The 40th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, which is coming to a close this weekend, has been branded the "XL Edition." Not only does XL stand for 40 in Roman numerals but it also suggests the extra-large number of both visitors and films to seek out. The festival's reputation for the experimental and avant-garde was once again confirmed this year, as one of the top Tiger Award winners, Catalan ghost road movie "Finisterrae," was a hot subject of debate among the cognoscenti at the fest.
Sergio Caballero's "Finisterrae" is the kind of film that will leave no one indifferent, which is why it is such a perfect fit for the Rotterdam fest. As Doug Jones reported earlier for indieWIRE, it is a challenging work, some might say closer to video art or gallery piece than a film, but then again, this kind of cross-pollination between film and the other arts has always been a hallmark of Rotterdam programming (Caballero himself comes from the visual arts world and curates the Sonar festival in Spain). Whether hated or loved, the jury should be commended for having the cajones to give one of the fest's three main prizes to this out-there feature.
The other two Tiger Award winners, each coming with a €15,000 prize, were from Asia, a continent that's always heavily present at Rotterdam. In fact, many of the Asian films at Rotterdam have their European premiere there after their initial bow at Pusan in October, and this year's two Asian Tigers were no different (they both played in the fest's New Currents program).
Park Jung-Bum's Tiger winner "The Journals of Musan," about a North-Korean man who defects to the South is certainly a film worth seeking out, despite succumbing to that disease so common to many Korean films: not knowing when to stop. In an impressive case of triple duty for a first feature, Park not only wrote and directed the film but also plays the leading role.
Sivaroj Kongsakul, who directed Thai winner "Eternity," was not only an assistant to Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Aditya Assarat ("Wonderful Town") but also worked as cinematographer for Palme d'Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and all these influences can be felt in his first feature, which is divided into several sections and also features ghosts. Though it's hard to develop a particular signature style if one's part of a wave of filmmakers and if one's working on a first feature, the impression remains that "Eternity" is an OK first film from a director who might become a name to watch in the future.
Two further Asian films were rewarded the special "Return of the Tiger" award. This special section and award, on the occasion of the fest's 40th birthday, showcased new films by people who had participated in past editions of the Tiger Competition with their first or second film. The award went jointly to Hong Sang-soo's "Oki's Movie," which premiered in Venice, and "Club Zeus," from Dutch director David Verbeek, which had its world premiere in Rotterdam.
The latter film was actually filmed before the director's Cannes Un Certain Regard entry "R U There?" from last year and is, if anything, a Shanghainese indie. Shot over two weeks with minimum means, this tale of friendship between two male hosts at the titular club for companionship for women in Shanghai paints a rather dour but very authentic-feeling portrait of the loss of human warmth and easy friendships in a big metropolis such as Shanghai.
The Tiger Competition films this writer enjoyed most both hailed from South America: "Todos tus muertos" (saddled with the ungainly, literally translated English title "All Your Dead Ones") from Colombian director Diego Ramirez ("Dog Eat Dog") and "The Sky Above" by Brazilian rookie director Sergio Borges.
The former looks at the life of an older, cross-eyed farmer who discovers a huge pile of bodies in his cornfield on election day, and who tries to tell the authorities about his find, though it's hard to grab their attention. Though at first sight a seemingly naturalistic story about something that could actually occur in Colombia, which has been torn since the 1960s by warring factions, Ramirez uses various cinematic tools, including sound design, saturated visuals, mise-en-scene -- the pile of fifty dead bodies looks like it was arranged for a Benetton shoot --and droll and dry humor, to slowly let the audience know that what we're watching is really a parable of how Colombians, and Colombian officials especially, deal with the country's problems.
If "Muertos" is both a visceral and visual cinematic experience, then "The Sky Above" is almost its opposite. The portrait of three men, all around thirty, in Belo Horizonte is a minimalist documentary experiment. The strength of the film is that it never judges its protagonists and lets the people and their actions speak for themselves. The three characters are all unique in their own way: Everlyn is a university graduate and teacher who is also a transsexual prostitute, Murari is a Hare Krishna, telemarketer, graffiti artist and soccer fanatic, and Lwei is an (apparently) suicidal bum, who has a handicapped son and who has plans to write a novel but has never worked a day in his life. Each of them has apparently contradictory facets to their persona that make them and their struggles unique, but Borges' film is so good because he never allows his portrait of the three men to become sensationalistic. It is simply the story of their daily lives.