The Hivos Tiger Awards Competition takes center stage at Rotterdam, a high-stakes showcase of sixteen breakout filmmakers, many of whose projects are funded by the festival’s Hubert Bals Fund. Each year’s lineup offers a revealing cross-section of prevailing trends in art cinema, sometimes to the point of unintentional parody (in-theater drinking games could be instituted over excessive long takes, in-your-face displays of sexual bad behavior, or awkward line readings by amateur actors in “realist” films).
There’s a corporeal undercurrent among this year’s contenders, initiated in the opening night film "Resurrection of a Bastard," by Guido van Driel, where gangsters use a vacuum cleaner to suck a man’s eye from its socket. In "Watchtower," by Turkish director Pelin Esmer, a woman sneaks into a basement to self-deliver her illegitimate child, heaving herself from wall to wall in what has to be the most implausibly balletic birthing ever captured on cinema. Sebastian Hofmann’s impressive Mexican art-horror film "Halley" takes hypnotically fluorescent close-ups of a zombie-like man’s body in slow decay; but when the man decides to masturbate and the camera gawks at the dismembered outcome, it all literally falls apart.
A trio of penises taunts the hapless teenage protagonist of "It Felt Like Love," Eliza Hittman’s jailbait melodrama that premiered earlier this month at Sundance. An update of Todd Solondz’s humiliation cinema in the age of shoegaze camerawork, the film introduces its virgin protagonist as a clown of the Jersey shore, face caked white with sunscreen, while the camera lingers on the soft flesh of her and her cohorts like Hollister soft porn. Hopelessly aping her friend’s sexual exploits, she prevaricates her way to a reputation as a fake slut, leading to three boys dropping their trousers to express the limp effects of her pathetic advances. The film is coyly protective of its heroine from the explicit sexual trauma that’s expected in this type of scenario, which makes it refreshing, almost conceptual. On the other hand that postulatory archness keeps the girl, an empty vessel of second-hand desires, less of a character than a concept.
Then there’s the orgy of leeches sucking copious amounts of blood from a morbidly obese man in "Fat Shaker," a cryptic allegory of said fat man’s abusive relationship with his deaf-mute son. Iran’s Mohammad Shirvani sends his corpulent anti-hero lumbering through a string of vignettes that offer varying degrees of the repulsive and the visionary. The film’s best sequence, one of musical precision, is a hilariously absurd police interrogation that orchestrates a gobbling turkey with crashing glass cups sliding off the fat man’s back. The conceptual crudity tinged with vague political subtext is certain to appeal to artist-provocateur and Tiger jurist Ai Weiwei, who is participating via Skype while confined in China. That, plus Iran’s prominent role in the festival via the “Signals: Inside Iran” sidebar, all but guarantee an award.
But if I were in a position to hand out the three Tiger prizes, I’d reserve one for Ai’s countryman Yang Lina’s "Longing in the Rain," a Beijing female sex fantasy that has polarized Rotterdam consensus. Flirting with Asian soap opera and ghost story alike, the story follows a comfortably middle-class housewife’s erotic encounters with a phantom, leading her on a search for both supernatural and spiritual release from the confines of her consumerist lifestyle. Audiences have shrugged at the film’s willfully amateurish look and raw audio mix, which seem as outdated as Dogme 95 amidst the competition’s abundance of HD/DCP sheen. The film’s genre flirtations with Asian soap opera and ghost story conventions risk coming off as trite, but there’s a playful self-mocking tone that resists the shackles of acceptable convention and mirrors its heroine’s restless quest.
A more composed and steady highlight is "They’ll Come Back," by Marcelo Lordello, who emerges from the same coastal Brazilian scene that yielded last year’s Rotterdam highlight Neighboring Sounds. The film starts abruptly with two middle class city children abandoned by their parents on an empty country highway, then follows one of them on a path of self-rescue and social awakening. The film’s class-conscious agenda is transparent but made convincing through steady accumulation of detail, particularly in a revealing surprise encounter at a resort between the girl and a relative who’s made her own flight from urban anomie.
Occupying a space between these two films is the conceptually unruly but masterfully crafted
"Noche" by Argentina’s Leonardo Brzezicki. The film has hands down the most beautiful opening and closing sequences in the competition, using simple dissolve techniques to create cosmic, fluid landscape panoramas. Equally remarkable is its soundscape, anchored by the recordings of ambient sounds and meditations by a young suicide victim, played back by his friends around the site of his death. The friends stage a series of poetic tableaux that oscillate between lyricism and posturing, and in their best moments get at the destructive impulses of life and sex (a scene of wild dogs ravishing an abandoned dinner table is especially powerful). "Noche" encapsulates the excesses, indulgences and occasional flat-out brilliance that defines the spectrum of Rotterdam.