Six down, three to go

Joe and I went spent the weekend in SF for the annual SFIAAFF.

Maybe we’re getting too old for this. Joe fell asleep in the non-documentary movies (admittedly we’d chosen rather slow ones.)

Due to a quirk in our scheduling choices, we couldn’t stay for any of the post-screening Q&As, which was a pity because that’s usually the highlight. We scrambled from the Kabuki up Fillmore to Clay on Saturday. On Sunday, we made a mad dash from the PFA in Berkeley back to the Kabuki.

“Ninoy Aquino and the Rise of People Power”: Surprisingly, this was Joe’s pick. Since he’d known about Imelda’s shoes, Marcos’ fitness video, and the People Power crowds in yellow shirts, he wanted to know how it all came about. This film does its job in educating the viewer about that historic episode, and throws in a little context: Kim Dae Jung, who was an opposition leader in South Korea when there was martial law at about the same time, had a kindred bond with Aquino: both were political prisoners for a while. Kim went on to become prime minister of South Korea though.

What made me a little wistful was the sight of all those yellow shirts. In the Philippines in the 1980s, they really symbolised people taking to the streets who were non-violently demonstrating for democracy against the martial law imposed on them. (It’s easier to apply the simplistic good guys vs. bad guys label in that case.) The more recent yellow shirts vs. red shirts in Thailand seems more like a movement, in which people have been swayed, becoming pawns in a political maelstrom that is essentially a power struggle between two imperfect factions.

“Dear Lemon Lima”: Set in a private high school in Fairbanks, Alaska, it’s a teen-ager coming-of-age and identity-issues type story. What was interesting was the “Snowstorm Survivor” competition between high school student teams. I don’t know if these competitions also happen in real schools, but it was a series of challenges based on traditional Native skills, like kicking a suspended ball to signal a whale sighting while, or jumping on a sealskin trampoline to gain height in spotting whales, or a tug of war involving a stick, to simulate having to fish a seal out of a breathing hole in the ice. I’m bummed I missed the Q&A on this one.

“Agrarian Utopia” (one of two Thai movies this year): You know how some movie reviews are so high-falutin’ly abstract that you have no idea what the movie is like? Fortunately, the description written by Chi-Hui Yang (the long-time festival director) in the SFIAAFF catalog is pretty spot-on, with enough jargon to maintain his professional credibility! Unfortunately, I can’t provide a direct link to it, due to the quirks in the way the SFIAAFF website is set up. It’s fictional realism; show slowly, not tell. If you’ve ever wondered how debt-stricken Isan farming families shelter and feed themselves on a day-to-day basis when they’ve lost their land, this film will unflinchingly show you. None of the characters is a young single woman, which made me wonder if that was deliberate; to avoid dealing with the possibility of the stereotypical solution of her entering Thailand’s most famous industry. The ‘neighboring farmer’ who represents a last resort is like an Ad-Carabao-esque figure (complete with long hair) crossed with a organic/back to nature hippie. The movie features an obligatory scene of yellow shirt/red shirt demonstrations (there’s even a clip of the late Samak Sundaravej making a speech at a political rally.)

It seems unlikely this movie would enjoy a popular run at commercial cinemas in Bangkok, but I’d be so curious to see the reaction of a middle-class urban audience watching this film.

“Lessons of the Blood”: Again, read Yang’s spot-on description in the catalog. If anything, people have generally heard about the Rape of Nanking. I didn’t know, until I saw this movie, about the biological/germ warfare the Japanese inflicted in Zhejiang province in the form of a plague-type disease called glanders. Nobody realised that they had been attacked by biological warfare; most people who caught it died pretty soon afterwards, thinking it was just some infectious disease that their immune systems couldn’t fend off due to the wartime conditions (lack of food, stress, etc.) In the movie they call out an estimate that 1% of those afflicted had some inherent genetic immunity that allowed them to survive into old age (some are elderly people in their 80s today), although they have lived painfully with their wounds, sores, pus and bleeding all this time.

The film-makers threw in a lot of other history clips, including contemporary events (the 2008 Olympics!). It muddied up my understanding of the film’s context, I wasn’t really sure what point they wanted make with all that. In the end, what I got from that was: history is complicated, there are never any straightforward single causes and effects, there are multiple variables that affects how history/events turn out. Neither is there any black and white, nor heroes and villains in war. Inevitably, each side has committed sins and waged virtue.

“Mundane History”: The other Thai film. Includes an obligatory scene of red vs yellow political rally. Also includes the editorial work of my ex-next-door neighbor Lee. (I think every Thai movie that makes it into a film festival has had him working on it. He was listed in the credits of ‘Agrarian Utopia, and last year’s ‘Love of Siam’!). Instead of directing you to the catalog description, let me tell you what the assistant festival director said before the film started.

“After the screening the movie [for festival selection], Chi-hui was in tears . . .”

Err, after we watched the movie, we were like ‘what’? I think it was too abstract for us, especially towards the end when it throws in a lot of astronomy imagery. The film won a top prize at the recent Rotterdam Film Festival.

It is very much a ‘show, not tell’ movie centered on the premise of a young man who is paralysed from waist down, and his nurse. The best scenes are when he is outside in the rain. Getting rained makes him feel alive as nothing else can anymore. The film-maker Anocha Suwichakornpong is a woman: so it’s a promising sign that there are Thai women film-makers making critically-acclaimed movies. I also have to give her credit: there’s a brutally honest non-gratuitous scene of the invalid in the bath tub, shot from bird’s eye view.

“Unlocked” : This was one in a series of a short-films program. I have to admit, I picked it on the basis of this movie. A young man finds his bike locked up, not once, not twice, but three times, by someone else’s bike lock and bike – he can’t take his bike back until the other person unlocks their bike. (The screeching mom is a cliche nuisance though). It’s something conceivable, that has fortunately never happened to me. I wonder how many other cyclists have had the same experience though.

Next weekend in San Jose, “Au Revoir, Taipei”, “The People I’ve Slept With”, and “State of Aloha”.

Movies I wanted to see, but couldn’t squeeze in “A Village Called Versailles”, “The Forbidden Door”, “Cooking with Stella”, “Rasberry Magic”, “Wo Ai Ni Mommy”, “Prince of Tears” (note also “Formosa Betrayed” has been making the rounds, though not at SFIAAFF)

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