Urban Sprawl


Left: Jo Sung-Hee, End of Animal, 2010, still from a color film, 114 minutes. Right: Théo Court, Ocaso, 2010, still from a color film, 80 minutes.

THE THEME of the 2011 International Film Festival Rotterdam was “XL”—as in the Roman numerals for “forty,” referring to this venerable event’s ruby anniversary and to the forty additional venues, from museums and galleries to a makeshift Chinese-style tavern–cum–performance space, that the festival occupied this year, stretching far beyond its downtown hub and across this port city’s busy Maas River. Sprawl, for better or worse, is one of the Rotterdam festival’s signature traits. Sandwiched between Sundance and Berlin, and more adventurous than either, it has for some time now been a multitentacled beast, adopting a progressive stance on multiple fronts: an interest in new voices (as showcased in the Tiger competition for first- and second-time directors); an allegiance to the cinema of the developing world (nurtured through the affiliated Hubert Bals Fund); and a commitment to historical retrospectives, experimental films, and installation work.

The habitual abundance, even more pronounced in this supersize edition, can translate to a frustrating lack of focus—but there are worse problems for a major film festival to have. Many of the designated sidebars would be significant stand-alone events in other contexts. A series of “Red Westerns,” ranging from Kuleshovian adventures to Eastern Bloc potboilers, attested to the malleable iconography of the most American of genres (some of the movies are showing at the Walter Reade Theater in New York as part of a Soviet action films program this month). The “Water Tiger Inn” survey took in several decades of martial-arts classics, including all-time greats of the genre by King Hu, Chang Cheh, and Tsui Hark. The career tribute to Nathaniel Dorsky seemed to inspire—as befits the filmmaker’s silent, rapturous tone poems—an awe bordering on reverence: Many a newly converted fanboy-disciple could be seen clutching a signed copy of Dorsky’s artistic manifesto Devotional Cinema (2003). Agustí Villaronga, another “filmmaker in focus,” turned out to be an intriguing forgotten man (internationally, at least) of post-Franco Spanish cinema. The high point of his checkered career arguably remains his first feature, In a Glass Cage (1987), an anatomy of the dark heart of fascism and a queasy masterpiece of political, psychological, and erotic horror, in which a onetime Nazi death camp doctor, entombed in an iron lung, becomes ensnared in the sadomasochistic revenge plot of a former victim.

Many of the filmmakers who got their big breaks in Rotterdam remain part of the large extended family. In honor of the fortieth edition, a one-off “Return of the Tiger” section encompassed new work from past winners such as Hong Sang-Soo, Pablo Trapero, and Kelly Reichardt. Two of last year’s winners, Mexico’s Pedro González-Rubio and the US’s Ben Russell, were back as a participants in the IFFR’s co-production market CineMart (González-Rubio found European partners for his new project, Tree Shade; Russell, who’s collaborating with another gifted experimental filmmaker, Ben Rivers, won a special mention from the CineMart jury). The Cinema Reloaded initiative enlisted a pair of Rotterdam regulars to make crowd-funded digital shorts: Ho Yuhang’s feisty doc essay No One Is Illegal considers the rabid anti-Malaysian sentiment among Indonesian nationalist fanatics, while Alexis Dos Santos finds a winning match of form and content in the split-screened, sweetly glitchy Chatroulette romance Random Strangers. Another Rotterdam alum, Raya Martin, contributed one of the festival’s clear highlights in the form of a trailer for the Hubert Bals Fund: a gorgeous, hand-painted, minute-long sensory cascade whose pleasures only intensified with repeat encounters.

The jury, which included Lucrecia Martel, Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu director Andrei Ujica, and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo (who performed at the closing ceremony), conferred the three Tiger awards to Eternity, a delicate story of love and the afterlife by Thai first-timer Sivaroj Kongsakul; Finisterrae, an insidery spoof of art-film pretensions by Sergio Caballero, beautifully shot by Eduard Grau (cinematographer of Albert Serra’s Honor de Cavalleria, one of the films Finisterrae lampoons); and Park Joo-Bong’s The Journals of Musan, a sober and finely etched character study–cum–social drama, about a North Korean defector adrift in Seoul. (Park was an assistant director for Lee Chang-Dong, and he learned his lessons well.)

Musan, which also won the critics’ prize, was part of a robust showing from young Korean filmmakers. A fellow Tiger competitor, Yoon Sung-Hyun’s Bleak Night, which probes the aftermath of a teen suicide, is likewise notable for its tenderness and maturity (especially given that it was the director’s graduation project at the Korean Film Academy). An even more impressive debut, Jo Sung-Hee’s restrained, sustained End of Animal is a postapocalyptic parable with a killer premise (pregnant woman shares cab with mysterious stranger who knows her past and forecasts her future), poised between religious allegory and monster movie, with shades of Ballard, Haneke’s Time of the Wolf, and Lost before the series succumbed to overwrought explanations.

Rotterdam often welcomes the too-small-for-Sundance American indie, and there was a regionalist bent to many of this year’s US dramas, which included Matthew Petock’s A Little Closer, about the respective plights of a single mother and her two boys in rural Virginia; R. Alverson’s New Jerusalem, also set in Virginia, about an Irish-American war vet and his evangelical co-worker (played by Will Oldham, modifying his Old Joy gadfly); Malcolm Murray’s slacker romance Bad Posture, set among gun-toting Albuquerque petty criminals—all a touch predictable, and perhaps modest to a fault, but sensitively observed and each promising in its own way. (Michael Tully’s Septien, one of the few Amerindies that did play Sundance, smartly undercuts the regional-realist trend with a wry riff on the eccentric, trash-humping Deep South.) But the most interesting film by an American director was perhaps the very un-American Headshots, a first feature by Texas-born German resident Lawrence Tooley, a flinty portrait of a Berlin woman’s psychic distress that gets at the empty heart of modern urban disaffection.

Two of the best films would have made for a fine double bill. From Spanish director José Maria de Orbe, Aita is a memory piece about a building (in the Basque village of Astigarraga) and the passage of time, as seen in the shifting light and felt in every dusty nook of this centuries-old mansion. When the sun is up, schoolchildren roam and workers talk shop; the ghosts come out at night, as flickering celluloid projections on the walls. Similarly set in a crumbling house, surrounded by woods and shrouded in fog, Théo Court’s Ocaso follows a Chilean caretaker on his solitary daily routines—it’s a Lisandro Alonso story in an Aleksandr Sokurov world, an atmospheric immersion in a fading twilight zone that alights on startling passages of beauty and quietude. In this maximalist festival, it was the moments of plangent minimalism that made the strongest impression.

Dennis Lim

The International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 26–February 6, 2011.