Monday, May 5, 2008

Jason goes to SFIFF--day 11

Okay, 5 more movies last Sunday, so let's jump right in.

First up was the special SFFS members screening. This is an annual tradition, where they don't tell us what they'll screen, you just have to show up at 10 am (after seeing the late show the night before) and guess as Graham Leggat gives you clues. Finally we learned the movie was the Scottish psycho-sexual comedy "Hallam Foe" (retitled "Mr. Foe" in America). Hallam (Jamie Bell) is a young man whose mother died just about a year ago. Now his father has married his secretary (Claire Forlani) and Hallam has retreated to his treehouse where he spies on people and has become quite an accomplished (and obsessive) peeping tom. He suspects his stepmother of murdering his mom--and in his defense she is a sexually manipulative bitch. After an incident (I'm trying to avoid spoilers) he runs away to the city, spies a young woman(Sophia Myles) who looks amazingly like his mother. He follows her and gets a job at the hotel where she works--she's in HR, he starts at the bottom as a kitchen porter. He simultaneously spies on her (and her affair with the married hotel manager) and befriends her. Hilarity (and grossness--quite a lot of oedipal grossness) occurs. I loved it. And it reminded me--next Sunday is Mothers' Day!

Okay, back to our regularly scheduled program. But first a joke: An American man and a Chinese man were driving down the road. They come to a fork in the road, and there's a sign pointing to the left saying "socialism" and a sign pointing to the right saying "capitalism". The American says, "Let's go to the right." The Chinese man says, "Okay, let's go to the right, but let's signal as if we're going to the left."

This joke opens "Up the Yangtze", a beautifully shot documentary by Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang. It's set aboard a Yangtze "farewell cruise", which takes American (and European) tourists up the Yangtze for a view of modern China and a view of parts of rural China that are rapidly being flooded out by the completion of the Three Gorges Dam. It's a very lyrical, poetic view of China, where impoverished and doomed villages make way for giant cities with so much neon it looks like the Yangtze is a river of electricity. Although judgements can be easy to make--it's hard not to sympathize with the shopkeeper who cries about how China is so difficult for the common man--judgements are also very tricky (that very same shopkeeper brags about "sacrificing the little family for the big"). Even on the boat, there's a dichotomy in the joyful, charismatic attendant (who laughs at the silly Americans giving a $30 tip because he left them alone) and the poor girl whose family is doomed to homelessness when the dam is finished and who has to work in the kitchen on the boat to support them (instead of going to school). I suppose the starkest dichotomy is the world on the boat (where people always show cheerfulness and speak English) and the world on land (which is very, very complicated). Mostly it leaves the viewer with the understanding that China can not be reduced to simple stereotypes, and it's just as much (if not more) a land of diversity and contrasts as the U.S. is. Here's a picture of director Yung Chang answering questions after the film.

Next up was the brilliantly hilarious bitter pill, "The Art of Negative Thinking". My respect for Norway has increased dramatically with this anti-PC slapstick black comedy. Geirr was recently paralyzed (and left impotent) in a car crash. He has retreated into a life of booze, drugs, and watching movies. Doesn't sound too bad to me, but his wife is worried and depressed, so she calls on a self-help group for cripples. Relentlessly cheery and positive ("don't see problems, see solutions!") they go to pick him up, and he resists as much as he can. And, in fact, his negativity starts to infect the group, causing a wide-scale mutiny that kicks all the able-bodied out (the spouses and the group leader) while the cripples get high and re-enact the Russian roulette scene from "The Deer Hunter". Turns out, that's just what they needed. Never underestimate the art of negative thinking.

So next up was a movie I know I chose just for the title--"A Girl Cut in Two". A French film based on events that took place around the turn of the century in New York, it stars Ludivine Sagnier in the title role, and is the story of a young girl; a famous writer who seduces her; and an arrogant, violent heir to a pharmaceutical fortune who pursues her and cultivates a hatred of the writer. The story unfolds smoothly and meticulously under the steady hand of master Claude Chabrol. It's like watching an expert puppet show--the strings are never invisible, they're an essential part of the show and watching how deftly he moves the strings is part of the entertainment. François Berléand plays Charles (Saint-)Denis , a very happily married and celebrated writer--happy in part because he freely indulges his womanizing desires. Ludivine Sagnier is radiant as Gabrielle Aurore Deneige (a name intentionally calling out images of angels and pure white snow), a local TV weather girl who falls easily (and completely willingly) for his charms. She's young and inexperienced, and he's only too willing to teach her everything she needs to know (and a whole lot more). Benoît Magimel is Paul André Claude Gaudens, the arrogant, drunken, violent pharmaceutical heir who falls for Gabrielle. Gabrielle clearly prefers Charles, but he'll never leave his wife and gets bored of her for months at a time. Paul will definitely be devoted to only her--psychotically devoted. And I don't know how to end this write-up. I've already given too much away, so here's a picture of Ludivine Sagnier at the Q&A:

And finally, I ended the night with "Secret". Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou has shown to be an effective film actor as well, with the street racing film "Initial D" (before "The Fast and the Furious" caught on to the "Tokyo Drift") and his role as Prince Jai in "Curse of the Golden Flower". Now he's made his directorial debut (and stars) in the piano-action melodrama "Secret". Chou plays a piano prodigy who just transferred to Tamkang Secondary School (his real-life alma mater). There he makes a name (and impresses the ladies) by beating the local master in a "piano-battle". But he's really interested in Yu (Kwai Lun-mei), an enchanting beauty he sees playing a haunting tune in an old music room. She seems to appear and disappear at will, teasing him and then flying away. She has a secret, of course, hence the title. this is another over-the-top melodrama that has been a staple of Asian cinema (for those who look beyond just the action flicks) for a while, and is definitely a staple of SFIFF this year (this could almost be a companion piece to "Linger"). Jay Chou shows a steady mastery of the craft of filmmaking, and I applaud his initial effort.

And that was Sunday. Now we're heading into the end stretch.

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