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    Queer Films and More at This Year’s San Francisco International Film Festival

    By Gary Kramer–

    The San Francisco International Film Festival opens April 10 with a screening of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and closes April 21 with Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets. In between there are more than a hundred features, documentaries and shorts, including several LGBTQ titles (most were unavailable for preview). Here’s a rundown of a half dozen international films to catch at this year’s fest.

    First Night Nerves

    Out gay director Stanley Kwan’s stylish new drama First Night Nerves features two rival actresses—Yuan Xiuling (Sammi Cheng) and He Yuwen (Gigi Leung)—performing in a play directed by Ouyang An (Kam Kwok Leung), a transwoman. The film depicts the week leading up to the production’s opening night and, of course, more drama takes place off stage than on.

    Xiuling is coming out of retirement to perform, while Yuwen, who has had success in film—she took a part Xiuling was supposed to perform—is seeking to establish herself as a stage actress. As details of their lives and careers are revealed, First Night Nerves gets juicier. Xiuling has a complicated backstory involving her late husband, and she’s possibly seeking companionship with Fu Sha (Bai Baihe), a wealthy lesbian. Meanwhile, Yuwen is looking to rewrite the script to increase her lines and upstage her co-star. Before long, the actresses find themselves re-examining their motivations and behavior. It’s a canny film that benefits from Kwan’s sure hand and artful turns by the two leads.

    Another film with queer themes is the absorbing South African entry The Harvesters. Set in the Free State region, teenage Janno (Brent Vermeulen) lives, farms and prays with his Afrikaans parents (Juliana Venter and Morné Visser). When they take in Pieter (Alex van Dyk), a rivalry develops between the boys. Things are further complicated in this hyper-masculine culture when one of the teens has same-sex desires. Gorgeously-lensed and well-acted, The Harvesters is a worthwhile drama.

    The Harvesters

    The compelling French import Paper Flags opens with Vincent (Guillaume Gouix) being released from jail after 12 years inside. He arrives at his sister Charlie’s (Noémie Merlant) house, and she takes Vincent in. As he searches for work, the siblings come to know each other better. Vincent, however, is still a hothead, and his outbursts can cause physical and emotional damage to others.

    Paper Flags is an interesting character study and Gouix is riveting to watch. He gives a highly internal performance—all cocky swagger with a mix of rage and frustration bubbling-under the surface. His appearance at a therapy session reveals much about his character, but it is watching him have a meltdown when his father turns up unexpectedly for lunch, or the joy that he expresses while driving, which makes the complicated Vincent most sympathetic. Paper Flags trades more on emotion than action, yet it features a quietly powerful ending.

    Paper Flags

    Also from France is the urgent, gritty crime drama Close Enemies. Manu (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a criminal hellbent on avenging the untimely death of his colleague Imrane (Adel Bencherif). Imrane was—unbeknownst to Manu—an informant for Driss (Reda Kateb), a cop who grew up in the same neighborhood as Manu. As Manu works with Driss to find out who killed Imrane, deals are made, and double-crosses happen. Close Enemies is standard cops-and-criminals stuff, but it’s thoroughly gripping, propelled by Schoenaerts’ intense, physical performance.

    Uruguayan writer/director Federico Veiroj’s gentle film Belmonte features the title character (Gonzalo Delgado), a depressed painter. Even though he sells his work, and has an exhibition coming up, Belmonte’s only interest is in spending more time with his young daughter Celeste (Olivia Molinaro Eijo). But his ex-wife Jeanne (Jeanne Sauksteliskis) is pregnant, and she wants Celeste to be with her. This comedy-drama of manners has Belmonte interacting with his family, his clients and others, navigating his way through personal, romantic and business situations. It’s a slight portrait that is engrossing, but Belmonte never engenders strong emotions. Nevertheless, Delgado has perfected the hangdog expression.

    In My Room, from Germany, starts out slowly with the sad sack Armin (Hans Löw) watching his grandmother (Ruth Bickelhaupt) die. When he wakes up the next day, however, Armin is literally alone—everyone has disappeared, save for some animals. Embracing this solitary existence, Armin ekes out life on his own, with various successes and setbacks.

    Things take a not unexpected twist when Kirsi (Elena Radonicich) shows up and she and Armin couple up, though she is adamant about not wanting a baby. The Adam and Eve scenario is unsubtle—especially when Armin picks an apple—but writer/director Ulrich Köhler does not seem to put much urgency into their situation. Viewers who lean into the film’s easy rhythms will enjoy this modest survivalist tale, but others will be restless and bored. Löw acquits himself well in the leading role and his lack of energy is compensated by Radonicich’s fiesty supporting turn.

    © 2019 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer