IFFR 2009 Wrap-up by Peter Cornelissen: more reviews than you can shake a stick at!

Associate Editor, Features; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
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IFFR 2009 Wrap-up by Peter Cornelissen: more reviews than you can shake a stick at!

Last year I commented how funny it was that loyal forumer and sometimes contributor Peter Cornelissen had seen many movies, yet our lists hardly overlapped.
Well, guess what: this year I saw more movies, Peter Cornelissen saw more movies, but still at the end we only had two films in common. And we went to different screenings so we never even met!

Needless to say I was very interested in his yearly wrap-up, and here it is.
Over to you, Peter!

Recap of the 38th International Film Festival Rotterdam
– by Peter Cornelissen

The IFFR is one of the biggest of the European film festivals, so, where to start? Always a small problem. With a still new director (it was the second year for Rutger Wolfson) and now a new logo too, some attempts are made at creating a bit of transparency. But with hundreds of films in the programme there can never be a single theme to focus on. This year none of the themes that were focused on by the festival itself appealed to me. There were ghost and other horror movies from Asia in the spotlight while the high point of the rise in that genre has long since been reached. Turkish cinema was in the spotlight but “Three Monkeys” was not in the selection. And with outdoor screenings on huge canvasses of specially commissioned pieces some discussion about formats should have been provoked, but of course this was just more of a promotional stunt.

But don’t take all that as a negative. Promotion must be made to keep the festival going and although I was missing quite a few films that should have been obvious selections (like "Three Monkeys", but also the new Philippe Grandrieux movie "Un Lac"), this years crop was nothing short of spectacular. So without a theme and ‘only’ 23 features seen, I’m going to talk here about the premiere films that I saw; just to bring you the news about the latest movies out there.

(Peter's bullet reviews after the break!)

European premieres

Let start this off with a real nice one, "De Usynlige" (2008) "Troubled Water", a new film from Erik Poppe. His previous feature Hawaii Oslo was impressive enough for me to go blind into this one and it turned out to be number two (with a score of 4.585 out of 5) in the audience award polls right after crowd-pleaser "Slumdog Millionaire" (with 4.764). The story is about a guy released from prison after serving time for the murder of a young child. He tries to build up a new life as a church organ player but his past is bound to catch up with him. Christian themes of guilt, redemption and maybe atonement are dealt with, in a more humane than religious way. I didn’t really connect with the story at first and the reason for the guy to take the child in the first place remain vague, but Poppe knows how to grab an audience with this well crafted, intricate and surprisingly low key drama.

"Unmade Beds" (2009) was generally well reviewed too and it sure is nice to look at. The loosely structured story follows a few young kids in London wandering around, set to a very hip soundtrack. But a friend of mine with a finely tuned bullshit detector who saw the film with me rightly pointed out all the shallow middle class wannabe fantasy that I might have mistaken for just a bit of naive romanticism had I seen the film alone. It became our most heavily discussed film even though we both agreed it wasn’t real good in the end. I kind of like the creative people the film tries to portray (and the director tries to be?) and I like the music, I like moleskin notebooks and I even like Polaroid’s (although that cliché WAS kind of pushing it). But what I don’t like are a bunch of childish ideas passed off as profound and that was in the end what mainly happened with this film.

"Exhausted" (2008) "Gogal" is what they call a ‘real festival film’ in Rotterdam. Richard Kuipers writing for Variety calls it artsploitation and says “pic is unreleasable in most markets but could enjoy some sort of life as a fest shock item”. The movie follows a wandering young guy and girl who seem to have met at some point and decided it might be mutually beneficial to live together. They make money from prostitution but mostly they just hang out with the depressed girl freaking out every now and then and the guy chasing after her. Now I really like artistic exploitation cinema for it’s pure and unrivaled transgressive powers and the IFFR always has some gems to show in this area ("Green Elephant Calf", "Squareworld", "Rubber’s Lover"). But what I really liked about this film were the many scenes of playful slacking on the beach or amongst industrial area’s during the long running time that were given a poetic beauty because of the grainy 8mm it was shot on - with very muted colors too - reminding me of that beautiful line from William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”. The interspersed scenes when the girl is with a client are unpleasant to watch, but mostly because the guy always puts on some bestiality video’s in the next room (not for excitement it seems, because he quickly falls asleep every time) and of course it all has to end with a bang with a client freaking out in a bloody violent way. But that seems just an appropriate way to end the story and doesn’t even get too bloody in the end, so I’m left with mixed feelings. This might actually have been better with the shock factor toned down.

"Dada" (2008) "Da Da’s Dance" showed another young couple slightly angry and not yet knowing what to do with their lives but miles away from the two from "Exhausted". Their story is romantic and adventurous but also far removed from the false sentiments from "Unmade Beds". So what we have here is a romantic piece about two young adults getting to that point in their lives where to have to start to get serious and think about their future. With dark edges nicely balanced out with mild comedy and a cute kitten. Fun to see but, I’m afraid to say, also easily forgotten.

International premieres

In "Futoko" (2009) "The Dark Harbour" absurdistic comedy set pieces are nicely woven into a more realistic drama about a fisherman that might be pushing forty already, who craves for love and doesn’t want to live alone anymore. After a tragically failed attempt at finding happiness at a local dating event, he suddenly seems to get his wish as he finds that a woman and a small boy are hiding away in his house when he is out at sea. While angry at first, he invites the homeless couple into his live and soon they live together as a happy family. Of course, as the title suggests, that is all just a bit too romantic to be real and lasting, but the ending is still open to mainly positive interpretations in my opinion. This film continued theme’s of absurdism and romantic fantasy I found in a lot what I saw at this years IFFR (as you can’t help but compare movies, common theme’s always present themselves even if you weren’t looking for them! For me this is part of the fun of a festival and a real added value) so I really liked it. It’s just not as good as Tokyo Sonata, another Japanese movie shown at the festival that employs a pleasant mix of realistic drama and over-the-top yet deadpan humour, but they would make a very fine double-bill.

With the fear of becoming repetitive I’m going to describe "Naesarang, Yurie" (2008) "My Love, Yurie" again as romantic and absurd but with a big slice of surrealism cut into the mix this time. With a hyper real style and a kind of dream logic timeline it doesn’t always make sense, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, on the contrary I’d say. What was a bad thing was an almost constant voiceover narration that got a bit boring and the fact that nothing much is stated or explored except the notion that ‘love is a strong force’. This should have been a lot better.

World Premieres

Time for something different with the, sort of, documentary "Kikoe" (2009). This film is about a lot of things but has at his heart the avant-garde musician Otomo Yoshihide. With lots of interviews and performances, presented in a collage form as a visual representation of the cut up / turntablism style of the music, academic notions as ‘the meaning of sound’ or the ‘spacial exploration of sound’ are touched upon. But that same form prevents anything to really gel into something meaningful, especially if you don’t know anything about the subject yet. Nothing and nobody gets introduced and the way the director cuts in and out of the interviews makes it impossible to know what these people are really on about. It goes from a wild jazz performance, to Jan Svankmajer talking about de Sade (so that interview must have been taken during a promotion tour for his wonderful film "Sileni"), to somebody asking his audience why they are watching him, to a dance performance with someone acting like a creepy doll, to some namedropping of Cage and Breton, back to some more jazz, noisy guitar work or indeed some real noise ‘music’. I was happy to recognize sine wave artist Sachiko M in a few performances, as you don’t see much of her work in the mainstream to put it mildly, and am indeed interested in all the people and ideas the director has put into his film. But while I appreciate a form experiment could be an interesting approach to this subject, I would have been a lot happier if the interviews and performances had been presented in their uncut form and with proper introduction.

"Ci Qing" (2009) "Tattoo" just did very little for me. It tells a story about a bunch of youths hanging round with the girl in their midst providing some money via prostitution (a preferred line of work in the art-house movie world, if you allow me a little cynic attempt at humour). What little story there is gets told in a very messy way and at the end the whole thing escalates into a small bloodbath, again just to force some kind of structural ending, and the audience is left kind of indifferent.

I have saved the best for last (although the audience response to this one was generally negative) with the very popular actor Joe Odagiri’s directing debut "Sakura na Hito-tachi" (2009) "Looking for Cherry Blossoms". It’s a short, purely absurd movie about the journey of three guys in search of a fabled cherry tree. It’s not the kind of film you might expect if you know his work as an actor. Even I got (positively) surprised by the hysteric level of comedy that left most people scratching their head. It’s hard to find something to compare it with to give you a sense of it’s style, as I can only think of Dutch comedy shows like “Rembo & Rembo” and “Jiskefet” at the moment, but maybe “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” comes close. If you’ve got low tolerance for nonsense this is not for you. I however loved it more and more with every minute and in the end, when the tree is almost reached and only one of the guys is spiritually able to go on and lay his eyes upon it, the film even reminded me of something so profound as Tarkovsky’s Stalker. I was, how can I describe my feelings, moved. It has the look and feel of a small anarchic hobby project, so I might be overrating this slightly from an objective standpoint, but for me this really was the film of the festival!

To wrap up the recap

There was one other film that really stood out for me this festival and that is "La Mujer sin Cabeza" (2008) "The Headless Woman" made by Lucrecia Martel. It was the first time I saw one of her movies and I was glad that her 1995 short "Rey Muerto" (Dead King) was shown before the feature as I saw many parallels in style and content between the two movies and understood better what is driving her as a director. "Rey Muerto" is often regarded as the starting point of the New Argentine Cinema according to the festival and that is a movement I am very interested in (at least in the movies of Lisandro Alonso, who’s new film Liverpool I also saw at the festival which was again a joy for all it’s simple beauty and minimalistic approach to story). Martel now has proven to me again that Argentina is one of the most interesting countries to keep an eye on with regards to cinema at the moment. "The Headless Woman" tells the story, in a very cinematic way with great editing and lots of nonverbal communication, of a woman who accidentally drives over something with her car. She is afraid to go out of the car to check what it was and eventually just continues her journey, but the emotional stress of the situation makes her lose her memory. She tries to continue her life as if nothing has happened, trying to read from to actions of people around her who she is and what she might do. Until it starts to come back and also news comes about of a small boy found dead at the place where the accident happened. This film really succeeds in showing the confusing emotional state of the woman which is both very scary and strangely liberating at the same time as there are also a sexual encounter with a man who is not her husband and a love declaration from a woman made to her and it left a big impression on me.

These are all the feature length movies I saw, listed from best to worst:
(with a score out of 10)

La Mujer sin Cabeza (2008) The Headless Woman (8)
Sakura na Hito-tachi (2009) Looking for Cherry Blossoms (8)
Liverpool (2008) (7,5)
Eldorado (2008) (7,5)
De Usynlige (2008) Troubled Water (7)
Tôkyô Sonata (2008) (7)
Exhausted (2008) Gogal (7)
A Erva do Rato (2008) The Herb of the Rat (7)
Shultes (2008) (7)
Wendy and Lucy (2008) (7)
Nucingen Haus (2008) (7)
Vermilion Souls (2008) (7)
Futoko (2009) The Dark Harbour (7)
Dada (2008) Da Da’s Dance (6,5)
Funshutsu Kigan (1971) Gushing Prayer (6)
Of Time and the City (2008) (6)
Schattenwelt (2008) Long Shadows (6)
Unmade Beds (2009) (6)
A Festa da Menina Morta (2008) The Dead Girl’s Feast (5)
Naesarang, Yurie (2008) My Love, Yurie (5)
Blue Film no Onna (1969) Blue Film Woman (5)
Ci Qing (2009) Tattoo (5)
Kikoe (2009) (4)

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