By R. Emmet Sweeney
[Photo: Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s “Ploy,” Fortissimo Films/Five Star Entertainment, 2007]
As I sit in the crowded hall of the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s main building, I’m drowning in an atmosphere of harried conviviality. At the table next to me, three ladies promoting “Lucky 7,” an omnibus Thai film, are exchanging information with a charming Texan whose short film is premiering at the fest. This is the scene all over this wet and windy city, as independent filmmakers the world over are making contacts and crossing their fingers for that one good Variety review that could lead to financing for their next project (or at least a future festival life for their film).
In its 37th year, this festival defines itself by its independence specifically its focus on young filmmakers, many of whom are from developing nations. (As a result, Rotterdam devotes the Tiger Awards Competition to a group of 15 first or second time filmmakers lucky enough to make the main selection.) This maverick spirit was instilled by Hubert Bals, the festival’s founder, who encouraged an idiosyncratic mix of ambitious unknowns and experimental pioneers, and programs of high-wire genre freakouts and rare retrospectives. His legacy lives on through the Hubert Bals Fund, which gives money to young filmmakers in the developing world, helping to produce such films as Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Climates” and Carlos Reygadas’s “Japón.”
This year, the festival has a new director in Rutger Wolfson, but according to veterans of the fest, it seems little has changed. The Tiger Awards Competition is still the centerpiece of Rotterdam, but there’s an embarrassment of cinematic riches behind every program, including the auteur-driven Kings & Aces section, the midnight movie shenanigans of Rotterdammerung, and a raft of options I haven’t delved into yet, including the retrospective of fourth-generation Chinese filmmakers and the avant-garde Exploding Cinema sidebar (complete with a theater designed to ape Tsai Ming-liang’s Taipei cine-palace from “Goodbye, Dragon Inn”).
So far, I’ve seen five of the Tiger contenders, and the most impressive is “Waltz in Starlight,” directed by noted Japanese still photographer Shingo Wakagi. A shambling reminiscence about his witty grandfather and the lazy tempo of their beachside town, “Starlight” nimbly mixes documentary techniques with fiction to create the impression of a fine-tuned home movie. Koishi Kim, a veteran manzai performer (a stand-up comic in his native Japan), plays the acerbic gramps with studied cantankerousness and glimpses of grace beneath. The others competing for Tigers are less accomplished, including “Go with Peace Jamil,” a head-scratcher that reduces the Sunni-Shiite conflict to shopworn action film clichés.
Curiously placed in the Sturm und Drang section for up-and-coming filmmakers, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s latest work, “Ploy,” was another early highlight. Known stateside for his 2004 release “Last Life in the Universe,” Ratanaruang has been making the festival rounds for a decade and would certainly seem more at home with the more established folks in Kings & Aces section. Regardless, his dreamlike reverie of marital breakdown (which premiered at Cannes in 2007) deserves to be seen. A couple who emigrated to the U.S. return to Thailand for a funeral and check into a modernist Bangkok hotel, where their somnambulistic mind games begin and banal jealousies erupt into violent revenge fantasies. With puzzle-like complexity, Ratanaruang infuses everyday objects, including a necklace, a cigarette lighter and an expensive suit, with the paranoias and euphorias of erotic couplings, creating an impressionistic, demanding, and entirely enigmatic ode to the mysteries of love.
After catching up with some New York Film Festival titles I’d missed (Ken Jacobs’ rapturous investigation into pre-cinema, “RAZZLE DAZZLE the Lost World,” and José Luis Guerin’s superb “In the City of Sylvia”), I sat down to the most purely entertaining title of the fest so far in Matsumoto Hitoshi’s brilliantly eccentric “Dai-Nipponjin” (or, “Big Man Japan”). A popular comedian on Japanese TV, Hitoshi’s persona is fully honed he speaks with a halting delivery so deadpan it reaches beyond comedy into the realm of psychosis. He plays Dai Sato, the last remaining employee of Japan’s Department of Monster Defense. Employing a faux-documentary style, Hitoshi is questioned about his adoration of folding umbrellas (they get big only when they’re needed) and his distrust of America, giving plenty of room for long pauses. He leaves you hanging for the punchline, the humor arising from the lack of one.
The true insanity begins when Hitoshi begins fighting the monsters, with such evocative names as “The Strangling Monster” and “The Stink Monster.” Jacked up with electricity and standing inside of a giant pair of drawers, Hitoshi is super-sized and battles the beasts with a steel rod and a mightily hairy back. With surprisingly effective computer effects, Hitoshi dispatches the freaks with aplomb, but the TV ratings for his show are in the pits so much so it airs at the prime slot of 2:40 in the morning and his agent splashes ads across his chest. The story takes a number of wild turns, eventually ending on a note of surreal televisual bliss Hitoshi finding the answer to his depressive state in the rubber suits of old.
[Additional photos: “Waltz in Starlight,” Youngtree films, Tohokushinsha Film Corporation, 2007; “Dai-nipponjin,” Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., Ltd., Realproducts, 2007]