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Youth Bait and Village Pictures at the San Francisco International Film Festival

The annual fest reemphasizes storytelling, and once again manages to be all things to all people.



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One subdivision of Youth Bait is films about regular, everyday slackers shot on someone's cell phone, or with professional visuals made to look homemade. Nothing much happens, which leads to charitable descriptions of the films as "observational." The festival boasts at least two of these rare items. José Manuel "Che" Sandoval's intriguingly titled You Think You're the Prettiest (But You're the Sluttiest) introduces us to the Chilean Beavis and Butt-Head. Nico is a spiky-haired art student who fancies himself post-modern. His pal Javier, a buck-toothed musician with scraggly facial hair, suffers from premature ejaculation. Neither of them has a job, and they spend most of their time sitting around drinking 40s, smoking cigarettes and weed, drawing on their friends' faces, watching South Park, and talking about getting laid. As their dry predicaments accumulate, we find ourselves drawn to these boys, not to find out if they finally have sex, but to see if they finally grow up, even a little bit.

Esmir Filho's teen idyll The Famous and the Dead plays a slight variation on that theme — the Brazilian Beavis and Butt-Head. In a remote German-immigrant community in Brazil, sedated-looking young folks are committing bridge-jump suicide, and we, uh, observe. One of them, nicknamed Mr. Tambourine Man, is obsessed with Bob Dylan. And so it goes. Should you care to see either of these, You Think You're the Prettiest plays the Kabuki on April 28 and May 6, the Clay on May 3. The Famous and the Dead hits the PFA this Saturday, April 24, then the Kabuki April 29 and May 1.

Frontier Blues may well be the Village Picture Supreme. Director Babak Jalali's comic drama manages to evoke equal measures of Napoleon Dynamite and National Geographic in its episodic dip into the lives of three distinct sets of characters on the Turkmenistan border of Northern Iran: a group of wedding entertainers led by one Mr. Minstrel; a developmentally challenged young man named Hassan (the impolite description would be "village idiot") who collects license plates and feeds his donkey newspapers, and whose uncle runs the town's forlorn "fashion shop;" and a lovelorn poultry farm worker named Alam. Most of the characters are men. And everyone greatly desires to leave for Baku — it's hard to blame them. At one point filmmaker Jalali appropriates the chicken-dancing scene from Werner Herzog's Stroszek. That tells us he does a sense of humor after all. You'll have to travel to the Kabuki, April 23, 25, or 27, to see it.

Much less ambiguous and easier to admire is Alamar, a Mexican production by writer-cinematographer-editor-director Pedro González-Rubio. In the best tradition of the third-person-plural essay documentary, a father named Jorge Machado and his young son, Natan Machado Palombino, spend some time living the fish-and-swim life together — catching and selling lobsters, avoiding sea crocodiles, feeding their pet egret, etc. — in Banco Chinchorro, a beautiful coral reef off Quintana Roo in the blue Caribbean, just before the boy leaves to live with his mother in Rome. A more peaceful tone poem about parental bonding would be hard to find. Recommended. See it at the PFA on May 6, or if you can't wait, try the Kabuki May 1 or 2.

China and its satellite Hong Kong still have a long way to go to become a gross exporter of movies rather than an importer, but they're working hard to close the gap. Witness Christina Yao's Empire of Silver, Teddy Chen's Bodyguards and Assassins, and Johnnie To's Vengeance, a trio of 2009 releases brought to this year's SFIFF.

The weakest of the three, Bodyguards, may have the sexiest production values — Chen's crew recreates turn-of-the-20th-century Hong Kong in its routine tale of behind-the-scenes mayhem surrounding a visit by political reformer Dr. Sun Wen to the Crown Colony. Everyone wants him dead, especially the Dowager Empress and the British authorities. It stars Tony Leung Ka Fai, Donnie Yen, and Li Yuchun as the kung-fu beggar girl dynamo, Fang Hong. Empire of Silver also time-travels back to the Qing Dynasty, where an extended family of bankers combats both the Boxer Rebellion and Western powers (plus a pack of CGI wolves) to promote their own "too big to fail" business plans. The sets, costumes, and cinematography are first-class, and Jennifer Tilly shows up in a cameo as a gwai lo schoolteacher.

But Johnnie To's HK gangster-bonker Vengeance is the easiest to chew popcorn along with, an old-fashioned actioner starring aging Euro-pop singer Johnny Hallyday (the pic is a French co-prod) as a reformed Parisian hood trying to get even with the hit men who wasted his grandchildren in the gaudy casino city of Macau. Things get complicated when the Hallyday character develops amnesia in the middle of the hunt, leading all concerned to wax philosophical: What does revenge mean when you've forgotten everything? Indeed. Bodyguards is at the Castro, May 2. Empire plays the Kabuki on April 25 and May 1. Vengeance visits the Kabuki, April 27 and 30.

With the death in January of SF International favorite Eric Rohmer, the list of revered French masters has dwindled considerably. One could argue that Jacques Rivette's Around a Small Mountain (36 vues de Pic Saint Loup) is an "old man's film" — it certainly doesn't have the snap of Rivette's 2007 Ne touchez pas la hache (released in the US as The Duchess of Langeais). But if anyone is entitled to make a gentle, pocket-sized drama about a mini-circus troupe struggling through the provinces, the 82-year-old Rivette is. Jane Birkin and Sergio Castellito star as the circus' proprietor and its biggest fan, respectively. You can take a walk Around a Small Mountain at the PFA, April 28.

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