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Friday, December 3, 2021

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 'Ascension' spotlights China's thirst for profit, sex...

Screen Grabs: ‘Ascension’ spotlights China’s thirst for profit, sex dolls and all

Plus: 3rd i, Veterans Fest, Night Raiders, and three films with very long titles from Japan, Lesotho, and Georgia

It’s a busy weekend for smaller-scaled local film festivals, including the SF Transgender Film Festival (see 48 Hills’ interview here), plus the aforementioned SF PornFilmFest (ditto) and Frameline Fall Showcase (here). There’s also the Veterans Film Festival, which returns to SF Public Main Library’s Koret Auditorium on Sat/13 and Sun/14. Its mix of documentary and narrative titles addressing issues of interest to military vets will be free of charge both at those in-person screenings, and in online access available through Nov. 20. For full info, go here.

3rd i, the area’s premiere promoter of South Asian diaspora cinema, is observing its 19th birthday as an institution with an edition of its annual SF International South Asian Film Festival that, for the second year in a row, will be virtual-only. Appropriately, the kickoff feature Fri/12 is Roshan Sethi’s 7 Days, a barbed romcom about two young Indian-Americans whose parentally-arranged first date turns into an awkward, forced shelter-in-place cohabitation due to COVID lockdown. Another livestream-only event on Sun/14 is “In Process With Nishtha Jain,” in which the award-winning Indian documentarian will reflect on her craft, as well as a current project about independent farmers’ struggle for rights in an increasingly corporate agricultural landscape.

Other titles in the program will be available for On Demand streaming throughout the festival’s span, Fri/12-Tues/16. They include another US-set romcom in Iman Zawahry’s Americanish, P.S. Vinothraj’s drama Pebbles (India’s designated Best International Feature candidate for the Oscars this year), Parisian criminal-underworld saga The Loyal Man, and Mumbai teen tale The Tenant. Among the documentaries on tap are globe-trotting environmental activism portrait The Ants and the Grasshopper; Writing With Fire, about a group of Dalit women whose online newspaper habitually goes where mainstream Indian journalistic platforms won’t; and White Riot, Rubuka Shah’s entertaining flashback to Rock Against Racism, a late-1970s UK musicians’ movement against (then, as now) rising fascist political trends. For full intel on the festival’s programs, schedule and ticketing, go here.

Other movies arriving this Friday (some in theaters, most via streaming) also run toward the independent and international, with an unusual tilt towards the visually adventurous and thematically ambitious:

Ascension
Especially striking on the visual plane is Jessica Kingdon’s new documentary, which purports to offer an overview of mainland China’s avid pursuit of capitalist profit as played out from society’s bottom rungs to its top. But there’s no analysis or spoken commentary here, just observation, in an almost phantasmagorical collection of real-life setpieces seemingly chosen for their bizarre (at least to western eyes) nature. There are the virtual pledges of corporate allegiance and military-style exercise drills required of factory workers; the desperation with which individuals are encouraged to “brand themselves,” as if everyone can become some kind of online influencer star; weird leisure activities at a high-tech “ocean park” where there’s no ocean, just simulations.

Patriotic self-improvement platitudes are recited with religious fervor, even if in service for products as obviously export-only as clothing with “Keep America Great” slogans, or customized, life-sized sex dolls. We see a sort of deluxe bootcamp at which men are humiliated and made to beat each other for no obvious reason, then discover they are apparently training for careers as servants in a totally retro, Downton Abbey-style tradition. Indeed, even people of wealth appear less to be enjoying that status than play-acting upper class behaviors derived from western media.

Ascension is certainly arresting, but despite its knockout images and air of coolly ironic distance, it feels like a bit of a vintage mondo movie, gawking at the weirdest stuff it can find. That China is accelerating as both mass-producer and consumer just when climate change calls for global deceleration is an unspoken lesson to be drawn here; Ayn Rand meets Mao when one manager barks “Knowledge must be monetized.” I’m not sure how much insight this documentary affords towards the average Chinese citizens’ everyday experience, but it does capture a kind of fin de siecle frenzy in denial of something more ominously final on the global horizon. It opens Fri/12 at SF’s Roxie and Berkeley’s Elmwood, also launching Mon/15 on streaming platform Paramount+.

Night Raiders
That threat of a dystopian future is a present-tense reality in Danis Goulet’s Canadian narrative feature, a co-production with New Zealand. It’s 2043, and the destruction wrought by catastrophic war is such that the government seizes children to raise in militaristic facilities, supposedly guaranteeing a way forward by creating a de facto next-generation army. Older survivors are left to get along as best they can in what’s left of civilization. Niska (Ella-Maija Tailfeathers) has lived hidden in the forest with her young daughter for several years, unwilling to surrender 11-year-old Waseese (Brookyn Letexier-Hart). But when one of them suffers a serious injury, she has no choice but to let them be separated. On her own, however, Cree tribeswoman Niska realizes there is an underground resistance of First Nations peoples who suspect the government’s intentions, and are determined to free the captive children.

This is less a sci-fi adventure than a grim speculative drama a la Children of Men or The Road, one with an eventual messianic-twist leap very much bound up in Native spirituality. Still, it does become more of a thriller as it goes on. Unfortunately, Goulet does not evince much knack for the needed action or suspense in this first feature—so the movie actually becomes less compelling as it should grow more so. Nonetheless, the mix of prominent indigenous cultural elements, near-future fantasy, and conspicuously current political commentary is distinctive, lent further weight by the film’s often impressive physical scale and good cast. It’s a mixed bag, but one whose ambitious seriousness made it worth a watch. Samuel Goldwyn Films is releasing Night Raiders to limited theaters, Digital and On Demand platforms on Fri/12.

Three Idiosyncratic Movies With Very Long Titles From Japan, Georgia, Lesotho
The lean towards home-streaming content that COVID accelerated continues to have the welcome side-effect of nudging more determinedly uncommercial foreign arthouse films into a US release that they might not have enjoyed otherwise. A trio of particularly out-there such features happen to be arriving this Fri/12, their idiosyncrasies underlined by epic titles that would make a marquee-changing theater employee throw his plastic letters to the ground in despair.

Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You, further billed as a ““Lament of Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese,” is an experimental work by that director, whose minimalist village drama This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection got released here earlier in the year. Stark as that richly color-saturated tale of pitiless “progress” in the director’s native Lesotho (an independent state wholly surrounded by South Africa) was, this 76-minute, B&W abstract is the more challenging for having no real narrative at all.

Instead, it’s a simultaneously beautiful and forbidding objet d’art weaving together a series of docu/fiction line-blurring images: A woman walking down a street dragging a full-sized wooden crucifix, a transperson likewise treading a hostile public street path, a man oblivious to the world behind a VR headset, sheep and shepherds. A narrator speaks of “living this vicious circle of love and hate,” and the poetical whole feels like an anti-nostalgic act of remembrance from a forced exile. Indeed, Mosese reportedly lives in Berlin, and this debut feature (it was made before Burial) has been shown in excerpt as a video installation in galleries. His precise message here may be as mysterious as it is personal, but his sensibility and eye command attention. Dekanalog is releasing Mother… to US theaters and virtual cinemas, go here for more info.

Twice as long if considerably lighter in tone is Georgian writer-director-editor Aleksandre Koberizde’s What Do We See When We Look At The Sky?, a 150-minute whimsy with a wayward narrative and very little dialogue. It ought to be a chore to get through, but if you tune into its breezy, playful wavelength, it’s an unpredictable charmer. In provincial city Kutaisi on the Rioni River, two attractive young people—soccer coach Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) and pharmacist Lisa (Oliko Barbarkadze) keep meeting accidentally, until they’ve each decided it is love at first sight, and arrange an official first date. But before that can happen, someone or something places an evil-eye curse on the duo, so that overnight both their appearances drastically change—so that they can no longer recognize each other, or indeed any old friends, employers, etc. can recognize them.

Now played by Giorgi Bochorishvili and Ani Karseladze, the two are still young and attractive. But they must start new lives from the bottom rung, and as each has no idea the other suffered the same misfortune, they give up hopes for mutual romance. Nonetheless, in these new bodies they are gradually, fatefully drawn together once again. As if this main plot hook weren’t already arbitrary enough, Koberizde throws in running-thread errata involving street dogs, World Cup fever, and people making a film-within-the-film. Sky? is leisurely and easily distracted, yet its digressions have a graceful, athletic feel, like improvisational dance. You could argue the movie is all style and no substance—particularly when it closes without much in the way of a proper ending—but the style is frequently transporting, and there’s a kind of impish cosmic humor at work that suggests a philosophical framework. MUBI is releasing it to limited theaters.

A more weightily existential look at small lives in the big scheme of things is Joe Odagiri’s They Say Nothing Stays the Same, a first feature that aims for the solemn gravity of an epic by an old master. Toichi (Akira Emoto) is an already-aged ferryman when we first meet him, living in a simple shack on a riverbank in the Japanese countryside a century or more ago. His job has always been ferrying locals across that river in his wooden boat. But a bridge being built nearby promises to render that service irrelevant, while also ushering the modern age in to people who’ve stayed isolated from it. Meanwhile, the seasons change as ever, and Toichi’s own life experiences an unexpected change when he rescues a near-drowned young woman (Ririka Kawashima) whose background is a mystery.

Shot by Christopher Doyle, famous as Wong Kar-wai’s longtime cinematographer, They Say… is duly sumptuous to look at, exquisite in its use of the surrounding landscapes. Poetical and lovely in aesthetic terms (there is also a score by US jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan), the movie is also sometimes overblown and pretentious, with some overly flashy editorial gambits and hinted supernatural narrative elements that lead nowhere. It’s the kind of movie that presents itself as a masterpiece without quite earning that degree of self-congratulation. Nonetheless, it is frequently impressive, and always a pleasure for the eyes. Film Movement is releasing to virtual cinemas, VOD and Digital platforms this Fri/12.

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