Saturday, May 03, 2014

SFIFF57: Lav Diaz's Fine 4-Hour Filipino Film is a Masterpiece

This is just one of the many reasons why I'm a huge fan of the San Francisco International Film Festival and totally enjoying the 57th edition of it. They show works that simply won't be shown on one of the Bay Area's commercial or museum screens, especially when the running time is marathon length.

Last Sunday, I saw Filipino director Lav Diaz's beautiful four-hour film "Norte, The End of History" and from the first long-take opening shot with the camera ever so slowly inching closer to a group of friends discussing politics and their personal lives, I was hooked. This is the first film of his I've seen and now understand why critics and cineastes have raved about him over the years.

The story, loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky's novel "Crime and Punishment", concerns a young male law student with liberal ideals about changing the political landscape. He murders a local businesswoman and her daughter, crimes for which another man is sentenced to life in prison. Told over a four-year period, the situations and characters reveal complexities about the human condition.

Lead actor Sid Lucero gives a shaded performance, as he skillfully toys with our expectations of potential redemption and reconciliation. The entire cast deserve accolades for this modern masterpiece. My hope is that more films by Diaz eventually unspool on a local screen, allowing me to catch up on his body of work.

Another fine work in the festival is Tsai Ming-Liang's "Stray Dogs", about a homeless father and his two young children struggling to survive in Taipei. As in his earlier films like "Goodbye, Dragon Inn", there's not much plot and plenty of static shots to gaze at and that bring us into the world of the main characters.

When a female supermarket clerk smells the dirty hair of the young girl, she washes her hair and bathes her in the women's restroom, restoring a bit of dignity to the girl, but she shows no curiosity about why the girl is alone in the store or where her father is.

How did they come to such poverty, is there no safety net of social services to assist them and who is the woman toward the end who feeds wild canines that share the abandoned building where the family sleep, and brings some hope to the father that his life will improve? We have to figure all that out and much more on our own.

This may be the director's final film and if it is, that is our loss and a reminder of the importance of the San Francisco International Film Festival and the choices of the programmers. They are certainly keeping this movie-lover happy.

(Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.)

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