San Francisco Film Festival 2003

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Film reviews

Arturo Ripstein: La Virgen de la Lujuria/ Virgin of Lust (2002)

La Virgen de la Lujuria/ Virgin of Lust (2002) is one of Ripstein's most linear, relaxed and conventional films. While his trademark obsession with sex and death are still pervasive, here they are treated according to the cliches of noir cinema. The very fragmented narrative (most scenes last a few seconds) recalls the style of comics and photonovelas. Furthermore, sometimes the characters sing about their lives and actions in operatic tones, as if mocking the operettas of the era. The film is shot in dark, strong tones that recall the 1930s and, occasionally, the era is also evoked via brief poster-like scenes with colorful subtitles. The plot is the quintessential melodrama centered on a femme fatale and the slave-master relationship that subjugates a weak, ordinary, pointless man, but most of the story is told by the scenography.

An angry/scared crowd is banging and shaking a locked gate. The story is set in the years after the Spanish civil war (1930s).
Nacho the lonely waiter of a quiet and classy downtown cafe`. He is treated like a slave by his rude boss, who claims to be of pure Spanish origins (whereas the waiter has indio blood). Brief disconnected scenes introduce Nacho's private life. He lives a simple life, helping his neighbor Raquel with her small sewing jobs (her daughter, who sleeps with her, is a prostitute). His only hobbies are masturbating in the basement while staring at some erotic pictures and kissing the feet of a statue of the madonna. He also masturbates thinking of killing Franco. One morning he finds a gorgeous prostitute, Lola, behind the counter of the cafe`. She had sex with Gardenia, a masked wrestler whom everybody believes gay, and she is desperate to get more. She is also drunk and stoned. Nacho's boss finds them and gets furious. He locks the woman in a room and promises to call the police. Nacho (a cartoon-like simpleton) begs the woman to take shelter in his apartment, otherwise the police could deport her. In the following days, Nacho takes care of Lola, who is sick, but she is proud and still obsessed with Gardenia. She claims to be German-Russian, a former circus artist, but her accent is clearly Spanish. She tells Nacho the unlikely ordeal to kill Franco. She lets Nacho kiss her feet, but Nacho does not venture beyond that, respecting her like a saint. This only infuriates her. She resents his faithfulness to his hideous boss and his servile behavior in life. Nacho even goes out looking for Gardenia, as that is Lola's wish. Eventually, Lola leaves him, not only ungrateful but also suicidal.
Nacho resumes his masturbating practices and one night is caught by an older man, also from Spain, who is moving into the apartment upstairs. He (Gimeno) and his friends are penniless revolutionaries who lost the civil war to Franco. They take the habit of spending their evenings at the cafe` till very late hours, ordering little or nothing.
Lola is known to have lost her mind in the opium dens of Chinatown. Nacho tries to forget (or remember) by hiring a prostitute to kiss her feet. Gimeno respects Nacho's obsession, and Nacho secretely feeds him. Gimeno decides to share the basement with Nacho: Nacho can keep masturbating, while Gimeno, a professional photographer, will use it to set up a tragedy about the Spanish revolution, with help from Nacho and Raquel to create the costumes. Nacho looks for Lola in Chinatown, scouring dark rooms full of stoned people. Nacho finds out accidentally who Gardenia is: he is the chef of the cafe`, Gerardo. Now Nacho dreams of becoming a wrestler, hoping that this would conquer Lola's heart. Gerardo's dressing room is where Nacho sees Lola again: she is desperate for Gardenia's love, but he despises her and warns Nacho against getting addicted to her. But Nacho can't help it, and she moves back into his apartment, treating him in ever more humiliating ways. Nacho even volunteers all of his savings to convince Gardenia to flee with Lola to Hollywood. Eventually, Gardenia disappears, and Lola becomes even more neurotic. Nacho finds her a job at the cafe`, hoping that this would heal her depression, but, instead, she flirts with the customers, and Nacho has to suffer the torments of jealousy. Despite the fact that they live together, Nacho never tries to have sex with her. He is happy to kiss her feet, even when she humiliates him in front of everybody. Eventually she leaves him again, for a man whom she believes to be Gardenia.
Nacho volunteers to kill Franco, again hoping that this will get him Lola's love. This turns into Gimeno's tragedy, performed in the basement. A sequence of silent scenes with subtitles (in the style of the old photonovelas) tells how the humble waiter becomes a hero by killing the dictator. (When he shoots Franco, the crowd rushes out and is trapped by the gate of the first scene). But Lola is trapped again in her addiction to drugs and to Gardenia. Nacho burns his erotic pictures (which Lola hated). The story becomes more and more oneiric. Lola enters the cafe` and kisses Nacho's feet: Nacho's imaginary ending to Gimeno's tragedy?

Abbas Kiarostami: Ten (2002)

Ten (2002) is the portrait of an upper-class woman through the eyes of her child and through a number of dialogues that take place in her car. The whole film is shot inside the car. The protagonist never steps out of it. Her social life, including the relationship with her son and her sister, seems to be confined to the car. This is an unusual road movie, that does not take place on a origin-to-destination axis but within the walls (and frantic traffic) of a city. The randomness of the trip (implicit in most road movies) is here made explicit: there is no destination that she is driving at. In a sense, though, there are many destinations that she is driving at. At even closer investigation, the people she drives around "are" the destinations. The fact that she drives gives the illusion that she is in charge of her own life, a fact that remains in doubt till the end, when she basically surrenders to destiny and maybe, by doing so, does conquer her own peace of mind. The film can be viewed as both a document of proto-feminist awareness and as post-feminist revisionism. But the real point is the commentator is largely silent, content with showing ordinary city lives.

The film begins with the close-up of a child sitting in the passenger's seat of a car. (You can tell this is Teheran, because nobody, not even the child, ever weats a seatbelt). For several minutes the camera focuses on the child. One can hear the noise of the traffic (the constant soundtrack of the film) and the words of his mother, who is driving the car, but can only see the face of the child. Her mother divorced their father, and apparently lied at the divorce trial to overcome laws that favor the man. The child is resentful that she re-married and that she is a spoiled woman (a maid takes care of the house, while she seems to spend the entire day driving around). She drops the child off at her ex-husband's house.
The second episode opens with her sister waiting in the car. The protagonist returns with a bag of food. As they drive back home, they chat. Her sister warns her that Amin, the child, is getting too rebellious.
The third episode is about an old lady to whom the protagonist offers a ride to the mosque. Praying is the sole occupation of the old woman.
The fourth encounter is with a prostitute, who got into the car when the protagonist stopped. The protagonist's morbid curiosity dies away as the prostitute tells her how husbands cheat on their wives and how, after all, they are all prostitutes: wives are wholesalers, whereas prostitutes are retailers.
Next, the protagonist gives a ride to a very polite and a little shy young woman who finds solace in prayer.
After another scene with the boy, who shows no affection for his mother and wants to be taken to his grandmother's, the protagonist picks up her sister, who is crying because her husband left her after seven years of marriage. The protagonist tries to cheer her up with talks of how weak women are and how they should be stronger.
The protagonist tells her son that she has decided to hand him over to his father. Her sister convinced her that he needs to grow up with a man. Amin is surprised and can't be as confrontational as usual. She, on the other hand, looks peaceful and reassured by this turn of events.
Then the protagonist meets the shy young woman again. This girl is now also sad and jealous, because her fiance` dumped her. She even shaved her head. The two women sympathize.
The last scene is, again, the scene where the mom picks up the child from the father and the child asks to visit grandmother (which could mean that the last few scenes only took place in the protagonist's mind).

Mani Ratman: A Peck on the Cheek (2002)

A quintessential Bollywood melodrama, Mani Ratman's A Peck on the Cheek (2002) is many films in one: a soap opera, for sure, replete with tearful scenes, but also a war movie, blessed with some of the most ferocious but also humane battle scenes in the genre, and a musical comedy, as mandatory in Bollywood.

risking the life for the stubborn whim of a girl Two young Tamils are wed in an arranged marriage. She, Shyama, is shy and happy. He is obsessed by images of war (the civil war in Sri Lanka). The early days of their marriage are happy, but one day, as they are playing in a river, soldiers come by. The man decides to join the resistance. A few months later, Shyama, pregnant, is forced to board boats and move to a refugee camp in India. In the camp she gives birth to a girl.
The action moves to Madras, a big city, nine years later. A happy and lively girl, Amudha, describes her upper-class family (a video-like musical collage): her father, a famous writer, her mother, Indra, a tv personality, her two brothers. This is her ninth birthday and her parents have decided to tell her that she was adopted. The news causes great grief in the girl. A few days later, she disappears from school and is eventually found by the police at a railway station. Her mother is hurt but the reunion is moving.
A flashback shows how it all started. He, Thiru, still a young unmarried man, found Amudha, abandoned by her biological mother, at the refugee camp, and asked to adopt her, but they would not let him. Indra, the daughter of a neighbor, was engaged to a rich man, but was in love with Thiru and had read his story about the baby refugee. Thiru proposed to her and she accepted. So Thiru claims that they did not adopt Amudha: she adopted them. The very reason that they got married is her.
Amudha is still upset, though. She is a determined girl, and wants to meet her mother. She takes a bus to travel to the refugee camp. Her parents catch up with her and promise that they will help her find her biological mother. (This is virtually the beginning of a new movie, as now the family begins a dangerous quest for the mysterious woman).
They arrive in Sri Lanka during the civil war. There are soldiers everywhere. While her father is giving a speech, Amudha walks to a park and chats with a stranger in a wheelchair. Her mother, worried that she may have eloped again, finds her and brings her back in. The girl wants to run back to return a book to the stranger but sees the stranger get up from the wheelchair, jump on a military vehicle and blow himself up: he was a suicide bomber. The girl is slightly wounded, but mostly under shock.
The family continues its odyssey through the devastated nation. They reach a village where a Shyama lives. The army is evacuating the villagers. The family finds Shyama in the crowd of poor villagers lining up along the military convoy: it is another Shyama, who has lost all her children in the war. The bombs start falling and they narrowly escape death, thanks to the help of their friend Vikran who rescues them.
Following a new clue, Vikran takes them to another village. There are soldiers everywhere. The village is mainly reduced to ruins. Amudha has a close encounters with guerrilla children, but is unharmed. Her father is almost killed when he is surrounded by fighters. Vikran manages to explain that he is merely seeking the mother of Amudha and the guerrilla chief promises to deliver the message to Shyama.
Shyama helps out at the rebel camp in the jungle. She proudly tells the chief that she doesn't have one child, she has hundreds.
A convoy of soldiers is entering the town while the family waits for the appointment with Shyama. The soldiers open fire on a building and massive fighting erupts. Indra is wounded, the family, again, narrowly escapes the massacre. Amudha sees soldiers and rebels fly in the air. Now she feels bad that her mother has been wounded because of her capricious mood and asks to leave. The family gets in the car to leave, but Indra asks the driver to stop at the park. Her female instinct is right: Shyama has just arrived. Biological mother and daughter are finally face to face. They all sit down and Amudha starts asking questions. Amudha offers her diary and photo album to her biological mother. The woman hesitates, then hugs her child. Amudha tries to convince her to fly with them to Madras and leave the war, but Shyama resists the temptation.

Eliseo Subiela: El Lado Oscuro del Corazon/ Dark Side of Heart II (2001)

Eliseo Subiela's El Lado Oscuro del Corazon/ Dark Side of Heart II (2001) is a surreal meditation on aging, decay, fear of death and the meaning of love. The protagonist is an intellectual who is searching for something to redeem his meaningless life. A web of symbols (gravity, time) supports his allegorical journey. There is a bit of Fellini and a bit of Bergman in Subiela's tortuous, and, of course, a bit of magic realism and of Borges. His hyperbolic language recycles stereotypes that are not particularly original (the conversations with Time and Death). But the narrative flows in a mature and credible manner, and the way reality, dream and thought are blurring is remarkable.

Middle-aged poet Oliverio hangs out at a bar and discusses women and gravity with barman Paco. He picks up (or dreams of picking up) a lonely woman. They have sex, then he presses a button and dumps the woman into a discharge hidden below the bed. Back to the bar, Oliverio meets another woman and has sex with her too. As he is walking in the street, a public phone starts ringing: he picks it up and has a poetical/philosophical conversation with the woman who called. She's another lover. They meet in a dance hall and she introduces him to Time himself, who keeps count of the past but can't predict the future. When he is alone, Oliverio talks to himself, to a double and even to a triple. Miranda asks him to find a job, but he is depressed by the aging process. His double convinces him to dump Miranda and travel to Spain. Oliverio, always trailed by Time on a motorcycle, looks and finds an old lover, Ana, but Time makes fun of his return to the past. Joaquin, a theatrical agent, invites him to a party. Joaquin is intriguing by the posters of Alejandra, a circus acrobat who (the poster says) is capable of flying, but Joaquin introduces him to twin sisters Daphne and Chloe (one is a magician and the other one is her best trick) and Oliverio has sex with them too. In his dreams, he keeps dumping women under the bed, and even himself. Obsessed with the woman who can fly, Oliverio asks Time to give him a ride to the circus. Oliverio is fascinated by Alejandra's show and goes to see her after the show. A man in black comes out of her trailer: he is Death, madly in love with her, and waiting for her to make a mistake. Oliverio tries to make love to her, but she tells him that first he must pass a test: he has to cross the tightrope that she crosses during her show. As Oliverio begins to walk over the tightrope, she begins to undress. His double and his triple laugh as he tries in vain to perform the acrobatic act. He fails (falls in the safety net) and has to sleep alone. The following day he sits next to the Death during Alejandra's show. Joaquin warns him against falling in love with her because she already tries to commit suicide. Oliverio doesn't listen: he tries again to cross the tightrope, fails again, and has to sleep alone again. This time he also play cards with Time, Death and Ana, and wins. Time whispers in his ear an advice on how to slow down both of them, Time and Death. Oliverio tries again to cross the tightrope, and this time Alejandra meets him halfway. They make love, but in the middle of the night Oliverio finds her dancing with Death. Still, he prevails: she chooses him over Death after walking the tightrop without any safety net. The couple takes off on Time's motorcycle (Time is not an enemy, he is the protector of Oliverio's most valuable treasure, his memories) but still followed by Death and Ana in a car. They dance and Oliviero defiantly touches Alejandra's belly (implying that she's getting pregnant), observed by Death, Ana and his own double and triple.
Hou Hsiao-hsien: Nanguo Zaijan Nanguo/ Goodbye South Goodbye (1996)

Moving away from historical Taiwan (his traditional turf) and towards contemporary Taiwan, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Nanguo Zaijan Nanguo/ Goodbye South Goodbye (1996) is a portrait of boredom amond the decadent, materialistic bourgeoisie of Taiwan. The pace is mostly frantic, but very little happens. People mostly argue. Closure is rarely reached. The lengthiest shots are shots of driving along highways or city streets. Hou's hyper-realism is so realist that he reproduces the insignificant details of sordid lives that are traditionally omitted in action films. We get huge amounts of casual conversation and mono-syllabic phone interactions, but very little in terms of plot development or even psychological study. The protagonists are not only anti-heroes, they are also anti-protagonists. These are hollow lives, who create hollow stories in a hollow society.

Two friends, Gao and Flatty, are punks who make a living out of semi-illegal transactions. Gao's girlfriend Ying and Flatty's girlfriend Pretzel are accessories to their plans for getting rich. The problem is that they all seem inept both at their business ventures and at managing their family life. Pretzel, in particular, runs into a huge debt and fakes a suicide attempt.
Gao is a furnace of ideas. He manages a restaurant and has connections that can help him profit from a deal with the government. During a breakdown, he confesses that he only wants to marry Ying and settle down.
Desperate for money to rescue Pretzel from her debt, Flatty travels to his ancestral land and asks his relatives for his share of the inheritance that he forfeited years earlier. His arrogant tone upsets a cousin who is a police officer and beats him up. Looking for a quick revenge, Flatty tries to get a gun. The cousin finds out and has him arrested. The cousin himself has to intercede with a politician in order to gain Flatty's release.
But Gao is likely to lose the one thing that he really wants: Ying, whose sister lives in America and wants her to move there too. Ying tells Gao that he could conduct business in the USA even if he doesn't speak English, but obviously this is implying that he has been so unsuccessful that being nobody in the USA will be better than being a failed gangster in Taiwan.

Otar Iosseliani: Monday Morning/ Lundi Matin (2002)

Otar Iosseliani's Monday Morning/ Lundi Matin (2002) is a surreal comedy that feels like a casual walk through the ordinary life of an ordinary man. There are few dialogues, and the mostly silent actions are hardly significant at all. Iosseliani indulges in juxtaposing the fact that everything is no normal and the fact that everything is so odd.

In a small town in the countryside, Vincent leads a quiet existence. He is a welder in a factory and, like everybody else in town, is a tobacco addict. Everybody smokes in between places where smoking is prohibited. His job at the factory is not particularly exciting, other than trying to smoke where it is prohibited. At home he paints. He has a wife who never smiles, and two children. The elder is in love with a pretty student and is painting a mural in the church. The town is the quintessence of unimportant, but it is inhabited by weird characters: a black man whose job is to push a man on a wheelchair down the hill; the old man himself, who gets off the wheelchair when it reaches the bottom and goes for a walk; Vincent's mother, an old woman who drives a spider; a young priest who has a telescope in the bell tower from which he can spy the woman who undresses in an apartment across the street. Gypsies arrive in town and two children release an alligator. Vincent's son writes a letter for the black man: a marriage proposal to his loved one (which the mailman opens and reads).
One day Vincent does not go to work. He saves a woman from three thugs (and is beaten by them) and then visits his father. The old man, who pretends to be very sick, is happy that he wants to travel and advises him to visit Venezia. Before leaving, Vincent drops by an old friend who works in a club dressed like a woman and keeps two rats as pets.
Upon arriving in Venezia, Vincent visits an old aristocrat, a friend of his father. An Italian whom he met on the train takes him to a picnic with the priest and for a walk on the roofs. The Italian, too, works in a factory where smoking is prohibited and all the workers must estinguish their cigarettes before entering the gate.
Life at the village is still the same. Vincent has been sending postcards that his wife tears without reading. Since the family is without money, the grandmother unearths a treasure that she has been hiding in the backyard. The black man is getting married (with a white woman) and the couple takes off for the honeymoon in the back of a tractor.
One night, Vincent comes back. He receives a cold welcome from his wife and his mother. The following day he is on his way to the factory.
Festival's website

The Masters

Alan Rudolph: Secret Lives of Dentists (2002)
Abbas Kiarostami: Ten (2002)
Hou Hsiao-hsien: Goodbye South Goodbye (1996)
Patrice Leconte: Man on the Train (2002)
Lucas Belvaux: Trilogy I, II, III (2002)
Aki Kaurismaki: Man Without A Past (2002)
Otar Iosseliani: Monday Morning (2002)
Chen Kaige: Together (2002)
Arturo Ripstein: La Virgen de la Lujuria/ Virgin of Lust (2002)


Marion Briand: La Turbulence Des Fluides (2002)
Abderrahmane Sissako: Waiting for Happiness (2002)
Juna Carlos Cremata Malberti: Nada (2001)
Chang Tso-chi: The Best Of Times (2002)
Chatrichalerm Yukol: Legend of Suriyothai (2002)
Chen Kuo-fu: Double Vision (2002)
Patrice Chereau: His Brother (2003)
Eliseo Subiela: El Lado Oscuro del Corazon/ Dark Side of Heart II (2001)
Eliseo Subiela: Adventures of God (2000)