Jan 29, 2009

Rotterdam Dispatch #2

As it veers toward its final weekend, the 38th IFFR gets set to unveil its centerpiece prize, the VPRO Tiger Award, on Friday night. In the past few days winners of other prizes were announced, such as my Filmmaker Magazine colleague Lance Weiler, who took the CineMart prize for his interactive multi-media project HIM and the Tiger Award for shorts, which was given to a trio of films: the Roosevelt Island shot A Necessary Music by Beatrice Gibson, Brit Duncan Campbell's challenging, Zhangkesque deconstruction of documentary form Bernadette and a haunting, wordless meditation on an icy world dominated by crows, in which men are mere subjects, Russians Galina Myznkova and Sergey Pervorov's Despair.

I wish I could report, given the fact that I'm obliged by my provisional FIPRESCI jury duty to see all the competition films, that the Tiger Award features were as enthralling as the film's listed above, but for the most part this has been a very uninspiring selection, with a few bright spots but no real revelations along the way. Formally audacious films like Edwin's Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly, a fascinatingly uproarious if ultimately impenetrable meditation on the repression of Chinese identity in Indonesia, play alongside formulaic comedies with edgy twists (Simon Ellis' doggystyle rom-com Dogging: A Love Story) and verite inflected teenage ensembles (Henry Bernadet & Myriam Verrault's dreadful A L'Ouest Du Pluton). There's even a film about a doomed gangster called Breathless, although its a brutal, overlong and not especially skillful South Korean drama featuring a neat performance from its director Yang Ik-June and some intriguing ideas about violence and masculinity in Korean culture that it ultimately goes no where with.

The low point in the competition was Peng Tao's pretentiously conceived, woefully shot MiniDV feature Floating on Memory. Supported by both Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Fund and the Sundance Institute, which may have acquired its name because the camera, for no apparent reason other than a vain grasp as "naturalism", seems to bounce up and down rhythmically as we stare at the backs of its pair of leads, rural Chinese teenagers who've moved to the city to become a pimp/kidnapper and a prostitute/shoe sales woman respectively. Each is done in through bad luck, poor choices and vicious circumstance, but the film is done in by Tao's complete disinterest in photographing performance, undercutting any empathetic weight the characters can generate in the film's heavy handed, greek tragedy like narrative, which is full of important gaps left unfilled for dubious reasons.

Among the stronger films in competition is Japanese director Naito Takatsugu's The Dark Harbour, which despite its title and country of origin, isn't a horror film but a Aki Kaurismaki, Hal Ashby inflected comedy about a lonely fisherman and the female hustler who takes him for a ride, but bestows on him something far more important. At times its a lovely and colorful comedy, but you always see its gears turning and the conclusion doesn't have the bite it should given the details of the narrative. While it features strong comedic work by all the actors, the film remains largely uncritical toward Asian (especially Japanese) cultural misogyny which ultimately lessens it, especially if you've seen it at the same festival as Tokyo Sonata and Still Walking, a double dip from which I'm still recovering.

The most satisfying competition film thus far has been Chilean Alicia Scherson's unassuming and graceful second feature, Turistas. Not to be confused with John Stockwell's, 2006 American horror film, Scherson's pic concerns a thirty-something bourgeois couple, en route to vacation on a nature reserve in the Chilean Andes and the fissures which quickly result in a reconsideration of everything they seem to want together. The appealing Aline Kuppenheim plays a self-sabotaging thirtysomething scientist who reveals to her husband during the ride that she has aborted their soon to be expected child, only to be left on the side of the road by the bearded, analytical husband in an opening that proves to contain most of the film's emotional fireworks. She finds her way into the reserve, where she quickly encounters a number of oddballs people looking to reinvent themselves, some going about it more honestly than others.

Shot in highly saturated HD, Scherson dynamically mixes out of focus traveling shots, finding visual analogues for the character's own lack of emotional clarity, with shots which use the format's inherent limitations to its advantage, shooting the amazing natural landscape of the Chilean wild in the deep focus of hi-def video, allowing the most immaculate details of mountains, trees and fields jump out from the backgrounds. Kuppenheim proves to be quite a find, carrying an admittedly light and traditional tale on her shoulders. Despite the crying husband, the fainting ex-pop singer and the Norwegian traveler who may not be what he appears, Turistas is a relatively unadorned drama that doesn't have characters pursuing goal so much as a group of fairly sympathetic if troubled people trying to find out just what their goals are, much like almost everyone I know. Scherson is a director to watch out for.

While would be cult films like Nicholas Winding Rehn's already overrated, Chopper derivative midnight movie Bronson and Glenn McQuaid's episodic, intermittently fun Slamdance opener I Sell the Dead found themselves here after successful premieres in Park City, neither can hold a candle to Kim Gok's delieriously perverse Exhausted, which is sure to find audiences on the midnight movie circuit and just about no where else, was easily the most provocative film I've seen at the festival, this unforgettable (and undistributable) tale of a depraved, porn addicted, mildly retarded man who pimps out his even more mentally challenged wife in the grimly outskirts of a post Apoclyptic South Korean city is a true marvel of gutter art cinema. As it devolves into increasingly difficult representations of self-mutilation, rape, and sado-masochistic torture, all of which are set up with strong gusts of gallows humor, it tests the audience's emotional endurance and doesn't pay off with any flase notions of hope for its irreversibly marginalized characters. Shot in rudimentary Super 8mm, which gives the film a chilling, ethereal beauty even as it glimpses into the darkest corners of the soul and the body, Exhausted will only work for those willing to meet it halfway. It's simplistic yet otherworldly visual style has some anticedents (The Kuchar Brothers or Ronald Bronstein), yet its seriousness of purpose, one that the similarly grotesque hijinks of Takashi Miike never contain, are what ultimately make it uncomfortable for audience accustomed to all kinds of visual horrors tucked into more palatable forms and genre constructions. This is uncompromising cinema; Exhausted is utterly committed to its vision of an earthbound hell. Do yourself a favor and seek this one out; it won't be coming to a theater near you anytime soon.