The Rotterdam Film Festival has had a history of promoting the weird, the obsessive and the cultish in cinema, and there’s been little change as this year’s edition reaches its close. They’ve programmed a survey of recent Asian horror films, complete with a “haunted house” installation, and they’ve maintained their loyalty to unfashionable provocateurs like Aleksei Balabanov, whose acerbic takes on Russian history have always made their way onto screens here. That’s without even mentioning the festival’s support of debut filmmakers, three of which just received a 15,000 euro ($22,500 U.S.) prize from the VPRO Tiger jury (Ramtin Lavafipour’s “Be Calm and Count to Seven,” Yang Ik-June’s “Breathless” and Mahmut Fazil Coşkun’s “Wrong Rosary” took home the loot).
I went into “Susuk,” Amir Muhammad’s Malaysian black magic boondoggle, with high hopes, not least because of his pre-screening description of the film as “the first Muslim lesbian vampire movie.” It’s his initial foray into commercial filmmaking, as Muhammad is mainly known for his satiric essay works (“The Last Communist”), which were often banned in his home country. He’s now mainly a writer and publisher of “Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things,” among others. “Susuk” is a clumsy piece of social commentary dressed up as a horror film, as bosomy celebrity divas delve into voodoo to rocket them into stardom. Muhammad made up for this stumble with his “haunted house” installation, entitled “Reading Room.” His idea of horror is IKEA furniture set up in a modernist white cube, with only his volume of “The Malaysian Book of the Undead” as company. It was almost as frightening as a trip to the Scandinavian superstore itself.
Aleksei Balabanov barnstormed into the Rotterdam Film Festival last year with “Cargo 200,” a brutally nihilistic portrait of Glasnost-era Moscow that opened recently in New York. He spares little more sympathy for his early 20th century characters in “Morphia,” his latest evisceration of nostalgia for the Communist regime. An adaptation by the late Sergei Bodrov, Jr. (son of the “Mongol” auteur) of short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov, it’s a spurtingly bloody portrait of a country doctor at the time of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It starts out as black comedy, with the young medic learning surgical techniques on the fly, until the humor leeches out and all that’s left is drug addiction and a grotesquely distorted vision of utopia.
However, the oddest film in the festival was probably Joe Odagiri’s absurdist comedy “Looking For Cherry Blossoms.” A huge star in Japan, Odagiri is often compared to Johnny Depp for general dreaminess, but Depp has never produced anything as mind-blowingly senseless as this. It’s a brisk 64-minute jaunt into insanity, given a structure because a young man discovers his grandfather is receiving postcards from a mystery woman. They all contain a photo of the same flowering cherry tree, which the man vows to find. He’s soon picked up by Jack, a blustery, tourettic cab driver who hijacks the movie for his own uncertain ends. Dressed like a deranged flight attendant, he claims to know the tree, and promptly runs down an aspiring boxer and sings an obscure rock song in staccato bursts. Their goal is forgotten, absorbed in a fog of non-sequiturs, raucous laughter and a rain-drenched music video performed in the nude. It’s next-level stupidity worthy of Will Ferrell.
It’s not all madness though. Rotterdam also acts as curator for the past year of festivals, and I managed to catch up with some invigorating work from around the world. Of most recent vintage is Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson,” which recently premiered at Sundance. A forcefully entertaining take on the most violent prisoner in England’s history, it’s graced by a demonically physical central performance by Tom Hardy, who plays the psychopath with a grinning emptiness reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange.” The film is nothing more than a string of outrageous anecdotes strung together with a theatrical framing device, but Hardy’s riveting presence makes it more than worthwhile.