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The blog-friendly publicity department of the SF International Asian American Film Festival, which runs from March 16-26, kindly let me attend its press screenings over the past couple weeks. I was able to fit four into my schedule.
Wisit Sasanatieng has just been named one of the "three most important Thai directors" in a poll on www.thaicinema.org. His new film Citizen Dog, like his directing debut (still shelved from any US release) Tears of the Black Tiger, takes its gaudy color palette from the film posters, programs, hand-painted promotional stills and other ephemera that remain from the 16mm film production era of the Thai movie industry which lasted until the early 1970s. But instead of the genre pastiche that Wisit's previous film was, Citizen Dog is loosely structured through the cast of eccentric Bangkok characters country bumpkin Pod encounters while stumbling through a series of jobs hoping to defy the prediction his toothless grandma cackles at him as he leaves the family farm: "If you get a job in Bangkok, you will surely grow a tail!"
Luckily Pod (played by Mahasamuth Boonyarak, who I was not surprised to learn is actually a bass player in a rock band; he's got something of a pop star look) is quite unlike the rest of Bangkok's citizens. He's set apart from the crowd in an early sequence in which he's shown moving about town in crowds of people all singing the film's theme song, some quite soulfully, while he glances around at them quizzically. (Another memorable musical sequence comes in the form of a recitative rap song explaining Granny's reincarnation as a gecko clinging to Pod's lamp.) He also has a singular, unrequited devotion to Jin (Saengthong Gate-Uthong) a quirky cleaning woman he meets while employed as a security guard. I suspect this romance thread in the film, along with Pen-ek Ratanaruang's dryly bemused voice-over, is the origin of the many comparisons to Amelie Wisit's film has garnered. The time we spend with Jin reveals her to have an instinct for romantic self-sabotage similar to Amelie's. But from Pod's point of view, his romantic goals are thwarted not by his own lack of confidence but by the craziness of Bangkok and its absolutely bizarre residents. And indeed the unexpectable flourishes of the writer/director's imagination are the real selling point of Citizen Dog. Read all the plot synopses of this film you want beforehand, but I'm certain there will still be plenty of surprises for you when you actually see it. There's just so much crammed into the running time that no synopsis could cover it all without practically rewriting the screenplay. As of yet without a US distributor, Citizen Dog plays the Castro Theatre March 17 and the PFA March 18.
Linda Linda Linda is perhaps even more fun. It's another in the current cycle of films exploring Japan's teenage subcultures, but unlike my experience watching Kamikaze Girls, Go or All About Lilly Chou-Chou, my interest never flagged and I never sensed director Nobuhiro Yamashita reaching for a sentimental or "shocking" cliche. He drops the audience into the very richly detailed galaxy that is Shibazaki High School counting the days to the upcoming school festival and the accompanying rock and roll talent showcase held in a gymnasium-cum-stage. It took a few scenes for me to find my bearings, but soon after I did I was completely won over by these characters. Kyoko, Nozomi, and Kei need to find a vocalist for their Blue Hearts cover band, and to spite a former bandmate they pick the Korean exchange student, Son. They're not exactly striving against all odds to learn catchy Ramones-esque songs like "Linda, Linda", but rather there's a realness to their struggles competing for practice time at the school's pop music club room, dealing with hopeful and ex-boyfriends, and, for Son especially, figuring out how to fit in. By the end of the film you may just have to struggle not to get up and dance along in the aisles (not only is it a fire hazard as we've all been reminded by Sarah Vowell, but it also blocks the view of your fellow moviegoers. So restrain yourself.) Linda Linda Linda plays Friday, March 17 at the PFA and Wednesday, March 22 at the Kabuki.
The other two I saw were among the films passed over by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television in its selection of China's latest Oscar submission in favor of the Promise, which failed to be nominated.
Despite uprooting the setting from Austria to pre-Communist China, Xu Jinglei's Letter From an Unknown Woman is actually more faithful to Stefan Zweig's 1922 tale of romantic obsession than Max Ophuls' revered 1948 version. But perhaps it's most interesting to read Xu's film politically, as Jiang Wen's intellectual playboy character is surrounded by symbols of Westernization, transforming the heroine's infatuation into a manifestation of what might have been called "capitalist thought" after 1949.
Kekexili: Mountain Patrol tells the grippingly true story of a Beijing journalist who travels to the remotest corner of Tibet where the chiru, or Tibetan antelope, is being wiped out by poaching. The film's plot is filled with ethical ambiguities that hooked me in as tightly as a classic Hollywood noir or Western can. It's refreshing to see increasingly layered films like this one coming out of mainland China's film industry.
Though both films are set for US distribution, only Kekexili: Mountain Patrol has its Frisco theatrical release dates: April 21-27, right in the middle of the Film Society's film festival. If you're like me and you tend to be locked into festival mode at that time, avoiding the arthouses like the Lumiere and Act I/II, make an effort to see the film at its March 20th Kabuki screening.
Of course, Landmark would schedule its most enticing calendared programs for the weeks when another major festival, the SFIFF, will be running. Following Kekexili: Mountain Patrol at the Lumiere will be Carol Reed's 1948 the Fallen Idol April 28-May 4. The Act I/II will get the Confomist that week instead. The rest of the current Landmark calendar, I have to say, doesn't inspire me much. I've already seen the Devil and Daniel Johnston (at IndieFest 2005) and though I'd definitely recommend it to people who wish they knew a bit more about this Daniel Johnston guy they keep hearing about, I'm unlikely to prioritize a repeat viewing.