Filmed on the Body

The 44th annual S.F. International Film Festival gets sexy, with women on top -- and just about everywhere else

Like life, good film festivals have a rather dull unifying force and lots of fascinating satellite themes. The 44th annual SFIFF is no different: Though its grand scheme purports to be international, its American films are among its best, and along the way the fest highlights all kinds of subversive and intriguing subideas.

Among the most interesting of this year's tangents is a powerful strain of films about the strength of women. From France to Japan, Iran to the S.F. County Jail, the broads in these movies kick some ass. Many of these anti-chick flicks converge on the subjects of sex and violence, with women breaking free from dangerous pasts or powering headlong into dangerous futures. In Baise-Moi(France), possibly the most controversial film of the festival, a prostitute and a porn actress go on a cathartic -- if senseless -- killing spree. In Face (Japan), a shy seamstress finally snaps, which sends her into a colorful and fugitive new life. And in Maral(Iran), a religious woman plots to get rid of her husband's second wife -- a gorgeous young widow.

But not all of this woman power revolves around cruelty. For those who have loved her since 1978's Grease(and before), Stockard Channing combines class with strength, whether she's on the screen, onstage, or on TV. This year she takes home the Peter J. Owens Award, which honors an actor "whose work exemplifies brilliance, independence, and integrity." Channing's The Business of Strangers(U.S.A.) screens Tuesday, April 24, at 7 p.m. at the AMC Kabuki; it's yet another peek at the steel that lies beneath that apple-cheeked smile.

Baise-Moi
Baise-Moi

Details

April 19 to May 3

For festival information call 931-FILM or visit www.sffs.org

For tickets, call (510) 601-8932

AMC Kabuki 8 Theater (1881 Post at Fillmore)

Castro Theater (429 Castro near Market)

Pacific Film Archive (2575 Bancroft at Bowditch, UC Berkeley campus)

Landmark's Park Theater (1275 El Camino Real near Valparaiso, Menlo Park)

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Of course, the men are not forsaken in this year's festival, but the undercurrent of gender clash and upheaval is unmistakable. Whichever subtheme you decide to pursue -- whether it's a streak of French films or a tribute to our own San Francisco Cinematheque or a selection of animated shorts -- keep your eye on the women. They're bound to come out on top. -- Karen Silver

Baise-Moi (France, 2000)
Be forewarned that it takes more than a strong stomach to enjoy this unflinchingly graphic and utterly joyless onslaught of sucking, fucking, and shooting. You'll also have to toss away your bourgeois attachments to coherent themes and character development. Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi's slovenly polemic follows a porn actress and a hooker who, tired of being beaten, raped, and shortchanged by both men and society, go on a robbing and killing spree. Revenge fantasies can certainly be cathartic (cf The Living End or Thelma & Louise), but this grunge ode to nihilism (the title translates as Fuck Me) aspires only to shock and depress. OK, the film seems to call semi-articulately for a class war, rather than simply a feminist uprising -- our heroines unhesitatingly blow away the occasional middle-class woman along with numerous cock-equipped scum. But the best punk rock laced its anger with humor, self-effacement, and more than a smidgen of artistry, none of which is on display here. (Michael Fox)
Friday, April 20, 10:15 p.m., Castro

The Center of the World (U.S.A., 2001)
From a story concocted by director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club), precocious filmmaker/performance artist Miranda July, novelist Paul Auster (who penned Wang's Smoke), and novelist Siri Husvedt, Center's screenplay was written by Ellen Benjamin Wong. With this many cooks in the kitchen, one might expect a deceptively simple stew, filled with subtle nuances. For better or worse, however, the movie is simply simple, and from its stripped-down production (shot on video) to its tiny cast, its quality and significance depend upon one's perspective: Is this a daring, homespun yarn, or just a very middling stab at soft-core? Taking place mostly in Las Vegas (which the movie likens -- along with "the cunt" -- to the center of the world), it's the story of two lost, confused youngsters who try, respectively, to employ and deny the magic of sex. Richard (Peter Sarsgaard, Boys Don't Cry) is a lonely programming wiz, and the punkish Florence (Molly Parker, Sunshine) is the stripper he buys for a $10,000 weekend. Parker goes way past conventional boundaries, and her challenge to herself, one might assume, is to keep a human face on this whirlwind of rage and lust. Sarsgaard is a helpful foil -- when he's not accidentally hilarious -- and his overwhelming desire feels real. Yet even as Wang hits us with shocking truths (sex, for example, is different from computers), it's hard to tell what we're supposed to make of this shortcut to nowhere. (Gregory Weinkauf)
Thursday, April 19, 7 p.m., Castro

Gaea Girls(England/Japan, 2000)
The same pair who directed Dream Girls and Shinjuku Boys, both terrific explorations of gender-bending women performers in Japan, returns with an exciting new documentary about Japanese women's professional wrestling. This film, which details the grueling (and sometimes gruesome) debut drilling of a sweet-faced rookie, rebukes American principles of athletic training by dramatizing a code that demands unconditional obeisance and vengeful rage on the part of the trainee. The same code requires unrelenting severity of the champion trainer, a husky-voiced hulk who has the wrestler's attitude down cold, spitting and stripping off her T-shirt as thousands shout her name. The revelation that paternal abuse has enhanced the champion's greatness as a wrestler makes Gaea Girls a fitting companion to the American boxing feature Girlfight in the annals of female rage. An awesome testament to determination and ambition. (Frako Loden)
Friday, April 20, 10:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 1, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 2, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki

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