The Future Is Now 

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

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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.

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