Five must-see documentaries at the huge San Francisco International Film Festival. Plus: Rare Finnish movies and a ton of SFIFF previews.
More lives in chaos — albeit slightly more existentially — are depicted in A River Changes Course, which picked up a Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Cambodian American filmmaker Kalyanee Mam followed a trio of rural Cambodian families over several years, eventually crafting a vividly-shot, meditative look at lives being forced to modernize. Talk about frustrating: farmers grapple with a new worry — debt — so the eldest daughter heads to Phnom Penh to work in a factory. But the paltry wages she earns aren't enough to offset the money they will have to spend on food, since they can't farm enough to eat without her around to help. Elsewhere, a teenage boy who figured he'd grow up to be a fisherman takes a backbreaking planting job when the fish grow scarce; he confesses to Mam that he's long since given up any dreams of getting an education. "Progress" has rarely felt so bleak.
Adding a much-needed dose of quirk to all of the above is Kaspar Astrup Schröder's Rent a Family Inc., about Ryuichi, a Tokyo man whose business name translates to "I want to cheer you up." He's a professional stand-in, offering himself or any of his rotating cast of staffers to pretend to be friends or relatives in situations, including weddings, where the real thing is either not available or won't suffice.
That premise alone would make for an intriguing doc — though there's a disclaimer that certain scenes with clients are "reconstructed" — but Ryuichi's career choice feels even more surreal once it's revealed how dysfunctional his own family is; among a wife and two kids, he gets along best with the family Chihuahua. Though Schröder focuses on Ryuichi's ennui at the expense of delving into, say, what it is about Japanese culture that enables the need for fake family members, the guy is undeniably fascinating. "I'm like a handyman, fixing people's social engagements," he explains — but he has no clue how to mend his own. *
SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
April 25-May 9, most shows $10-15