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San Francisco International Film Festival: ‘Vivan las Antipodas!,’ “Wu Xia’

San Francisco International Film Festival: 'Vivan las Antipodas!,' "Wu Xia'

A day of happy accidents.

I knew that I wanted to see “Wu Xia,” a martial arts movie that had been extremely successful in its homeland and which the Weinstein Company had acquired with some fanfare at Cannes last year, at 3:45.

I had a choice between two movies showing in an earlier afternoon slot: “Land of Oblivion,” a fiction film about the lingering emotional and physical effects of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, and “Vivan las Antipodas!,” a curious-sounding documentary pairing four antipodal (i.e., across the globe from each other) geographical locations: Entre Rios, Argentina, and Shanghai, China; rural Russia and Patagonia; Hawaii and Botswana; and New Zealand and Spain. I hadn’t seen earlier work by either of the directors, and the films both seemed intriguing.

On the whole I feel I get more of the point of a film viewed on TV if it’s a documentary – especially, of course, if its primary intention is the delivery of information, not the beauty of its images. Despite the fact that I see more and more films via DVD and the plethora of movie channels, I still am occasionally stunned at how much more engaged I am by a movie shown on the big screen. I was most recently reminded of this by the triple James Bond bill I’d seen just the day before on the Castro’s matchless screen, and a viewing of “Dark City,” a film noir I’d seen and enjoyed several times on TV, which was something of a revelation when caught on the Pacific Film Archive’s less-impressive but still adequate theater screen last weekend.

So perhaps I was leaning towards the fiction film, especially because it was shot in Chernobyl and I figured the landscape would be more compelling, writ large. As it turned out, I was only released from my involuntary household bondage in time to race across the bridge and catch “Vivan las Antipodas!,” and even then only because the Cherry Blossom Festival was over. It’s a street fair that engulfs Japantown and the blocks in front of the Kabuki and Film Society Cinema  for two weekends a year, at least one of which is scheduled at the same time of the film festival, rendering parking nearby even more problematic than usual.

I was surprised that “Vivan las Antipodas!” was screening in the big room. I was slightly saddened that the director, we were told, would be in town for its two subsequent screenings, but not today.  And then the room darkened and I was immediately swept away, captivated by a film unlike any I’d ever seen before, which seduced me with its beautiful images and witty juxtapositions and for 104 minutes set me free from my own earthly cares and opened my mind up to many other possibilities.

I loved the camera movements, sometimes straightforward, sometimes dizzily turning upside down or sideways.  I loved the juxtapositions of geography or activities. My mind felt freed and nimble in a way that meditation sometimes induces. I was reminded of some of the films of Chris Marker – not literally, but the way they make me feel smarter, sometimes, while watching them. Or, don’t laugh, the way I felt when I first saw Koyannisqatsi, decades ago, even though director Victor Kossakovsky’s long, languorous takes are nothing like Godfrey Reggio’s quick-cutting.

When the movie was over I ran into director of programming Rachel Rosen right outside the theater and, still reeling, told her I could easily have watched several hours more of Kossakovsky’s footage. She agreed that I was lucky to have seen it on the Kabuki’s big screen.  (Later that night I discovered a whole series of Kossakovsky talking about his rules of filmmaking – on YouTube, of course. But no easy access to his earlier work, alas.)

“Wu Xia” found me, therefore, in an unusually good mood, seated next to a traveling cinephile who was spending at least part of the year AirBnB-surfing from film festival to film festival, having already been to SXSX and the Dallas Film Festival and looking forward to spending an entire month at the Seattle Internatioal Film Festival in June. We discussed the vagaries of film distribution, and he pulled out his iPad and introduced me to a website called Tugg, a new way of bringing films to “a theater near you” in underserved communities.

I was very happy with “Wu Xia,” which added animated “CSI”-like footage of the interior of the body to explain exactly how martial arts blows were able to maim and destroy their victims to its exquisitely-shot and masterfully-editted period story. I crave a good Asian action movie, and there haven’t been enough lately. I could have used more wire work, but why quibble. There’s never too much wire work, as far as I’m concerned.

Afterwards I took a chance on a Tibetan film – a Tibetan-Chinese co-production, as it happens, if that doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility. Director Pema Tseden is identified as “the leading filmmaker in the only-just-emerging New Tibetan Cinema,” and this is his third feature. It was already screened once, and programmer Rod Armstrong notes in his introduction that he’s been asked to say that it’s a serious film, and that upsetting things happen in it.  It’s shot in bright, grainy video, in long takes, mostly in long shot (an occasional medium shot, revealing facial features, comes as a shock) and not much happens in its 88 minutes. Apparently mastiff mutts are fashionable in China, and dogs are being stolen or sold for large sums. The old dog of the title is in danger of both.

I only wish that Rod hadn’t felt compelled to mention “upsetting things,” because the upsetting thing happens right at the end of the movie. Despite the warning, the fact that it occurs offscreen, and the incident’s symbolic and metaphoric power, I’m surprised at how vehemently some members of the audience excoriate the poor volunteer staffers trying to hand them ballots as they exit the auditorium. “It’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen!,” I hear, and “I never would have come if I’d known what it was about.” Huh. Once I’d settled into the rhythm of the picture, I found it compelling.

The last movie of the day is “Guilty,” a conventional, well-acted, but ultimately thinly-scripted movie about a couple falsely accused (along with a dozen other people) of participating in a child sex ring in France. (Memories were awakened of the almost equally Draconian McMartin preschool case in the 1980s, the longest criminal trial in American history, in which all charges were eventally dropped, but not before ruining many lives). Such a story might be better served at greater length on television, I mused, and then laughed at myself. Wasn’t the whole point of a film festival to get the hell out of the house and watch something with other people?  Even if, as at “Old Dog,” they seemed to miss the whole point.

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