Turning Japanese in Rotterdam


Typically all over the map, the Rotterdam Film Festival this year focused its considerable energies on an extensive Japanese section, bluntly titled “No Cherry Blossoms.” The message was clear: Meet the new (or, at any rate, new-to-you) Japanese cinema, unconcerned with Western preconceptions, equally untroubled by the weighty legacy of the country’s art-house titans. And so, amid local grumblings about the perceived Hollywoodization of this most eccentric of festivals (opening night film: The Insider; closing night: Sleepy Hollow), Rotterdam 2000 elaborated on its chosen theme with customary relish: retrospectives for two Japanese directors (manga animator Mamoru Oshii and relatively unheralded yakuza auteur Kinji Fukasaku); a generous sampling of the newly rejuvenated Japanese horror genre; a japonaiserie section, with entries ranging from Lang’s Harakiri to Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono to Topsy-Turvy; exhibits on manga storyboards and ceramic food replicas; a “Tech Pop” lounge, complete with arcade games and sushi bars.

With a program as sprawling as this, a festivalgoer relies more than ever on that fickle quantity known as buzz, and this year’s word-of-mouth refrain, echoed by one pundit after another (until mid festival, by which point a minibacklash had naturally formed) was “Go see the Fukasakus.” Director of nearly 60 movies over the past 40 years, only a handful of which have ever been screened outside Japan, the 70-year-old Kinji Fukasaku is known in the States almost exclusively for 1968’s Black Lizard, a fabulous kitsch-and-kink concoction in which the scheming transsexual title character (a jewel thief) falls for the detective she’s planned to destroy, all the while issuing deliciously decadent Mishima-scripted epithets.

But, as Rotterdam’s 15-film retro demonstrated, Fukasaku made his name with yakuza flicks that are distinguished by their particular postwar milieu, a seething nihilism, and crude, overwrought stylistic energy (wacky angles, freeze-frames, handheld commotion, all in glorious CinemaScope). Yakuza Graveyard and Graveyard of Honor stand out as studies of the male psyche in crisis, but the others I saw have already started to blur into one long, ultraviolent movie with lots of yelling and conspicuously fake blood. Fukasaku’s filmography may be most interesting for its digressions: Black Lizard, his “youth movie” If You Were Young: Rage (admittedly not as good as its title), and his first film, Greed in Broad Daylight, a who’s-screwing-who (in both senses) heist thriller that assembles a combustibly diverse mix of criminals and their significant others (Japanese, Korean, white and black American, a half-black, half-Japanese waif-prostitute). All gorgeous new prints, the Fukasakus are making their way to L.A. this fall—a New York appearance seems likely.

The cause célèbre of the last festival, Catherine Breillat’s Romance, confirmed that shock value counts double with art films. This year’s Breillat, judging by the sellout screenings and the nonstop chatter that followed, was Takashi Miike. A prolific director (he averages four or five films a year and had three in Rotterdam), Miike is a merciless manipulator with a taste for excess and a sadistic streak—i.e., a sick fuck. His most notorious movie, Audition (which also caused a stir at last year’s Vancouver Film Festival), begins as a subdued tale about a widower in search of a new bride and culminates in a 20-minute torture session featuring the horrifyingly imaginative use of acupuncture needles and a piano-wire bone saw. Dead or Alive, surely among the most unhinged movies ever made, opens with a delirious 15-minute montage (cocaine binges, strippers, bathroom sodomy, and a display of gluttony that, one round of gunfire later, sends a vivid spray of noodles flying toward the camera), settles into a brooding cop-vs.-yakuza genre piece (with a few revolting asides: bestial porn, a girl drowning in a pool of her own excrement), and ends by mutating the predictable endgame showdown into a literally apocalyptic blowout.

The sweetest of antidotes, if you needed one, was Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Hazy Life, by some measure the best first feature I saw. A funny, rueful movie about life grinding to a dead halt, Hazy Life details the friendship between two Osaka slackers—one silly-haired (in a Jarmusch/Kaurismaki fashion), the other amusingly blank—who while away their days playing pachinko, sleeping, and dabbling in amateur porn. Yamashita nails the frustration (and humor) of being young and locked into an entropic existence and—unlike so many American films that deal with the same subject—does so without a whiny sense of entitlement. With few words, he pulls off a balancing act between cautious hopefulness and bitter irony.

The festival’s non-Japanese highlights in brief: Best Amerindie rip-off: 6ixtynin9—a Thai Tarantino, i.e., a camp, giddily absurd Tarantino. Worst Amerindie ripoff: the Singaporean Eating Air, an attempt to out-regress Kevin Smith that, woefully, succeeds. Best documentary: Daniele Cipri and Franco Maresco’s hilarious Enzo, Tomorrow in Palermo, about the diminutive Sicilian who facilitates film shoots on the island and strenuously denies mob ties. Most puzzling guest: Ice-T, serving on a panel about digital filmmaking. Most generous director: Chris Doyle, who bought beers for the hardy souls who stayed to the end of his debut feature, Away With Words. Finally, best competition film (and also, as it turned out, worthy eventual winner): Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, which takes its name from a busy Shanghai waterway, boldly reprises Vertigo (with bewigged doppelgänger to boot), and, at its best, invokes the knowing moroseness and keening romanticism of vintage Wong Kar-wai.