Sunday, April 29, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction: 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival (Part 4)

How Is Your Fish Today? (2006, Dir. Xiaolu Guo)

"I think it must be nice because that's how I imagine it."
-- Tourist interviewed on train to Mohe

What do you do when you set out to make a documentary about a town that has a lot of romantic lore associated with it, and find out that the town isn't really all that? That's what confronted the director of this movie, and How Is Your Fish Today? is her response.

The town in question is Mohe, the northernmost village in China and supposedly the best place in the country to catch the Northern Lights. The film starts with random interviews of passengers on the train to Mohe, and their thoughts on traveling to this near-sacred location. And then fiction enters the fray -- we are introduced to Rao Hui, a struggling soap opera screenwriter in Beijing who is trying to jump-start his career with something, anything fresh. Spending aimless days at home with his goldfish "Belle du Jour" (he's a sucker for European New Wave), he hits on the story of a young escaped murderer named Lin Hao, and his protracted journey to Mohe. And so it goes for the rest of the film -- straight documentary material about Mohe juxtaposed with the story of Lin Hao, much of it told with voice-over narration and saturated still photographs, like Chris Marker's film La Jetee (the original inspiration for Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys).

Unfortunately, I missed the screening that included a Q&A with Guo Xiaolu, the film's director; I would have liked to have asked her what the principal thrust of the narrative is. The fictionalized story of Lin Hao takes some interesting detours, including an interlude in a basement hostel in Wuhan where he meets a chatty salesman, and a tryst with a woman who offers him shelter in Beijing, but soon this plot within the plot is divorced from motive and motivation. The character of the screenwriter Rao Hui receives a bit more development -- it's clear he's tired of the city life and looks to the stories of Mohe, and Lin Hao, as some sort of enactment of his vicarious dreams. Still, all this feels like padding, a feint to draw our attention away from the flimsiness of the central documentary.

But the funny thing is that the best aspect of the film is the straight documentary footage of Mohe. It isn't anyone's idea of a postcard village, and yet the daily routines there have an undeniable charm -- the social gatherings at the local church, the easy banter between a husband and wife as he devours fish at the dinner table and she just watches, the radiant glow of a stove at night (the only "Northern Lights" the director witnessed, apparently), the catching of fish in a frozen lake. In the end, Rao Hui is somber, his illusions about this magical place shattered, as he literally abandons his character Lin Hao in the snowy wilds: "All that remains is this naked icy landscape. But I needed to come here to see that there's nothing to see. Now I feel peaceful." Maybe his comment is commentary on the jaded urbanite's need to believe in the healing powers of nature and good old-fashioned rural living, and all those other cliches, but even though the film is artfully shot on DV and deserves points for its unusual approach, it still strikes me as the plaint of a director who is disappointed that her film subject wasn't all that.

This Woman's Work: 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival (Part 3)

A Few Days Later... (2006, Dir. Niki Karimi)

This is my lifetime's work.
-- Female author, A Few Days Later...

It's been about a decade since Abbas Kiarostami put Iran cinema on the world map with his "earthquake" trilogy and A Taste of Cherry, and it's interesting to see how much things have changed and stayed the same with this film, which stars and is directed by Niki Karimi, who was an assistant director to Kiarostami on some of his later projects. It starts off as a Kiarostami film might -- a car driving on a lonely mountain road at night. In the car is Shahrzad (Karimi), who receives a cryptic message from a man on her phone, and then without further explanation, it is the next morning, and we follow Shahrzad to her job as a modern-day graphic designer in Tehran. Her first assignment of the day is to design the cover for a famous female author's collected writings; even though we never see the author again, her plea for Shahrzad to do a good job, as the book is her "lifetime's work," are a hint to the direction this film will take.

Shahrzad's own work is never done, it turns out. At first she seems confident, self-possessed, secure, but as the film proceeds we come to understand her problems, as she's burdened by a mix of old-world and new-world concerns: a sick father who needs her attention, a handicapped son who is about to get kicked out of a day care center because he's too "old," an estranged husband (the mysterious voice on the answering machine) who is desperate for a reconciliation, a male boss and picky clients who doesn't appreciate her efforts, builders who are taking way too long to renovate her home, an annoying neighbor who keeps parking in her space with his SUV...

This is a feminine, and feminist movie -- men are mostly absent, and the ones who are present tend to be bossy, annoying, or ailing. But even as Shahrzad tries her best to forget her everyday pressures with the help of a photographer girlfriend, it's clear that the perpetual frown on her face is her response to being forced to make her way in a patriarchal society. While cars in Kiarostami films symbolize freedom, connection with others, and the bridging of gaps, here they're just brief respites, as the only times Shahrzad can even try to relax are when she's making the long lonely commute home from work, or when she's driving with her girlfriend to the sounds of the latest Iranian pop song...and even then she remains somber, exhausted, her misery only slightly alleviated.

So a feel-good movie this ain't, but it's no weepie, either -- it's just a bracing, cool, rueful look at women's lot in the modern world, and well done. Very well photographed, too: this is a modern Tehran we haven't seen in many movies, a collision of lighted superhighways at night and dusty mountain roads, high-tech marketing billboards and run-down hospital buildings. But it all starts and ends with Karimi, who turns out to be quite an actress for a director -- her character's range of expression is limited, but within that range we read uncertainty, rage, resignation, despair. The movie ends with a close-up on her stunned face, a storm on the way, and it suggests that what we've seen is just a prelude; the real story will happen when she decides how she confronts her predicaments. It's a nice analogue for Iranian cinema, and its unknown roads ahead as the country continues to modernize.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Family Man: 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival (Part 2)

Colossal Youth (2006, Dir. Pedro Costa)

"When they give us white rooms, we'll stop seeing these things."
-- Ventura, Colossal Youth

Sometimes I find that the more I get into a film, the less notes I take while I'm watching it -- I'm just caught up in the experience. And then there's a film like Colossal Youth, which is mundo colossal in its runtime (over two and a half hours), and I find I have pages and pages of scribbles that desperately try to make sense of what was onscreen. I saw this one in the early afternoon, and good thing too, because we probably wouldn't have made it through otherwise. "Endurance test" might not be the right phrase, but it's close.

This is apparently the third in a trilogy of movies that take place in a run-down housing district in Lisbon, where society's unwanted and refugees from Cape Verde hang out. All the "actors" are real people, and their stories are real, but this isn't a documentary -- it's more like a collection of random scenes from their daily lives as the world around them changes. Mostly the focus is on an older man named Ventura who ambles back and forth between the tenements and the new, clean, sterile projects the residents are being moved into. Ventura plays "father" to the motley crew who populate the slum, and nearly every scene is organized the same way: Ventura pops in on an old friend, the friend updates Ventura on his or her life with a lengthy monologue that somehow walks the line between naturalistic conversation and stagey soliloquy, further pleasantries are exchanged, and at a seemingly arbitrary point, the scene ends.

Sometimes the scenes take on a theatrical intensity -- a striking nighttime tableau at the film's beginning sees Ventura's wife leaving him, and the camera lingers on the enraged woman, holding up a kitchen knife to fend off the unseen Ventura, her complaints about his unsuitability as a man reverberating like a litany. Other memorable bits involve Vanda, a woman who's recovering from drug addiction and trying to raise her daughter Bete, and a younger worker who's forever composing/reciting a love letter to his estranged wife that morphs with each recitation.

I'm tempted to say this might make more sense if you've seen the first two films, but somehow I doubt it. The intensity level stays about the same throughout (that is, pretty meditative and not much more), and what little plot there is comes from the movement of the slum's residents to the new homes, but there seem to be some tricks in time going on here -- one scene Ventura has a bandage on his head from an unexplained injury, and that next appears to take place some time before or after. I will say, though, that the mood of the film sticks with you -- the cinematography has a casual artiness to it, contrasting the closed-off spaces of the new apartments (there's much ado about doors swinging closed) with the more homey, open-air squalor of the old digs, and director Pedro Costa has much respect and empathy for his subjects. I can see this film being best experienced piece by piece, over a period of several days, each individual scene given enough space to sink in.

I saw this movie at the Sundance Kabuki, and in a weird little bit of synchronicity, I could hear construction crews sawing and hammering away in the next theater while this film unfolded -- for a long time I thought the noises were coming from the movie itself. It seems fitting, since this is a film about lives in construction, or demolition, a workbook kind of story.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Art of Alchemy: 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival (Part 1)

The tone was set as I stood in line for my first viewing of the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival at the Museum of Modern Art: A middle-aged couple standing behind me were grumbling about the design of the interior of the museum, which was, in the words of the man, a "fucking shoebox." Later I would find out that the man was an architect, and as I filed into the theater, noticing the grizzled, onery oldsters in the crowd, I mused once again about how you can tell what the subject of a film will be, based on the audience.

I've always been ambivalent about film festivals, and the ambivalence comes through loud and clear when it comes to the SF International Film Festival. It's an indispensible event for anyone who loves film, even in this media-savvy age where movies can be downloaded at a drop of a hat -- at its best, it's like a friend tapping you on the shoulder and whispering, Hey have you heard about this film?

On the other hand, there's always a whiff of self-congratulation about festivals like these, that those faces in the crowd are people who "wouldn't be caught dead" watching a film at the local cineplex. It's the same feeling one gets when a snooty waiter at the local high-class restaurant looks you up and down when you enter: Are you worthy of this feast? Surely you recognize quality when you see it ...

In the end, movies are a personal communion -- sure we might laugh and cheer and get caught up with the audience reactions, but it's only the recollection of the event, the post-mortem over a beer at the local beer or a sudden memory of the film days or months later, that seals our opinions of it. So setting aside the accoutrements, the hype, and the black-tie element to the festival, what's left are the films.

Murch (2006, Dir. Edie & David Ichioka)

"Every film we make is a foreign language we need to learn."
-- Walter Murch

It was fitting that I kicked off my participation in this year's festival with this documentary, as it reminds us that the Bay Area was the locus for some pretty amazing films in the '70s that basically changed mainstream cinema as we know it.

The film is a simple sit-down conversation with editor Walter Murch, the man responsible for cutting and pasting Francis Ford Coppola's classics, and more recently, Anthony Minghella's films. Shot by former assistant Edie Ichioka, with cutesy little editing flourishes (jittery cuts between thoughts, ambient noise for when he's referencing certain sound effects like a helicopter or an overhead train, floating heads of directors and producers sitting on his shoulder), it's basically a master seminar on editing (and indeed, most of it seems to come from Murch's editing seminars, the material of which can also be found in his book In the Blink of an Eye). His personality is a bit on the dry side, but he's articulate and insightful about the process, which is a mix of steady calculation (among his many metaphors is the film as a body which "accepts or rejects" what you're doing to it), alchemy (layering random musical layers for the infamous "horse head" scene in The Godfather), and pure serendipity (the accidental superimposition of Hungarian folk chants and Bach's Goldberg variations for the finale of The English Patient).

In addition to the basic editing principles (cutting to visuals before shaping the sound, finding the film's internal rhythm, the inertia of motion carrying over from cut to cut, what it means when an actor blinks), Murch gets the point across that editing is less about chopping visual images together than it is about shaping the entire film experience, facilitating, translating. Sound is how Murch came to editing -- he had a childhood fascination with tape recorders, and it merged with his subsequent editing career. Even though he's from the older generation, he's well up on today's computer-aided editing methods and approves of them -- in the Q&A after the film he said that it's easier than ever to have everyone involved in the editing of a film because of today's tools. When asked about the frenzied editing in today's action films he had a very specific answer: no more than 14 setups for each minute of an action scene. He also notes the influence of commercials and short-attention span TV on today's feature films (for that reason, he doesn't have broadcast TV at home). Finally, he had some good advice for those aspiring filmmakers and artists in the audience, lifted from Leonard Bernstein: "The only two things you need for a project are a plan, and not quite enough time."

The film Murch is just a brief survey of his methods, but in its breadth it's very entertaining, and I recommend it for anyone who has any interest in the art of editing, and as a glimpse into cinema history. You certainly won't watch Willem Dafoe's thumbs getting cut off in The English Patient or the opening firestorm of Apocalypse Now in the same way ever again.