SFIFF, day ten: Cachao and the wow of Still Life

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By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Last night, Maria Bello accepted her Peter J. Owens award and hosted a screening of her new film Yellow Handkerchief. I haven't seen that film yet, but Bello will always have a place in my heart for her fearless performance in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005).

If you saw Buena Vista Social Club at the festival in 1999 and Calle 54 at the festival in 2001, then you may be familiar with the music of Israel 'Cachao' Lopez, the great Cuban songwriter and bassist who helped bring the mambo to popularity. The new Cachao: Uno Mas arrives just in time, given that Cachao passed away two months ago at the age of 89. It would be great to report that this 68-minute documentary was a worthy farewell, but it's far too brief and it breaks the cardinal rule of music films: it interrupts the songs with talking heads.

Cachao: Uno Mas talk at SFIFF

Some years ago actor Andy Garcia discovered Cachao's music, befriended him and helped re-start his career, especially in the United States. Garcia joined Cachao's band as a drummer and helped produce this and other movies. Unfortunately, director Dikayl Rimmasch seems rather starstruck by Garcia and splits the film's scant running time equally between Garcia and Cachao. So we end up with a few remembrances (all glowing, funny and full of hero-worship), a few fragments of songs, and a few precious minutes of Cachao in action, which isn't enough for a real portrait. San Francisco State University was heavily involved in the film's production.

As a documentary, Umbrella from the Sixth Generation director Du Haibin is exactly the opposite of Cachao: Uno Mas. It doesn't include a single talking head, and employs only a handful of intertitles to remind us where we are and what's going on. The film uses the umbrella as a metaphor for the China of today and its burgeoning, but quickly-shifting economy. The first of its five segments begins in a factory full of young people hoping to make a quick buck putting umbrellas together. Next, it swings over to merchants selling umbrellas, then job hunters attending a job fair. The fourth segment focuses on the military as an option for young people. And the fifth looks at the farmers who suffer the most. For the first time in generations, young people deserted their family farms to seek their fortune in the city, and city economics began to intrude on farm life, running many farmers out of business.

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Du Haibin's Umbrella is one of the stronger documentaries at this year's SFIFF

Du shows all of this without adding a single word. He just stands back and photographs. He goes for a Frederick Wiseman-like fly-on-the-wall approach that's enormously effective, if slightly devious (no film is this objective). The overall result is fascinating, if brutally depressing. It paints a decidedly different picture from the one the Chinese government would like you see.

Speaking of China, the festival's very best film, Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life, is screening at SFIFF just before a local theatrical run. I just saw Johnnie To's new film Linger as well, but it's such an unexpected departure that I'm still digesting it.

Still Life screens Tues/6, 8:45 p.m. at the Pacific Film Archive

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