Heroic firefighters, the eeriest simian costumes since "Planet of the Apes," a "Baywatch" star-as-activist, fierce flamenco dancers, and a rushing tide of watermelon juice: Welcome to the first four days of the 49th annual San Francisco International Film Festival.
Opening night (Thurs/20), after introductory remarks by San Francisco Film Society executive director Graham Leggat, SF mayor Gavin Newsom took the Castro Theatre stage to usher in "the longest-running film festival in the world" (uh, sorry, Venice; SFIFF is the longest running film fest in the Americas, however). Newsom also awarded the key to the city to the mayor of Paris, France while the packed house surreptitiously rifled through their swag bags, admiring the Hong Kong Tourism Board tchotchkes (chip clips, baseball caps) and looking for edibles (breadsticks, cookies).
Appropriately enough, opening film "Perhaps Love" reflected one of the key themes of this year's fest: musicals. A love triangle between full-throated Jacky Cheung, fragile Xun Zhou, and dreamy Takeshi Kaneshiro ("The camera loves him," another character not incorrectly observes) plays out under the guise of a film-within-a-film. Reality and fiction blur thanks to flashbacks, copious mirrors, and "Moulin Rouge!"-meets-Bollywood interludes. (Bonus for Hong Kong movie fans: cameos by perennial faves Eric Tsang and Sandra Ng.) "Comrades, Almost a Love Story" director Peter Chan -- who filmed his first film, "Alan and Eric Between Hello and Goodbye," partially in SF -- seemed thrilled by the reception given to his latest film: "It's great to be back!"
The next night (Fri/21), a decidedly less glamorous (though no less enthusiastic) crowd huddled under blankets in a parking lot adjacent to a Mission District firehouse. The occasion: the premiere of Dolissa Medina's "Cartography of Ashes," a meticulously researched experimental documentary about the devastating fire that erupted after SF's massive 1906 earthquake. Screening just days after the quake's much-ballyhooed centennial, the film mixed archival footage and photographs with present-day narration and silent-film style intertitles. The story of Dolores Park's famed golden fire hydrant -- and the maybe-magical waters it draws from -- was a local-history highlight.
Sat/22, as the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival raged elsewhere in Japantown, the Kabuki Theatre hosted wall-to-wall screenings (and at least one thundering taiko performance). A pair of shorts programs, "Domestic Dramas" and "Circles of Confusion," offered nuggets of occasionally funny, occasionally surreal cinema. Among the all-narrative "Domestic" selections, Bay Area director Mark Decena ("Dopamine") took on fate -- and traffic -- in "The Light"; the Oakland natives behind "The Pretty Boy Project" suggested cutthroat double-dutch as an alternate means of conflict resolution.
"Circles" compiled experimental shorts from San Francisco (Edinburgh Castle Film Night regular Cathy Begien's "Relative Distance") and, apparently, outer space (strobe-o-master Peter Tscherkassky's Sergio Leone deconstruction, "Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine"). Also noteworthy: Olivo Barbieri's aerial wonder "site specific_LAS VEGAS 05," which mind-warpingly reduces the Strip to Technicolor toys; and sculptor-filmmaker Desiree Holman's Jane Goodall-through-the-looking-glass examination of chimpanzees, "Troglodyte." (Tantalizingly, during the Q&A Holman revealed her next project to be a study of "Roseanne" and "The Cosby Show": "Right now I'm sculpting all the Huxtables.")
An obvious choice for Earth Day viewing was "Who Killed the Electric Car?," Chris Paine's clever (and celeb-filled: Mel Gibson jokes! Baywatch's Alexandra Paul gets arrested for the cause!) and sobering look at the reasons the electric car -- seemingly a no-brainer for its pro-environment qualities -- is nearly extinct in California and elsewhere. Trivia: The doc was executive produced by Dean Devlin ("Independence Day," "Godzilla"), who's apparently one of few Hollywood megamoguls using his powers for good instead of evil these days.
Back at the Castro, an impulsive decision to see "In Bed" -- directed by 26-year-old Chilean Matias Bize -- turned out to be a good one. The entire film is comprised of a one-night stand between a pair of young strangers (Gonzalo Valenzuela, Blanca Lewin) who knock boots, pillow fight, and talk, talk, talk until they achieve a level of intimacy that surprises them both (and leaves each equally emotionally and physically naked). Though Bize wasn't present at the screening, a collective swoon arose from the audience when Valenzuela took the podium; moviegoers seemingly left satisfied.
More swooning was in order Sun/23, also at the Castro, for Carlos Saura's "Iberia," a dialogue-free dance film set to the rhythms of Spanish pianist and composer Isaac Albeniz. Certain segments inspired filmgoers to actually break into applause mid-movie, as if the performers were live on stage. The film's pace was as rapid as its many flamenco toe-taps, with elaborately costumed numbers -- veils, mantillas -- trading screen time with what looked like rehearsals in blue jeans. Though many of the dances were intense and serious, there were more than a few moments of levity: children dancing, a seductress weaving between several male dancers, and even, yes, a seemingly "Beat It"-inspired dance-off.
According to the Alloy Orchestra's Ken Winokur, San Francisco is "the center of silent film accompaniment" -- a fitting introduction to Alloy's live score for a brand-new print of 1927's "The Eagle," starring Rudolph Valentino (go on, swoon some more) as a suave Russian outlaw, Louise Dresser as the pushy Czarina, and one incredibly pissed-off bear. There's also a love story, much horseback riding, and early-century identity theft carried out with typical Valentino elan.
Last up on Sun/23 was what Leggat rightly introduced as a "pornographic musical," Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang's gloriously bizarre "The Wayward Cloud." Nervous chuckles greeted the opening scene (you'll never look at a watermelon the same way again), which foreshadows the nearly dialogue-free film's mix of daily drudgery -- much climbing of stairs and stashing of water bottles -- and strange beauty, including several jarringly colorful song-and-dance sequences. By the time the shockaroo ending reveals itself, "The Wayward Cloud" has already blown your mind. "Did you understand the movie at all?" volunteers asked dazed viewers as they grabbed audience-award ballots in the Castro lobby. Maybe not -- but being this confused has rarely felt so worth it.
[EDITORS NOTE: This article was originally published in SF360.org, a joint publication of the San Francisco Film Society and indieWIRE.]