2003 San Francisco International Film Festival Report

by Eleanor M. Farrell

Some brief comments on the films I managed to see at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival (April 17 - May 1, 2003). As usual, I opted for the Asian offerings, which were neither as extensive nor as good as last year's selections. Nevertheless, I was able to see some films that may not get a U.S. theatrical release, at least in their original language and without Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise:

Hong Kong, 2002
Directed by Corey Yuen
What fun! I want to be a deadly chick assassin with great clothes when I grow up (except that, being rather short, I'm not sure I could handle the 4-1/2 inch heels). Director Corey Yuen's "babes and bullets" offering was a perfect midnight movie and the crowd had a blast. Of course the plot is completely ludicrous but the action scenes were well done, with good acting from all three leads (Shu Qi, Karen Mok and Zhao Wei). I do have one question, though: WHY was this movie filmed in Mandarin (or did we get a mutant version for our screening)? For a kick-ass HK action flick, somehow that's just WRONG ....
Thailand, 2002
Directed by Chatrichalerm Yukol
Queen Suriyothai, who sacrificed her life in 1548 in battle against Burmese invaders, is one of Thailand's great legendary heroes. This breakthrough epic production from Thailand, researched and filmed with supportive funding from the Thai royal family, is absolutely visually stunning in its recreation of historical splendor, court intrigue, and spectacular battle scenes. Prince Yukol was at the Castro Theatre screening and gave a brief and charmingly modest introduction as well as a Q&A session afterwards in which, among other comments, he lamented the difficulties of finding suitable elephants for the film. Well worth searching out, especially on the big screen!

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the City ...

Hong Kong, 2001
Directed by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai
One of the older SF United Artist multiplexes has inexplicably been picking up obscure independent and foreign films, and you have to be very alert to catch these as the publicity is nil. I hadn't watched this 2001 film on video yet, so dashed to the theater for a matinee (with one other person in the audience). The plot is completely, and more or less deliberately, preposterous but by mid-film I was caught up and quite entertained. Takashi Sorimachi was appealing as O, a rival assassin Andy Lau's character Tok is obsessed with besting. I did find it pretty amusing to watch Lau literally foaming at the mouth, as he frequently does this in a more figurative manner. Kinda bizarre deus ex machina, though....

Back to the festival:

Hong Kong, 2002
Directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak
Whew! Expectations satisfied; the hype was beginning to worry me. I'm sure all HK film fans are already familiar with the plot: undercover cop Tony Leung Chui-wai and triad mole Andy Lau caught in a race to unmask each other as all hell breaks loose around them. An all-round excellent cast (especially Leung, who just gets better and better) compliments a very smart, tight script, great production values and a noir edginess surpassing most recent HK cop/triad confrontation films. A terrific ride!

Here's a little success story note for other Asian film fanatics introducing their friends, family, or complete strangers met on a bus to the genre. I brought a friend visiting from the East Coast with me to the Infernal Affairs screening, figuring that dinner in Japantown and a Friday night movie featuring cute guys would work even for the uninitiated. Said friend had seen and liked Crouching Tiger so I chose Bride with White Hair on DVD as a warm-up the night before. She loved IA (and Bride) and wanted more. I would have shown her A Better Tomorrow except for some expressed blood squeamishness; opted for Chinese Ghost Story instead, as starting with the classics is never a bad idea. Now she wants to know which online retailers to use for buying HK movies.....

Hong Kong/Thailand/United Kingdom, 2002
Directed by Danny Pang and Oxide Pang
Yes, I heard the expected murmurings that The Eye was influenced by any number of other recent supernatural/horror films, but frankly, it's impossible for ANY new spooky thriller to avoid the Sixth Sense comparison. At any rate, the Pang Brothers served up an excellent multi-course banquet of creepy scares, emotional anguish, plot twists and a little dollop of apocalypse to round things off. Lin Sin-je is terrific as a blind woman whose cornea transplants generate a few tiny little side effects.
Taiwan, 2002
Directed by Chen Kuo-fu
Maybe seeing The Eye earlier in the day raised false hopes, or at least made me expect this film to have some more solid connection with "seeing" the supernatural. Whatever. Although production values were good and there were some excellent (though often graphic) scenes, the plot was chock full of holes. (Tall) Tony Leung Ka-fai did a fine job (I sometimes get annoyed with his acting) as a distraught cop, and David Morse wasn't bad as his imported FBI partner. But this was so much like an X Files episode (a l-o-o-n-g X Files episode...) that I kept waiting for Fox Mulder to show up and straighten everybody out -- he wouldn't have fallen for that "case is closed" crap, and neither did I.

China/South Korea, 2002
Directed by Liu Bingjian
I was completely unfamiliar with this director's work but found the premise of this tale about a money-desperate woman who hires herself out to cry at funerals interesting enough to check it out. Many cultures have professional mourners, but if the depiction in this film is anywhere near accurate, the Chinese customs are really weird. Liu evidently likes to create "slice of life" movies with amateur actors and a semi-documentary feel in order to examine the struggles of ordinary people with offbeat talents. Cry Woman had a quiet charm that juxtaposed humor with sly social commentary.

I went to my first SFIFF screening on April 28th, 1991, intrigued by the brochure description (who could resist the promise of sword surfing?!), and was part of a packed house viewing A Chinese Ghost Story 2. A few days later, I caught a double feature of CGS 1 and 2 at a local rep house. I was completely charmed -- by the wild originality of the characters, the sheer energy of the production, the acres of billowing silk, the enthusiastic application of slime -- but most of all I was charmed by the naive protagonist who was willing to literally go to hell for love. My continuing appreciation for and love of Asian film is indelibly linked to the CGS films and to Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing's always passionate performances in many of the best Hong Kong offerings of the past two decades. Thanks, Leslie. Rest in peace.

This article was originally published as a post on the Mobius: Asian Cinema Discussion board.

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