Film festivals, of course, provide an excellent opportunity to see a lot of smaller independent (and largely non-American) features from around the world — films otherwise unlikely to get a general release in the United States or a box office boost at Golden Globes or Oscar time. For decades, the San Francisco International Film Festival has been one of the jewels in the crown of the festival circuit, and it returns to Pacific Film Archive – one of the nation’s premier screening rooms – for its 34th consecutive season.
PFA’s Festival programming begins at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 5 with Jia nian hua (Angels Wear White), the latest from Chinese director Vivian Qu, whose first film, Trap Street, made a good impression on me a few years back. The titular angels are Xiaowen and Xinxin, schoolgirls in a small Chinese coastal resort town who’ve been taken advantage of by a powerful politician at a local motel.
The only witness to the incident is Mia (Qi Wen), the motel’s teenage go-fer. Filling in for flirtatious desk clerk Lily (Jing Pen) on the night the politician’s party checked in, the illegally employed Mia has no ID card and is understandably reluctant to cooperate with the authorities until attorney Hao (Ke Shi) wins her trust with a little cash and a lot of friendly persuasion.
As sordid as this précis may sound, Angels Wear White completely avoids onscreen unpleasantries and keeps the focus on the small-scale bribery and corruption that allows such crimes to be committed with relative impunity. Conveniently dovetailing with President Xi Jinping’s recent anti-corruption drive, the film also works well as straightforward drama, with those reliable cinematic bugaboos bad parenting and broken homes coming in for criticism.
Immediately following Angels Wear White at 8:40 p.m., The Distant Barking of Dogs is classified in the Festival program as a documentary but – despite the inclusion of some genuine wartime footage — feels more like a docudrama. Set in Ukraine’s restive Donbass region, where Russian-speaking separatists are battling to secede from their ostensible homeland, the film depicts the impact of the war on two young boys and their grandmother. Though the fighting remains unseen, the steady thrum of distant shelling is almost indistinguishable from that of summer thunderstorms, lending the film a suitably ominous tone.
Iranian filmmakers have a long tradition of pushing the Islamic Republic’s censorship envelope, and Vahid Jalilvand’s Bedoone Tarikh, Bedoone Emza (No Date, No Signature) does something I’ve never seen in an Iranian film before — allow an adult female character to touch an unrelated male one. It’s no more than the gentle laying of a hand on an arm, but this brief moment suggests the relative liberalism of the Rouhani government has left filmmakers feeling a little less constrained of late. The story revolves around Kaveh Nariman (Amir Aghaee, Iran’s George Clooney), a mortician worried that his carelessness may have contributed to the death of an 8-year-old boy. Don’t be surprised if this excellent feature ends up being a Festival prize winner.