56th San Francisco International Film Festival Preview – Asian Cinema

SFIFF56The cornucopia of cinematic delight that is the San Francisco International Film Festival is here again. Bouncing back and forth from Berkeley to San Francisco from April 25-May 9, the oldest continuously running film festival in the United States has a stock of films for the cinephile interested in Asian cinema and cinema about Asia. Below are comments on three films I’ve seen before this year’s festival launches.


Pedro González-Rubio casts a few of the few remaining residents of a village in Nara prefecture in a ‘documentary’ called Inori  (2012). Produced by NARAtive, a production company associated with the Nara International Film Festival established to encourage cinematic works in the prefecture, Inori is an example of cinema as meditation. From the opening and closing scenes of the mountain village, to the lovely moment of dissipating fog San Franciscans will know so well, Inori  is as much about contemplation of the now as it is a snapshot of the voids in a town from which young folk have flocked away for better economic and social opportunities. I anticipate that Inori is a perfect film companion to compliment Anne Allison’s upcoming book Precarious Japan (Duke University Press, 2013) where Allison “chronicles the loss of home affecting many Japanese, not only in the literal sense but also in the figurative sense of not belonging”. The loneliness of one resident in this sparsely populated village commenting on how much he misses the presence of others in his town hits a truly sad note, so much I found myself wanting to stop watching. But I held that tone and continued through the film like these residents continue through their quiet days. In spite of that sadness, those who find sustenance in nature will find much to appreciate in the images González-Rubio pauses upon. Inori, which means ‘prayer’, is a film to contemplate, not to ruminate. It is a film to sit with for the ambiance and mood, rather than to push you out of your seat from the adrenaline rush.Nameless_Gangster_02

That adrenaline rush comes with the South Korean film Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (Yoon Jong-bin, 2012). Filled with spontaneous and premeditated pummeling, Nameless Gangster is a film that refuses to romanticize its characters, for the violence and immoral choices here have dire consequences and the main character presents himself as a fool who stumbles upon power, rather than a man with much dignity. That man is played by Choi Min-shik. For San Franciscans who didn’t get enough of Choi in New World (Park Hoon-jung, 2013) while it played at the Daly City Century Cinema and San Francisco’s 4 Star, Nameless Gangster brings us 2 hours of Choi in Busan dialect, a pathetic player playing with pathos in the gangster world. Besides Choi’s usual brilliance, the other standout for me was Kwak Do-hwan who plays the prosecutor with expert control. I haven’t been paying attention to Kwak’s career, but this role has him on my radar now. [Editor’s note – also check out Colleen’s New York International Film Festival review of Nameless Gangster here]Salma_Kim_Longinotto

A career that has been on my radar for some time is that of British documentarian Kim Longinotto. During one of my trips to the International Women’s Film Festival in Seoul, her film Sisters in Law: Stories from a Camaroonian Court (2005) was featured. After returning to the U.S., I caught a retrospective of her work at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, where I was able to provide her with a copy of the Seoul film festival’s program. It was at the PFA that I saw two of her handful of films on Japan – Eat the Kimono (1989), which follows the feminist performer Hanayashi Genshu, and Dream Girls (1994), which documents the popular Takarazuka Revue where women play both male and female roles in stage musicals outside Osaka. Her films are in depth looks at the lives of women around the world, always filmed with an unvarnished approach, refusing to look away from the difficult conditions many of these women face, yet demonstrating the perseverance and strength of each woman featured. Her subjects always have their agency fully on display.Salma_01

Recently, Longinotto has been spending time in India and this year’s SFIFF brings us Salma (2013), in which Longinotto follows her eponymous subject, the most celebrated female poet in the Tamil language. Salma wrote many of these poems while imprisoned by her family and in-laws for 25 years. This family imprisonment of girls once they reach puberty is a custom within this particular village, the kind of custom that makes us pause the proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, reminding us that some of the ways we collectively raise our children can do harm as well as good. The frank discussions of this practice by women and the rationalizations by the men are part of what makes Longinotto’s work so valuable, and so heart-wrenching. When Salma’s husband talks of how he expresses his ‘anger’ and we see Salma’s body language slump as far away as she can while still sitting next to him, when we watch a Hindu wedding where the young girl appears to be heaving back breaths of deep sadness, we are told so much about what is hidden underneath village life for these women, a pain imprisoned in the norms of the communal chest of this village that Salma’s poetry exhaled onto the Tamil-speaking public, and now further onward to a San Francisco audience.

So many scenes in Salma will resonate with me for some time. When Salma’s sister prays in a chair for one of the five moments Muslims are called to prayer during the day, we see a male member of the family sleeping on a bed, showing us the occasional double-standard demanded for ritualistic religious devotion. There’s another scene where Salma is positioned where we can’t see her as she speaks with a burqa-wearing woman who greatly admires Salma’s work. What’s striking about this scene is how the burqa prohibits the viewer from knowing for sure when this other woman is speaking, demonstrating in a new way how burqas can silence women. This scene, along with underscoring how many women greatly appreciate Salma’s poetry and life choices, challenges the view rationalized by some men in the documentary that the burqa ‘liberates’ women. All this provides background for a scene near the end of the film where Salma brushes her hair for the camera, for the anticipated audience she does not know, making such an everyday act a powerful gesture of resistance in this particular village.

 For more information and tickets to SFIFF screenings and events, please visit http://festival.sffs.org/