By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
THE SOUND FALTERED, THE PROJECTOR SPUTTERED, and the first trailer ran upside down -- all for an overflow crowd who would eventually wait more than 45 minutes past the scheduled start time for the Japanese coming-of-age drama All About Lily Chou-Chou to actually begin. As technical difficulties mounted, writer-director Shunji Iwai, who adapted the movie from his elaborate interactive Internet novel, nervously stepped before a microphone and, in fractured English filled with long pauses, attempted to regale the audience with anecdotes. Most of these fell flat, though he did score a laugh when he noted, "Most of my American friends pronounce the film's title as chow-chow or choo-choo. Chow-chow is a Chinese dog. Please call it shoo-shoo. It's French."
Indeed, French and any number of Asian languages -- in films spanning genres and linking production companies across geographical boundaries -- dominated this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. So did themes of alienated or isolated youth, as screening after screening showed teenagers and young 20-somethings killing, raping, conning or blackmailing one another, often to the accompaniment of moody electronica soundtracks -- all as the nightly news was announcing that Germany had just endured its own Columbine.
Of these films, only Iwai's Lily Chou-Chou(Japan), shot on film and digital to tremendous effect and drenched in shimmering color, and Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo (Taiwan/France) were as formally daring as they were thematically challenging. Iwai's film plunged the audience into the excesses of contemporary Japanese pop culture -- its state-of-the-art gadgetry, its obsession with money and status, its speed-of-lightning shifts in trends, its worship of celebrity -- in order to guide us through the treacherous paths of modern adolescence. No other "youth culture" film in recent memory has been as harrowing, draining or truthful. At the story's center is 14-year-old Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara), a sensitive boy with a crush on the most popular and talented girl at his school. To escape the pressure of both hormones and middle school savagery, he retreats into worship of the vaguely goth pop singer Lily Chou-Chou. Lily's rabidly devoted fans commune via chat rooms, where they dissect the world, offer solace to their wounded brethren and pay tribute to their tortured goddess. Theirs is also a world in which betrayals are commonplace and often bloody, in which victim and bully can coexist within the same body. Scored to both Debussy and haunting Japanese pop, Lily Chou-Chou's emotional undertow -- in which tangents built upon tangents are painstakingly brought back to the center -- swells until it threatens to engulf the viewer.
Hou Hsiao-hsien's tale of sex, drugs and techno finds the 55-year-old master director trumping many of his new-school counterparts when it comes to capturing club culture and its various sociopolitical tributaries, including the rampant materialism that's used to fill spiritual voids and compensate for a crippling inability to connect with others. Shot by Mark Lee Ping-bing, who worked with cinematographer Christopher Doyle on Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love and who brings the same hushed, slo-mo beauty into play here, Millennium Mambo is dense with a melancholy derived as much from the emotionally astute use of music (house, techno, all-purpose trip-hop) as through the hypnotic imagery of the story itself. Narrator Vicky (the absurdly gorgeous Shu Qi) leads the viewer on a 10-year journey through her life with a drugged-out, wannabe-DJ boyfriend whose relentless jealousy, shading toward violence, springs largely from class envy of his higher-caste trophy femme. Past and present, memory and real time, all slip and slide over one another throughout as they combine to drive the story forward. If, in the end, Millennium Mambo's carefully hedged optimism rings true, it's because the bruises have been so carefully cataloged.
Other highlights of the festival included Karmen Geï (Senegal/France/Canada), Joseph Gaï Ramaka's fiercely les-bi-onic take on Bizet's opera. Set in Senegal and brought to life with spellbinding costumes and incredibly sexy music, it was worth the price of admission just to watch the sweat bead on the collarbone of lead actress Djeïnaba Diop Gaï. Another co-production from France and Senegal, Alain Gomis' L'Afrance, seemed eerily timely, in this Le Pen moment, as it looked at the issues of race, assimilation and colonization through the eyes of Senegalese grad student El Hadj (Djolof Mbengue), who wants to take his degree back home and help his people, but whose life spirals disastrously out of control when he carelessly lets his student visa expire. Shinsuke Sato's The Princess Blade(Japan) came armed with all the qualifications for an instant action-film classic, but dropped the ball in its deadening second act, and never fully recovered. A long, lifeless stretch of dialogue and emotional excavation brought the momentum generated by the taut opening action scenes to a halt, with things picking up again just in time to lay the groundwork for a sequel.
DESPITE THE FESTIVAL'S STRENGTHS, THE BUZZ factor was noticeably muted this year compared to festivals past, which may have had as much to do with the psychological state of the economically depressed host city as with the slate of screenings. "We were incredibly nervous about turnout this time around, considering how many people up here are out of work," said Carl Spence, the festival's new director of programming. "But so far it looks like we're actually skewing better than last year in terms of attendance." But while most of the films were deemed "good enough" by audiences, only a few titles seemed to be blowing them away.
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