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Asian Holiday: The 2002 San Francisco International Film Festival

During its most recent two weeks of cinematic bliss, the San Francisco International Film Festival continues to stand as both a contemporary exploration of world cinema, showcasing the still-vigorous spirit of independent filmmaking at its finest.

Mixing together mainstream fodder, niche genres, and grungy digital video works, the festival ran the gauntlet from challenging works – like Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer – to derivative nonsense – like Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending.

SFIFF 45 featured more than 180 films from countries such as the Czech Republic, Chile, Japan, Brazil, France, Germany, Sweden, and even Uruguay. With plenty of stargazing opportunities — Warren Beatty, Kevin Spacey, Mira Sorvino, and even George Hamilton — San Francisco’s prestigious fest reiterates its importance as a world film event.

And here’s what we saw:

Norway’s brilliant Best Foreign Oscar 2001 entry Elling () is surprisingly adept in its handling of mental illness and the limitless powers of self-esteem. The film is at times a disturbing and delightful foray into the lives of two recently released mental patients attempting to fold back into the general populace. It’s an entertaining romp that transcends language and cultural borders, with standout performances from Per Christian Ellefsen and Sven Nordin – the Lenny and George of Norwegian mental institutions. The film lends a whole slew of comic twists and turns at every point and expertly avoids the ‘miserabilism’ expected of European cinema.

After watching the most excellent documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys (), I broke out my surfboard after a year of gathering dust and hit the beach the next day to relive the glories of my youth. Expertly directed by one of the Z-Boy’s alumnus Stacy Peralta, the film combines stock footage, personal home movies, still photography, and a strong narration voiced by Sean Penn into a high-octane crash course of the dog days of skateboarding and extreme sports. Highly recommended.

The latest entry in the John Woo club belongs to Oxide Pang. His feature film debut last year, Bangkok Dangerous, was a strange mix of inventive visuals and wacked-out characters, but lacked punch in the story department. His latest film, One Take Only (), proves his incredible ability to produce excellent action sequences and visuals but loses focus once again during the tale of a small-time drug dealer and a prostitute living dangerously on the crazed streets of Bangkok.

Issues of race and conformity are heady elements rarely seen in Asian films. Isao Yukisada’s Go () blasts the closed doors off of Japan’s silent racist conformity in the coming-of-age tale of Sugihara – a Korean born in the land of the rising sun. Faced with the contemporary issues of every teenager, amplified with his status as a zainichi (resident-in-Japan), Sugihara faces the turmoil of love’s first bite with a Japanese girl, his overburdening father forcing him into a life of a boxer, and the constants torments of fellow students… all leading to violent acts of frustration. The film runs head first into the issues of discrimination and ironically centers on the issues of everyone’s existence in a cold, cruel world.

Johnny To’s latest hyper-kinetic tale of assassin vs. assassin, Fulltime Killer (), is a rock-solid example of how an action movie should be executed. Starring Andy Lau and Takashi Sorimachi as dueling gunfighters vying for the title of Number One Killer, the film recalls the great works of Peckinpah and Fuller funneled through a kaleidoscope of feverish visuals and gravity-defining camerawork.

The strange and slightly off-kilter tribute band documentary – aptly titled Tribute () – starts off like a hokey Behind The Music knockoff and ends up as sadistically satisfying as watching Puck get kicked off The Real World. It’s an expansive project detailing the ups and downs of a variety of tribute bands, including their rivalries and the dangerous power of the Gene Simmons persona. Rich Fox and Kris Curry – the curators of this decadent rock biopic – stand tall in DIY independent filmmaking by handling sound, camerawork, and even their life savings to bring to life the unknown trials and tribulations of the musically insecure.

We’re all going to hell, one way or another – just like Curtis Mayfield sang in the 1970 hit song. Proof lies in the clever digital video documentary detailing neo-crazed Pentecostals in Texas and their infamous Halloween haunted house, fittingly named Hell House (). Trinity Church’s annual collection of stereotypical Punch and Judy morality tales has drawn both the faithful and the faithless into its coven of sin and to the salvation of one’s soul by holy redemption. The film follows the relentless Trinity Church congregation as it conceives and builds its depiction of the world around us – complete with the death of a homosexual with AIDS, drunk driving, classroom suicides, raver date rapes, and domestic violence – and the salvation that come with the acceptance of good ol’ Jesus Christ into your heart, mind, and wallet.

A celluloid masterpiece of asphyxiating bloodbaths incorporating Yakuza vengeance and the gentle art of torture, Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer () was the best experience of the festival. Part of the festival’s outstanding midnight movie collection, Ichi the Killer is a complex tale of an emotionally manipulated man-child named Ichi, innocently engaged as the ruthless, bloody knight on a chessboard of Japanese Mafia power struggles. Its stomach-churning moments of mayhem will make even the most callous among you cringe in disgust.

A painful Korean torch song of love’s rise and ultimate fall, set
against the changing seasons, One Fine Spring Day () reminds me of how powerful and uplifting love can be and how despairing and ridiculous it will make you in the end. Using a simple story based up the changing seasonal patterns of the year, director Jin-ho Hur develops emotional bonds between the characters and the audience with soft, steady camerawork which feels unobtrusive and deliberate. The quiet, poignant moments between the two main characters Eun-su (Yeong-ae Lee) and Sang-woo (Ji-tae Yu) as they ease into love’s bliss — and the painful retraction that ultimately follows — stands in direct contrast to the predictable handling to which American audiences have become accustomed. It’s one of the best love stories ever printed on celluloid.

Two of the major films of the festival – Mira Sorvino’s Triumph of Love () and Woody Allen’s unfunny Hollywood Ending () – represented the dregs of cinema. Cheap and trashy, both films were anticlimactic elements of an otherwise engaging and challenging collection of movies from around the globe.

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