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.

One of the festival's most telling movies, in fact, was one of its slightest. 25 Watts, co-directed by Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, has the distinction of being one of less than two dozen films ever to come out of Uruguay (although it could easily have been set in Austin or Berkeley). A low-key, sprawling, Slacker-esque film that follows three amiably underachieving friends through hours of television watching and good-natured bickering about nothing, this is the foreign film for Beavis and Butt-head. That's not to say it's bad — 25 Watts provides a steady stream of low-watt guffaws along the way — even if it is most notable for how generic it is, telling us almost nothing about Uruguay and everything about the far-reaching effects of the filmographies of Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater.

Which raises a question. Now that American “independent” film has securely nestled itself into the bosom of the major studios and devolved into little more than a marketing hook, what is its function in the world market? As so many First World countries around the globe shamelessly ape big-budget Hollywood fare, is it the role of American indies to similarly and simultaneously colonize the cinema of the Third World? Instead of celebrating and underscoring what is distinctive or unique about their locales and inhabitants (which is what Slacker and Clerks were about), will small-scale foreign films treat small-scale American films as a template to be followed to the letter, obliterating any hint of individuality or regional flavor? Those questions seemed especially pungent in a San Francisco whose own legendary funkiness has been displaced or weakened by the dominant mall culture and which, having been shorn of much of the quirkiness that made it symbol of and beacon for the idiosyncratic, now stands at the mercy of marketplace whim. Somewhere in the situation of San Francisco circa 2002 is a warning for filmmakers around the globe who would uncritically and wholeheartedly embrace formulaic “independence” in order to ride the jock of the status quo.

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