Now Playing! Profiles in Courage Stream Onto Home Screens

Walter Mercado in 'Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado,' 2020. (Netflix)

Perhaps last week’s crescendo of amateur grassroots fireworks assuaged the hole in the soul normally filled by Hollywood’s summer explosionfests. If not, well, good luck finding escapism in these times. Let me propose an alternate strategy: Meet the beast head on, with the moral support of a stalwart guide.

Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly
Streaming now at BAMPFA and the Lark
Streams starting July 17 at the Roxie

From the fall of 2014 through the following spring, close to a million people visited Ai Weiwei’s site-specific installation in the abandoned penitentiary on Alcatraz Island. "@Large" was inspired by the artist and activist’s own unwarranted incarceration, which sharpened his focus on freedom, justice and conscience. Intending to spook Ai (and everyone else) into silence, the Chinese authorities merely provoked him.

Cheryl Haines and Gina Leibrecht’s moving documentary provides a loose, graceful chronology of the ambitious project, augmented with entry-level summaries of Alcatraz’s and Ai’s respective histories. Ai was unable to visit the proposed site because China held his passport, a limitation that complicated his design process. Haines visited him several times to provide images and other materials, and to provide on-the-ground feedback. (There’s a quick, telltale moment in one of their meetings when Ai objects, firmly yet politely, to Haines’s interaction with a prototype of one of the pieces—that is, with his art.)

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Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly, which premiered at last year’s SFFILM Festival and begins streaming this weekend through virtual cinemas, takes its title from the individual-action aspect of the exhibition: Visitors wrote messages on post cards to political prisoners in countries from Bahrain to Vietnam to the U.S. whose colorful Lego portraits, along with those of Nelson Mandela and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, graced one of Ai’s pieces.

I was touched, over and over, by the expression—artistic and human—of idealistic, unselfish and basic principles. You might watch Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly with the windows wide open to simulate Alcatraz’s Bay breeze, and to whisk away any tears.

A light-haired sits on an ornate chair in a teal satiny garment surrounded by cushions, hanging fabric, occult objects and a crown.
Walter Mercado in 'Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado,' 2020. (Netflix)

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado
Netflix

If you are one of the tens of millions in the Spanish-speaking world and beyond who revere Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado, you don’t need an incentive to check out this entertaining and affectionate portrait. If not, let the beloved beacon of TV positivity turn his love light on you.

A handsome young dancer and actor in telenovelas in the ’60s, Mercado found himself reading horoscopes on the air. His 15-minute segments were so popular that he was given a one-hour (!) TV show in 1969. Walter, the Stars and You was irresistibly upbeat and affirmational, exemplified by the star’s signoff-slash-catchphrase, “Mucho, mucho amor.”

Mercado wore wildly flamboyant capes and consistently deflected and rejected questions about his sexuality. His viewers didn’t care; he was such a powerful, comforting presence in their daily lives that they had no problem embracing and othering him at the same time.

A fascinating peek behind the curtain at a gay icon (“Nothing scares me and nothing stops me,” Mercado declares), Mucho, Mucho Amor was originally slated to screen at the Castro in one of Frameline’s spotlight slots before the festival was derailed by the pandemic. Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch’s documentary is just as interesting, though for what it suggests about a macho culture’s paradoxical acceptance of a nontraditional inspiration.

Still from 'Twilight's Kiss.' (SFFILM)

Hong Kong Cinema
July 12–Aug. 5 via SFFILM

The annual showcase of new and recent films from one of the world’s most prolific movie industries returns in a trimmed-down, online format. The lineup consists of just four films, but each will be accompanied by a livestreamed conversation with the filmmaker and/or actor. Notably, all of the movies depict characters grappling with issues (physical, psychological or identity) that could push them to the margins. Indeed, that might be the universal Hong Kong condition amidst China’s clampdown.

Still Human, Oliver Chan’s award-winning 2018 debut portrays the dynamic between a despairing, paralyzed man and his newly arrived Filipino caretaker. Nick Leung’s Lion Rock, based on climber Lai Chi-wai, portrays an injured athlete’s determination to scale heights in his wheelchair. Wong Chun’s Mad World imagines the struggle of a former stockbroker diagnosed with bipolar disorder and released to the care of his father.

Twilight’s Kiss (Suk Suk) was originally selected for this year’s pandemic-canceled SFFILM Festival, so Bay Area audiences finally have the chance to catch the acclaimed film inspired by the nonfiction book Oral History of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong (2014). Ray Yeung’s understated drama follows two older, closeted gay men who strike up a relationship against a backdrop of conventional cultural conformity.

Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed
MoAD conversation July 12
Streaming now on Kanopy, Amazon Prime

It’s a curious phenomenon that we remember the times we lived through so imperfectly and incompletely; hence the necessity of first-rate historical documentaries. Shola Lynch’s terrific 2004 film about the electrifying Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress (1968) and the first Black candidate for a major party’s presidential nomination, demands to be seen in the present moment—and every election year, for that matter. (And every off year, too.)

In 1972, in just her second term representing a chunk of New York City, Chisholm ran for the nation’s highest office (as it used to be called and viewed). A champion of working mothers and everyone who had an uphill climb, she demanded action and embodied conscience. It’s worth noting that Chisholm said she encountered more misogyny than racism in the course of her long career.

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Shola Lynch and California Newsreel co-director Cornelius Moore join the African Disapora Film Club, a monthly program of the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), in a Zoom conversation at 5pm on Sunday, July 12 to discuss Shirley Chisholm’s inspiring legacy.