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[whitespace] Modulations
'Love Parade, Berlin 97': In the film 'Modulations,' concert footage from Berlin suggests a groovy global consciousness, even if it is just the international desire to forget the world for a night.

San Francisco's 41st International Film Festival features 174 films from 45 countries over 15 days. Here is a selective look at some of the highlights.

Compiled by Richard von Busack and Michelle Goldberg

The festival's opening film is disappointingly tame. This dull biopic has a bright beginning, memorializing Oscar Wilde's 1883 tour of the Western U.S. The author arrives on screen like the new marshal of Leadville. But it's the movie that soon turns to lead. Stephen Fry is right in the title role, showing the fleshiness, the charm and the fatal pliability that led to Wilde's fall. Still, the stations of Wilde's cross (this film could be called Were You There When They Crucified Our Bard) are all too familiar, even when told with more sexual explicitness than usual. Director Brian Gilbert's Masterpiece Theater-level direction isn't rescued by the cast: Jude Law's Bosie isn't magnetic enough to be believable as the subject of a life-destroying folly; Tom Wilkinson (the fuddy-duddy in The Full Monty) is miscast as the Marquis of Queensbury; and Vanessa Redgrave is just plain peculiar as the Irish nationalist and poet Lady Speranza Wilde, the doomed author's mother. Julian Mitchell's simplistic screenplay relies on Wilde's The Selfish Giant as a metaphor for the author's life. Is Mitchell suggesting that Wilde's life only bloomed when he was with his children? If so, the film trades in all of the middle-class prejudices that Wilde used to sharpen his claws against while he was alive. At the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St; Thu Apr 23, 7:30pm; $45-$50. (RvB)

Edge City
(1998) Despite its too-loose structure and infatuation with MTV-style silliness like jumpy editing and gratuitous changes in film stock, Edge City is an astoundingly powerful film that goes deep into the crazed heart of teenage desperation. The movie deals with several interwoven cliques in Philadelphia and one of its suburbs, Springville: a group of rich girls engaged in a contest to see who can give the most blow jobs; a posse of suburban wannabe gangstas who are terrified when confronted with the real thing; and James and Bobby, urban, blue-collar brothers who get into trouble but are basically decent and down-to-earth. Unlike the overwrought melodrama of the supposedly realistic Kids, the horrific, absurd plot of Edge City is frighteningly familiar. A group of young Philadelphia boys throw their drinks at two Springville girls and grab their breasts. When the girls tell the story to their friends, they say, "We were practically raped," and soon word is spreading that they were raped at gunpoint in the back of a car. The bored, hyper Springville boys decide to have a rumble with the Philadelphia boys, but instead of targeting the kids who actually affonted their girls, they go after James and Bobby. For most of the movie, the plot is just an undercurrent to myriad aimless scenes of domestic alienation, awkward romance and lazy bullshitting sessions, which is fine, because the acting is superb. The characters are convincingly inarticulate, yet they radiate frustration, pathos and hormone-powered rage. Unlike the nihilistic monsters in Kids, these kids, for all their casual violence and anonymous sex, are plagued by insecurity and remorse. The humanity beneath their ridiculous cruelty makes the explosive ending all the more devastating. At the Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post St; Fri Apr 24, 7:15, and Sat Apr 25, 4pm. At the Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant Ave, Berkeley; Mon Apr 27, 9:15pm; $7.50-$9.(MG)

(1998) In San Francisco-based filmmaker Ellen Bruno's latest documentary, a simple structure and beautiful images put the film's anguishing stories into sharp, harrowing relief. Sacrifice consists of candid interviews with young Burmese girls sold into prostitution in Thailand, interspersed with images of the Burmese countryside, lingering shots of nature and of villagers working. The girls interviewed are almost all under 15, and they talk about the horrors they've suffered in resigned, deadened tones that are horrifically at odds with their childish faces. The most disturbing of the group is a skinny, half-hysterical woman who says she's slept with 1,000 men a year for over six years, "but I've never been to school, so I can't add it up." She talks about having to go back to work the day after a late-term abortion with her breasts still leaking milk. The narration is in a young girl's voice: "They come from Thailand looking for children, green like mangoes not fully sweet. They promise money to parents who do not know the world beyond." Bruno uses a light touch, and the film, while difficult to watch, isn't nearly as brutal and shocking as it could be. The overwhelming mood is one of despair, not repulsion. At the Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post St; Fri Apr 24, 1:30pm; $5-$5.50; and Mon Apr 27, 7:15pm; $7.50-$9. (MG)

The Opposite of Sex Mean Mama: A bleached blonde Christina Ricci stars in 'The Opposite of Sex' as a cruel white-trash sexpot who runs away from home and destroys her half-brother's life.

The Opposite of Sex
(1997) The Opposite of Sex tries a bit too hard to be zany and madcap in its twisted plot, complicated couplings and self-referential narration, but it's saved by fantastic performances and an understated sweetness. Hal Hartley favorite Martin Donovan is subtly heartbreaking as upstanding gay teacher Bill Truitt, a role that's almost a comic version of his character in Hollow Reed. Christina Ricci stars as his half-sister, Dedee, a bleached-blonde, white-trash sexpot. Dedee resembles Reese Witherspoon in Freeway, but without her decency and spunk. She's ignorant and mean, and her acidic narration is initially off-putting. "If you think I'm just plucky and scrappy and all I need is love, you're in over your head," she tells us. "I don't have a heart of gold, and I don't grow one later." Soon she's packing to run away from home to find her half-brother, whose life she promptly destroys, stealing his boyfriend, his savings and the ashes of his dead lover. Lisa Kudrow, typecast until now as a blonde ditz, is surprisingly good as a mousy, bitter spinster whose brother was Bill's lover. She's irritating and touching at the same time--though she loves Bill, half of her revels in his catastrophes and the drama they add to her life. Donovan isn't the only thing that director Don Roos borrowed from Hartley--at its best, The Opposite of Sex is full of Hartley's deadpan humor, his melancholy sense of redemption and his overwhelming sympathy for his misguided characters. At the Clay Theater, 2261 Fillmore; Sat Apr 25, 7pm; $10-$12. Includes a premovie stroll with live music and refreshments. (MG)

(1986) In Jyohang, Korea, a group of four girls live at a "tea shop," one of many in that busy port town. It's actually a combination outcall brothel and catering service run by a bitter, grasping madam (Jimi Kim), who keeps a sharp eye on the girls' expenses and doles out plenty of fines. The four working girls face prejudice and violence from customers. Egregious subtitling ("He's so luck habing such a nice dauther") and strictly melodramatic storytelling are relieved by moments of intimacy. One such moment: the way the submissive, frozen smile on a girl's face stays fixed as she realizes that a much-longed-for movie audition is actually a cold seduction. Even the madam turns out to have her own heartbreak. This is one of five films being shown by the Korean filmmaker and Kurosawa award winner Im Kwon-Taek. Im's reputation can be guessed at from Ticket's relative frankness in discussing sex, patronage and the exploitation of women--this film did come out of a cinema that was hidebound with censorship. Still, in America, Ticket may only be of interest to Koreaphiles and Im completionists. At the Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post St; Sat April 25, 1pm, and Fri May 1, 7pm; $7.50-$9. (RvB)

Xiu Xiu
(1998) Xiu Xiu begins as a sentimental, wistful Beauty and the Beast story, then abruptly turns into a harrowing tragedy with an oddly regressive ending. It begins in 1975, at the end of the Chinese cultural revolution. Beautiful, delicate actress Lu Lu plays Xiu Xiu, a girl sent by the government to the Tibetan countryside for six months to learn to herd horses. She's left in the hands of Lao Jin, a scruffy herdsman who was castrated during a Tibetan tribal war. For the first hour or so, she's bratty and he's smitten, and there are numerous shots of her rolling through a meadow dotted with wildflowers and watching the clouds through a kaleidoscope. His sad eyes sparkle with delight whenever he makes her smile. He even has to rescue her from a scary, swampy forest, just like in the fairy tale. When the six months pass, though, and Communist headquarters doesn't come to retrieve her, she grows desperate to return to her family in the city. A passing bureaucrat hints that the only way for her to get transferred home is to sleep her way through the system, and soon a parade of low-level Communist administrators is passing through the tent that she shares with Lao Jin. At the beginning of the film, Lao Jin shot at passing riders rather than let them go up a hill where Xiu was bathing, and seeing Xiu whore herself destroys him. It's strange that San Francisco-based director Joan Chen would choose such an old-fashioned morality-play ending, but even though it's melodramatic (or perhaps because of it), Xiu Xiu is luminous and moving. At the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St; Sat Apr 25, 7 pm; $7.50-$9. (MG)

(1984) Two childhood friends from South Philly are reunited in an army hospital as casualties of the Vietnam War. Al (Nicolas Cage) is swathed in bandages after his face has been half blown off; his friend, nicknamed "Birdy" (Matthew Modine), is curled up in a fetal position in one corner of his mental ward cell. Director Alan Parker's sharp visuals include early, powerful use of the steadicam. But as always, Parker is both sugary and crass: he grafts "La Bamba" onto a chase scene and finishes with a stupidly happy ending. Peter Gabriel's soundtrack and Modine's gentleness cut the laughability of the premise. This is a story, no matter how Parker finesses it, of a boy sexually attracted to canaries. Modine is fine, but Birdy is Nicolas Cage's movie; the actor, young and muscular, is remarkably unwet in this tragedy. Here, early on, are the qualities that made Cage's name: the canine sorrow of the drawling, husky voice, the swollen mouth, the bizarre humor--him turning up in a pigeon suit, saying "Boo" to a little girl on a train who stares at his bandages. Hearing Cage's delivery of a line like "I'm a little scared I won't recognize who I'm shaving in the morning, you know?," a viewer can marvel at how Cage escaped the surly gravity that weighed down most of the other serious, very physical actors of his generation. At the Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post St; Sun Apr 26, 6pm; $10-$12. (RvB)

Once Upon a Time in China and America
(1997) According to Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins' book on Hong Kong film, Sex, Zen, and a Bullet in the Head, Wong Fei-Hong (1847-1924) was the Wyatt Earp of China, a doctor and martial arts teacher who has been the subject of more than 60 films. Jet Li, the Harold Lloydish star of several previous films about Wong, repeats the role here. Here Wong and Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) head to the Old West. Our hero gets amnesia after a stagecoach accident and is adopted by the Indians; Yee is menaced by racists in Fort Stockton's Chinatown. Director Samo Hung (director of the Jackie Chan vehicle Mr. Nice Guy) is canny in his borrowing of Sergio Leone-style widescreen close-ups, homing in on the vermilion war paint around the eyes of a stalking warrior, contrasting the feathers in his hair with a handsome shot of a pheasant padding through the autumn-colored grass. One deep moment: an elderly Chinese laborer on a scaffold is about to be lynched. He shows no terror of the gallows. Asked for last words, he sums up his life in a few words: "I was married, went to work. I was a slave outside, but I pretended to be an emperor at home." At the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St; Sun Apr 26, 9:45pm; $7.50-$9. (RvB)

The Long Twilight
(1997) The Long Twilight is astonishing if for no other reason than the rarity of seeing a modern psychological thriller with an old woman as a protagonist. At just over an hour, this hallucinatory Hungarian film creates enormous terror and anxiety with spare action and minimal dialogue. Based on Shirley Jackson's "The Bus," The Long Twilight exposes an inescapable helplessness behind the old woman's sophisticated, confidant facade. It opens with a little girl running through a field of enormous sunflowers toward a group of adults who are honoring the film's heroine, an elderly archeologist. When the woman speaks, she seems satisfied with her life and her age, her warm face crinkling into a smile as she says, "I advise everyone to grow old. Old people eat little, sleep little and sleep light. They have their memories and unlimited time." But on a bus that refuses to take her where she wants to go, her peace and self-respect are ripped away as she finds herself stuck in a nightmarish loop filled with absurd Kafkaesque cruelty and disturbing bits from her past. At the Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post St; Wed Apr 29, 7:15pm; $7.50-$9; Fri May 1, 2pm, $5-$5.50. At the Lark Theater, 549 Magnolia Ave, Larkspur; Mon May 3, 2pm; $7.50-$9. (MG)

The Spider's Stratagem
(1970) The young Bernardo Bertolucci directed this slightly overpraised but very stylish Borges adaptation, set in a half-deserted, backward Italian town where there are only "madmen and old men and old madmen." The son and spitting image of the town's local hero has turned up for his first visit, and this is what he learns: Athos Magnani (Guilio Brogi, who also plays the son) was shot in the back by Fascists in his opera seat during the climax of a 1936 performance of Rigoletto. Time has stood still in the village, we're told; the place has been waiting almost 40 years for Athos' avenger. The son's attempts to find out who was responsible are stymied: Was it one of his father's friends, the Three Musketeers-like anti-fascists who'd schemed together in a bomb plot against Mussolini? Or is the killer Athos' scorned mistress, Draifa, who tells the son right upfront that she is "as jealous as Othello"? Alida Valli plays Draifa as an elegant, aging and slightly cracked donna. The film is cheery for all of its existentialism. As in many of Howard Hawks' films, this detective story has the quality of being simultaneously tense and relaxed. Franco di Giacomo and Vittorio Storaro's heavenly photography has been fueling Tuscan fantasies in the home and garden press from then until now. (And fans of the cult TV show The Prisoner will adore this.) At the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St; Wed Apr 29, 7pm; $7.50-$9. (RvB)

Me and My Brother
(1965-68) A sometimes maddeningly banal, sometimes priceless experimental film by Robert Frank. The subject is a man who was a footnote to literary history: Julius Orlovsky, brother of Peter, the longtime companion of Allen Ginsberg. Seen here in home movies, Julius Orlovsky is a near-complete catatonic with the true charisma of the schizophrenic. Incidents in the Orlovsky brothers' lives together are re-enacted in both documentary and docudrama-in-progress, which is cast and filmed before our eyes. A young Christopher Walken, sporting a slight German accent, is the director; the piss-elegant Roscoe Lee Browne has some brief scenes as the film's cameraman. It could have been a precious bore--and at times it is, as when Me and My Brother mulls over the old R.D. Laingian ideas about "who are the real madmen, after all?" Where Frank shows his talent is the way he's painstakingly connected the material. The use of split-screen and double exposure is impressive. Frank worked hard on making this disorienting film all of piece so that, say, there's an internal logic to an out-of-nowhere scene of a nun huffing glue on the subway as we listen to an imaginary radio broadcast of Robert Kennedy performing "Wooly Bully" live at a political convention. Frank will be coming to San Francisco International Film Festival with his infamous Cocksucker Blues, a documentary showing the seamiest side imaginable of the Rolling Stones. At the Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post St; Sat May 2, 4pm; $7.50-$9. At the Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant Ave, Berkeley; Sun May 3, 7:30pm; $7.50-$9. (RvB)

Blind Faith
(1997) It's set in the late '50s, in a Toronto posing (and looking far too stately) as the Bronx. Blind Faith is the story of an uncle defending his nephew in a murder trial. These unlikely circumstances are explained somewhat credibly as being due to the unpopular nature of the case: The nephew is a black youth convicted of having strangled a white boy in Van Courtland Park. Worse, he has signed a confession. As directed by Ernest Dickerson (Spike Lee's cinematographer on Do the Right Thing), Blind Faith is engrossing enough; it has its qualities as a courtroom drama, and Courtney Vance is a pleasure to watch as John Williams, a lawyer trying to climb into a better league. As the police officer father of the accused, Charles S. Dutton is so intimidating that you understand why his son is in terror of telling the truth. But the true nature of the kid's problem is easy to guess, and there's no twist in the tale after the premonition comes true. I realize that to some people Blind Faith will be a daring subject, but the made-for-Showtime quality is all over the film: too much simplicity, blocky characters, reiteration of the problem every 20 minutes or so for those who tuned in late. At the Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post St; Sun May 3, 2:45pm; $7.50-$9; and Tue May 5, 1pm; $5-$5.50. (RvB)

Animated by Dr. Freud
Harmony Korine's Gummo may be the most transgressive film in the festival, but The Fetishist, one of the animations to be shown in the program "Animated by Dr. Freud," is surely the most disturbing. Jim Trainor's portrait of the pervert as a young man is based on an American Journal of Psychiatry article from the 1940s about a sex killer. The silent film creepily combines childish stick figures with old, grainy black-and-white photographs and lots of erections and excretions. The constantly morphing face of the skinny, pimply protagonist oozes sexually repressed skeeviness. Other animations in the program are easier to take--there's a cute little computer-generated cartoon from Pixar called Geri's Game and a gorgeous, abstract piece called Linear Dreams by Richard Reeves that appears to be made of scratches right on the film emulsion. The highlight of the program is Lewis Klahr's funny, absurdist Calendar the Siamese, in which a troubled composer, dumped by his girlfriend and frustrated in his work, decides to sell part of his liver to the Chinese "biological black market." The characters were made using photographic cutouts--all of them in color except the narrator, until he nears death and turns yellow with jaundice. They move against richly patterned, gorgeously colored backgrounds, and the effect is of a masterpiece modernist collage come to life on a gallery wall. At the Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post St; Mon May 4, 9:45pm; and Thu May 7, 7:15pm; $7.50-$9. (MG)

(1997) Modulations, the new film by Synthetic Pleasures director Iara Lee, is a film for insiders. This documentary about the electronic music scene ignores the more salacious aspects of this drug-drenched world, instead focusing on the genealogies of various techno subgenres, optimistic prognostications by musicians and lots of footage of DJs spinning records and twiddling knobs. It assumes that viewers know the difference between, say, gabba techno and German acid house, and talking heads are identified as "hard-core junglist" or "nasty ghetto house producer." That said, there's fascinating stuff here for fans, especially the footage of electronica pioneers from the 1930s and '40s like Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. One DJ has even calculated exactly how many beats per minute it takes to keep a crowd dancing all night (133). Like Lee's Synthetic Pleasures, a film about the ways that technology has recreated nature, Modulations is full of trippy animations and disorientating editing. We hear from such big names as Moby and The Prodigy, as well as more obscure artists like the X-cutioners (who are also featured in this month's "On the Town") and the always eloquent DJ Spooky. When the hype threatens to get overwhelming, Germany's hysterically nihilistic Alec Empire deflates it, saying, "At the end of the day, it's just a stupid party. Everyone who says, "This is a new generation, everyone's happy, new technology"--that's so naive and stupid." Still, the footage of a Prodigy concert in Moscow's Red Square combined with scenes from raves at Mount Fuji, Japan, and in East Berlin and Ashbury, N.J., suggests a groovy global consciousness, even if it is just the international desire to get fucked up and forget the world for a night. At the Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post St; Wed May 6, 4:15pm; $5-$5.50; and 9:30pm; $7.50-$9. (MG)

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From the April 20-May 3, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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