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
Gaea Girls
Gaea Girls
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
The Storm
The Storm
Stranger Inside
Stranger Inside

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

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (U.S.A., 2000)
Hedwighas a wonderfully absurd setup, as any self-respecting musical should: Hedwig (writer/ director John Cameron Mitchell) is the transsexual lead singer of an obscure glam-rock band, and the angry inch is his penis, mutilated during a sex-change operation gone horribly awry. Abandoned and brokenhearted, Hedwig channels his anxiety into Ziggy Stardust--type songs (written by Michael Trask) and chases after his young doppelgänger/ex-lover/ protégé Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), who's stolen those songs and achieved superstardom while Hedwig languishes in obscurity. Hedwig -- adapted from Mitchell's acclaimed off-Broadway musical -- is supposed to be about Hedwig's search for love and inner peace despite his, er, shortcomings, but we never get a fix on exactly what's driving him. His sexuality? His lack of fame? His capacity to love? All of the above? Mitchell bogs things down in empty animated segments, an East Berlin back story, thin characters, and artsy scene-setting, so by the time Pitt's pale, thin Gnosis enters to solve the puzzle, it's much too late to care whether Hedwig is the Second Coming or just the grandest drag queen ever to hit Jackson Cove, Mo. It's best to settle for the evocative, unconfused scenes set during Hedwig's national tour of seafood restaurants, where it's great fun to see him bitch and strut his way around retirees hunched over their cracked crab. (Mark Athitakis)
Saturday, April 21, 10 p.m., Castro

Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale (U.S.A., 2000)
This documentary written and directed by the brother-and-sister team of David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro profiles one Tobias Schneebaum, a former New York painter whose claim to fame is that he once went on a hunting raid with Peruvian Indians and then took part in cannibalism. Later, he wrote a book about his experiences that attracted a minor cult audience. Still more years later, he went to Indonesia and took a homosexual lover among the Asmat tribesmen of New Guinea. Clearly, the Shapiros see Schneebaum, now 80 and ailing, as a romantic adventurer. But they constantly allow the lurid Ripley's Believe It or Not! elements of his story to overwhelm the intended Seeker of Wisdom and Truth elements, and we begin to see them as exploiters. "How do people taste?" a Barnard student asks Schneebaum. "A little like pork," the former rabbinical student answers, without irony. And with that we rest our case for seeking out an alternative form of movie entertainment. (Bill Gallo)
Wednesday, April 25, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 26, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Landscape (Slovak Republic, 2000)
A century in the life of a Balkan village unfolds like a series of folk tales in Martin Sulik's wry, haunting film. Each vignette is as captivating and as serpentine as an Andersen fable: the mute goatherd who swallows a snake; the always-hungry beggar who "even sniffs at rocks"; the brute with the bad disposition, the manipulative mother, and the fondness for nose-wrestling; the regretful widow who saves her old hair. The film's ironic whimsy assumes darker hues as the outside world makes its presence known via three entr'actes: the Nazi roundup of the village's Jews, the Soviet closure of the village's churches, and reports of the 1968 Prague invasion. (Matthew Stafford)
Friday, April 20, 7:10 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 22, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Friday, April 27, 7 p.m., PFA

The Luzhin Defence (England, 2000)
Dutch director Marleen Gorris (Antonia's Line) tackles an early Nabokov novel, with mixed results. At its best this is a vivid portrait of a modern mind in crisis -- the mind of a shabby, deeply disturbed Russian émigré chess master, Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro), who stumbles upon first love at the world championship in Italy in 1929. At its worst it's Rocky for the art-house crowd, complete with a competing chess heavyweight (Fabio Sator), a loyal girlfriend from da neighborhood (Emily Watson), and a crooked fight manager (Stuart Wilson). What it cannot be is a representation of Nabokov's genius -- his sensual language, his fascinations with illusion and distortion, his skill at constructing multiple realities. Why not watch this as a story, then head for the library to get a transcendent taste of the real thing. (Bill Gallo)
Monday, April 23, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 24, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki

"Shirin Neshat Unveiled" (U.S.A., 1998-2001)
Screening amid the admirable Iranian narrative features at the festival are the shorter works of a hot new video artist in self-imposed exile from her native country. Among the three new pieces that have world premieres here, Shirin Neshat's latest work, Passage, includes the music of Philip Glass, an artist she might not have met if she weren't now living in New York City. Three earlier works I was able to preview all stage their images elaborately in the same diptych form: dozens of white-shirted men on the left and black-robed women on the right. In Turbulent, Neshat re-creates a literally black-and-white world of gender division in an auditorium, where a man sings passionate poetry to a roomful of men while a woman performs wordless vocal pyrotechnics to empty seats. In Rapture, men standing on ramparts watch as women drag a boat to the seashore and float away. Fervor enacts a tragic geometrical dance of love, in a world where men and women kept apart are inexorably drawn to each other. Though the films are simplistic, the imagery is hypnotic. (Frako Loden)
Saturday, April 21, 4 p.m., PFA; Sunday, April 22, 5 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Storm(Egypt, 2000)
Three Kings was fine, but it showed only one side of the Persian Gulf War. Here's a film with another viewpoint, directed by Khaled Youssef, screenwriter and assistant to legendary Egyptian director Youssef Chahine. Geography teacher Hoda has raised two excellent sons by herself, her anti-Israeli husband having exiled himself or perhaps died. In order for one son to marry a rich girl, the other goes off to Iraq to send money back to a depressed Cairo. He ends up a soldier, reluctantly involved in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Ironically, the smitten other brother enlists in the Egyptian army and fights to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqis, thus pitting brother against brother. If that isn't enough grief for a mother, Hoda also realizes that her womanly feelings have been reawakened by a man her son doesn't approve of. Then, to top it all off, the U.S. becomes directly involved in the war, increasing the stakes for everyone. The Storm deftly combines high entertainment value, melodrama, and political commentary -- the latter explaining what it's like to be a "plaything" of U.S. military policy. (Frako Loden)
Sunday, April 22, 9:30 p.m., PFA; Monday, April 23, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 24, 7:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 28, 1:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Stranger Inside (U.S.A., 2000)
Imprisoned teenager Treasure Lee (Yolonda Ross) does what she can to work her way toward her long absent mother, following in her footsteps to a maximum security ward in this effective drama by Cheryl Dunye. The woman she calls "Moms" is a surly borderline psychotic named Brownie, charismatically played by Davenia McFadden as a mixture of shrewdness, anger, and danger -- you can see why she's effectively running the prison. The entire cast, which includes Rain Phoenix as one of Brownie's non-biological "daughters," is very good, and Dunye gets props for creating the prison as a universe -- we see only the barest glimpses of the outside world. Dream flashbacks and some heavy religious symbolism work less well, but that's not a serious problem because the real focus of the film is Treasure's hunt for a mother. The film deserves a wider release and more attention than it will probably get as a made-for-HBO movie; it doesn't feel like television at all, down to its open ending. (Gregg Rickman)
Friday, April 20, 4:30 p.m., PFA; Friday, April 27, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 28, 3:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki

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