Port Authorities, Asian Provocations


Rotterdam’s annual movie bonanza is quite literally an embarrassment of riches—even the most tenacious attendee might stumble out of this jam-packed free-for-all feeling sheepish, convinced that several festivals’ worth of cine-booty had gone uncovered in the commotion. (“502 films in 10 dagen,” notes the ubiquitous promo poster featuring a red-eyed, zombified moviegoer.)

Celebrating its 30th birthday as well as its hometown’s anointment as Cultural Capital of Europe for 2001, the Rotterdam Film Festival mounted a centerpiece program called “On the Waterfront,” a loose compendium of movies set in and around harbors (Fassbinder, von Sternberg, and Mambéty found space beside Kazan’s title-provider, while Sokurov’s Povinnost screened as a companion piece to, um, The Hunt for Red October). The programmers also asked a set of young directors to make video diaries of their chosen port city; the finest included Lou Ye’s In Shanghai, which works both as a mournful epilogue to his Suzhou River and a poignantly discombobulated first-person scrap of anthropology. The most idiosyncratic of the premiering features in the “Waterfront” program was Freedom, a nearly wordless stare into the void, in which three castaways wait out their deaths on a barren, nameless coast. Directed by Sharunas Bartas (the wild-eyed industrial-symphony conductor in Pola X), the film is glacial, arduous, and ravishing, and instigated one of the week’s few substantial waves of walkouts.

This installment of the festival made the usual room for old masters both heralded and overlooked. Jan Svankmajer—feted with wife Eva at the local Chabot Museum with three floors’ worth of their body-horrific paintings, collages, and whatzits—was on hand with Otesánek, a mostly live-action rumble in which an anxious bourgie makes a substitute baby out of a tree root for ú= 0F; pÍ €0 ;  “/ °5, ÀÏ Ð- àG ð×+ 3 . 0€9 @†6 is given one weapon (ranging from trash can lids to machine guns); the game ends when only one contestant remains alive.

A kindred absurdist spirit could be found in the program devoted to Roy Andersson, who directed two films a quarter-century ago before embarking on some 300 commercials—most notably a spate of apocalyptic insurance ads—and then careened back to features with his astonishing Songs From the Second Floor. Four years in the making, it hinges not so much on its beleaguered protagonist (who’s just torched his furniture store for, natch, the insurance money) but on discrete, deranged episodes (gory magician mishaps, ceremonial child sacrifice, airport gang-presses) that seemingly add up to the end—or is it the beginning?—of the world. Songs is an often uproariously funny, downright visionary farrago of endgame mayhem.

The festival’s top two priorities have long been Asian cinema and fledgling filmmakers; the former was out in full force, but the entries in the Tiger Competition for first and second features were slack and often indistinguishable. The exception, Maria Speth’s gorgeously composed, gimpily scripted The Days Between (from Germany), fittingly owes a big stylistic debt to Christopher Doyle’s cinematography for Chen Kaige and Wong Kar-wai. (Incidentally, Tony Leung and a leg-warmered Maggie Cheung fell to earth midway through the fest to promote Wong’s In the Mood for Love, injecting some incongruous and welcome glamour.)

Wang Shuo’s Father, which slipped into the Rotterdam schedule as a late-night surprise, had to be smuggled out of China after authorities banned it for subversive content. A gentle domestic portrait of a mercurial but well-meaning dad and his precocious young son, the film doubles as a forceful (but unforced) critique of the state; the scratchy print on view is the only one in existence, as the negatives are trapped with the censors. Another sturdy gem from the mainland, Wang Guangli’s docu-feature Go for Broke (screening at the Walter Reade in March) is a kind of Chinese Human Resources, in which an ensemble of nonpro actors re-create their experiences as laid-off Shanghai factory workers who attempt to guide a new business of their own through Jiang’s wider-door policies. Scrupulous and generous, it’s an elegant analysis of a city in flux.

The new must-sees belonged unmistakably to the Japanese. Kinji Fukasaku, the yakuza-flick legend who was the subject of a retro last year, returned with the addled, outrageous Battle Royale. A huge hit back home, it plays like a Paul Verhoeven reimagining of Survivor: The Japanese government, responding to escalating youth anarchy, starts choosing high school classes at random for exile to a desert island. Each student is given one weapon (ranging from trash can lids to machine guns); the game ends when only one contestant remains alive. Blood-soaked and consistently hysterical, it also offers a sublime bit of casting: Takeshi Kitano as a hapless teacher turned track-suited tyrant. (At one point, he advises his charges, “Take a little lunch break from the killing.”) The indefatigable 70-year-old Fukasaku plans a director’s cut of Battle Royale for the late spring—what he calls “a graduation gift to the young people of Japan.”

Rivaling Fukasaku in thrashing celluloid frenzy were two entries from another Japanese firestarter, Ishii Sogo. His warrior epic Gojoe gives Battle Royale a run for its money in terms of blood quartage, number of angles per minute, and overall dementia (with an impressive decapitation quotient for good measure). And Ishii’s hour-long black-and-white fit, Electric Dragon 80,000 V, is an epileptic narration of the empathic rivalry between lizard-taming, guitar-shredding Dragon Eye Morrison and the enigmatic Thunderbolt Buddha, both electrocuted as children and now ambivalently equipped with kinetic powers. Ecstatic and galvanizing, 80,000 V is a DC comic come to sizzling, explosive life, with intertitles that could double as praise for the film’s boyish, spiky-haired director: “HE CONDUCTS ELECTRICITY! HE TALKS TO REPTILES! HE’S THE MAN!”