SAN FRANCISCO — This pan-Pacific metropolis found an appropriate closer for its annual film fest May 7 as locally based helmer Wayne Wang and star Jeremy Irons appeared to present their “Chinese Box” at the historic Castro Theatre.

Semi-improvized drama, which spins around the recent Hong Kong changeover from Brit to mainland Chinese sovereignty, found a receptive audience at the San Francisco Intl. Film Festival.

“It’s a story within a story within a story within a story … and none of it really makes much sense,” Irons deadpanned onstage afterward by way of explaining pic’s title. His Asian cinema superstar co-stars Gong Li and Maggie Cheung were absent, but thesp and director charmed a capacity crowd with pre- and post-screening remarks. Trimark is already rolling feature out in select urban U.S. markets.

‘Best festival ever’

It was a nice way to end a fine showing for the affair, which exec director Amy Leissner called “the best festival ever.” In B.O. terms, it was just that — ticket sales and attendance edged past prior peaks (by 2.8% and 2.5% respectively, at over 78,000 attendees). Nonstop boosterism from ubiquitous S.F. Mayor Willie Brown — his string of introductory non-sequiturs notwithstanding — probably didn’t hurt.

Earlier the same day, Brown was again present at a closing press conference which announced several fest prizes.

Audience-polling nod for favorite feature was notable in that it went to a 12-year-old title — the period drama “Surrogate Mother” — directed by Im Kwan-Taek, the South Korean helmer who’d also received this year’s Akira Kurosawa nod for sustained career achievement. His relatively recent, likewise retrospected 1993 “Sopyonje” was acquired by L.A.-based the Film Library for U.S. release during fest, suggesting the San Francisco fest still has opinion-making muscle among arthouse distribs.

Audlaud for best doc went to the Dutch-produced “Black Tears,” about elderly Cuban salsa musicians. Noted as trailing just behind in polls were Ernest Dickerson’s Sundance-preemed African-American drama “Blind Faith,” Ademir Kenovic’s Bosnian “Perfect Circle,” and Heddy Honigmann’s Dutch docu “The Underground Orchestra.”

First-time prizes

Also announced were winners of four first-ever grand prizes in the Golden Gate Awards — the bulk of which are judged by local juries in numerous categories well before fest-time. An international panel, viewing titles during fest itself, bestowed best doc on Pepe Danquart and Mirjam Quinte’s Balkan war-themed “Off Season,” while making special mention of Fatima Jebli Ouazzani’s autobiographical Dutch-funded “In My Father’s House” as a worthy runnerup.

Best Bay Area documentary went to Vicky Funari and Jennifer Maytorena Taylor for the Sundance preem “Paulina,” whose now-activist Mexican-maidservant subject accepted the nod in their company. Jim Trainor’s disturbing animated featurette “The Fetishist” and Luci Kwak’s family-secrets exposure “Return to Grace” won juried best short and best Bay Area short, respectively.

The Skyy Prize — named after, and funded by, the aggressive vodka distiller — for best effort by an “emerging filmmaker” whose feature does not yet boast a U.S. distributor went to Dervis Zaim’s Istanbul neorealist exercise “Somersault in a Coffin.” Nod was also judged during fest itself among 15 competing features, and comes with a $10,000 bonus. Last year’s awardee (and one of this year’s judges) Nadia Fares used her check to fund an English-subtitled print of “Honey and Ashes;” and pic subsequently found U.S. distribution through 7 Arts Releasing.

Im Kwan-Taek’s retrospective and in-person appearance was one highlight during the fest’s second week.

But in terms of sheer wanna-see, fest’s probable zenith came April 29 with the rare screening of “Persistence of Vision” honoree Robert Frank’s 1972 “Cocksucker Blues” — the Rolling Stones tour docu that Mick & Keith approved during filming, then upon completion legally barred from public purview, save in the most rarefied circumstances. Hundreds of would-be viewers were turned away from the 1,500-seat Castro screening.

A precious few walked out during doc’s successfully banal, rough-hewn cinema verite look at the more tawdry side of early-’70s rock superstardom.