More than halfway through the 36th International Film Festival Rotterdam, there have been no breakout hits, no bolts from the blue in the fashion of Ilya Khrzhanovsky's "4" or Carlos Reygadas' "Japon," two recent quintessential Rotterdam debuts.
But even in an average year, Rotterdam is richer, busier and more rewarding than most festivals in full stride. Reliably expansive and adventurous, it's still the choice destination for cinephiles on the winter-fest circuit. Regular attendees have come to expect an emphasis on emerging cinematic hot spots, high-concept multimedia work, even higher-concept programming (the self-explanatory Seatless Cinema, part of the Exposing Cinema sidebar; a fusbal tournament (in a section enigmatically titled "Happy Endings: When Festivals Are Over"), timely mid-career retros (for Johnnie To and Abdehrramane Sissako this year), and a commitment to new work from the developing world and East Asia.
Spearheading the Japanese contingent, the increasingly prolific Ryuichi Hiroki continues his makeover from pinku (softcore-flick) veteran to festival perennial. (Three of his recent films, "I Am an S&M Writer," "Tokyo Trash Baby," and the exquisite "Vibrator" have just been released on DVD by Kino.) Hiroki is here with a complementary pair of movies, "Bakushi" and "M," devoted respectively to the technique and the psychology of sadomasochism.
The documentary "Bakushi" explores the ancient art of kinbaku, or erotic rope-tying, and does not skimp on detailed demonstrations. The fictional "M" - as in "masochist," presumably - probes the double lives and repressed fantasies of a housewife-cum-hooker (Miwon, a former Miss Japan) and a troubled newspaper delivery boy (intense newcomer Kengo Kora). She is being pimped, not necessarily against her will, by a tattooed gang member; he may have saved his mother by killing his abusive father. As the characters' inner lives grow more lurid and tangled, events take on the tint of fantasy - it's not always clear whose - and build to a convoluted but convincing mutual catharsis.
More conventionally romantic, Hitoshi Yazaki's leisurely "Strawberry Shortcakes" intertwines the familiar amorous yearnings of four young women. Based on a popular manga, this is only Yazaki's fourth film since 1980, and fittingly, its greatest virtue is its insistence on taking its time. Moods and emotions are carefully sculpted and sustained; at its best, the film is an honest, cleansing corrective to chick-flick schmaltz.
Less successfully adapted from a cult manga, "Freesia - Bullet Over Tears" is a major letdown from young director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, whose talent and range were apparent in "Antenna" and "The Volatile Woman." This brooding sci-fi, centered on an unfeeling assassin and set in a near-future dystopia, bogs down in jumbled plotting and murky visuals. Conversely, Shinya Tsukamoto's "Nightmare Detective," a far superior genre effort, finds the "Tetsuo" director in top form. His witty, endlessly inventive riff on techno-terror and dream invasion is the most original J-horror film in years (it's been picked up for U.S. distribution by The Weinstein Company).
Nobuhiro Yamashita's "The Matsugane Potshot Affair" is a grimly deadpan, curiously moving quasi-comedy from the director best known Stateside for last year's "Linda Linda Linda." This unblinking anatomy of family dysfunction takes in incest, retardation, and some bungling criminal activity (involving ice picks, stolen gold, and a decapitated head in a frozen lake). Despite the latent absurdism, it's not an easy film. A fundamentally generous filmmaker, Yamashita here broadens his worldview to encompass cruelty and abjection, with intriguing results. The 30-year-old remains among the most distinctive and least heralded of major young Japanese directors - a U.S. retro is long overdue - though this is clearly not the film to win him global attention.
Making its international premiere, British director Penny Woolcock's "Mischief Night" was billed as "the new 'East Is East,'" though it's riskier and more interesting than that offputting designation suggests. Woolcock's Leeds-set culture-clash comedy pits white and Pakistani clans against each other in a flammable cacophony of entrenched prejudices and dense Yorkshire accents. The boisterous farce, which filters social-realist misery through a Bollywood-bright lens, lapses into soft-headed utopianism by the end, but along the way takes a hard look at working-class survivalism, racial segregation, and the drift toward Islamic radicalism. Woolcock was mid-production on July 7 2005, when the London underground suffered a coordinated fundamentalist attack, and had to shut down production when it transpired that one of the suicide bombers had lived in the very neighborhood where she was shooting.
Pulling double duty in this year's Tiger Competition (for first- and second-time feature filmmakers) was Argentine cinematographer Diego Martinez Vignatti, best known for his work on Reygadas' "Japon" and "Battle in Heaven." Vignatti's directorial debut "La Marea" ("The Tides") is in the running, as is German filmmaker Pia Marais's first feature, "Die Unerzogenen" ("The Unpolished"), which he shot.
In "La Marea," a tunnel-visioned portrait of grief, a bereft young mother escapes to a remote hut on the wind-swept dunes by the Argentine coast. Her purgatorial existence is punctuated by visions of the dead and defined by lots of physical labor: long, silent trudges as she lugs a backpack, a rusty water container, a nearly dead dog. The ritualized anguish inches from ponderous to pretentious, but the grainy, hallucinatory visuals, reminiscent of "Japon," go a long way toward forestalling tedium.
Vignatti's cinematography is also exemplary on "Die Unerzogenen," a coming-of-age slice of life. A precocious teenager struggles to shake off the burden of her flamboyantly irresponsible, free-loving, drug-dealing parents (dad is played by "Head On"'s Birol Unel in full dissolute-rogue mode). Somewhat predictable but effective in its studious avoidance of sentimentality, it's a consensus favorite to snag one of the three Tiger prizes later this week.