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International title proves itself at Film Fest

By Peter Crimmins, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday April 13, 2002

When the 45th San Francisco International Film Festival comes to the Pacific Film Archive on Friday, April 19, the “international” of the title proves itself. For two weeks the PFA will screen 34 films and 15 shorts from all points of the globe – from Berkeley to France to Senegal to Israel to China, and ports in between. 

East Bay filmmaker Johnny Symon’s “Daddy & Papa” recently was shown in competition at the most recent Sundance film festival. The documentary about gay fathers is a social and personal look at adoption and family values follows a handful of gay couples raising families, one of which is the filmmakers’ own. It screens at the PFA on Friday, April 26. 

Also on the local front is UC Berkeley graduate student Brett Simon’s “Counterfeit Film,” a short film screening as part of a program of shorts called “Memory Arcade” (Tues, April 30) assembled by those champions of film art, the San Francisco Cinematheque. Simon’s hyper-speed meditation on money, film, and Xerox machines ponders the essence of currency and copywrite in an age of video imagery and Kinko’s.  

Most of PFA’s offerings during the SFIFF look abroad, as Martin Scorcese does in “My Voyage To Italy” ((Sun. April 21), an epic 4-hour tour of Marty’s favorite Italian films which promises to be both a love letter and a history lesson from a man who helped change the course of American film history in the 1970’s. Another man who proved himself of giant of film politics and aesthetics, Jean-Luc Godard, has completed a new work, “In Praise Of Love,” which will screen at the PFA on Friday, April 26. The legendary New Wave auteur whom many people think is retired – or dead – returns musing on the past within the present with a story about a film director auditioning an actress he thinks he has met before. 

Opening weekend of the SFIFF at the PFA begins with a carjacking. A Chilean cab driver is accosted by two men with knives and a proposition: “steer or trunk.” The impoverished cabbie in Orlando Lubbert’s tragicomic “Taxi For Three” (Fri. April 19) chooses to drive the petty thieves from felony to felony, allowing his rectitude to be swayed by the lure of easy money in a country where nothing comes easy. After the wise-cracking thug and his illiterate partner move in with the cab driver’s family and get religion, the cabbie demonstrates the depth of his cruel, ingrained desperation. 

Later Friday night following “Taxi For Three” is Taiwanese master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsian’s “Millennium Mambo,” opening with a tracking shot behind young woman walking a fluorescent-lit pedestrian walkway, the slow-motion tracks every bounce of her long black hair. Her story at the end of the millennium is a poem of cigarettes and nightclubs, violently jealousy and everyday banalities. A far cry from the sullen disaffected-youth indie films of America, Hou Hsiao-Hsian continues his aesthetic re-thinking of narrative film with nuanced camerawork and slow editing patiently drawing out the pace of one young woman’s elations and defeats. Determined to end her destructive relationship when her bank account runs out, the young woman moves through a glacial character arc which the film elicits through seemingly inconsequential events. 

No stranger to slow-paced filmmaking, Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda began his feature film career with the interminably paced “Maborosi” (1995) and followed with the comparably bouncy “After Life” (1998) about a country resort between the world of the living and the afterlife where guests must choose one memory to preserve before their spirit becomes a part of the Eternal. In his newest film “Distance” (Sat. April 20) Kore-eda again focuses on questions of spiritual resolution and doubt as a group of people mourn the death of their loved ones three years after an extremist, suicidal religious cult staged a mass killing. 

Earnest but distracted by their busy lives, the small group reluctantly stays the night in the rural cabin where the cult had once resided, recalling the moment their husbands, wives, brothers, etc joined the cult to seek fulfillment and respite from the emptiness of modern living. Trapped in the same place where the killing was incubated, and inevitably drawn to a kind of wilderness soul-searching, the small group eventually faces the enormity of their loved ones’ spiritual convictions and what could have compelled them to an act of horrendous inhumanity. 

The award for It Doesn’t Have To Look Good To Be A Poignant Film would have to go to “Inner Tour” (Sun. April 21), a documentary about a three-day bus tour shot on shaky, hand-held video that earns its place in the festival by being set in Israel. In 2000, Palestinians from West Bank could not go into Israel without jumping through a very difficult set of hoops to get appropriate papers, but they could sign up for an Israeli bus tour and travel through their former homeland as tourists. 

Shooting before the current escalation of violence in Israel, director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, who called himself a “concerned Israeli with leftist leanings,” has created a film sympathetic to Palestinians who find themselves natives in a strange land. These former land- and business-owners begin their bus ride as foreign visitors doing time-honored tourist activities: with cameras and camcorders they take pictures of each other, visit local museums, and hit on pretty Italian women sightseeing at the beach. But many of these people who live about an hour away have never seen the ocean, and the local museum tells the story of how the Jewish kibbutzes vanquished the Arabs in the 1930’s. When we see a man throw a package of photos over a barbed wire fence to his mother on the other side, as she does to him, and when an elderly man stumbles off into the night crying “I don’t want to see, I don’t want to see,” the film achieves its sad irony of displaced people visiting their own past as restricted tourists. 

Following “Inner Tour” the PFA will show another demonstration of shaky, hand-held camera – but this time as an aesthetic decision – in the realistic fiction from China “Go For Broke.” Using non-actors and a 12-day, “one-take” shooting schedule, director Wang Guangi tells the story of a group of recently laid-off employees who strike out on their own with a remodeling business. The lottery figure largely among these people caught in financial turbulence when Chinese fatalism, luck, and their socialist tradition move into a capitalist system.  

The amateur cast (speaking in brief interviews during the end credit scroll) had all had first-hand experience with being laid off, which Guangi wanted to take advantage of to get closer to truth. Their at times stilted performances are peppered with fortune cookie maxims like “Fortune comes to those who work hard,” and ‘Money lost [to gambling] is spent in vain, money won doesn’t bring happiness.” Nevertheless, the lottery becomes a pivotal device in their fortunes, and their success in business becomes dependant on luck with the numbers. 

Screenings of films from the SFIFF continue at the PFA until Thursday, May 2. Complete screening information can be found at or at the PFA website