Welcome to the film festival of the future. Gone are the days when a determined band of foreign-movie lovers would huddle in a cramped university lecture hall, sipping espresso and scrutinizing documentaries on clandestine coal miners in Ukraine. Oh, fest audiences are still watching Ukrainian coal mining docs (see below), but just about everything else in the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival is technologically up to date, widely dispersed thematically as well as geographically, and marketed up the wazoo.
The SF festival's 227 films (97 features, 130 shorts) are being screened not only at the usual big venues (the soon-to-be-Sundance Kabuki and the Castro in SF, Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, and Palo Alto's Aquarius) but in such unlikely places as the Edinburgh Castle pub and a fire station at 19th and Folsom streets the better to reach out and grab audiences where they live. The San Francisco Film Society, which presents the festival, recently launched its own blog, SF360.org, to keep tabs on the local film scene. The fest's opening night film, Perhaps Love, a Hong Kong musical starring Canto-pop singer Jacky Cheung, is being introduced by no less than two mayors: SF's Gavin Newsom and Bertrand Delanoe of Paris (no doubt happy to escape his city's riots). And happily, new SFFS executive director Graham Leggat and his staff have solved the fest's age-old dilemma of street cred vs. Hollywood glitz by booking a roster of guests and honorees no one could be ashamed of, including actors Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, Lily Tomlin, and Emmanuelle Seigner; and filmmakers Werner Herzog (showing his new one, The Wild Blue Yonder), Guy Maddin, Jean-Claude Carrière (writer of Belle de Jour), John Turturro, and Terry Zwigoff.
The Film Society also is going out of its way to spotlight crossover programming aimed at the tech-savvy, with festival slots for mashups (the interactive International ReMix feature on SFFS.org), new technologies (the KinoTek programs), and a series of SF360 panels on new media. But they're not forgetting the oldies. Rudolph Valentino's The Eagle (1927) plays the Castro, as does a rare print of Harry Smith's 1962 avant-garde item Heaven and Earth Magic, with a live score performed by Deerhoof. Then there are the ever-popular Late Show screenings at the Kabuki, in recent years a showcase for J-horror and other cult oddities, the movies too grisly or sleazy for the wine and cheese crowd. The highlight of this year's Late Shows (Saturday, April 22, 11:15 p.m.) has to be Mitsuru Meike's sex farce, The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai.
The 2004 Japanese production, a latter-day example of the pinku genre of softcore porno (Japanese title: Horny Home Tutor: Teacher's Love Juice), has a tantalizingly crazy premise in the story of Sachiko, an outcall hooker who specializes in "tutoring" naughty "schoolboys." While relaxing in a fast-food restaurant between dates, Sachiko (played by the buxotic Emi Kuroda) accidentally gets shot in the head by a gangster/spy. In most movies that would curtail her career, but in this one it only makes her susceptible to fantastic visions. Further, during the shootout a mysterious metal tube gets misplaced into Sachiko's purse. It contains a clone of the finger of George W. Bush the perfect McGuffin, since anyone who has the finger can fire nuclear missiles activated by the right fingerprint. And so poor Sachiko is pursued not only by the spy but by the finger, which has a mind of its own. Guess where that finger wants to go.
But not all is sex and cheap laughs at the fest. The Pacific Film Archive, as usual, is showing a healthy smattering of SFIFF films from April 21 through May 4 (BAMPFA.berkeley.edu). One of the most compelling of those is Swiss documentarian Christian Frei's The Giant Buddhas. This mournful, philosophical doc begins with the destruction by the Taliban in 2001 of the enormous Buddhas carved into a rock cliff in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley along the Silk Road, an act protested by seemingly every political and cultural body in the world. In the process of visiting monks in China and the Hazara people who lived in caves next to the Buddhas, filmmaker Frei asks: "Why do people need a tangible god?" A good question, and one not easily answered by the UN-sponsored commission that arrives to begin rebuilding the gigantic shrine. As Frei points out, it was Buddha who said: Everything changes, nothing remains.
A documentary impulse guides Russian director Alexander (Russian Ark) Sokurov's The Sun, a historical re-creation of what happened behind the scenes of Japanese Emperor Hirohito's surrender to American General Douglas MacArthur at the end of World War II. It seems like a wax museum at first, but as we get into the stately rhythms of Hirohito's existence in a bunker underneath his mansion in Tokyo, we take an odd interest in this quiet man with a twitching mouth (played by Issey Ogata) who spends his time studying marine biological specimens. When Hirohito finally meets MacArthur (Robert Dawson), alone in a room, the American fighting man's attitude is understandably pugnacious. But they do relate to each other in true Sokurov style, awkwardly (MacArthur to his aide: "He's like a child"). The film's most exquisitely life-out-of-whack moment occurs when the emperor, believed by the Japanese to be descended from the sun goddess, tries to leave the room after his first meeting with MacArthur. No one is there to open the door for him, and so for maybe the first time in his life, the sun god has to let himself out of a room.