The San Francisco International Film Festival, in its 58th year, is finally ready to enter its baroque period. It presents itself as a Hall of Mirrors, endlessly reflecting and refracting the world through the lenses of enough filmmakers to fill the balcony of the Castro Theatre on a foggy April night.
If all those filmmakers really did magically gather together in the Castro balcony, they would never run out of things to talk about between screenings. This year, the SF International — the longest-running film festival in the Western Hemisphere — boasts some 181 films and videos from 46 countries, in 33 languages, from at least 181 individual points of view. Even the most modest of these offers a unique perspective on the human experience. This cinematic Hall of Mirrors is unpredictable, as it should be, and often refreshingly personal, unlike most commercial entertainment product. The latest edition of the SFIFF is especially feisty, with one of its strongest and most challenging fields in years.
For those with the curiosity to wander off the beaten path, it all begins on a small farm in Tuscany, the scene of Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders (Le meraviglie). A German-Italian family of back-to-nature hippies, headed by an irritable, impatient man named Wolfgang, raises bees and sells the honey in the town. The oldest of Wolfgang's four young daughters is Gelsomina (played by Maria Alexandra Lungu), a radiant teenager with a calm, serene face and a quiet determination to take part in the district's upcoming "local products" festival — a celebration with an ancient Etruscan flavor, complete with costumes and folkloric rituals. Wise for her age, Gelsomina does most of the work on the farm. A foster child from Germany, a mishap involving the honey processing machine, and the family's pet camel (to go along with their goats and chickens) add to the whimsicality of writer-director Rohrwacher's vision. There's a definite sense of the everyday miraculous in this irresistible little fable, which plays April 29 at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive.
The 2015 SFIFF does not skimp on social consciousness. Witness a pair of topical documentaries, Dreamcatcher and All of Me. The former, the latest from veteran issue-oriented filmmaker Kim Longinotto, takes us to the tough streets of Chicago, where activist Brenda Myers-Powell and her Dreamcatcher Foundation work to rescue young women from sexual exploitation, and the soul-grinding cycle of poverty, violence, self-disrespect, cruelty, loss of hope, and distrust of practically everyone. It's a huge and often frustrating job, but former street prostitute Myers-Powell, a big-hearted woman on a mission, is up to it. Sober and extremely moving, Dreamcatcher screens at SF's Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, with Longinotto in attendance, on May 2.
The subjects of Arturo González Villaseñor's All of Me take a novel approach to the phenomenon of poor Central Americans migrating northward for jobs. Instead of building fences and hiring guards, the residents of the rural community of La Patrona in Veracruz state spend their days cooking up nourishing meals, bagging them in plastic, then standing by the railroad tracks when freight trains precariously loaded with migrants pass through their village, to hand out food and water to them as they whiz by. The poor, mostly female Patronas see their work in basic terms. "I would like to defend people in need," says one. Thus a group of poor women, who sell chili paste to raise money for their effort, reach out to help those even poorer. If both Dreamcatcher and All of Me were to play as a double feature, the theater would have to hand out Kleenex. That won't happen, but you can still see All of Me on May 1 at the BAM/PFA. You'll be glad you did.
Speaking of trains, J.P. Sniadecki's China /US production The Iron Ministry shows us the many faces of China from the viewpoint of rail travel — miles and miles of train rides through the country, over three years. Without narration, Sniadecki's documentary camera captures the minutest details of a trip on a Chinese railway: cigarette smokers chatting between cars; raw meat hanging in a filthy passageway where passengers spit on the floor; produce porters crowding onto a train; passengers asleep in a variety of uncomfortable positions; young men discussing the unaffordability of housing; women talking about their jobs, etc. Common denominator: Everywhere you turn, it's crowded. In many ways this is the ideal festival documentary. Catch it April 25 at BAM/PFA.
Also from China is writer-director Diao Yinan's Black Coal, Thin Ice, the stylish and well-constructed story of a police detective on the trail of a serial killer in a dingy industrial city in the northern province of Heilongjiang. Plenty of atmosphere, of the dirty-snow coal country variety, as obsessed cop Zhang Zili follows an intricate chain of events and miscreants that always seems to lead back to the aptly named Rong Rong Laundry, where wrong folks do wrong. Actor Liao Fan turns in a suitably gritty performance as Zhang, who spends five years on the case and becomes a drunken has-been in the process. Black Coal, Thin Ice shows April 25 at BAM/PFA.
South Korea's A Hard Day aims for morbid laughs in the policier genre, as a klutzy homicide detective (actor Lee Sun-kyun) lurches and stumbles his way through an obstacle course of a scenario that begins when he accidentally runs over a man one night while driving drunk to his mother's funeral. Can he get away with it? More appropriately, can director Kim Seong-hun get away with channeling Park Chan Wook, Quentin Tarantino, and Eddie Murphy, all in one movie? Kim piles on the grotesque situations and sight gags in this slapstick procedural, which also stirs in police corruption and an overloaded coffin. A Hard Day is at the Kabuki on May 3 and 7.