San Francisco Int’l Film Fest

The last few years, I’ve taken advantage of the fact that the San Francisco International Film Festival falls on my birthday in late April, and this year is no exception. I needed little convincing to attend the oldest film festival in the US, and even less reason to take a vacation in one of America’s most beautiful cities.

After arriving yesterday afternoon, I managed to see the latest works of two masters, Tsai Ming-liang (Goodbye, Dragon Inn) and Raoul Ruiz (That Day [C’est jour-l‡]).

Tsai’s film is a continuation of his themes of urban alienation, evoked through his inimitable conflation of wry, deadpan humor, long minimalist takes, delapidated interiors, and unexpected hints of the supernatural. Dragon Inn contextualizes these elements around the cinema itself–literally, as the entire film takes place within an actual cinema (the one featured in his previous film, What Time Is It There?), and figuratively, as it depicts the constant tension between movies and audience, communal experience and individuality, and person-to-person relations. Tsai renders each of these subjects with an emphasis on their lack of cohesion, but as with all things, the absence of something is unavoidably attached to its existence–a paradox at the center this film and much of Tsai’s work. Characters gather together in a darkened theatre to ostensibly watch a Hong Kong action film, but their annoying viewing habits only serve to distract one another; a ticket-taker journeys throughout the labrynthine complex searching for the absent projectionist; audience members gather in various parts of the theatre hoping for, but failing to achieve, romantic couplings; the aging ghosts starring in the Hong Kong actioneer appear to watch the film as well…and then disappear.

Throughout, Tsai’s combination of sound design and space chrystallizes his thematic concerns: the echoing footsteps and crunching snackers say more about these characters and their interactions–or lack of them–than entire pages of dialogue might. In this milieu, where each detail counts as a major piece of a complex social puzzle, the choices people make in determining how to stand next to each other or select their seats in a nearly empty theatre become definitive personal statements.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a film that will undoubtably benefit from repeated viewing and contemplation, and I look forward to seeing the film again soon. I know of no other film that has foregrounded the existential experience of movie watching and the miniature social world within a movie theatre with greater poignancy.

As counted by the Internet Movie Database, Raoul Ruiz has made 90 films in the last 43 years and I’m sorry to say that I’ve only seen one of them–his avant-garde masterpiece, The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1979). That Day has convinced me I’d better start playing catch-up pretty quickly. It’s a playful and sharp-edged black comedy that charmed even me, someone who tends to be cynical about cynical comedies.

Set “in the near future” in Switzerland, the film details a man’s elaborate conspiracy to murder his superstitious daughter with the consent of his lawyers and local police, who release a serial killer from prison assigned to the deed. What follows is a highly-watchable combination of stylized performances evoking an unbalanced world treading a narrow line between reality and fantasy, sanity and insanity, power and weakness, love and betrayal.

Ruiz’s plot twists and turns with countless reversals, and yet somehow manages to seem thematically unified by the end, with a strange coupling of romantic innocence prevaling over evil machinations and self-destruction. Having said that, the less plot you know beforehand, the better, so I won’t indulge in any more narrative description. The screening at SFIFF was followed by a Q&A with the film’s star, Ruiz regular Elsa Zylberstein, who suggested the film was an exceptionally personal one for Ruiz, who was “revealing his heart” more clearly than ever before.

(Incidentally, the film was programmed with a wonderful companion piece, Patrick Bossard’s 5-minute, one-take short film, Life and Death of a Boring Moment, a wryly humorous depiction of an attempted robbery during the shooting of a pretentious art film.)

Among the highlights scheduled for today, Eric Rohmer’s Triple Agent and dinner at Foreign Cinema.