By R. Emmet Sweeney
The 37th edition of the Rotterdam Film Festival is kaput after a low-key closing ceremony this past Friday night. The big prize was for the VPRO Tiger awards, which hands three first or second time filmmakers $15,000 towards future projects. The jury, headed by ace Iranian director Jafar Panahi (“Offside”), handed the prizes to the Malaysian underage comedy “Flower in the Pocket,” the Thai post-tsunami drama “Wonderful Town” and the Danish Sunni-Shiite thriller “Go with Peace Jamil.” “Wonderful Town” looks to be the breakout title of the three, with almost universal acclaim from critics (including myself in the previous dispatch), an award in hand from the Pusan Film Festival, and a slot in the upcoming Berlin Fest’s Forum section. With its subtle romance wedded to an undercurrent of post-disaster violence, it’s a haunting piece of work and a deserving winner.
The others had a more tempered reception. “Flower” director Liew Seng Tat belongs to a much-heralded, but little seen group of Malaysian directors who formed their own production company, Da Huang Pictures. A straight-up comedy effectively using the intimacy of DV, “Flower” gets strong performances from its child actors (latchkey kids with a mannequin factory workaholic father) and has an eye for the bizarre detail. Liew concocted the funniest scene I saw in the festival, involving an overly jolly doctor, a misplaced lock and key and a wayward X-ray. It’s this eye that keeps his story about outcast kids from descending into cliché, and turns it into an aggressively likeable piece of entertainment. It also nabbed a spot in Berlin.
“Jamil”‘s selection was a surprise, to put it mildly. A rather reductive tale of Sunni-Shiite violence in Denmark, director Omar Shargawi’s handheld opus stirred little support, and its selection suggests a compromise vote between two opposing titles. I hope one of them was Jose Luis Torres Leiva’s “The Sky, The Earth, and the Rain,” which ended up winning the FIPRESCI prize, selected from the Tiger competition films (I was a member of the FIPRESCI jury as part of a program for young film critics six of us whippersnappers were given one combined vote). To wrap up the festivities, the Dutch Film Critics gave their award to Alexei Balabanov’s incendiary “Cargo 200,” and NETPAC, an institution promoting Asian film, awarded veteran Taiwanese actor Niu Chen-zer’s debut “What On Earth Have I Done Wrong?”.
If there were any trends to emerge out of this eclectic festival, it was simply to confirm that Asia is still the undisputed artistic center of the film world, with new talents emerging (“Wonderful Town”‘s Aditya Assarat) and the old masters still going strong, with Hou Hsiao-hsien (“Flight of the Red Balloon”), Jia Zhangke (“Useless”) and Tsai Ming-liang (with his excellent installation “Is it a dream?”) all in town. There’s one Japanese filmmaker questioning his own importance, however, and that’s Takeshi Kitano, in the midst of the mid-career crisis that began with his self-flagellating portrait in “Takeshis'” (2005). The same tendency continues in “Glory to the Filmmaker!” (2007), an often uproarious sketch comedy collection about what film Kitano should make next. Structured like a madcap clip reel, “Glory” makes use of a sarcastic narrator to lead us through a variety of failed projects, including an absurd parody of Kitano’s gangster films, a spot-on Ozu imitation, the self-explanatory treacle of “The Chauffeur’s Romance,” and, of course, “Blue Raven Ninja Part 2.” A sarcastic deconstruction of every plaudit tossed his way, the film reveals that Takeshi just wants to play the clown. It has the feel of a transitional work but it’s one to revel in.
The last bits of celluloid I took in were of Abdellatif Kechiche’s epic about the North African community in southern France, “La Graine et le Mulet” (The Secret of the Grain). Kechiche uses streams of overlapping dialogue to track the lives of the Arab community in the southern French port of Sete. Kechiche has a wonderful ear for the textures of speech his characters talk in the associative, digressive manner of families with decades old in-jokes and feuds. Arguments build and crescendo with operatic power and Kechiche gives his actors plenty of room to perform, in every meaning of the word. You’ll know what I mean when you see the final scene a tour de force which contrasts sex and death with startling equanimity.
[Additional photo: “Glory to the Filmmaker!”, Office Kitano Inc., 2008]
#2: A Luminous Masterpiece From Chile Chilean director José Luis Torres Leiva’s “The Sky, The Earth, and The Rain” is the title that keeps popping out of the mouths of inebriated critics.
#1: Enigmas and Insanity From Japan and Thailand Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s “Ploy” is dreamlike reverie of marital breakdown, while Matsumoto Hitoshi’s faux-documentary “Dai-Nipponjin” is brilliantly eccentric.
[Photo: Liew Seng Tat’s “Flower in the Pocket,” Da Huang Pictures, 2008]