it’s lively and fresh. There’s a wonderful dinner scene in which the women enjoy a course of hen’s feet.
The French/Argentine film Northeast, directed by Juan Solanas, is a competent message film that features French actress Carole Boquet. It highlights the very profitable trafficking in children in the poor provinces of northeast Argentina. Children are sold for adoption, sometimes for prostitution, and even for extraction of organs for organ transplants. The story focuses on a French business executive (Boquet) whose eyes are opened as she tries to adopt.
Two major Taiwanese directors had their latest films in the festival. Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud is a bizarre mix of alienation, pornography, and campy musical numbers. The insertion of musical numbers into a downbeat story is reminiscent of Dennis Potter’s film, Pennies from Heaven. In both, there is an effect of psychological dissociation. With Tsai, this is on top of his usual deadpan humor in showing the behavior of lost souls. For this film, Tsai ups the ante with disturbing scenes of degradation that are likely to stick in the mind. Other Tsai films are among my favorites, but the new one seemed to misfire. Even Tsai’s favorite actor and alter ego, Lee Hang-sheng, was less compelling than usual, though still game for anything.
Hou Hsiou-Hsien’s latest film is Three Times, a series of love stories using the same pair of (very good, very attractive) actors. The stories are set in Taiwan in 1966, 1911, and 2005. So much changed over this span that the stories seem to be set in three different worlds. I found the film absorbing even though I felt distanced from the characters and slightly impatient with the pacing. The 1911 section recalls the director's extraordinary film, Flowers of Shanghai.
By far the happiest film in my list was Carlos Saura’s dance performance documentary, Iberia. It went by in a flash. Maybe we should all take lessons: people look 50% more attractive the moment they begin a Spanish dance.
Each time I attend the festival, I look for zeitgeist moments: convergences of motifs or techniques or themes in films from different countries. This year half a dozen films developed complex situations in which, at the end, the characters and the audience were left hanging. Seems right for the times.