Adark cloud hung over the proceedings of the 36th International Film Festival Rotterdam. On opening night, festival director Sandra den Hamer announced that the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposed withdrawing financial support for the festival's Hubert Bals Fund, a film grant that has been a vital force in cultivating filmmaking in developing countries.
With the international press present and a Dutch politician in the audience, Den Hamer's announcement was undeniably a political move, as was the opening-night film. Instead of a high-profile opener, the festival opted for Esteban Sapir's La Antena, an Argentinean film that was supported by the Hubert Bals Fund and contending in the Tiger Awards competition for first- or second-time filmmakers. The move was likely intended to demonstrate the type of cinema that the festival promotes. While clever, the film's clunky plot and German silent-era aesthetic were hardly representative of the kind of regional art cinema that the festival has funded. You only needed to look elsewhere in the festival to find better representatives of the types of films the Hubert Bals Fund has fostered. Two Malaysian films with Hubert Bals support, Ho Yuhang's Rain Dogs and Tan Chui Mui's Love Conquers All, were exemplary of the rich regional filmmaking that the festival has long exhibited and funded. In any case, Den Hamer's gambit seemed fruitful. As the festival got underway, the Dutch parliament debated the matter. However, at the time of this writing, the fund's fate is still up in the air.
While the parliamentary debates continued, it was business as usual at the eclectic and all-inclusive Rotterdam Film Festival. While the festival has maintained its distinct identity by showcasing emerging talents, this year's edition offered no major discoveries, but there was plenty of promise from East Asia on display. In the Tiger Award competition, Chinese filmmaker Guo Xiaolu brought her hybrid documentary How Is Your Fish Today?, which mixes nonfiction scenes of a screenwriter constructing a story about a murderer on the lam with fiction scenes that bring that story to life. The film's light touch keeps the narrative ploy playful, culminating in the writer and his creation encountering each other in a desolate border village.
In the festival section "Cinema of the Future: Sturm und Drang," aspiring Japanese comedian Ichii Masahide presented Dog Days Dream, a charming comedy that charts the slow disintegration of a young married couple over the hot summer months. Mixing lazy moments with slapstick, the director displays a precise mastery of the comically timed edit.
One of the more provocative works came from first-time feature filmmaker Kim Kyung-mook, whose Faceless Things was comprised of only three shots. With a Warhol-like interest in long takes and sadomasochism, the South Korean director captures a hotel liaison between a businessman and teenage boy, a scatological interlude between two men, and a final puzzling image of perhaps the filmmaker himself. While the film is less outrageous than wearisome, it is not for the faint of heart.
Highlighting the work of established auteurs, the "Maestros: Kings & Aces" program boosted the festival's sometimes hit-or-miss offerings. The vitality of contemporary Asian art films could be witnessed in three masterworks: Jia Zhang-ke's majestic Still Life, Tsai Ming-liang's moving and near-wordless I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's enigmatic diptych Syndromes and a Century. However, far less satisfying was the Japanese movie M by Hiroki Ryuichi, master of the pink film. Detailing the double life of a housewife turned call girl, the film eschews kinkiness for dark psychology, but ultimately buckles under the weight of vulgarized Freudianism.
Perhaps the true maestro of Rotterdam was Hong Kong director Johnnie To, one of the festival's "Filmmakers in Focus." A late-night screening of To's breathtaking action pictures came as a welcome antidote to a long day of opaque art films. To's bravura style was best showcased in his recent Triad films Election I and II, a one-two combination punch that borrows from Scorsese's GoodFellas and Coppola's The Godfather while trying to trump both.
This year's festival saw the return of the "Rotterdammerung" section, which focused on genre films with a social message. In Freesia--Bullet over Tears, Japanese director Kumakiri Kazuyoshi conjures up a near future in which crime victims can hire bounty hunters to wipe out their perpetrators. Largely unfolding at a languid pace--mirroring its numb, reticent characters--the film shatters its own calm with startling bits of action. Less political, but no less harrowing was Shinya Tsukamoto's Nightmare Detective, about a serial killer who slays his victims in their dreams. Tsukamoto, who explored the extremes of body horror in his Tetsuo movies, again sets out to batter the viewer's senses in the film's brutal nightmare sequences.
From the U.S., Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter re-imagines The Thing as a cautionary tale of global warming. When a team of researchers in northern Alaska discovers that climate change is upsetting the environment's balance, an ancient spirit escapes from the frozen ground in the form of what may be a killer reindeer. With a solid premise and a good tension line, the film unfortunately seems to have trouble navigating political commentary and obscure movie-monster thrills.
American filmmaker Anna Biller provided some levity to the horror-heavy sidebar with Viva, a revival of the soft-core films of the 1960s. Biller, who dons multiple hats on the movie, stars as a bored Southern California housewife who searches for sexual liberation by becoming a prostitute. Full of campy performances and giggle-inducing period costumes, the film may be destined for cult status.
Always game for provocation, Rotterdam took up the challenge of asking how to run a festival in an era when fewer people are going out to the movies and patterns of distribution and exhibition are changing. In response, the festival staged a series of non-theatrical events under the heading "Happy Endings, When Festivals Are Over." The events included a digital video lounge, a DVD shop where filmmakers hawked their wares, a script stage where writers presented their scenarios in front of a live audience, and an indoor soccer competition in which teams of filmmakers, programmers and journalists went head-to-head. Might Rotterdam be blazing the trail for how festivals should be run in the future? Considering that public attendance at this year's festival rose to a formidable 367,000, such a prediction seems premature.