By Howard Feinstein | Indiewire February 2, 2009 at 3:40AM
Some of the best films in this edition of the IFFR (Rotterdam Film Festival) - a relatively pure event in terms of noble, cinema-supportive policies - highlighted protagonists who crossed the line between cleanliness of lifestyle and transgression, whether it be sexual, drug-induced, or illicitly manipulative. Rotterdam is in large part a non-judgmental forum for twisted features, the best of which are Alexei Balabanov's "Morphine" (Russia), Kim Gok's "Exhausted" (South Korea), Mama Keita's "L'absence" (Senegal/France), Lionel Baier's "Un autre homme" (Switzerland), and Nicolas Winding Refn's "Bronson" (UK).
Ironically, the most innocent film in the festival, Mahmut Fazil Coskun's "Wrong Rosary" (Turkey) - a thin narrative (it would have been perfect as a short) about the sublimated attraction between a Muslim muzzein and a young Catholic woman on the path toward becoming a nun - ended up as one of the three equal winners in the Tiger Awards competition of first and second features, each of which received a 15,000 euro prize. The awards were announced Friday night. The other two prizes went to "nastier" fare: Ramtin Lavafipour's "Be Calm and Count to Seven" (Iran), a documentary-like film about a young boy who resides in a fishing village where smuggling has become the principal means of survival; and actor/director Yang Ik-June's "Breathless" (South Korea), the tale of a damaged gangster who gets off on inflicting violence but becomes transformed after meeting a similarly tarnished young woman.
The FIPRESCI (international critics) prize went to Edwin's "Blind Pig Who Wants To Fly" (Indonesia), a polarizing, structurally challenging feature about the identity problems faced by Chinese citizens in Indonesia. The Audience Award was won by - what else? - Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" (UK).
The films in the Tiger Award competition are generally some of the weakest in the festival. Larger, more inclusive sections like "Bright Future" and "Spectrum" are where one finds more provocative, meaty fare, including those titles listed up top. Based on Mikhail Bulgakov's "Notes of a Young Doctor" and adapted by the late Sergei Bodrov Jr., the brilliant "Morphine" is set in 1917, the year of the Russian revolution (a mostly invisible presence throughout), in the clinic of a remote provincial outpost. A sensitive young doctor from Moscow succumbs to the temptation of the title narcotic, dragging a dedicated nurse and lover with him. Balabanov ("Cargo 200") divides the film into chapters with title cards, all the while plumbing the depths of human despair--but with a comic touch.
"Exhausted" lacks the polish of "Morphine," but this is filmmaker Kim Gok's intention. He shoots this politically incorrect tale of two mentally challenged individuals, a pimp and his battered whore, on Super 8, marking the film with scratches and stains. A close-up of her vagina, oozing natural juices, the man's sperm, and then a miscarried fetus, sends many viewers out the door, but you have to admire Kim's, well, balls. "L'absence" also focuses on a prostitute, this time in Dakar. She is the deaf-mute sister of a man, one of many who have contributed to the brain drain that plagues Africa, who had emigrated to France and became a successful engineer and is now back home for a short spell. Once he discovers her closeted profession, the film becomes an effective, visceral thriller that, even though western in its film language, beautifully captures the textures of Senegalese culture.
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn glorified violence in his "Pusher" trilogy, and he continues with this preoccupation in "Bronson," a British production based on the life of a man who goes by the moniker Charlie Bronson, an extremely violent man who is the UK's longest serving prison inmate. Part Theater of the Absurd, part Brecht, and part carnivalesque, "Bronson" is constructed on a foundation of artifice, a means of elaborating on Bronson's penchant for extreme aggression. The film, which premiered at Sundance and in which Tom Hardy gives an exceptional performance in the main role, is an extraordinary feat which marks Refn as one of the great stylists of his generation.
"Un autre homme" goes for another kind of violence, one that is verbal, sarcastic, cerebral. Baier, whose excellent gay movie "Stealth" was in New Directors/New Films in 2007, this time shines his light on a straight journalist, Francois, who, overnight, becomes a film critic in a rural village by plagiarizing a pretentious reviewer in a magazine called Travelling. This shameless schemer meets his match in a genuine critic, an ultra-pretentious tease named Rosa Rouge, who uses, and abuses, him for her own purposes. Shot in pristine black and white and edited with an intuitive lyricism, "Un autre homme" is a clever feat that should be seen by discerning programmers and arthouse distributors.
"Berina's Chakras," a strong project from Bosnia among the 30 in the festival's CineMart--an oft-imitated initiative that sets up meetings between the creative talent behind unshot projects and potential funders and/or producers, the benefit of which is less in gathered finances than in increasing the chances for someone taking your phone calls sometime in the future--is light years away from the acid urbanity of "Un autre homme." In postwar Sarajevo, a 20-year-old virgin, like everyone there scarred by the years under siege by Bosnian Serb sharpshooters, attempts to cope with the impending death of her mother through spiritual and magical means. Director Faruk Loncarevic explores the subjective side of "Berina's" perception. (Full disclosure: I know and have worked with the filmmaker and producer, but that does not negate the value and promise of the film.)
"This is about the contrast between what is real and how we see the world," he explains. "It moves from reality to abstraction, handheld to static shots, and 'normal' color to deeper color as means of penetrating Berina's mind." Clearly a metaphor for the current malaise in a country which has not bounced back economically from the devastation of the fighting, "Berina's Chakras" will cost 875,000 euros, of which, according to producer Amra Baksic-Camo, 25,000 is in place: 10,000 from Rotterdam's admirable Hubert Bals Fund and 15,000 from the Bosnian Film Fund. 850,000 euros more and they're off!
[Howard Feinstein reported from Rotterdam last week in an earlier dispatch]