Buddhist Report

Americans have a hard time believing that Buddhists make movies. We imagine them sitting under mango trees, contemplating the world and mastering their desires, not scouting locations and sweet-talking investors. But, of course, Buddhists do all of these. And sometimes do them very well.

All of which brings me to the International Buddhist Film Festival. I saw some great films there Saturday, all of which I recommend.

Chasing Buddha is a documentary about Robina Courtin, an Australian-born Buddhist nun now living in the Bay Area. A former hippy and political radical, Courtin spends much of her time these days in prisons, helping condemned criminals find a spiritual path. She’s strong-willed, direct, and uses language that would easily earn this movie an R rating if it was shown commercially. You can still catch Chasing Buddha at the Rafael on February 13, 2:00.

Mujann is not a Disney cartoon set in China. It’s a simple, little film shot in Mongolia about yurt building. This isn’t strict cinema verité, but an ethnographic film in the tradition of Robert (Nanook of the North) Flaherty, showing real people doing what they do, but doing it staged for the camera.

Hometown of the Heart was the real find of the evening. Unfortunately, you may never get a chance to see this 1949 gem–one of only two pre-partition Korean films to survive the war that broke out the following year. Set in a remote monastery, it focuses on a young boy who dreams that the mother who deserted him will one day return. This is no unquestioning celebration of organized Buddhism; the master who runs the monastery is strict, narrow-minded, and unsympathetic. The festival screened a new print made from an old, worn-out source; heavy scratching on the picture and soundtrack make it, literally, a hard movie to watch. No better source is known to exist.

Dead Man is something altogether different. A western staring Johnny Depp, released by Miramax in 1995. The plot, concerning a timid accountant from Cleveland who becomes a wanted outlaw within a day of getting off the train, sounds like a Bob Hope comedy. But Dead Man was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, which by definition makes it a very weird flick. And it earns its weirdness with the quirky humor and strange occurrences we associate with Jarmusch. The supporting cast includes John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, and Robert Mitchum. This isn’t one of Jarmusch’s better known films, but it’s one of his best.

It’s also, to my knowledge, the only black and white western since John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962.

But is it Buddhist? Personally, I can’t see it. But then, I’m not a Buddhist. Dead Man screens again, at the Rafael, Saturday, February 12, at 8:45.

Among the movies at the festival that I’m hoping to see are Hi! Dharma, a Korean comedy about gangsters hiding out in a monastery (Wheeler, 2/10, 7:30, Rafael, 2/12, 6:30), Rivers and Tides, the documentary about Andy Goldworthy that I have been failing to see for years (Wheeler, 2/12, 4:00), and the Chinese comedy Shower (Wheeler, 2/13, 6:30).

In other news, an archivist for the Library of Congress contacted me about Clash of the Wolves, the 1925 Rin-Tin-Tin feature I praised on January 2. The LoC has two 35mm prints available, so it would be possible to screen it. Now if only we can get the Castro, Stanford, or some other theater to do just that.

Finally, I’ve added the Lark Theater in Larkspur to the weekly listings. This restored theater from the 1940s shows a combination of current art-house fare and classics.

This Week’s Footnotes:

More David Thomson
He just finished his series at the PFA, but Thomson is already back for an evening of “Clips, commentary and book signing.” He’s presenting “From Jake Gittes to Joe Gillis” (translation: From Sunset Blvd. to Chinatown) Monday night at the Lark.

Dancing at the Lark
The Lark starts a dance movie series Friday. Among the films screening is The Red Shoes, the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger ballet masterpiece from 1948. The melodramatic story is extremely silly, but the dancing is magnificent, and Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography is among the best. No one understood three-strip Technicolor like Cardiff.

African Films
The Pacific Film Archive starts its African Film Festival this Thursday. I haven’t seen any of things being shown, but one of them is Moolaadé, which has been getting all sorts of praise. Moolaadé got week-long runs recently in San Francisco and Marin, but the East Bay only gives it three days at the Archive.

Not for Kiddies
The Parkway has an adults-only policy for everything except matinees, which may explain why Spongebob Squarepants didn’t do well, there. But this week they act like an adult theater (well, they’re still showing The Incredibles, but that’s a kid’s movie about mid-life crisis). If you’re in the mood for what passed for risqué in 1967, they’re showing Barbarella as part of their Thrillville series Thursday night. And for something stronger, they’ve got a Valentine’s Day party Saturday night with porn legend Nina Hartley appearing both on screen and in person.

Independence Days
The San Francisco Independent Film Festival continues at the Roxie and other locations.

White Kings of Comedy
The Stanford, which is currently dark four nights a week, is running an interesting festival the three nights it’s open. Every weekend it pairs a Marx Brothers movie with a creation of Preston Sturges, the writer-director who made so many of the great comedies of the early 1940’s. It’s a strange combination–really a clash of styles, but it’s two great comedies, well projected, with a good audience, for a reasonable price.