FESTIVALS: Women Dominate the Field at Rotterdam 2002
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/ 02.06.02) -- "Life is like a meteor,'' Kato Masaya reasons in "Agitator,'' one of seven films directed by Japan's Takashi Miike in 2001 -- four of which were featured in the 31st International Film Festival Rotterdam. "It should flare up and be done with.''
So too, do film festivals, even rainy and windy ones. Rotterdam 2002, which concluded Saturday, saw its esteemed jury swayed by Eastern Europe, while the Dutch critics went out of their way to talk up the contributions from South Korea and Argentina.
But forget the nationalistic jingoism. One thing that became evident as Rotterdam bravely inched forward against days of fierce gale winds and steady rain: women rule.
Many of the freshest and best films here were either directed, written or powered by the acting talents of women, starting with the top Tiger Award winner, "Tussenland'' ("Sleeping Rough''), Eugenie Jansen's feature debut about the uneasy relationship between a young Sudanese refugee and an 80-year-old war veteran.
It was the first time a Dutch film had won a Tiger, and with Bohdan Sláma's "Wild Bees'' (Czech Republic) and Sinisa Dragin's "Everyday God Kisses Us on the Mouth'' (Romania), Europeans swept the Tigers for the third time since the awards began in 1995. Taiwanese film master Hou Hsiao-hsien chaired this year's jury.
"Wild Bees'' spearheaded a host of films from the old Soviet Eastern Bloc that detail the search for meaning among a young generation that has nothing to do but go to the pubs. Whether set in a village seemingly far removed from modern life, as in "Wild Bees,'' or in a city with a fast-track disco set, as in another Tiger competitor, Igor Sterk's "Ljubjana'' from Slovenia, there is obviously a whole set of Eastern European twenty- and thirtysomethings asking, "Now what?''
"Everyday God Kisses Us on the Mouth'' is a jolt of style, a sort-of black comedy about a serial murderer shot in black and white. However, despite the two award winners, it appears Eastern Europe has yet to fully emerge.
But two other films in competition stood out, both directed by women. Jeong Jae-Eun's "Take Care of My Cat'' is the first South Korean film directed by a woman in three years, and it's a winner. Accessible and sweet enough for a well-targeted American release (in case anyone's interested), it details five women, just turned 20, who find that they are slowly drifting apart after being inseparable during high school.
Jeong's screenplay is smartly written, with terrific character development and no easy solutions; she's not afraid of loose ends. "Take Care of My Cat'' was singled out for special mention by the Dutch critics and made the Rotterdam top five lists of both myself and indieWIRE's Mark Rabinowitz.
Rabinowitz also liked Bille Eltringham's "This Is Not a Love Song'' (United Kingdom), a visually stunning tale of criminals on the run from a vigilante mob in the countryside north of Liverpool. Eltringham does things with DV I had not previously seen in a feature film release, achieving a gritty and desperate look.
Add to that Catherine Breillat's strong presence -- the U.S.-distributed "Fat Girl'' won the top award by Rotterdam's youth jury, and her latest, "Brief Crossing'' was well-realized, if less ambitious. Powerful centerpiece performances by a Spanish sitcom star (Paz Vega in Julio Medem's emotional Palm Pictures release "Sex and Lucia''), a trio of South Korean women (Seo Joo-Hee, Im Yoo-Jin and Kim Hye-Na in Song Il-Gon's intense DV drama "Flower Island'') and a one-time Japanese action star (Yuki Amami in Nagasaki Shunichi's HDTV missing child drama "A Tender Place''), made it apparent that women drove this festival.
The Dutch critics were right to praise Argentina and South Korea. The Dutch Film Critics Circle Award went to Adrián Caetano's "Bolivia," a black and white drama about a Bolivian immigrant who encounters hostility from native Argentinians when he takes a job as a cook in Buenos Aires. "La Libertad," in which director Lisandro Alonso films a day in the life of a rural woodcutter with a beautiful, uncompromising eye, won the FIPRESCI award.
While we're speaking of that side of the world, Mexico is becoming increasingly strong, even with Arturo Ripstein nowhere in sight. Last year's "Without a Trace," sort of the Mexican "Thelma and Louise," is one of the better films that did not gain a U.S. release. This year, "Y Tu Mamá También" (And Your Mother, Too) is also a road trip movie, a sweet, sexy and heartfelt tale of two teenage boys and the slightly older, stunningly beautiful woman who is married to the cousin of one of the boys. Funny and moving, at least this one will be released in March. Also moving is Ernesto Rimoch's "Demasiado Amor," about two sisters who dream of immigrating to Europe. When the first one goes, the one left behind begins to find adventure in life.
South Korea was also highlighted by Park Ki-yong's "Camel(s)," an uncompromising, difficult story of a couple's weekend affair, with terrific acting and a beautiful look. Shot in black and white on DV, the washed out lighting and the decision to use more tripod than hand-held gives it a 60s New Wave feel. Kim Ki-Duk, who delighted (or shocked) audiences with his black comedy "The Isle" last year, was back with a tough look at U.S. military involvement in Korea and its effect on a small village. It's interesting and very absorbing, although Kim's storytelling is clunky at times.
Two other trends struck me. The first was the proliferation of documentaries about artists. Of the six I saw, the best was "On Snow's Wavelength: Zoom Out," about the work of Canadian avant garde artist Michael Snow. Teri Wehm-Damisch has made an excellent 56-minute introduction to the artist's work in music and film. The affable Snow, now 72, also screened his latest video work, "Corpus Callosum," which had its world premiere here. It seemed to show the same couple, at different points in time and in different situations, but portrayed by different actors. Other recommendations -- festival directors listen up --include Sergio Machado's "At the Edge of the Earth," about Brazilian filmmaker and writer Mario Peixoto, who made one of the seminal works of Brazilian cinema, 1931's "Limite." He then quit filmmaking after a disastrous experience during his second film, which he never completed. Peixoto wrote novels, poems and film scripts until his death in 1992. Martina Kudlacek's "In the Mirror of Maya Deren" is a thorough and fascinating look at the great experimental filmmaker and writer.
The other unexpected pleasure was that a few old masters turned out to have a trick or two up their sleeves. Manoel de Oliveira, 92 and still making a film a year, mixes documentary, recreations and ruminations to bring us "Oporto of My Childhood," about his hometown in Portugal. "Brothels are misdemeanors," one character says. "But misdemeanors are what makes culture, so what can you do?"
Seijun Suzuki, 78, has made a bizarre, experimental take on the action genre, "Pistol Opera." Like his 1960s classics "Tokyo Drifter" and "Branded to Kill," plot and story take back seat to style and an oddball humor that pokes funs at action films. "Pistol Opera" has beautiful cinematography and incredible sets, a delicious female assassin and is the action film re-imagined as an art deco still life.
The young man of this group is Hou, 54, the jury president, whose "Millennium Mambo" drew mixed notices at Cannes. Hou premiered the re-cut version at Rotterdam, and I found the tale of a mixed-up Taipei bar girl (Shu Qi) hypnotic and absorbing. His re-editing seems to have paid off, though I never saw the original version.
Other Rotterdam highlights:
"Manic" (Jordan Melamud, USA): This indie, which premiered at Sundance, uses DV to get into the minds of several emotionally disturbed teenagers in a California lockdown facility.
"Distance" (Kore-Eda Hirokazu, Japan): Another slowly paced, absorbing character study by the director of "Maborosi" and "After Life," about the families of four deceased members of a suicide cult, trapped for a night with one of the surviving cult members.
There were also retrospective tributes to Yugoslavian filmmaker Goran Markovic, Eskimo sculptor-turned-director Zacharias Kunuk and American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Danis Tanovic's "No Man's Land" won the audience award.
[Mark Rabinowitz contributed to this report.]