Rotten boyfriends and wry romance

Special to The Times

SELF-DESTRUCTIVE romantic obsession, Nordic meet-cute humor and one titanically ill-equipped new mom are among the offerings tonight at the second annual Focus on Female Directors at the Egyptian Theatre.

It's a briskly enjoyable collection of humorous shorts, with the included curiosity factor of a one-joke bauble about a New York woman's romantic woes that was co-directed by Gwyneth Paltrow. Called "Dealbreaker," the film is a comic montage of he's-not-for-me revelations that feels as if Paltrow and co-director Mary Wigmore raided the discard file from a bad-boyfriend brainstorming session in the "Sex and the City" writing room. Faring better in a bitter, Nicole Holofcener-ish way is Zoe Cassavetes' 2000 short "Men Make Women Crazy Theory." Offering up a female version of Jon Favreau's famously disastrous answering-machine-message implosion scene in "Swingers," Cassavetes has her neurotic lead (Alexia Landeau) -- smitten with a no-good dude and enduring a lonely, drunken soak in the tub -- vent her frustration into the phone while simultaneously pleading for a return call. The apparent lesson for despondent bathers: Pick either the bottle or the phone, but don't get in with both.

Sian Heder's tartly funny "Mother" brings together a solipsistic, alcohol-dazed trophy wife (Angela Featherstone) camped out with her 1-year-old in a Beverly Hills hotel room, and a homeless tray-grazer (Ashleigh Sumner). The mother hires Sumner's character on the spot as a baby-sitter so she can squeeze one more debauched night from her rapidly fading party-girl existence. As a flower in full wilt, Featherstone amazingly finds a way of suggesting hilarious awfulness -- "She has to learn some time" is her slurry answer to seeing her ignored toddler wander onto a balcony -- and, conversely, deep sadness.

The gem of the showcase is Oscar-nominated animator Torill Kove's effortlessly sweet and funny love story "The Danish Poet," which charts the circuitously routed coupling of the broodingly romantic title character and a Norwegian farm maiden. Liv Ullmann's narration has a beautifully wry lilt, while Kove casts a magical spell with her wonderfully open line drawings, background jokes that have a way of becoming foreground destiny (keep an eye on those mobility-challenged cows!) and belief in the romantic power of bad timing. It's a truly beguiling 15 minutes.

Politics is local

In 2005, filmmaker Wu Wenguang, a prime force in China's new-documentary movement, saw a unique opportunity to turn his country's rural population into an empowered new film voice, after the central government OKd local elections and instituted a new era of village self-governance.

As part of a joint project between the European Union and China, 10 male and female candidates of varying ages and from wide-ranging provinces were selected to go through a digital-video training program and then, armed with new cameras and a developed film proposal, document the realities of their individual villages and their political processes.

The hope, of course, is that familiarity with the tools of self-expression will turn these villagers into a new generation of filmmakers and potentially inspire their brethren to seek ways of getting themselves heard.

On Jan. 29, REDCAT will screen the Los Angeles premiere of what has been called the "China Village Self-Governance Film Project," preceded by a 20-minute excerpt from a documentary about the workshop called "Seen and Heard."

The villagers' films are fascinating glimpses into the meeting place between newly learned technological intimacy and political curiosity born of a deep understanding of local issues. Nong Ke, 59, for example, takes the verite approach of simply recording in long shots a village meeting that will elect which farming families receive money from a poverty-relief aid package.

Meanwhile, by his title "A Futile Election," Zhang Huancai lets you know exactly what he thinks of the confusion and chaos that resulted from misunderstood voting rules and long-simmering contentions between neighborhoods. Another project participant becomes the star of his film, shooting himself laboriously checking off a ballot box and smiling as he drops it into a big red box.

Shao Yuzhen, in "I Film My Village," manages to convey the breadth of her village's life -- the complaints of melon growers who despise the nutrient-hogging roots of nearby poplar trees, the building of a house, how she mediates fights between neighbors -- with brisk editing and an abundance of personality. She proves an adept interviewer too, as she tries to film the house construction while the owner, standing next to her and heard in voice-over, impugns her motives. "I am just doing this for fun!" she blurts out, yet she isn't deterred from her purpose, shifting to the question, "Tell us why you are adding a building extension?" By the time she turns her camera toward him, the owner is smiling.

weekend@latimes.com

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Screenings

American Cinematheque

Focus on Female Directors: 7:30 tonight

Where: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

Info: (323) 466-3456, americancinematheque.com

REDCAT

"China Village Self-Governance Film Project": 8 p.m. Jan. 29

Where: Disney Hall, 2nd and Hope streets, downtown L.A.

Info: (213) 237-2800, www.redcat.org

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