I didn’t attend Rotterdam International Film Festival 2013, but thanks to the joys of modern technology I managed to watch a few of the most talked about films on the video streaming service FestivalScope. Here are some very brief thoughts about them. Due to the nature of FestivalScope it usually only host films that are looking for distributors, from newer and younger directors, so I was unable to view some of the more celebrated premieres from established talent. But with this in mind I was still less impressed than I expected to be; I didn’t really engage passionately with any of these films, all of which had notable critical admirers.
This wry, cynical, absurd and very Slavic comedy already has many supporters, including most prominently Neil Young of Jigsaw Lounge fame. I enjoyed it far more than any of the other films below, although I wasn’t as keen on it as dear Neil. A gangster, a musician, a prostitute, an alcoholic and his father set out on a quest to visit a mystical bell tower that can grant eternal happiness, which is situated in a guarded and treacherously snowy hinterland. This merry gang of misfits are a difficult troupe to like and rather than simply being presented as humorously disagreeable rogues, writer-director Balabanov bravely, or perhaps unwisely, endows them with truly unpleasant racist and sadistic streaks that give their adventures a detached and discursive vibe. I warmed to its Kaurismaki-meets-Stalker ambience after a while, but felt that I’d just settled into Balabanov’s groove when the film was in its final act. The first 45 minutes certainly meanders a little bit too much for my liking, but it’s an original offering from a peculiar talent.
The opening shot of a teenage girl dissecting a live frog and extracting its beating heart pretty much sets the tone for one of those youth-oriented Japanese ‘extreme’ films that mixes such disparate and outré themes as teen angst, bodily mutilation, matricide, genetic modification and technological dissonance. There’s an assortment of styles too, but generally the approach is one of scattershot multimedia collage. For all its experimentation and supposed wildness, at heart it’s a fairly conventional tale of exaggerated teenage rebellion that brings to mind Richard Bates Jnr’s recent film Excision.
Chris Fujiwara recommended this one in a dispatch here, apparently admiring the way it presents the central character’s decaying living room, with its visibly peeling layers of historic décor symbolising the submerged yet surfacing strata of Brazil’s political past. Plot-wise the film is slightly reminiscent of Ceylan’s Uzak, with a young man returning to live with a set-in-his-ways elder relative (in this case, a father), but the film is barely concerned with relationships than with abstract musings on the ghosts of Brazilian military rule, as the son pores over ancient Super-8 footage of his missing left-wing militant brother. This is the kind of film in which characters have long discussions about what constitutes film and representation, and in one sequence the son discusses for several minutes the relative merits of the Dogme ’95 movement with a colleague. Very much a festival film that doesn’t stand a chance of conventional distribution, its principle attraction for fans of Brazilian cinema is the appearance in the lead role of one Carlos Reichenbach, a key figure in Brazil’s ‘marginal’ cinema movement and director of such offbeat classics as Lilian M: Relatório Confidencial. As Fujiwara says, the production design is intriguing and some interesting ideas and themes are bandied about. It’s also the perfect length at 72 mins. But this is also modest and occasionally coarse filmmaking that comes across as frayed and fragile as Fujiwara’s favoured wilting wallpaper.
This study of the life of a Thai prostitute apparently mixes documentary and fiction, although it’s not really clear where the boundaries are drawn, which is either impressive or suspicious. Like another recent dissection of prostitution and globalisation, Whore’s Glory, it’s more accurately a modern analysis of the effects of industrialisation and globalisation rather than a timeworn exposé of the world’s oldest profession. Unlike Whore’s Glory, which even goes as far as to depict a prostitute at work, very little of Sa Sittijun’s professional activities are shown. The film instead concentrates on the contrast between her caustic urban life and the more idyllic yet impoverished rural existence she left behind, and friends and family members are lined up to opine about the trajectory of the ‘local girl done good’. Intriguingly director Visra Vichit-Vadakan somehow enlisted the talents of veteran American cinematographer Sandi Sissel, who worked on Hollywood films like Mr & Mrs Smith and Blow, and her contribution certainly helps lift the material, ensuring it never seems like a patchwork of fiction and documentary sequences.
A group of characters stroll through a beautiful forest that occasionally opens up into similarly lush fields and plains. They talk and bicker , elliptically and confusingly. It’s never clear where they’re going or to what purpose. The camera follows them in that behind-the-head style so beloved of Darren Aronofsky or Gus Vant Sant. [I later discover the cinematographer is Matías Mesa, who worked as camera operator on the Van Sant films Gerry, Elephant and Last Days.] Once in a while the camera gets moodier, angrier and starts prowling around the woods like something from Evil Dead or Gaspar Noé’s subconscious. Eventually some hints begin to arise as to the strange relationships and motivations of the group, but by that stage the film had lost me and I’d given up attempting to unravel its mysteries. It’s nearly one of those empty, mysterious films that you can let wash over you, mindlessly absorbing its beautiful photography and ethereal atmosphere. But not quite. It’s mostly watchable, with some notable sequences, but for the most part my attention drifted.