3 movies to kick off the first weekend of the festival, but first I got there a bit early to visit--for the first time--the SFIFF hospitality lounge. It's good to be the press. They have a nice, big lounge, with a media center full of screeners (I'll probably be too busy with movies on the big screen to check out any feature length screeners, but it might be a good way to catch any buzzworthy shorts I miss). But the big advantage to the lounge is that the alcohol sponsors--Stella Artois, Blue Angel Vodka, and Ukiah Cellars--represent there. So the advantage of being press at Cinequest is an all-access pass (at SFIFF, if I didn't have the CineVisa I'd have to compete for a small number of press tickets to each show). The advantage of being press at SFIFF is free alcohol every day (from 5:30-7:30 pm). By coincidence, Stella Artois stopped providing free beer before all the Late Show screenings this year, so I picked the right year to start being press.
Anyway, on to the movies.
I started the night with BLUEBEARD, French provacatrix Catherine Breillat's new film, and perhaps her strangest. Her penchant for frank sexuality is pushed (barely) below the surface (no naked bodies in the closest thing she's made to a kid's movie). Bluebeard is a brief (original text is only ~3 pages) fairy tale by Charles Perrault about an ugly, ogreish lord who can't seem to keep a wife too long without murdering her. Catherine Breillat's BLUEBEARD frames that story with two little sisters who sneak up into the attic to read the fairy tale for the Nth time. As the little sister reads, and they both comment in their naive way (best laugh line: Marriage is when two people love each other so much, they decide to be homosexuals), the action unfolds on screen. And this is where it gets weird. The story within the story is ridiculously fake, to the point of appearing incompetent. The father's corpse is clearly breathing. But he's buried anyway. Bluebeard's search for a new bride encompasses the dead father's now impoverished daughters. Bluebeard's beard is actually (obviously painted) blue. He chooses the younger sister (in part because her frankness disarms him), and marries her. And of course this can't end well. But still, it's very fake. The bloody gold key actually gushes blood. The spiral staircase to the tower is quite intentionally the same shot repeated multiple times. All of this serves to jar the audience out of the film, and I'm not sure if the effect really "works". I can say, this is the first Catherine Breillat movie I've seen that I have to ponder for a while before I know if I liked it.
One final note, after I drafted this review but before posted it I happened to check out Brian's writeup at HellOnFriscoBay. He's right, it's an odd framing device that starts after and ends before the story it's framing, and perhaps it's better termed an "unframing device" and is a statement on the nature of the story (as, perhaps, is the extreme artificiality).
From French fairy tales I skipped over to Hong Kong action with Dante Lam's THE BEAST STALKER. It opens with a bang--a raid gone (partially) wrong, but the bad guy ultimately caught. Tough sergeant Tong (Nicholas Tse) is shouting down the officer who pounded through the back door late when a call goes out that the car taking the suspect in was hijacked by his associates and he's on the run again. Tong catches sight of the fugitive and starts an excellent, amazing car chase. It ends poorly, with the death of an innocent little girl. Three month's later the girl's mother, Ann, is prosecuting a mob case when her other daughter is kidnapped and held to extort her into throwing the trial. Tong has become friends with her (or at least her daughter) and feels compelled to redeem himself by tracking down the kidnapper. But Ann is afraid his rash temper will leave her with a second dead daughter. It's a clever cat and mouse game with perhaps a few too many intersecting coincidences (typical of Asian action flicks). In general, I can sum up the audience reactions as this: if you haven't seen a lot of Asian action flicks, this is pretty good. If you have seen a lot, you've seen better (e.g., South Korea's THE CHASER at SFIAAFF just this year).
And finally, after a fairy tale and an Asian flick, I ended with the late night screening of an Asian fairy tale, HANSEL AND GRETEL from South Korea. Not a straightforward telling of the Hansel and Gretel story, but a horror/fairy tale inspired by the brothers Grimm. Lee Eun-Soo (Chun Jeong-Myoung) is driving along talking on the phone to his pregnant wife, when he loses control of the car and crashes. He wakes up lost deep in the woods where a little girl in a red cloak leads him to The House of Happy Children. There three siblings (an eldest brother nearly 13 and two little sisters) live surrounded by colorful toys and with incredibly cheerful parents. Eun-Soo rests the night, eats breakfast (cupcakes) with them, and tries to make his way out of the woods. Only he can't he keeps getting lost and returning to the house. Of course, that's by design. The angelic children aren't so nice as they appear. They have the ability to make anything happen, if they only imagine it. Their only problem is they can't seem to keep any parents. Adults always want to leave eventually, and that makes them sad. It's a beautiful mix of gorgeous production design and classic elements of Grimm fairy tales and Asian horror--e.g., spooky supernatural children. All together it makes a clever cautionary tale of what happens when children get everything they want. When a really creepy priest shows up and becomes their new candidate for a parent, things take a very strange turn, and perhaps drags a few minutes too long. But it was still pretty awesome. Oh yeah, and as someone who's a little OCD about finding bunnies in movies (I don't mention it much because it's a boring topic to write about), I have to say that bunnies feature to a ridiculous extent in the production design. This may be the bunniest movie I've ever seen (at least since WATERSHIP DOWN). Bunnies!