Everywhere you went at the 49th San Francisco Film Festival you could feel a song coming on. The opening night selection, Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s giddy-pensive Hong Kong hit Perhaps Love, set the tone by seasoning Chicago pizzazz with pan-Asian melancholy, and from there it was just a step to James Gandolfini doing “Lonely Is a Man Without Love” with a full backup of Queens garbage men in Romance & Cigarettes. Seijun Suzuki stuffed Princess Raccoon with ballads, calypso, rap and rock, and Robert Altman wove a plangent musical community of his own in A Prairie Home Companion, though, for sheer effect, it might be hard to top Tsai Ming-liang’s cut from cum going splat on a porn starlet’s face to the evocation of a torchy MGM-style number in The Wayward Cloud.
Melodic deluges or not, the festival offered plenty of money shots. Under the new direction of Graham Leggat, recently appointed as chairman of the city’s Film Society after years of experience in the circuit, the festival, the oldest and one of the largest in the country, took extra pains to illustrate what he termed film’s “multiplicity of visions.” Guest speaker Tilda Swinton seconded that notion in her State of Cinema address, during which the Scottish actress, a self-described communist, relished the irony in The Chronicles of Narnia of “goose-stepping over old Walt D. by having the studio make over $700 million with the help of a Red Witch.” Indeed, big-budget filmmaking this year was the festival’s unofficial bête noir, as a high volume of foreign, documentary and experimental features filled the diverse roster (even the “mainstream” entries, Art School Confidential and Prairie Home Companion, could hardly be dubbed concessions to commercialism). The internationally-flavored entries went hand in hand with a feel for burgeoning technology, represented by studies on blogging and “cellphone cinema,” though, as expected, all eyes were mainly on the films.
If the festival needed a poster boy for intransigent vision, it couldn’t do better than Werner Herzog. Riding the comeback from last year’s exceptional documentary troika, modern cinema’s most serenely rapturous explorer came to town to receive the Film Society Directing Award and attend a screening of 2005’s The Wild Blue Yonder. The subheading (“a science fiction fantasy”) is fitting, for this is a film of conflations, starting with its own raw materials—footage from “a secret NASA mission,” underwater images from the Antarctic ice shelf, and Brad Dourif channeling Klaus Kinski as our guide, a homesick alien regaling the camera in a barren, garbage-strewn burg. Combining Senegalese vocals and jazz cello, the score contributes to the unearthly schizophrenia, yet the picture melds the deliberately divergent components (images and sounds, captured versus staged “reality”) into a sublimely harmonious tone—call it somber ecstasy. The subtle self-mockery might be seen as the director’s response to critics too eager to box his later works into the limiting “documentary” category, although, with its magnificent use of deep-diving images for anti-gravitational expanses, Wild Blue Yonder attests first and foremost to Herzog’s genius for finding the transcendentally alien squarely in humanity’s own backyard.
The aural mix in Princess Raccoon is no less disjunctive, though when is consistency ever a goal for Seijun Suzuki? An impish operetta surfing effervescently on the gonzo veteran’s liquidity of form, the movie is more of a crowd-pleaser than his previous Pistol Opera, if every bit as nutty—vain regents, shape-shifting ingénues and folkloric winks cavort to a beat that goes from tap-dancing to ’50s all-girl pop to performance-art voguing. For all the grabby eclecticism of Suzuki’s raucous block party, the movie is particularly attentive to the distinctive cultures at play, from the specific Chinese attributes of star Zhang Ziyi (explored rather than camouflaged a la Memoirs of a Geisha) to the European colonialism threatening the Japanese mythology the director exults here. Carlos Saura’s own cultural celebration, Iberia, is by contrast comfortably steeped in the kind of stereotypical concepts of Spanish romanticism the director would have questioned during the ’60s and ’70s. A performance film inspired by composer Isaac Albéniz’s eponymous suite, it offers exquisitely arranged moments of sensuality via movement, color and lighting, though the choreographed smolder is scarcely more than decorative next to Saura’s more searching works.
If balking at the seamless artifice of Iberia may sound ungrateful, watching Backstage helps appreciate its polish. Frazzled hysteria is the main ingredient in Emmanuelle Bercot’s portrait of fandom and drama queeniness, a bleary pas de deux between a leonine pop star (Emmanuelle Seigner) and the trembling young groupie (Isild Le Besco) she scoops under her wing; Mrs. Polanski does a robust send-up of Debbie Harry, but the film misses too many opportunities to study the intensity growing between an imploding diva and an imbalanced baby dyke—catfights are the closest the two come physically—to be much more than a limp, strobe-light retelling of All About Eve. All About Love, a hit in Hong Kong, is all about silliness, though it is not without a certain loony romanticism—directed by Daniel Yu, it is built on melodrama poured liberally over lost loves and second chances. The director is no Wong Kar-wai, however, and the simple-yet-convoluted plot—Andy Lau loses his wife in a crash and then stalks the woman carrying her transplanted heart, until her ex shows up, played for no particular reason by Lau in a goatee—becomes inert in a hurry, less hypnotic than somnolent.
Showing both U.S. premieres and festival-tried projects, the event was as much of a place to see new pictures as to catch up on ones that have eluded this side of the country. Chief among the better-late-than-never was Three Times, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s lovely triptych, which had already screened at Cannes, Telluride, Toronto and New York. A filmmaker of astounding visual-spatial gifts and emotional grace, Hou teleports his young characters (Shu Qi and Chang Chen play all the different couples) through a trio of incarnations, in 1966, 1911 and 2005; each third could be a pocketbook retelling of Hou’s previous films (Dust in the Wind, Flowers of Shanghai, and Millennium Mambo, say), yet the trajectory has the feel of an unfolding scroll, a continuously enriching narrative from past to present, connection to alienation, aware of a transience of beauty that is both specifically Taiwanese and affectingly universal.
Also caught in the flow of history, albeit in a far more dramatic manner, is Japanese Emperor Hirohito (Issey Ogata), a “living god” under the merciless scrutiny of Aleksandr Sokurov’s lenses in The Sun. Having already desiccated Hitler and Lenin, the Russian master finishes what could be dubbed his “bunker-trilogy” of murky titans, with Hirohito, his mouth constantly twitching, contemplating the textures of a crab while Japan burns outside. The deposed, top-hated monarch, surreally reminiscent of Chaplin on his way to meet the conquering Gen. MacArthur, provided one of the oddest, most vivid sights of the festival.
A sense of history was also prominent in several of the documentary offerings. Made from footage shot from 2002 to 2005, James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments catches moments in the lives of various Iraqi citizens, though its structure is far less fractured than the title might suggest—split into three, vérité panels, from an 11-year-old mechanic in Baghdad to a young, anti-American religious leader to a fatigued, old farmer in the Kurdish border, the progression could be that of life itself, or at least of hope, from razed urban centers to pastoral vistas routinely kept out of media coverage. In any case, the trenchant message is voiced by the young (“The world is so scary now”) and delivered by Longley’s harsh-beautiful compositions and sharp editing.