The Future Is Now 

The San Francisco International Film Festival goes high-tech and people-friendly.

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.

Austrian Michael Glawogger has made a name for himself with disparaging antiglobalization documentaries like Megacities. Workingman's Death finds him in true form, as he takes a world tour of miserable occupations in terrible places — his ode to manual laborers. The outdoor Nigerian abattoir, with its screaming animals and rivers of blood, is sure to get the most notoriety, but for sheer futility the Ukrainian coal miners, who work abandoned mines illegally for subsistence fuel ("If you don't work, you freeze to death, and that's that"), take the Koyaanisqatsi prize.

The PFA played a role in reviving the reputation of director Seijun Suzuki and his heavily stylized yakuza gangster pics of the '60s, but the hard-to-pigeonhole filmmaker's latest effort is a puzzler, even by his wacky standards. Princess Raccoon takes off from the Japanese animistic worship of forest creatures, especially the raccoon-like tanuki, into a multiculti mishmash of a fairy tale about an exiled prince who falls in love with just such a forest spirit. The antirealistic stage sets and choreographed production pieces that used to pop up unexpectedly in such Suzuki films as Tokyo Drifter here take over the entire narrative, with mixed results. The 2005 production, starring Chinese megastar Zhang Ziyi as the princess and Joe Odagiri as the smitten prince, runs its cultural blender on "Liquefy" — a hip-hop number, Zhang's Mandarin dialogue (she's from Cathay), a ska finale of "Rudie's Calypso," a golden frog, currents of Portuguese Roman Catholicism, and the grand appearance of the goddess Kannon (aka Kwan Yin), who causes the flowers to bloom. At age 82, Suzuki is friskier than ever.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is a straightforward documentary chronicle of a polarizing San Francisco figure, populist preacher Jim Jones, whom most people remember as the man who led a flock of gullible people to their deaths by poisoned Kool-Aid in Guyana. The full story is even worse. Jones, an Indiana-bred religious hustler who snowed politicians in the far-out SF '70s (Willie Brown is shown praising him) and mesmerized ordinary working folk at his Peoples Temple on Geary Boulevard, is shown to have delighted in humiliating and sexually dominating his followers. Not to mention leading them to death. As one of the survivors testifies: "Everything was plausible, except in retrospect the whole thing seems absolutely bizarre." Amen.

Also playing at the PFA is Wide Awake, the new film by SFIFF favorite Alan Berliner. He has trouble falling asleep, and so conducts his own typically humorous documentary investigation into insomnia ("I can't believe I forgot how to sleep"). Along the way we learn that Berliner compulsively catalogues images and sound effects, and that while lying awake at night with his digital camera, even his sleeping, pregnant wife is fair game. One of the fest's most energetic misfires is director Tsai Ming-liang's Wayward Cloud, a slice of semi-porno, artsy-fartsy sci-fi about the emotional life of Taipei during a water shortage, filled with over-the-top (they hope) musical interludes and silly songs about watermelons. People spend a lot of time lying around with their legs open. In fact, as in Tsai's Goodbye, Dragon Inn, people spend a long, long time doing just about everything from walking down a street to giving a blowjob. The dour French Algerian war drama Betrayal (directed by Philippe Faucon) may be worth a look for audiences curious about the plight of the harki, Algerians who fought for the French colonists against their own people. Meanwhile, Gabrielle, director Patrice Chéreau's French adaptation of a Joseph Conrad short story about a rich man's wife (Isabelle Huppert, in typical crisis mode) who leaves him, then returns home after changing her mind, is something to admire rather than to savor, because it would be savoring bitterness.

Of the films playing only San Francisco, a few stand out above the village pictures and coffeetable films — two categories in scarce supply this year, praise Allah. The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, distributed by Film Movement, is a surefire winner, the ingratiatingly gritty story of a twelve-year-old gay boy living in the slums of Manila, whose crush on a local policeman creates trouble with young Maxi's family of petty criminals. In most other movies about young gays, being gay is the only thing the movie is about. Here, Maxi's gayness is presented as a given. In his tough neighborhood he's treated naturally as one of the regulars — to a degree. Kudos to director Auraeus Solito, screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto, and first-time actor Nathan Lopez.

Also worth shouting about: Backstage, a story about guileless love and devotion in the person of a teenage girl (played with terrifying intensity by Isild Le Besco) infatuated with an equally fragile pop-singer idol (Emmanuelle Seigner, revealing herself in careful layers). Director Emmanuelle Bercot's showbiz drama riffs on All About Eve — with a little sex. Check the provocative American Blackout, an attack documentary by Berkeley director Ian Inaba and his Guerrilla News Network, about the systematic (he claims) disenfranchisement of African Americans from the 2000 presidential election onward. Definitely disrecommended: Koji Wakamatsu's formalist bore Cycling Chronicles: Landscapes the Boy Saw, in which a young man travels the length and breadth of Japan on a bicycle in search of a plot.

What film festival would be complete without a "nutty Europe" travelogue? Czech director Aleksandr Manic's The Shutka Book of Records takes us deep into the Rom (aka Gypsy) heartland of Shutka, Macedonia — where Tony Gatlif and Emir Kusturica surely fear to tread — and introduces us to ... well, the introductions never stop. Jashar the Dervish, who knows "genies, Satan's Army, made of fire." Uncle Suljo the vampire hunter. Ali Bajram the singer, favorite of Shutka's many Balkan war refugees. Muzo the cobbler, a video pirate. Elvis the butcher. Uncle Jasher the collector of Turkish music tapes. Alfonso the 75-year-old lover and his wife Kassandra. Pipsqueak the hard-luck boxer. Jadigar the goose fighter. Zedo the grave cleaner. Uncle Refet, champion of champions. And everyone's favorite, Dr. Koljo: "We Roma don't need our own state, we have the whole planet." The whole planet is yours, too. SFFS.org

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