Big Screen Berkeley: More from the San Francisco International Film Festival

Father and son experience the uncanny in Life After Life

This is the second and final week of San Francisco International Film Festival programming at Pacific Film Archive (check out the full schedule). Last week, I highlighted some movies worth seeing. Below, some of what’s on during the week ahead:

Hanyi Zhang’s Life After Life (Zhi Fan Ye Mao, screening at 4 p.m. on Friday, April 14) is a low-key ghost story with a decidedly undemonstrative ghost. Set in a Chinese village on the edge of a rapidly expanding city, the story revolves around a teenage boy’s possession by the spirit of his late mother, who’s intent on saving a sacred tree from the bulldozers.

This sounds a lot spookier than it actually is: son/spirit host Leilei (Zhang Li) neither spits pea soup nor levitates, merely announcing to widower Mingchun (Zhang Mingjun) in his normal voice that he’s now his deceased wife Xiuying. This is presented in such a matter-of-fact manner that a badly timed sneeze or cough could easily result in your missing this critical plot development.

Father and son/deceased wife don’t seem particularly fond of each other but dutifully take on their arboreal task. At eighty minutes, Life After Life is just long enough, it’s lingering static and tracking shots of desolate woods and industrial wasteland suggesting that rural Chinese – and their traditions and superstitions – are rapidly being overrun by forces beyond their control.


Former OPD Chief Sean Whent as seen in The Force

Saturday, April 15, is a particularly notable day, with two of the Festival’s centerpieces on tap. First up is The Force (screening at 4 p.m.), a documentary of significant local interest that will garner a wider release later this year. Directed by local Peter Nicks (The Waiting Room), the film is a bit schizophrenic: the first half details the Oakland Police Department’s efforts to end its 12-years-long-and-counting stretch of federal oversight, while the second focuses on the ground lost in the wake of 2016’s Celeste Guap scandal. One suspects Nicks began the film thinking it would be a tale of redemption; instead, it ends up being a tale of deep-rooted systemic rot and corruption.

Unusual happenings are the order of the day in The Ornithologist

If you can only see one film this week, let it be The Ornithologist (O Ornitólogo, screening Saturday April 15 at 8:30 p.m.). The story of a birder (Paul Hamy) lost in the Portuguese wilderness (no, I didn’t know there was such a thing, either), the film takes viewers on an increasingly bizarre and uneasy journey in which our hero meets two Chinese girls on pilgrimage, a young goatherd, some strangely attired locals, and three bare-breasted amazons on horseback.

Written and directed by João Pedro Rodrigues, The Ornithologist offers a Bunuelian take on themes first explored in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). In addition to a striking visual reference to Il Sodoma’s ‘Martyrdom of St. Sebastian’, it also features one of the eeriest scores of recent vintage, a cacophony of tortured violin strings courtesy composer Séverine Ballon. I loved the music (and the movie), but you might want to bring earplugs.

A scene from the Canadian drama Searchers

The curtain comes down on Sunday April 16, with Searchers (Maliglutit, screening at 1:30 p.m.), among the Festival’s final offerings. Loosely based on John Ford’s western classic The Searchers (1956), and set among the indigenous people of Nunavut, Canada, the film is a (literally) chilling tale of far north revenge. Bundle up!