ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS—How fitting that the big winner at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival was called The Missing—no, not the Ron Howard western, but a plaintive Taiwanese drama about the fear of sudden loss. This was an event unavoidably colored by the imminent departure of fest director Simon Field, a world-class movie buff who in his eight-year tenure elevated Rotterdam’s trademark eclecticism to a veritable manifesto of open-mindedness. No other festival has been as attuned to cinema’s secret histories and potential futures, as supportive of its evolution in the developing world, as eager to explore its cross-pollinations with fine art and new media.
Field’s final installment did not disappoint. Beyond the omnivorous main program, Rotterdam ’04 also showcased a holy grail of American independent film (the long-lost original Shadows; see J. Hoberman’s report, February 4-10); accorded retros to Raul Ruiz and Ken Jacobs; and repeatedly roped current events into the frame. A nightclub was converted into a war-gaming arcade; a multimedia exhibit featured a 3-D tour through bin Laden’s last-known residence. In the “Homefront USA” section, films ranged from the activist to the accidentally topical, suggesting a very different State of the Union from the one Bush had offered a few days earlier. (The methodology was sometimes no less suspect than the Bush administration’s: The hicksploitation doc This Ain’t No Heartland, for instance, purports to depict the “average” Midwesterner’s response to the Iraq war but restricts its interview pool to drunken rednecks and flag-collecting shut-ins.)
September 11 and U.S. foreign policy were recurring themes. Kinji and Kenta Fukasaku’s Battle Royale II posits a teens-vs.-adults showdown in the wake of a “Millennium Anti-Terrorism Law.” Elmar Fischer’s The Friend chronicles the fraying bond between a Berlin student and his Yemeni roommate, who goes from fresh-faced party boy to bearded radical and disappears shortly before the WTC attacks. The most confrontational September 11 references—trumping an idiotic Homefront USA short that scored the collapsing twin towers to the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around”—could be found in Japanese video artist Tsuchiya Yutaka’s DV feature about voyeur-cam obsession, Peep “TV” Show, in which someone appears to be masturbating to 9-11 footage, and the burning towers are dreamily termed a “beautiful sight.” Crude and even willfully odious, it’s also hard to dismiss. Amid the tasteless stunt provocation and alienated misfit poses are prickly, sophisticated ideas about the bulimic consumption of mass-mediated spectacle.
Still, there was no film denser with nutty, in-your-face philosophizing than Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell, a world premiere and an early hot ticket for obvious reasons: Adapted from Breillat’s own book Pornocracy, it re-teamed her with porn stud Rocco Siffredi. As her 10th film (or rather, Xth film), this would be, the director promised, “the X of the X-rated film.” Imagine Georges Bataille doing DVD commentary for a Zalman King movie: A straight woman (Amira Casar) hires a gay man (Siffredi) to “watch me where I’m unwatchable.” The two talk sex theory and attempt the occasional demonstration, aided by a generous array of props: A stone dildo gets a workout. A used tampon is deployed as a tea bag. The man, in an experimental mood, seeks inspiration from a rack of gardening tools (a pun on ” ‘ho”?). Whether you buy Breillat’s philosophy of desire and disgust, there’s no denying the movie’s heady rigor and conviction. The levels of disconnect add further interest: The point of view is the man’s (a first for a Breillat film), but his narration is delivered by Breillat herself.
Another provocateur who owes his international reputation to Rotterdam, the prolific Takashi Miike delivered one of his sloppiest yet: Zebraman, a superhero spoof that resoundingly fails to live up to its excellent tagline, “Striping evil.” More successfully goofball, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Doppelgänger, in which an A.I. researcher (Koji Yakusho) faces off against his double, mutates from supernatural thriller to black farce. Introducing the movie, Kurosawa claimed it would be “incredibly easy to understand,” since, to avoid any confusing ambiguities, he’d simply split this protagonist in two. A misleading assertion, of course, since the pleasure of this fizzy, fittingly schizoid movie lies in not being able to tell the original and the supposed duplicate apart.
As always, there were encouraging finds among the unknown quantities. From Belgium, Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern’s Aaltra is an improbably hilarious wheelchair road movie that traces a throughline from Tati to Kaurismäki to the Farrellys. (More flagrantly incorrect, the German Freakstars 3000 stages an American Idol-style contest for the mentally handicapped.) Observing a Dutch woman’s post-mastectomy anguish, Martin Koolhoven’s The South creeps from Dardenne-like realism to tabloidy, Fassbinderian tragedy. And in Buena Vida Delivery, Argentine director Leonardo Di Cesare extrapolates the universal dread of in-law invasion to a comic extreme.
But the fest’s most lauded neophyte was The Missing director Lee Kang-sheng, best known as the reticent center of gravity in Tsai Ming-liang’s movies. His film patiently monitors a woman’s panic and despair in the hours after she loses her grandson at a park. A ghost story of sorts, The Missing is also an absorbing meditation on public space, and an eye-opening portrait of Taipei much the way Crimson Gold is one of Tehran. Lee’s mentor Tsai, meanwhile, played a key role in the festival’s most memorable moment. At Field’s goodbye ceremony, fest co-director Sandra den Hamer (who will continue at the helm) unveiled a surprise gift: shorts for the occasion by some of Field’s favorite filmmakers, including Jan Svankmajer and Abolfazl Jalili. Tsai’s contribution, Moonlight Over the Water, was the most emotional and elemental: dusk, a riverbed, low tide, two stray dogs, and a tremulously haunting pop song. Magical in its simplicity, his gorgeous elegy perfectly captured the melancholy pall that hovered over Rotterdam ’04.