This is the first of (hopefully) several dispatches from Press Play Editor Kevin B. Lee at the Rotterdam Film Festival. A full festival wrap-up with highlights will appear at RogerEbert.com.
Where to start watching? That's the question facing anyone at a film festival with hundreds of movies to offer. But with Rotterdam, the question is doubly difficult: it's one of the world's major showcases for unknown talent looking to break out. Unlike Cannes or Venice, there's no glut of Malicks, Dardennes or other brand names. But this is where careers can shift into high gear by winning the coveted Tiger Award, as happened to Christopher Nolan (The Following), Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy) and Hong Sang-soo (The Day a Pig Fell Into a Well). As a showcase for tomorrow's best talent, it's as youthful and forward-looking as any festival out there.
All well and good, but we're still looking at a program of 500 films at this year's Rotterdam, mostly by first or second-time directors with not much of a track record to go on. Perhaps due of this overwhelming degree of the unknown, Rotterdam has one feature that beats that of any festival I've been to: a video library. One huge room has over 30 booths where professionals can watch online screeners of most of the films; you can also log into a secure network and watch them on your laptop. It's a tremendous convenience for critics and programmers trying to cram as many films as they can.
But are they really watching? Online viewing doesn't instill nearly the same concentration as sitting in a theater with an audience, and may just shorten the fuse of attention spans unwilling to stick with a film long enough for it to reveal its virtues. It's a delicate topic among some programmers I've talked to; they don't want to give the indication that they've done anything less than treat films with decorum. But when I discussed this with critic Aaron Cutler (who's covering Rotterdam for Slant), he shared a remarkable anecdote that the festival's late founder, Hubert Bals, boasted about being able to tell within three minutes whether a film was worth programming. I wouldn't be surprised if programmers have developed skills akin to an NFL quarterback's hot read when facing a blitz, or a batter knowing what the pitch is the microsecond it rolls off a pitcher's fingers.
Somewhat akin to sports, my way of handling the films competing for this year's Tiger prize (just one of the festival's several programs, all demanding attention) is by using a tournament-style process of viewing. On my first day I watched 10 minutes of 10 competition films in the video room (four aren't available, and one I decided to see in the theater because it was projected in 3D – more on that film later). Based on the first 10 minutes of those 10 films, I picked five to continue watching. Maybe it's NFL playoff season getting to me, but it adds a twist that makes me more focused in my viewing, by having me commit to what I think is worth watching. It also reminds me of one of Roger Ebert's favorite quotes, by early film exhibitor Oscar Brotman: "If nothing has happened by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen."
So here are the results of my Day One 10-minute drills. I offer this with the caveat that these are not meant to be evaluations of the films as a whole, just their opening moments. Then again, those moments matter.
1. SOUTHWEST (dir. Eduardo Dunes, Brazil) Just wow, especially if this is a first-timer. Incredible control of images shot on black and white film in super-wide Cinemascope frame. Reminiscent of Bela Tarr, with a camera that's always moving, thinking about how it's looking at things.
2. LIVING (dir. Vassily Sigarev, Russia) Mysterious narrative fragments mostly revolving around an old man who has an accident on his bike, and how different people in the neighborhood see him. Great atmosphere if diffuse in structure – very curious how this will play out.
3. IN APRIL THE FOLLOWING YEAR, THERE WAS A FIRE (dir. Wichanon Somumjarn, Thailand) Very playful from the start: what looks like the lead character stops by an indie film set and asks his buddy what film they're shooting; friend replies "In April the Following Year, There Was a Fire," the name of this film. Later at a bus depot at first it sounds like ambient muzak playing in the back, but reveals itself to be a non-digetic score for the credit sequence, and very lush at that. These are the kinds of slippages on which Apichatpong Weerasethakul made his bones; so for this is lively enough not to be dismissed as a carbon copy.
4. EGG AND STONE (dir. Huang Ji, China) Dramatic, mysterious: girl puts something over her head and lies down, as someone pounds on her door. Like "Living", shot with a misty, almost mythic feeling, like Sokurov.
5. L (dir. Babis Makridis, Greece) Directed by the co-writer of Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth; one could assume as much given how one character imparts seemingly arbitrary rules to children; drives around the city with overhead shots emphasizing geometries of locations; or finds other man lying on front lawn like a stroke victim while still holding a running garden hose, played by… the father in Dogtooth. But these Dogtoothmarks aren't so bad, at least so far…
MAY REVISIT LATER:
6. DE JUEVES A DOMINGO / THURSDAY THROUGH SUNDAY) (dir. Dominga Sotomayor, Chile) This also looks like a Dogtooth in its flat framing. Opening as kind of a road movie with a family going on a car trip, it's got a soothing, open feel, though stakes or real points of intrigue have been established yet.
7. RETURN TO BURMA (dir. Midi Z, Taiwan/Myanmar) Opening shot in Taiwan is a long take playing off activity in foreground and background – reminiscent of Tsai Ming-liang. Then story shifts to Myanmar, has a documentary feel trying to preserve the look and feel of the country in the wake of democratic reform. Particularly memorable are the radio pop songs celebrating the reforms, otherwise it's kind of coasting on taking in its surroundings.
8. ROMANCE JOE (dir. Lee Kwang-Kuk, South Korea) Korean film about a struggling director at the end of his rope, who after a long conversation at a restaurant over cigarettes and wine goes on a retreat to get his creativity back. Surprise, the director was one of Hong Sang-soo's crew. Like the pseudo Apitchatpong and Lanthimos films mentioned above, makes you wonder if the festival marketplace sparks demand for clones or knockoffs. To it's credit it's well shot, in a slightly different way than Hong (none of those telescoping zoom-ins), it just feels like familiar territory.
9. TOKYO PLAYBOY CLUB (dir. Okuda Yosuke, Japan) This feels kind of amateurish even by Japanese exploitation standards. Sloppily shot with a couple of uninspired skit-like scenes involving one guy getting his head cracked open and another pulled into a strip club, but no stripping, alas.
10. CLIP (dir. Maja Milos, Serbia) Kind of like Thirteen set in Serbia – some not particularly bright girls who scream a lot and tart themselves up for a night in the club; catfight ensues. I sense a rape scene in the near horizon, but someone else will have to confirm that.