Early on in the 2013 edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, at about the third or fourth appearance of its distinctive, looming tiger logo that preceded every screening, I began to feel fairly confident that I’d encounter more rewarding surprises than outright disappointments over the next few days. There was certainly an abundance of attractive opportunities for me to play catch-up with some of the past year’s more prominent and talked-about titles that had been previously shown in Toronto (among them The Master, Reality and Blancanieves, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed), but the most common delights I encountered came from lesser-known works scattered throughout the newcomer-oriented Bright Future and Hivos Tiger Awards programs. The famed scope of the festival’s selection all but guaranteed an endless variety of unique personal experiences attendees could potentially leave with, whether they chose three films or thirty, whether they craved avant-garde or genre fare. Speaking for myself, either luck, intuition, or a mix of both brought me to the other side of the eleven-day run with a veritable bounty of positive viewing experiences culled from cinematic shores as far-flung as Mexico, Cuba, Thailand, India, Iran and, fittingly, the Netherlands. Sampling grim tragedy, nourishing contemplation, therapeutic comedy, and refined suspense, my first visit to Rotterdam gave me an exhilarating introduction to a festival very much concerned with both pushing the boundaries of an all-encompassing definition of cinema (through means as varied as installation pieces, mash-ups, experimental shorts, mold-breaking genre pieces, and television and web series) and celebrating its most intrinsic qualities.
Even given the positive buzz I had heard before finally sitting down to watch it, nothing could have properly prepared me for one of my most treasured discoveries of the whole festival: Halley, the feature debut of Mexico’s Sebastián Hofmann. It could technically be described as a zombie film, though the stunningly original territory into which Hofmann takes the genre places it considerably far from the other exhaustingly redundant offerings that have long been congesting theatre and television screens (which, between the continuation of The Walking Dead, recent release of the Twilight-esque zom-com Warm Bodies, and imminent arrival of World War Z, show no signs of stopping any time soon). Skipping shotguns, groaning, and brain-eating altogether, Halley is a thoughtful, expertly composed character study that follows Beto (Alberto Trujillo), a gentle, frail-looking man who works as a night watchman in a Mexico City gym surrounded by flexing, sweat-coated muscles. The distinct textures and substances of the flesh remain a prominent subject, never more than in the sequences devoted to Beto in his pristinely kept apartment as he quietly cleans, mends, and disguises his rotting body. The unflinching focus on skin and wounds, enhanced by some truly incredible special effects, places us in closer proximity to Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) than any of Romero’s Dead films, as do Matías Penachino’s beautifully bleached-out cinematography and Gustavo Mauricio Hernandez Dávila’s ambient score. Afterwards, I was noticeably more self-conscious of my body as both a mushy vessel for so many coursing fluids, bacteria and microorganisms and a rather clumsy tool for social interaction, the latter function illustrated in the film by way of Beto’s painfully reserved movements and gestures, which he employs partly to prevent anyone from discovering his secret, partly to avoid risking further damage to himself. The hyper-realistic approach Hofmann and Trujillo take in portraying him and his condition make Beto seem more like an ordinary person burdened with a serious illness than one of the undead. That is the secret to Halley’s lasting power: while so many other filmmakers claim they want to bend or break free from overdone zombie movie conventions, Hofmann fearlessly leaves them all behind and emerges with a hauntingly relatable examination of the body, mortality and alienation. Precise and pure, it is a virtually flawless artistic achievement.
Thanks to the Signals: Changing Channels program, which showcased television and web series from such figures as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Lena Dunham, I was able to see a different side of Hofmann’s talents. Appropriately shown with two episodes of Adult Swim’s hysterical The Eric Andre Show were three of Los micro burgueses, a fun, low-budget satire written by and starring Hofmann as the series’ central spoiled bourgeois brat. Also featuring Trujillo as his coke-sniffing, meat-hawking father, the web series gleefully nods to and pokes fun at everything from A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) to Apple commercials and media-hyped philanthropy. While its prankster spirit is quite far-removed from Halley’s polished intensity, it is great fun to take in and hints at the enticing possibility of future forays into comedy for Hofmann.
Halley was just one of many strong contenders for the Hivos Tiger Awards I managed to catch during the festival. One of the three eventual winners (alongside Daniel Hoesl’s Soldate Jeannette [Soldier Jane] and Mira Fornay’s Môj pes Killer [My Dog Killer]) was Iranian director Mohammad Shirvani’s Larzanandeye charbi (Fat Shaker). Abound with strange yet lasting images, it relays the narrative of a mysterious woman (Maryam Palizban) who challenges an overweight man (Levon Haftvan) and his beautiful deaf mute son (Navid Mohammadzadeh) whom he uses in his hustling schemes in a disorientingly jumbled order. With his mountainous bulk, wheezing breaths, and clumsy movements, Haftvan embodies Shirvani’s main target, Iran’s patriarchal system, with great aptness. The sequence of events is shuffled in such an aggressive manner that the film demands Marienbad-level degrees of interactivity from the viewer – which, initially distancing though it was, posed a welcome challenge that I often pondered and picked apart in my head following the screening. Working on a stream-of-conscious level that marries the grotesque, the bizarre and the rebellious in a poetic collage of ideas and emotions, Fat Shaker impressively conveys its significance as a charged piece of social commentary while meeting its considerable creative ambitions. It wasn’t my favourite film of the festival, yet there is perhaps no other one I look forward to revisiting more.
An equally singular though very different viewing experience came to me in the form of Foudre (Lightning), Manuela Morgaine’s remarkable, four hour-long cinematic essay that uses the titular natural phenomenon as the jumping-off point for a multi-faceted exploration of history, mythology, psychology, science and love. Subtitled A Legend in Four Seasons, each of its parts has its own distinct themes. The film kicks off with Baal (Autumn), which mainly consists of lightning-struck survivors’ retold (and reenacted) accounts of their deadly experiences. Next, Pathos Mathos (Winter) appropriately delves into the gloom of depression as experienced by a different gathering of individuals and the use of electroshock therapy to pull them from Saturn’s grip, as the film eloquently puts it. La légende de Syméon (Spring) relocates to the Syrian ruins where the legendary Stylite stood atop his pillar, near where the rare Kama truffle, a strong aphrodisiac known as Allah’s vegetable, is harvested. Finally, Atomes (Summer) interprets lightning as a force of romantic intoxication in a fanciful adaptation of Pierre de Marivaux’s La dispute. As to be expected with a work of this size, there is an overwhelming amount of tangents, details, and discoveries to take in and enjoy throughout the one-of-a-kind viewing experience it offers. Not unlike David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), it is more a journey than a film, brimming with imagination, curiosity, and an invigorating affection for the places and people it visits. The epilogue, set in a pulsing nightclub filled with a number of the film’s onscreen participants, sums up in jubilant fashion the playful, communal odyssey that Morgaine and her many collaborators have just guided the adventurous viewer through.
Those seeking more conventional delights from the festival certainly had a healthy selection of genre fare to choose from, including eagerly anticipated new works from established figures. Johnnie To’s latest gangster thriller, Du zhan (Drug War), stands out for being the first film of his shot in Mainland China. Slick, sexy and chock full of expertly realised action and suspense set pieces, the film delivers the goods, so to speak, in terms of entertainment value but I found it to be otherwise fairly unremarkable in its lack of truly original material or memorable characters. Equally recognisable for its genre roots (this time the American conspiracy and procedural thrillers of the 1970s) but far more enthralling was Call Girl, the directorial debut of Mikael Marcimain, Tomas Alfredson’s second unit director on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). Through patient exposition, a true case-based scandal involving top-level Swedish politicians enlisting the services of underage prostitutes and the subsequent efforts to cover up its investigation unfolds in a suitably taut blend of intrigue and paranoia. While most of the action occurs around Iris (Sofia Karemyr), a troubled teen who quickly rises in the ranks of the call girl world, the film’s most mesmerising role belongs to Pernilla August as Dagmar Glans, the madam who runs the much sought-after prostitution ring. Whether working the phone lines from her apartment, cordially seeing to her clients’ wishes, keeping her girls’ obedience in check, or indulging her own vanity with a risqué burlesque performance, she is a fascinating creation; a woman whose concern for the smooth operation of her business clearly overrides any moral qualms that might derail it, even in a trade as dubious as the one she presides over.
With its building intrigue and period detail, Call Girl would be right at home in a triple bill alongside All the President’s Men (1976) and Zodiac (2007), whereas Guido van Driel’s De wederopstanding van een klootzak (The Resurrection of a Bastard), while at first glance reminiscent of a Scorsese gangster drama, is a far more idiosyncratic and unclassifiable beast. Another Hivos Tiger nominee and the first Dutch film to open the festival in 14 years, it interweaves the spiritual rebirth of burly muscle Ronnie (a marvelous Yorick van Wageningen) following a nearly successful assassination attempt with the disturbing visions and memories experienced by Angolan refugee Eduardo (Goua Robert Grovogui) to spellbinding effect. Several memorable images stand out: the strange sight of a pink kitchen glove stretched around a smoke detector; Eduardo’s introduction on a deserted country road as he maintains a wheelie on his bicycle in a soaring overhead shot; a spinning, God’s-eye view of Ronnie’s bodyguard and friend Janus (Juda Goslinga) dancing by himself while surrounded by hundreds of other gyrating, white-clad partygoers. Such cryptic, beautifully presented details lend the film a sense of transcendence, though its greatest moment may belong to the late Jeroen Willems, whose single-scene, show-stealing role as the epically mustachioed, guitar strumming crime boss James Joyce is deliciously over the top and charged with diabolical charm.
In terms of comedy, the festival had a couple of nutty charmers to offer: the appropriately-named, fourth wall-shattering filmmaking satire Vulgaria from Pang Ho-cheung and the festival’s traditional surprise film, which turned out to be A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, the animated (and 3D) tribute to the deceased comedian founded upon an account of his life’s events he had recorded prior to his death. Frequently resorting to bawdy humor, both films bear a breezy sense of fun and innovation that I sadly found sorely lacking in Takashi Miike’s For Love’s Sake (Ai to Makoto). A manga adaptation that, on the surface, hints at a return to the carefree eccentricity of Katakuri-ke no kôfuku (The Happiness of the Katakuris, 2001), it instead disappointingly regurgitates the tiresome high school soap opera of Kurôzu zero (Crows Zero, 2007). Even with some entertainingly violent gags and flashes of visual panache, I soon grew bored with its vapid, eternally pining and scowling teenage characters. While I missed Aku no kyôten (Lesson of the Evil), which also screened at the festival and is reportedly a much better film, I have still all but lost hope in this new, big budget-wielding Miike. Never mind a return to something like Dead or Alive (Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha, 1999) or Ichi the Killer (Koroshiya 1, 2001); my faith would truly be restored if somehow Miike gave us another Visitor Q (Bijitâ Q, 2001) – something small, raw, daring, and real.
For the past year or so, I have been gleefully seeking out and savoring with great relish the films of Aki Kaurismäki, a filmmaker for whom I hold a considerable amount of respect. In the manner of other famed cinematic humanists like Chaplin, De Sica and Kurosawa, he has made very real problems like unemployment, poverty, homelessness, modernisation and political sanctuary his primary business, properly recognising them for the serious and inescapable issues they are rather than briskly ignoring them or keeping them in the margins as so many other filmmakers do. He refuses to turn away from the issues he has been seeing in the world since his pre-filmmaking days working odd jobs, and that he continues to address them while seamlessly keeping some room open for hope and humor explains his lasting appeal a great deal. During my stay in Rotterdam, Kaurismäki was often on my mind not only because a new work of his lay in waiting in the lineup, but also because so many other films touched on subjects that have been of great concern to him throughout his rich career.
Take, for example, Carlos Lechuga’s Melaza (Molasses), a film that plays out like a Cuban variation on Kauas pilvet karkaavat (Drifting Clouds, 1996). It follows married couple Aldo (Armando Miguel Gómez) and Mónica (Yuliet Cruz), who live in a small shack with their daughter (Carolina Márquez) and Mónica’s elderly mother (Ana Gloria Buduén), as they do their best to improve their lot in life. As she prepares the titular town’s derelict rum factory for a possible re-launch, he looks beyond his meager schoolteacher gig for extra income, eventually falling into the risky trade of illegally selling meat. While the characters weather the low points of fines, job terminations, the threat of imprisonment, and degradation, Melaza never devolves into gratuitous, tear-jerking tragedy or a blind endorsement of socialism over capitalism, but instead maintains an even level of reserved realism that handsomely portrays the courageous little family’s lasting solidarity – in other words, keeping human values at the forefront in a world dictated by money, politics and power.
Similarly, gainful employment is a major concern in the invigorating Die Welt from Dutch-Tunisian filmmaker Alex Pitstra. Set in a post-Jasmine revolution Tunisia saturated in Western commercialism but sorely lacking in available jobs, it gave me an extremely relatable protagonist in the form of 23 year-old Abdallah (Abdelhamid Naouara), whose frustration with opportunity being always beyond his reach simmer from when we first meet him as a DVD shop clerk attempting to dissuade a customer from renting Transformers 2 (2009) to his holiday in Sousse where he meets an attractive Dutch woman (Ilse Heus) to the days after his return in which he dreams of and plans an escape to Europe, the idealised land of his dreams. Juxtaposing an energetic hipness with Abdallah’s growing agitation, Die Welt authentically captures the feeling of what it’s like for an eager young person to be stifled by real-world barriers and familial obligations.
Another Dutch production, De nieuwe wereld (The New World), goes even further in addressing the limits of freedom by journeying into the same territory as Kaurismäki’s Le Havre (2011), albeit in a less fanciful manner. In the banal grey corridors of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, a tentative friendship forms between Mirte (Bianca Krijgsman), an ice-cold cleaning lady, and Luc (Issaka Sawadogo), a West African refugee residing in the No Man’s Land area she covers in her shifts while his case for asylum is processed. Faced with the dangers of bloodshed and war in his homeland, Luc desperately seeks the sanctuary of Europe, which, in this new world and the one of Die Welt, seems to hold all the answers for those in need peering at it from the outside. Of course, people like Mirte, who lives in one of several small cookie-cutter apartments stacked on top of one another, know all too well that the great dream has more than a few pitfalls, but for Luc and Abdallah, its unreachable distance is the only challenge they are immediately concerned with.
Kaurismäki himself contributed to my festival experience by way of his short segment in the omnibus film Centro Histórico (Historic Centre). In the first of four cinematic tributes to the Portuguese city of Guimarães, recognisable Kaurismäki regular Ilkka Koivula plays a solitary waiter who wordlessly tends to the pitiful trickle of customers who stop by his restaurant, attempts to liven up his menu, and prepares for the return of an unseen loved one. It’s a sweet and simple offering, if cruelly brief. However, the film’s real prize, arriving between Pedro Costa’s off-putting, elevator-bound segment and Manoel de Oliveira’s light-hearted parting vignette, was Víctor Erice’s documentary salute to the former employees of a now-defunct textile factory. Seated on a stool before the camera, subjects talk about their or their parents’ experiences facing long hours and tough labor day after day in the loud, crowded facility. It was difficult, many of them attest, but for better or for worse, it gave them a reliable work routine they could depend on for a living. The lingering impact it had on the factory workers is discussed in many enlightening passages – one of them, at 77 years of age, recalls the perceptive words her cousin wrote when she (the cousin) was just 18 about the vicious cycle of finding a singular sense of contentment through work that one dreads to return to, while another subject describes with stirring accuracy how young people can get hitched to jobs like horses to coaches, destined to be pulled along the same route throughout the rest of their lives. The question of what will become of the lost generations of workers left adrift by damaging changes (disappearing jobs, production operations outsourced to Asia) is pointedly left open as the segment closes over lingering close-ups of the weary faces captured in the blown-up archival photograph of a lunch break in the cavernous factory that occupies the back wall of the interview space.
Economic and spiritual strife also had a large part to play in two idiosyncratic character studies that came up in my viewing schedule, the first being Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, the festival’s kickoff film. Lost, disillusioned and somewhat deranged, Joaquin Phoenix’s mesmerising Freddie Quell is an inherently tragic figure left to search for purpose and meaning where he can find it in postwar America, be it through alcohol, unfulfilling jobs in department stores and farmers’ fields, unsuccessful sexual pursuits, or the smoke and mirrors of the Cause, the hokey movement presided over by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. More driven and responsible yet possessing a similar sense of helplessness, Sang Juan’s Chinese ex-pat Lifei navigates the very different landscape of the modern-day United Arab Emirates as a mushroom farmer in Conrad Clark’s A Fallible Girl. In dreamy, pastel-coloured images that recall Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Qian xi man po (Millennium Mambo, 2001), she faces such challenges as her fed-up business partner (Huang Lu), blunders made by her staff, shady would-be investors, her boyfriend’s perpetual absence, and the massive debt hanging over her head. There is no simple solution for her to rely on, save for perhaps keeping her nose down and continuing to improve her farm, but it seems like even that will only take her so far in the bustling, competitive realm she has attempted to take root in. Very much like Die Welt, A Fallible Girl illustrates how Middle Eastern nations have caught up with the West on their own terms, creating new commercial arenas while simultaneously threatening to leave behind those who lack the necessary skills or luck.
Another excellent Hivos Tiger Award competitor I caught early on was Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love. Like her short film Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight (2011), it adopts an unflinching look at the awkward steps towards sexual self-discovery as taken by a teenage heroine with equal measures of naïve eagerness and uneasy hesitation. Quiet, ever-watchful Lila (Gina Piersanti) shadows her more confident and popular friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) with the goal of accruing greater knowledge of and, eventually, first-hand experience in sex. She becomes more daring in her efforts to attract the attention of the older Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), none of which turn out quite the way she expects. But then again, it’s heavily implied that Lila herself has no idea what she is doing or what kind of territory she is venturing into. Just as guided by as she is estranged from the images and conventions of female sexuality cemented in countless young girls’ minds by mainstream media, Lila makes some bold yet tragic attempts to make herself attractive to Sammy and the other boys he hangs out with, in the process illustrating the hazardous terrain of desire that so many cross to reach womanhood.
That very same subject is explored in two other very different films I saw shortly after It Felt Like Love. De ontmaagding van Eva van End (The Deflowering of Eva van End), yet another Dutch gem, has quite rightly attracted comparisons to Wes Anderson’s work with its neat, brightly lit look and central family of dissatisfied individuals. But unlike so many lacklustre Anderson knock-offs, Eva van End gets what makes Anderson’s films so humorous and touching and successfully achieves a distinctive identity of great charm and emotional resonance. Rounding out my loose triptych of female-focused coming-of-age tales was Park Chan-wook’s highly anticipated English language debut, Stoker, which was presented in precisely the fanciful, generously indulgent fashion that has become the norm for him. Though burdened with some painfully clumsy passages of dialogue littered throughout Wentworth Miller’s screenplay, the film succeeds on the strength of its lush visuals, nimble editing, sweeping musical contributions by Clint Mansell and Philip Glass, and magnetic performances by Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode as, respectively, the reserved young protagonist and her creepily seductive uncle who reappears shortly after the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney).
To close out this report, I’d like to touch on a few more of the many strong Asian works I caught during the festival. For Love’s Sake and the late Koji Wakamatsu’s disappointingly flat 11.25 jiketsu no hi: Mishima Yukio to wakamono-tachi (11.25 The Day Mishima Chose His Own Fate) aside, Japan was well represented by Yutaka Tsuchiya’s Thallium shoujo no dokusatsu nikki (GFP Bunny), a fascinatingly constructed essay on such technological and biological innovations as GPS devices, chemically modified animals, body modifications and online avatars, and Nobuteru Uchida’s Odayaka na nichijo (Odayaka), a sombre character drama set in the days following 3.11 as concerns about the spread of nuclear radiation from Fukushima triggers a deepening paranoia in a frightened single mother (Kiki Sugino). Meanwhile, from Thailand there was Hivos Tiger contender 36, which likely came across to many as Apichatpong Lite with its scenes of light-hearted banter and late arrival of the opening titles 25 minutes in. Yet Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit rises above mere imitation of his more famous countryman to create an intelligent and perceptive exploration of memory, the past, love and how the process of remembering has been affected by the emergence of such ubiquitous digital memory aids as cameras, laptops and hard drives, all of which infinitely more fragile than we’d like to admit.
Many inspired and thoroughly pleasing films thankfully made my experience in Rotterdam a memorable one, though there were two films in particular that I’d unquestionably describe as true revelations, one of them being Halley. The other was an altogether different film, warm where Halley was cold, open rather than claustrophobically closed-off, communal rather than anti-social. The other film I am alluding to is acclaimed Indian playwright Anand Gandhi’s feature-length debut Ship of Theseus. There is something very special about the way he portrays his characters and the philosophical quandaries they face – an effortless compassion I immediately felt towards the people, who express themselves with such an immediate sense of authenticity. Including a young woman (Aida El-Kashef) who fearlessly follows her passion for photography despite her blindness, a monk (Neeraj Kabi) whose stance against animal cruelty in product testing jeopardises his own health after he is diagnosed with liver cirrhosis, and a self-absorbed stockbroker (Soham Shah) who decides to go out of his way to help another man who had his kidney stolen from him, their individual personalities naturalistically shine through in thought-provoking situations and dialogue that is consistently gripping, strikingly intelligent, and occasionally laced with surprising humour. Playing out in a gorgeously photographed contemporary India, their gathered stories cleverly indicate how perfect moral solutions to life’s problems may very well be impossible to achieve. As one character says to another to describe a less-than-perfect compromise reached late in the film, “It’s as good as it gets.” Hopefully the same line won’t apply to Mr Gandhi regarding his future filmmaking efforts, though if any of them only reach the same level of quality as Ship of Theseus, there will still be a great many viewers who, like I was, will be thrilled to discover a film that can inspire such fresh sensations of wonder, joy and appreciation – more specifically, an appreciation that extends beyond the kinds of talent and circumstances that bring films like Ship of Theseus into being, additionally applying to excellent festivals like Rotterdam that help bring them to wider audiences.
International Film Festival Rotterdam
23 January – 3 February 2013
Festival website: https://www.filmfestivalrotterdam.com/en/