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Filmed on the Body 

The 44th annual S.F. International Film Festival gets sexy, with women on top -- and just about everywhere else

Wednesday, Apr 18 2001
Like life, good film festivals have a rather dull unifying force and lots of fascinating satellite themes. The 44th annual SFIFF is no different: Though its grand scheme purports to be international, its American films are among its best, and along the way the fest highlights all kinds of subversive and intriguing subideas.

Among the most interesting of this year's tangents is a powerful strain of films about the strength of women. From France to Japan, Iran to the S.F. County Jail, the broads in these movies kick some ass. Many of these anti-chick flicks converge on the subjects of sex and violence, with women breaking free from dangerous pasts or powering headlong into dangerous futures. In Baise-Moi (France), possibly the most controversial film of the festival, a prostitute and a porn actress go on a cathartic -- if senseless -- killing spree. In Face (Japan), a shy seamstress finally snaps, which sends her into a colorful and fugitive new life. And in Maral (Iran), a religious woman plots to get rid of her husband's second wife -- a gorgeous young widow.

But not all of this woman power revolves around cruelty. For those who have loved her since 1978's Grease (and before), Stockard Channing combines class with strength, whether she's on the screen, onstage, or on TV. This year she takes home the Peter J. Owens Award, which honors an actor "whose work exemplifies brilliance, independence, and integrity." Channing's The Business of Strangers (U.S.A.) screens Tuesday, April 24, at 7 p.m. at the AMC Kabuki; it's yet another peek at the steel that lies beneath that apple-cheeked smile.

Of course, the men are not forsaken in this year's festival, but the undercurrent of gender clash and upheaval is unmistakable. Whichever subtheme you decide to pursue -- whether it's a streak of French films or a tribute to our own San Francisco Cinematheque or a selection of animated shorts -- keep your eye on the women. They're bound to come out on top. -- Karen Silver

Baise-Moi (France, 2000)
Be forewarned that it takes more than a strong stomach to enjoy this unflinchingly graphic and utterly joyless onslaught of sucking, fucking, and shooting. You'll also have to toss away your bourgeois attachments to coherent themes and character development. Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi's slovenly polemic follows a porn actress and a hooker who, tired of being beaten, raped, and shortchanged by both men and society, go on a robbing and killing spree. Revenge fantasies can certainly be cathartic (cf The Living End or Thelma & Louise), but this grunge ode to nihilism (the title translates as Fuck Me) aspires only to shock and depress. OK, the film seems to call semi-articulately for a class war, rather than simply a feminist uprising -- our heroines unhesitatingly blow away the occasional middle-class woman along with numerous cock-equipped scum. But the best punk rock laced its anger with humor, self-effacement, and more than a smidgen of artistry, none of which is on display here. (Michael Fox)
Friday, April 20, 10:15 p.m., Castro

The Center of the World (U.S.A., 2001)
From a story concocted by director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club), precocious filmmaker/performance artist Miranda July, novelist Paul Auster (who penned Wang's Smoke), and novelist Siri Husvedt, Center's screenplay was written by Ellen Benjamin Wong. With this many cooks in the kitchen, one might expect a deceptively simple stew, filled with subtle nuances. For better or worse, however, the movie is simply simple, and from its stripped-down production (shot on video) to its tiny cast, its quality and significance depend upon one's perspective: Is this a daring, homespun yarn, or just a very middling stab at soft-core? Taking place mostly in Las Vegas (which the movie likens -- along with "the cunt" -- to the center of the world), it's the story of two lost, confused youngsters who try, respectively, to employ and deny the magic of sex. Richard (Peter Sarsgaard, Boys Don't Cry) is a lonely programming wiz, and the punkish Florence (Molly Parker, Sunshine) is the stripper he buys for a $10,000 weekend. Parker goes way past conventional boundaries, and her challenge to herself, one might assume, is to keep a human face on this whirlwind of rage and lust. Sarsgaard is a helpful foil -- when he's not accidentally hilarious -- and his overwhelming desire feels real. Yet even as Wang hits us with shocking truths (sex, for example, is different from computers), it's hard to tell what we're supposed to make of this shortcut to nowhere. (Gregory Weinkauf)
Thursday, April 19, 7 p.m., Castro

Gaea Girls (England/Japan, 2000)
The same pair who directed Dream Girls and Shinjuku Boys, both terrific explorations of gender-bending women performers in Japan, returns with an exciting new documentary about Japanese women's professional wrestling. This film, which details the grueling (and sometimes gruesome) debut drilling of a sweet-faced rookie, rebukes American principles of athletic training by dramatizing a code that demands unconditional obeisance and vengeful rage on the part of the trainee. The same code requires unrelenting severity of the champion trainer, a husky-voiced hulk who has the wrestler's attitude down cold, spitting and stripping off her T-shirt as thousands shout her name. The revelation that paternal abuse has enhanced the champion's greatness as a wrestler makes Gaea Girls a fitting companion to the American boxing feature Girlfight in the annals of female rage. An awesome testament to determination and ambition. (Frako Loden)
Friday, April 20, 10:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 1, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 2, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (U.S.A., 2000)
Hedwig has a wonderfully absurd setup, as any self-respecting musical should: Hedwig (writer/ director John Cameron Mitchell) is the transsexual lead singer of an obscure glam-rock band, and the angry inch is his penis, mutilated during a sex-change operation gone horribly awry. Abandoned and brokenhearted, Hedwig channels his anxiety into Ziggy Stardust--type songs (written by Michael Trask) and chases after his young doppelgänger/ex-lover/ protégé Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), who's stolen those songs and achieved superstardom while Hedwig languishes in obscurity. Hedwig -- adapted from Mitchell's acclaimed off-Broadway musical -- is supposed to be about Hedwig's search for love and inner peace despite his, er, shortcomings, but we never get a fix on exactly what's driving him. His sexuality? His lack of fame? His capacity to love? All of the above? Mitchell bogs things down in empty animated segments, an East Berlin back story, thin characters, and artsy scene-setting, so by the time Pitt's pale, thin Gnosis enters to solve the puzzle, it's much too late to care whether Hedwig is the Second Coming or just the grandest drag queen ever to hit Jackson Cove, Mo. It's best to settle for the evocative, unconfused scenes set during Hedwig's national tour of seafood restaurants, where it's great fun to see him bitch and strut his way around retirees hunched over their cracked crab. (Mark Athitakis)
Saturday, April 21, 10 p.m., Castro


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