ROTTERDAM—Surely the most unpredictable festival in the world, Rotterdam normally provides copious material for a critic, but the 31st edition outdid itself. A daily panel called “What (is) Cinema” explored the future(s) of film, a political sidebar welcomed guests to “The Desert of the Real,” jury member Hou Hsiao-hsien warbled karaoke (or tried—the songs, as Hou pointed out, were “too high! Ladies’ key!”), and the titles of the discoveries, Camel(s) and Japón, seemed just as ambiguous before and after their screenings. Pedro Costa’s loving documentary on recalcitrant avant-garde filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, which begins with a lengthy argument over where to start a shot—the difference is one frame, and she tells him to shut up—delivered more entertainment than the Slovenian rave film. That (is) cinema. That (is) Rotterdam.
Instead of bidding wars from U.S. distribs, the buzz surrounds what sales agent will pluck which audacity from fries-and-mayo Holland to be sold in the white-wine-and-mussels Riviera. No coincidence, then, that the Tiger jury for first or second features included the head of the Quinzaine (Cannes’s Directors’ Fortnight sidebar), Marie-Pierre Macia. The Tigers went to the miserablist Wild Bees (featuring a Michael Jackson impersonator in the rural Czech Republic); the stylized Everyday God Kisses Us on the Mouth (which nods to I Stand Alone in following a recently paroled Romanian psycho-butcher on the road to transcendence); and the sedate, solidly acted Dutch drama Tussenland (young Sudanese man meets old colonialist).
With four movies (of his seven from 2001) playing, Rotterdam’s theaters were again alive with the sounds of Miike. Along with the usual screams and squishy gurgles of tearing flesh came the vigorous croonings of a Japanese von Trapp family running an isolated mountain lodge: The Happiness of the Katakuris finds the genre master co-opting the musical to bring, in his words, “peace and joy to the universe,” even if some corpses need to be buried in the process. Willfully slapdash, Katakuris shows Miike has but one direction for his actors: “More!” One character, a derelict who passes himself off as a Japanese member of the U.S. Navy and a member of the British royal family, sums up the incongruity of this offbeat charmer.
Just as gleefully inexplicable is the bubblegum splatter of Sion Sono’s Suicide Club. Though the setup might recall Kiyoshi Kurosawa (54 Japanese high schoolers leap in front of oncoming train), the follow-through is pure Miike (said train won’t stop from an excess of “human grease”). Other highlights include an under-12 girl group singing philosophical paeans to the Internet (“Mail me!”) and an interlude transporting viewers into The Velvet Goldmine Horror Picture Show. Suicide Club‘s baffling nonresolution was a wacky alternative to the no-exit of Philippe Garrel’s self-reflexive Sauvage Innocence. While Suicide Club makes mass suicide fun, Garrel, never known for humor, morbidly revisits his lengthy affair with Nico in what is presumably intended to be an anti-drug film. With exquisite photography by Raoul Coutard, Sauvage Innocence is oh-so-seriously French—every time the naif director of the film within the film meets his leading lover on the street, they entangle themselves in a passionate tongue kiss.
Rotterdam has always leaned Far East, though this year suggests that Korea is the new Japan. Take Care of My Cat, a breezily realist story of five 20-year-old girls, has crowd-pleasing potential, while Park Ki-yong’s defiant Camel(s)—the title refers to a poem about survival—was this year’s slowly paced Asian standout. A minimalist masterpiece shot in 12 days, Camel(s) obsesses over the here and now: Two characters without any past or future (together) meet, have dinner, go to a hotel, hump, order noodles, and drive in silence. Park makes up for the lack of dialogue with precise sound—the monotone Dolby Digital ticks of a turn signal bore a Bressonian hole into one’s soul.
If Camel(s) sets a new artistic standard for DV (the black-and-white 35mm blowup yields a hypnotic graininess), Carlos Reygadas’s hugely ambitious Japón—so named, says the director, “because of the rising sun and all that”—is perhaps the most super Super-16Cinemascope film ever. Japón‘s lanky Man With No Name trudges into an isolated outpost to find peace before killing himself, and to reveal more would ruin the fun, if your idea of chuckles includes copulating horses. The exact same lens used in, yes, I Stand Alone melds the faded Technicolor look of Leone to a classical mise-en-scène (and the occasional lunatic camera movement) to document the unfolding of life in a Mexican village and investigate Christian salvation. Reygadas, headed for the Quinzaine, aptly described Japón as “not for everyone”—call it A Taste of Tarkovsky.