Not all of this festival's Asian selections are works of great distinction, but each tackles a new world and wrestles it to the ground — with varying results. Burning Dreams, a beautifully shot black-and-white profile of a mercurial Taiwanese dance teacher and his jazz-dance school, never regains the heights of its enthralling opening sequence of a young woman dancing above Shanghai at dawn. The female students remain vague or opaque, and one rebellious male student is allowed to act out in a contrived, overlong fit of petulance.
Even the recently exciting South Korean film industry doesn't have much to offer this year. Memories of Murder poses as a hard look at primitive police investigation in an age of repressive government and naiveté about serial killers. But the force's incompetent methods seem to be less the result of a totalitarian regime and more due to boneheaded carelessness, and the cops' tendency to bully and torture half-witted suspects diminishes our sympathy.
But wait — things get better. Not knowing Microsoft Word lands recent parolee Tang Daxing in unemployed limbo in first-time director Chen Daming's riveting Manhole, a crime caper/romance with excellent performances more memorable than its final plot twists. This is probably the slickest mainland Chinese film I've seen, yet it boasts complex characters who struggle with a newly materialistic Beijing.
Quick on the heels of Bright Future, which showed at the recent S.F. Asian American Film Festival, comes Doppelganger, from Japan's master of the creepy-apocalyptic, Kurosawa Kiyoshi. It stars his frequent lead actor, Yakusho Koji, as a crabby genius robot-maker in a creative slump. This effortlessly funny evil-twin black comedy uses a triptych split-screen, deep focus, and Hitchcockian tropes in pleasurably manipulative ways.
Tsai Ming-liang's eagerly awaited Goodbye, Dragon Inn takes place in a dingy Taipei theater showing King Hu's 1966 swordplay classic Dragon Inn. Although few of the patrons seem to be paying much attention to the film, a subtle relationship builds among them and the staff and what's happening on-screen. When the movie ends and the lights go up, we seem to be in another place altogether.
Unexpected emotional depths are also sounded in Hiroki Ryuichi's road movie Vibrator. A woman, her head full of doubts and fears heard in voice-over, spots a truck driver and hops into his cab. The vibrations of his truck engine comfort her, as does his gregarious and sensual nature, until the voices in her head get mixed up with the voices coming from the CB radio, leading to a devastating breakdown. It's a strange new world indeed, both inside the theater and out. — Frako Loden
Burning Dreams: Saturday, April 17, 4 p.m., Castro; Monday, April 19, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 25, 2 p.m., Century Cinema 16 Mountain View
Memories of Murder: Friday, April 16, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 19, 5:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Manhole: Wednesday, April 21, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 24, 6:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 26, 6:45 p.m., Century Cinema 16 Mountain View
Doppelganger: Thursday, April 22, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 24, 3:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 28, 9:25 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
Goodbye, Dragon Inn: Monday, April 19, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 21, 7:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 25, 6:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
Vibrator: Friday, April 16, 4:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 17, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 19, 6:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive