ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDSFor the weary Sundancer, there is no more invigorating detox plan than to head straight from the Utah slopes to the Dutch lowlands. Overstuffed and omnivorous, the Rotterdam Film Festival has become a winter oasis for itinerant cinephilesa chance to lap up often unknown pleasures, away from the warping heat of bidding wars and celebrity entourages. Rotterdam generates its own kind of cosmopolitan, film-geek buzz, of course: This year's big news was the belated discovery of a long-dead Japanese director (Tomu Uchidahopefully coming soon to a retro near you), the designated hot spot was Southeast Asia, and the single most talked-about film (4) was a precociously nuts Russian first feature that linked numerology to cloning to the genetic manipulation of livestock to the homespun manufacture of doll parts.
There was also an unavoidable sense of nervous reflection to Rotterdam '05the first large international arts event in a country still reeling from the assassination last November of filmmaker and political gadfly Theo van Gogh. For proof of how decisively the Dutch liberal dream has shattered, you needed to look no further than the metal detectors at the screening of van Gogh's final movie, 06/05, a speculative thriller about the murder (on May 6, 2002) of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn. The festival had planned to show Submission, the Islam critique that cost van Gogh his life, but citing security concerns, pulled it at the last minute. (Part of the short, reviewed in these pages last November, is still available at ifilm.com.) A wheezy conspiracy clogged with broad and suspect characterizations, 06/05 connects Fortuyn's murder to a backroom effort involving the Dutch military and the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter program. 06/05 is now as much about its director's death as its subject's, and just as his hagiography offers a heroicized view of Fortuyn, van Gogh, who had a knack for provoking anger and not argument, is being eulogized as a free-speech hero.
Elsewhere, most of the political content could be found in the "PS Homefront USA" section, a sequel to last year's popular sidebar. A suitably incredulous account of Schwarzenegger's California ascent and a fittingly annoyed one of Giuliani's New York reign were surefire crowd-pleasers for a European audience (less fun for those who lived through it). For the invaluable Occupation: Dreamland, filmmakers Garrett Scott and Ian Olds followed the 82nd Airborne Division in Falluja in early 2004, mere weeks before the charred corpses of contractors were paraded through the streets. What emerges from the night-vision raids, confused culture clashes, and agitated downtime is at once an eerie portrait of a city quietly about to explode and an unnervingly intimate look at eight young soldiers that accords their individuality due scrutiny. The implicit question that underscores the troops' daily routine but that they can't afford to express too oftenwhy the fuck are we here?is deafening by the end. Rotterdam also showcased the premiere of the first feature filmed in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam, Oday Rasheed's Underexposure, a sketchy fact-fiction hybrid mainly about its own making. The title refers both to the ongoing Iraqi plight and to the old Kodak stock the film was shot onRasheed retrieved a few expired cans from the bombed-out Ministry of Culture building.
Keenly anticipated among trend-chasers, the Southeast Asian focus was more than a little spotty, though there's no denying the uptick in independent-minded activity in the area, on the fringes of film industries that not long ago were dormant to nonexistent. Quintessentially Rotterdamian specimens included Thai youth-culture chronicler Thunska Pansittivorakul and Filipino mondo terrorizer Khavn, whose "brown comedy" The Family That Eats Soil seemed to be a fast-forward favorite at the festival's video library. Much slicker, Filipino American two-man crew Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon's brilliantly resourceful Cavite (made for little more than the cost of two plane tickets to Manila) uses a wireless, real-time ransom countdown to orchestrate a stricken tour through the slums just outside Manila.
With Thailand's Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul having graduated to art-house stars (and a next wave yet to fill the void), the regional buzz has migrated somewhat to Malaysia, home to a small, close-knit group of emerging filmmakers. James Lee (The Beautiful Washing Machine) and Ho Yu-hang (Sanctuary) practice a wry, oblique minimalism derived from Malaysian-born Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang. Their cohort Amir Muhammad is a wholly distinctive voice in Southeast Asian movies. Essayist, activist, and sociologist all in one, he deploys whimsical humor and sharp analysis to hack away at the contradictions and willed amnesia endemic to Malaysian culture and politics (as in his '04 Sundance entry The Big Durian). At Rotterdam, he premiered two records of trips abroad: the experimental tone poem Tokyo Magic Hour and The Year of Living Vicariously, a digressive meditation on rebellion and nationalism in the guise of a making-of doc, shot on the Jakarta set of a period biopic, against the backdrop of Indonesia's first direct presidential elections.
Closer to home, Rotterdam continued to champion the younger adventurers of European cinema often bypassed at flashier festivals: Le Pont des Arts, a splendid baroque construction by neo-Bressonian eccentric Eugene Green; German mopemeister Fred Kelemen's atypically brief (and disappointingly O. Henry-ish) Krisana; and perhaps the find of the festival, 30-year-old Muscovite first-timer Ilya Khrzhanovsky's jaw-dropping 4 (which won a prize from a jury that included Nan Goldin). Larded with dead and aging tissue, 4 is a grandiose study of barbarism and decay, a treatise on the way of all flesh, with DNA spliced in from Leos Carax, PETA ads, and Chris Cunningham videos. Overweening and enigmatic, Khrzhanovsky's film also represents a visceral attempt to grapple with a question that proved central to this festival's timelier offerings: what it means to be human.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.