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Anyone who has been to Tokyo can tell you that the city is infested with large, often aggressive crows. Their cawing can be heard everywhere. In Tokyo Waka, documentarians John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson dig deeper into the subject. For instance, they identify the big black birds as a species of jungle crow that migrated from Southeast Asia. But Haptas and Samuelson's delightfully organic feature then broadens out into a tone poem (the title translates as "Tokyo poem") in the tradition of Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, with the crows counterbalanced by such urban phenomena as flash mobs, homeless encampments, a Buddhist monk who views garbage as "the ruins of desire," Tokyo's grandiose architecture, and the city's cultural setting. All travelogues should be so insightful. Tokyo Waka screens at the PFA on April 22.
Old Britt is so bent over she looks like a character in a perversely quiet horror movie as she carefully tends her herd. She broke her back and pelvis years ago in a run-in with one of her bovine charges, but that doesn't stop her from her daily duties of milking and feeding. Neither does the fact that her little dairy farm, which sells its milk to the local cooperative, loses money every year. The farm is Britt's love, and her sister Inger, who lives in town and visits Britt regularly to offer help, understands, even though she's trying in vain to talk Britt into retiring. That's the setting of Peter Gerdehag's documentary Women with Cows (aka Kokvinnorna), one of the most charming films in this year's fest. It's the sort of movie we usually only get to see at an international film festival. Two elderly women bickering and eating their lunch on a broken-down farm in Sweden — who would ever buy a multiplex ticket to see that? And yet we find ourselves glued to these two sisters and vitally interested in their welfare. A better reason to hold a film festival in the first place, we'll never find. See it April 23 at the PFA.
Playing at the PFA (April 25) and well worth seeing for anyone interested in the exciting South Korean film scene is Hong Sangsoo's The Day He Arrives, a deliberately elliptical drama about a has-been filmmaker (played by actor Yu Junsang) trying with difficulty to pick up the threads of his career and his social life on a series of wintry days in Seoul. As he makes the rounds, chatting with colleagues over endless rounds of soju, our protagonist grows a little hazy and so does the film itself — the action begins to loop, with slight variations. Writer-director Hong is eager to challenge us as he manipulates the fragile lead character. A grown-up film for grown-ups unafraid of subtitles and subtleties.
Also at the PFA: Back to Stay, a drama of the slacker life in modern Buenos Aires by director Milagros Mumenthaler (April 28); the French foodie doc Step Up to the Plate, about famed chef Michel Bras and his rural temple of gastronomy in the South of France (April 29); Musa Syeed's Valley of Saints, an oblique love story set on Lake Dal in Kashmir (April 22); Patience (After Sebald), a deep-dish documentary literary investigation of novelist W.G. Sebald's book The Rings of Saturn (April 27); and Crulic: The Path to Beyond, the intriguingly animated story of a character named Claudiu Crulic and how he came to a bad end in Poland. Anca Damian's combo of drawing, montage, stop-motion, and watercolor is something to see, April 26.
In the same comforting vein as Women with Cows is Meanwhile in Mamelodi, director Benjamin Kahlmeyer's cozy documentary portrait of the Mtsweni family of Mamelodi township outside Pretoria, South Africa. Easy-going, easy-smiling Steven Mtsweni owns and operates a general store, and the hot topic is the 2010 World Cup Soccer competition, happening all around them and yet reachable only on TV. Again, seemingly simple lives with a gentle unifying thread of togetherness, and one of the 2012 SFIFF's hidden treasures. May 3 at the PFA.
The festival opens Thursday, April 19, at the Castro (7 p.m.) with Benoît Jacquot's costume drama of the French Revolution, Farewell, My Queen. For up-to-date festival info including showtimes, visit: SFFS.org or BAMPFA.berkeley.edu
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