ROTTERDAM 2001: Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Kids; Asia's Tidal Wave
by Edward E. Crouse
(indieWIRE/02.01.01) -- "A tidal wave is coming. I can feel it." A young girl's telepathic line in Aoyama Shiji's "Eureka" applies to the new Asian Cinema on display at the 30th Rotterdam Film Festival. Interpret the wave how you will; it's either the threat of Jerry Bruckheimer's "Pearl Harbor" or the haunting vision of "Beat" Takeshi with a goon haircut in Fukasaku Kinji's "Battle Royale."
Thankfully, Fukasaku is back to his old, elegantly deranged genre antics -- the same ones that earned him a much-appreciated retrospective at last year's Japan-heavy festival. This year, Korea, Hong Kong, and, again, Japan have suddenly and deliberately set themselves out to mine the inroads currently being made by two Asian productions boasting HK megastars: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "In the Mood For Love." The populism of the former or the poetry of the latter will not be squandered by the likes of Fukasaku's "Battle Royale," Cannes critic's fave "Eureka," Fruit Chan's "Durian, Durian," Ishii Sogo's dual entries "Gojoe" and "Electric Warrior 80,000v," or Tiger competitors "Secret Tears," from Korea's Park Ki-Hyung's, or "Bad Company" from Japan's Furumaya Tomoyuki.
Directors were fairly open about influences, too, and they didn't just come from the Asian quarter of the world. Dinners and interviews yielded points that the festival fatigue and jet lag might have obscured. Namely, that Pink Floyd's "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" taught Ishii Sogo how to edit, that Japanese directors were and are (according to Fukasaku) influenced massively by French Poetic Realists like Julien Duvivier, Jacques Feyder, and Marcel Carne.
Ishii Sogo, a small tight-faced man with upswept black hair that resembles a dreamchild of Jim Jarmusch and "Mystery Train" star Nagase Masatoschi wields two pungent movies, "Gojoe," a 12th century ghost-samurai genre flick. Having taken an almost philosophical turn with his earlier works "Angel Dust" (1994) and "August in the Water" (1995), Japan's first real independent filmmaker seems to have regained some of his early, plucky speed.
The lightning bursts during "Gojoe's" final HeMan-Skeletor face off, where a mystical royal marauder inserts his sword into an outlaw monk swordsman, is continued and amplified in "Electric Dragon 80,000v." A love story between two modern-day electric warriors, "Dragon" boasts Nagase himself and Asano Takenori (the "Gohatto" star who is no stranger to ambiguous sword-swings) in a battle of pure conductive power. The fight is a stalemate between two charismatic actors: Nagase, who is half-man, half-Buddha hood ornament vs. Asano, boxer-turned-walking noise-rock guitar. The film nails a certain sci-fi madness as big and funky as the narrator's exhortations, "He talks to reptiles! He's the man!!" The stuttery jump cutting in both "Gojoe" and (more often) in "Electric Dragon" is Ishii's return to his earlier amplitude after the meditative "Angel Dust."
"Battle Royale," Fukasaku's entry, also tolled with a sure, positive insanity. Starting with a blood-spattered moppet grinning to the press, the only explanation is that she is the winner of this episode of "Survivor." Set in a near future (yet narrated in flashback), the title "battle royale" refers to a ritual where an entire class of juvenile delinquents is abducted to an island to duke it out. The rules are, each kid (out of 41) gets one weapon and only one can survive. Each is fitted with a necklace that will explode if, after 3 days, no one has survived. Part-video game, part genius massacre of narrative, part 13-year-old fever-dream, it's both game and tender. How tender? Slinging into viewers' ears the Pachabel's Canon and Strauss, "Battle Royale" is a murky, bloody day-for-night rule-breaker. No manner of action-film death escapes alive. Somewhere amid the scythe-whackings and teenage bullet riddlings and poison vomit explosions is Japan's durable violent export clad in a running suit, "Beat" Takeshi. Names, faces and resentful relationships bubble up and die as rapidly as bubbles in a percolator. What is "Battle Royale" really? Besides being a grenade stuffed into the mouth of a decapitated boy thrown through a window or fatal, it's pure inspiration.
Similarly inspired by a national attitude, "Durian, Durian" emerged this year as the key film to address the climate of post-turnover Hong Kong. Director Fruit Chan makes several Wang Chung-esque references to his adopted name. Like that title fruit, the story is spiky, a bitter tale involving a woman from a Mainland village working as a Hong Kong prostitute, Qin Yin (Qin Hailu). "Durian, Durian's" fantastic semi-verite look catches all manner of wonder, a skinny kid pimp with chic nazi T-shirt, to cell phones ringing in an all night eatery to debris plucked out from under a mattress. Like a more documentary Wong Kar-wai, time in Chan's film seems stolen.
Aoyama Shinji's "Eureka," (which Shooting Gallery releases in the States as the finale to its Spring series slate) is lyrical, true and tinted in a bleachy sepiatone, wearing its contradictions like small miracles. Set in Fukuoka, this agile epic glides through years, emotional tissues, people living alone on a mental island and, up until the last hour, admirably avoids the pain of trying to wrap things up. Beginning with a bloody bus-jacking that leaves only three survivors, the driver (Yashuko Koji) and an adolescent brother and sister (real-life siblings Miyazaki Aoi and Masaru), "Eureka" traces the veins of shock, muted paranoia and delusion that accompanies surviving all this bloodshed.
As existentially skeletal as any Monte Hellman western or Wim Wenders road film, "Eureka" is also very much about window glare, the almost-visible pollen in the air, and the ominous island hills. This scattered, elongated beauty makes a winning overall impression, while the sudden lineup of the protagonists as gunslingers -- each with quirky sunglasses -- as they trek up a hill dotted with cows, is one of the funniest shocks in recent memory.
Also on the horizon is "Secret Tears," the second film from Park Ki-Hyung ("Whispering Corridors"), about a little girl with paranormal powers, and Furumaya Tomoyuki's "Bad Company," a portrait of oppressed school kids in a small Japanese town. This year's smorgasbord of Asian cinema suggests that films from the region are only revived, but vengefully back on the scene.