"Merry Christmas, North!", a colorful and whimsical (if slightly morbid) South Korean look at life above the 38th Parallel

The 30th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival is already under way, with screenings taking place in San Francisco, San Jose, and — as in years past — at our very own Pacific Film Archive. As usual, PFA will be screening some of the Festival’s most interesting and prestigious titles, and the week ahead offers a solid selection of documentaries and dramatic features, with fans of non-fiction cinema particularly well served.

Produced with the assistance of HBO, Iranian-born filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian’s Love Crimes of Kabul kicks things off at 9:00 pm on Wednesday, March 14th. The director’s previous film, Be Like Others, was an eye-opening and genuinely shocking look at the lives of gay Iranian men forced to undergo sex change operations in order to circumvent their homeland’s onerous morality laws.

Eshaghian’s new film is another examination of the treatment of “sexual outlaws” in Central Asia. Love Crimes of Kabul takes place in a country where women are imprisoned for running away from home or having premarital “relations”” with their boyfriends and fiancées — the same country that the United States and NATO have spent hundreds of billions of dollars “defending” from a fundamentalist sect known as the Taliban.

This war has been propagandized, in part, as a war for women’s rights, but Eshaghian’s film makes crystal clear precisely how many rights those billions of dollars have purchased so far. If you ever wondered whether women could be imprisoned for the crime of “intending to have sex”, Love Crimes of Kabul provides the answer — and, guess what, our tax dollars are helping pay for their prosecution!

Colorful, whimsical

Merry Christmas, North! (screening at 8:45 pm on Thursday, March 15th) is a colorful and whimsical (if slightly morbid) South Korean look at life above the 38th Parallel. Co-directed by Sung-Hoon Kim and Sung-San Jung and lensed in bright primary colors by cinematographer Soon-Ho Ham, the story revolves around a group of North Korean schoolchildren who find a Christmas care package that has floated across the Demilitarized Zone via hot air balloon.

Set in the Democratic People’s Republic’s northern Ryanggang Province, the film follows the misadventures of 4th grader Jongsu, who’s been denied a trip to Pyongyang despite his best efforts to gather scrap metal for the war effort. After crying himself to sleep in disappointment, Jongsu discovers a basket containing a musical Christmas card, a Santa Claus suit, and a remote control robot that ends up causing all sorts of problems — including teaching the lad the profit motive and the other children the wonders of consumerism.

Beyond a few questionable editing decisions and a rather anodyne score, Merry Christmas, North! provides fascinating insight into the South’s views of their hermetic neighbors, and (assuming your kids don’t object to subtitles) is a great pick for family viewing. It also features the worst on-screen teeth this side of a British kitchen-sink drama — always a plus in my book — and lots of screen time for a “gift chicken” bestowed on Jongsu’s village by the Great General himself, Kim Jong-Il.

Travesties of justice

Documentaries were sadly not on the menu when the Shattuck Cinemas screened this year’s Oscar-nominated short subjects last month. The film I picked to win, Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, screens at 7:00 pm on Friday, March 16th. It ultimately lost out to Saving Face, one of two nominated shorts I didn’t see, but you can read my glowing original review here.

There have been plenty of documentaries over the years about travesties of justice, but you probably haven’t seen one quite so clear-cut as the one depicted in Give Up Tomorrow, screening at 6:00 pm on Saturday, March 17th. Directed by newcomer Michael Collins, the film looks at the case of Paco Larrañaga, a Filipino convicted of the kidnapping, rape, and murder of two teenage sisters. The only problem: Larrañaga was 350 miles away from the scene of the crime and had over three dozen witnesses willing to testify on his behalf, as well as photographic evidence of his presence elsewhere. Prepare to have your mind boggled.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...