DISPATCH FROM ROTTERDAM: A Few Favorites, Despite a Weaker Rotterdam Festival
by Stephen Garrett
The Rotterdam Film Festival ended over the weekend with a jury that included photographer Nan Goldin and producer Jan Chapman choosing a troika of winners in the official Tiger Awards competition. Comprising the trio were Daniele Gaglianone's "Changing Destiny," a tough, unsentimental look at a pair of teenage friends in a run-down town; Mercedes Alvarez's "The Sky Turns," her affecting documentary portrait of a village where she was the last child born and which is now populated by the elderly; and Ilya Khrzhanovsky's "4," an epic condemnation of Russia's cannibalistic society refracted with demonic humor through the lives of three protagonists.
Although the top winners were worthy, commanding features, "4" being an exceptionally bold, original vision of cultural decay, and "The Sky Turns" impressively using cinematography to convey the passage of time, the festival itself was not as strong as in years past. Its role as a warehouse of world cinema meant that Rotterdam had the requisite hits of last year's festival circus, but the cream of Cannes, Venice and Toronto were placed alongside an uninspired slate of European and world premieres. A sidebar on South East Asian cinema was especially frustrating, with a slew of Malaysian movies that felt like warmed-over dramatic themes and formal montage strategies of social alienation from Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiao Hsien. Most promising of the lot was James Lee's "The Beautiful Washing Machine," a marriage of wry humor with austere direction in its tale of a young man with a clothes washer that strangely takes human form in the shape of an attractive, silent woman fixated on cleaning.
The more interesting South East Asian films were genre-oriented, such as the omnibus "Visits: Hungry Ghost Anthology." Lee is represented in this film as well, along with fellow directors Low Ngai Yen, Ng Tian Hann and Ho Yu-Hang, who each contribute to a quartet of horror stories that are admirably philosophical in their approach, minimizing schlock-shock moments and easy scares in favor of deeper ideas about social unease and haunting themes about human relationships.
Another genre-bending selection was "The Adventure of Iron Pussy," a tongue-in-cheek satire of Thai melodramas and musicals starring an ass-kicking transvestite and co-directed by Michael Shaowanasai and Apichatong Weerasethakul (whose "Tropical Malady" couldn't be more different in style and substance).
And also surprisingly satisfying is the seedy thriller "Cavite" from American-Filipino directors Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon. The film, which follows in almost real-time the story of a young man blackmailed by an anonymous cell-phone caller into committing an act of terrorism, initially plays like a bad Joel Schumacher film set in Manila. But its insights into the Phillipines' rampant poverty and desperation, as well as the twist of having a moderate Muslim forced by an Extremist Muslim into violent behavior, makes the movie and its climax a powerful commentary on the complexities of modern-day religious fundamentalism and socioeconomic despair.