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.
In my previous Rotterdam dispatch I employed a ten minute drill to sift through the competition lineup for the five titles with the most potential. A draconian measure to be sure, and judging by how most of the select few played out, a not entirely successful one either. Only two of the five films I continued watching lived up to their intriguing openings.
The most accomplished is L, writer-director Babis Makridis’s first feature, which premiered at Sundance and by appearances fits snugly within the Greek posse who brought us Dogtooth, Attenberg and ALPS. These films amount to a bona fide Greek micro-movement that deserves its own nomenclature: Athenscore? The Haos School (named after queen bee Athina Rachel Tsangari’s production company responsible for the first three films)? L plays as if that gang had made a parody of Drive to mock Ryan Gosling’s car-obsessed chivalry. Here, a nameless chauffeur is so in love with his job that he practically lives in his car, each night fanatically reciting the silly instructions of his narcoleptic boss, only to have his boss betray him by hiring a smarter replacement. Employing the same writer and cinematographer of Dogtooth, the dogtoothmarks are everywhere: deadpan performances, flat compositions and a predilection for teasing out the casual cruelty and absurd power plays behind language and social relations.
At the same time L is the most overtly comic of the bunch, both in script and style, with confrontational close ups out of Segio Leone by way of Napoleon Dynamite, and a lovably hubristic protagonist a la Ron Jeremy or Ricky Bobby that could have been played by Will Ferrell on downers. (The driver’s motorbike riding buddy even looks like John C. Reilly). The film has an Anchorman-like plasticity in its free associational riffs on an automotive scenario: after the driver’s firing, he falls in with a rogue motorbike gang who detest cars so much that when they come upon a roadside hit and run victim, they declare "even the ambulance that is arriving any minute is dangerous because it is a car." Sometimes the deliberately inane dialogues get too cute for their own good, and the jury is still out on the ending, though its obstinate commitment to its own strange music cannot be denied.
The other film that holds its own from start to finish is Voice of My Father, a relaxed, beautifully composed Turkish film about an ethnic Kurd who visits his mother and discovers tape recordings made by the father he barely knew, who worked and died in Saudi Arabia. Deeply personal (based on the family of co-director Zeynel Doğan and scripted by co-director Orhan Eskiköy), it uses the voice recordings to haunting effect, triggering hypnotic scenes that flood the present moment with nostalgic pain. Less successful at lyrical docu-realism is In April the Following Year, There Was a Fire. After a playfully Apichatpong-esque opening sequence, the film lapses into a rather straight homecoming narrative of slow ethnographic long takes, the lingua franca of international art cinema. Similarly, Vasily Sigarev’s Living much abandons its most intriguing element, a bloody nosed man with a bicycle, electing to ping pong between separate half-baked domestic dramas of diminishing interest. Huang Ji’s Egg and Stone is perhaps too intent on swaddling its alienated rural teenage girl protagonist in feminist symbology, even indulging in doting close ups of her menstrual fluids. But what close-ups! Cinematographer Ryuji Otsuka (who also produced and edited) boasts some of the most extraordinary HD lensing in recent memory, doing exciting things with shallow focus and texturing of surfaces (including aforementioned menstrual fluids).
Perhaps most disappointing – not for what it is, but for what it could have been – is Southwest, which as reported earlier, has the most jaw-dropping opening sequence among the competition films. This Brazilian magical realist fable charting the stages of a girl's life in and around an impoverished salt farm loses its momentum as it bulldozes its way towards a foregone “circle of life” conclusion; the sentimental soundtrack makes it feel like a Disney movie directed by Bela Tarr on Prozac. But Eduardo Nunes, clearly a very talented director, establishes himself as a strong visual storyteller, even if his dramatic instincts betray an inclination to go Hollywood over Cannes.
Another film that plays more like an impressive demo reel than a fully realized work is Park Hong-Min’s debut A Fish, which has the distinction of being the first 3D movie to compete for the Rotterdam Tiger Award. A man suspects that his missing wife may have become a shaman, but his search leads into a narrative hall of mirrors and his mental disintegration. Its Mullholland Dr.-inspired narrative rabbit hole feels more like film student precociousness lacking emotional investment, but the film is remarkable in exploiting the inherently disorienting qualities of 3D to evoke a state of perceptual distortion, further underscored by a distressed stereophonic soundscape. Like several Rotterdam films, it’s exciting less for what it is than for what it promises for the future.
Kevin B. Lee is editor-in-chief of IndieWire Press Play, and a contributor to Roger Ebert's Demanders and Fandor Keyframe. Follow him on Twitter.