Out with the Old, In With the New as Rotterdam Welcomes Fresh Blood
by Stephen Garrett
Following last year's arresting poster of a naked woman crouched in the lowlands of Holland, the 33rd International Film Festival Rotterdam posters again used a near-prostrate nude -- but this time with a baby dangling from her teeth. Such a fierce image of generational new blood seemed more than appropriate in this transitional year when much-respected director general Simon Fields leaves the Netherlands film scene and makes room for Dutch native Sandra den Hamer, a longtime Rotterdam film presence and former head of the festival's Cinemart, to take over the programming reins.
Fields was honored at the end of the festival with the Wolfert van Borselen medal from the city of Rotterdam during a farewell ceremony full of testimonials to his eight-year stewardship. But the real treat came with a series of short-film homages created on his behalf by members of the family of filmmakers he has championed: Catherine Breillat, Jan Svenkmajer, and Tsai Ming-Liang were just a few of the boldfaced auteurs to offer their cinematic farewells. Takeshi Kitano, whose "Zatoichi" was the opening night selection, even gave Field a portrait he had done of the distinctive-looking Brit, with his shock of white hair and bushy black eyebrows dominating the frame.
Out with the old, in with the new: the poster design and administrative reshuffling also mirrored a thematic tone within the festival's selections, as movie-mad offspring proved themselves as filmmakers in their own right. The most obvious example was Sofia Coppola and her hot-ticket sophomore film "Lost In Translation" making its Dutch debut, but she was hardly alone in her scionic status. Along with Kinji Fukasaku's son Kenta literally taking over his late father's career with the co-directed "Battle Royale II: Requiem," there was also Alexi German Jr. with his first film "The Last Train," a stark, moving look at a German doctor trying to survive on the Russian Front at the end of World War II which, though certainly a unique vision owes much stylistically to German Sr. and won the Amnesty International-DOEN Award for its depiction of human rights. And, believe it or not, yet another Makhmalbaf has jumped into the family business, in the form of 14-year-old Hana Makhmalbaf (what, do they get digital cameras as baby rattles?). Her frankly amateurish and blessedly brief feature documentary "The Joy of Madness" details the making of big sister Samira's Afghan drama "At Five O'Clock in the Afteroon," and plays more like badly-shot home movie footage better left on the back shelves of the Makhmalbaf Film House production offices.
Though not a blood relation, Tsai Ming-liang protégé and frequent Tsai movie protagonist Lee Kang-sheng also pointed to a new generation of Taiwanese filmmaking with his emotionally adroit "The Missing," a story of an old woman's desperate search for her grandson and a young man's mourning for his grandfather, which won one of the festival's VPRO Tiger Awards. It also walked off with two other prizes: the KNF Award, given by a group of Dutch critics, and the NETPAC Award, bestowed by a panel of judges as a way of promoting Asian cinema.
The festival also showed Tsai's latest, "Goodbye, Dragon Inn," which stars Lee. But in a satisfying programming move so typical of Rotterdam in its "Cinema Regained" sidebar, Rotterdam unspooled King Hu's 1966 classic "Dragon Inn," the movie central to Tsai's latest film and which plays in the background throughout his drama. That sort of wonderful harmony was more often present this year than in past editions; how better to enjoy Thom Andersen's luminous and absorbing hometown essay (and "city symphony in reverse," as he calls it), "Los Angeles Plays Itself" than to be able to see one of the most obscure movies he references, Kent Mackenzie's 1961 film "The Exiles." And that haunting study of restless twentysomething American Indian men knocking around the nocturnal urban streets of the West Coast was the perfect contrapuntal note (and accidental ethnographic companion) to John Cassavetes' far more celebrated East-Coast ode to aimless nightlife, 1958's "Shadows," which conveniently screened only a few days before.
Although this year's selections of new movies wasn't as strong as in years past (not surprising, seeing as it was fed by an unusually fallow 2003 that made every festival on the circuit feel minor), there were a few gems that managed to pop up. One of the biggest crowd-pleasers at Rotterdam was the Ramón Gieling's world-premiere documentary "Johan Cruijff: en un momento dado," a loving look at the Dutch footballer who came down to Barcelona in 1973 and gave the Catalan team -- and culture -- its pride back with a series of rousing victories that still resonate in the middle-aged hearts and minds of a grateful population. And, though it didn't make waves at awards time, one of the strongest Tiger entries was Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern's pitch-black comedy "Aaltra," a world premiere from Belgium that follows two hateful, selfish people after they cripple themselves and end up as wheelchair-bound paraplegics forced on a road trip together. The invalids are played by the co-directors -- who also co-wrote the film -- and the result is a refreshing brace of dark humor shot in gleefully grainy B&W cinemascope. A feel-good tribute and a misanthropic torture tale: Just two of the offerings that make Rotterdam such a perennial gonzo delight.