PIFF best bets for Thursday, Feb. 18

New work from international filmmakers Johnnie To ("Office") and Peter Greenaway ("Eisenstein in Guanajuato") are the highlights of today's schedule.

The 39th Portland International Film Festival is nearly halfway over, but some of the most anticipated films on its schedule are just starting to come into view. That includes two films debuting at the fest today from veteran international filmmakers, Hong Kong’s Johnnie To and Britain’s Peter Greenaway. More details below from Marc Mohan and Lily Hudson:


“Eisenstein in Guanajuato”: Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s silent classics of the 1920s, including “Potemkin” and “October,” were revolutionary both in form—montage editing—and content—lionizing the Communist uprising. They made him an international cinematic celebrity, and in 1931 Eisenstein paid a visit to Mexico, intending to create his greatest, most ambitious film yet. British filmmaker Peter Greenaway might seem an unlikely choice to helm a film inspired by this extended, nearly disastrous chapter in Eisenstein’s life. The film is delightful, though, buoyed by the performance of Finnish actor Elmer Bäck as the bemused, manic, sexually confused Eisenstein, whose large pasty forehead and unruly hair make him resemble a Slavic Art Garfunkel.

Greenaway’s painterly visual style makes “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” a treat for the eye. He frequently resorts to a triptych frame, and uses crisp, colorful artificial backdrops for several scenes. The film also features his typical combination of intellectual effervescence and unapologetic carnality, most vividly in Eisenstein’s sexual awakening at the hands of his handsome Mexican guide (Luis Alberti). There may well be more male genitalia on display in this film than in “The Pillow Book” and “Prospero’s Books” combined, and Greenaway’s explicit depiction of Eisenstein’s homosexuality is certain to rub some the wrong way.

As a playful, profane look at a pivotal period in the life of a still-relevant artist, “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” is proof that the 72-year-old Greenaway hasn’t lost any of his ability to shock and entertain. [Marc Mohan]

(Netherlands, 105 min., in English and Spanish with English subtitles) Thur., Feb. 18, 8:30 p.m., Cinema 21.


“Office”: For those who wish “Mad Men” had been more madcap, there’s this Chinese musical directed by Johnnie To. With relentless stylization and a buoyant narrative, it plays like a modern take on “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” tailored to a pre-2008 China on the brink of economic collapse.

New hires Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and Kat (Lang Yueting) are introduced to their workplace, a gleaming glass-and-steel maze dominated by a massive rotating clock (it looks like something out of “Brazil”). Chow Yun-fat is the debonair CEO who is leading his company to IPO glory – if the global economic crisis doesn’t ruin everything first. Sprightly musical numbers mingle with juicy drama and social commentary on the Chinese appetite for Western prestige in the form of Hermès bags (glamorous Kar-ling sings, “After buying all the famous brands, I find my existence not necessary”).

Tender ballads, office politics, rock opera moments, business secrets, love triangles, Busby Berkeley choreography, book-cooking, dashed dreams – there’s truly never a dull moment. A shoe-in for fans of films like François Ozon’s “8 Women,” which serve up camp and style as much as story (the dazzling set design alone is worth the price of admission). [Lily Hudson]

(Hong Kong, 120 minutes, Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles) Thu., Feb 18, 5:45 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium; also Sat., Feb 20, 12:45 p.m., Cinema 21.