After seven days of the 40th International Film Festival Rotterdam, the “buzz” around the Tiger Competition – in which 14 features by first/second-time directors vie for three equal prizes – is scattered between various different titles, with no obvious front-runners at this stage. So far I’ve seen 10 of the candidates and I’ve seen two features that I’d consider Tiger-worthy, namely Spain’s Finisterrae by Sergio Caballero and South Korea’s Bleak Night by Yoon Sung-Hyun – the latter generally regarded as a very solid entry, the former quickly proving wildly divisive among critics I’ve spoken to.
And that’s no bad thing, as if Rotterdam as a film-festival is to retain its edge, then it has to keep programming – and indeed championing – berserk, challenging, experimental fare like Finisterrae, in which two perpetually-shrouded “ghosts”, Russian-speaking and perhaps brothers, trek through damp, unpopulated stretches of rural Spain in search of spiritual/physical rebirth. Sounds like a recipe for pretentious, po-faced, sub-Tarkovskian misery – but this is surely the funniest film to have competed here in a long while, as writer/director Caballero melds the deadpan wit of his much more ballyhooed fellow Catalan, Albert Serra, to the freewheeling absurdity of Monty Python, to produce a picture that is consistently surprising and frequently hilarious.
It also happens to be breathtakingly beautiful, thanks to the cinematography by Eduard Grau – the 29-year-old prodigy whose credits already include Tom Ford’s A Single Man, Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried and Serra’s Honour of the Knights – and, while not everyone’s cup of tea (there were many walkouts at the press show I attended, plus howls of derision from several who stayed), is the one new movie I’ve seen here that I’ve been full-heartedly recommending to those who ask.
Bleak Night is a much safer proposition in that regard, a sober and intense two-hour analysis of teenage bullying which expertly charts the fluctuating dynamics between a group of lads. This was director Yoon’s graduation project from film-school and he’s therefore only a little older than the characters he’s created – giving proceedings the edgy credibility of, say, British TV’s Skins. The jumbled chronology makes the story a little hard to follow at times – the father of one of the boys, a recent suicide, tracks down his surviving pals to piece together his son’s motivation – but overall this is a confidently-handled debut, featuring outstanding performances. Indeed, it’s a shame there’s no ‘Best Actor’ prize on offer here, as Lee Je-hun – as the lad who takes his own life (fascinatingly, he’s the bully rather than the bully) – is just terrific.
Outside the competition, IFFR has delivered its usual wildly mixed bag – the festival has shown far too many films for many years now – and many attendees consider themselves lucky if noteworthy discoveries outnumber walkouts.
Among fiction features, Alexey Balabanov’s The Stoker is a very likeable, jaunty black comedy about a boilerhouse-tending war-veteran whose furnaces are used by criminals and cops to dispose of inconvenient corpses. Featuring the catchiest, most amusingly intrusive soundtrack of the festival, it’s a return to the caustic wit of Cargo 200 after the slight disappointment of Morphia and proved the perfect pick-me-up after a day in which I slogged through five – mostly underwhelming – Tiger contenders.
Speaking of which, why isn’t Swiss writer-director Michael Krummenacher’s Behind These Mountains in competition? Admittely, this video-shot no-budgeter isn’t the most alluring visual spectacle, but I was gradually engrossed by a picture which deftly balances disturbing psychological elements with deadpan humour as it chronicles the unhealthy friendship between two twentysomething women in a backwater resort. As the IFFR catalogue not-so-enticingly puts it, “a suffocating blanket of boredom hangs over the Swiss town”, but get past the first 20 minutes and you’re rewarded with a 21st century equivalent of Erick Zonca’s Dream Life of Angels.
Among the documentaries, Lee Anne Schmitt’s The Last Buffalo Hunt is an absorbing chronicle of a particular type of American frontier iconography, with several buffalo-hunting scenes that proved eye-avertingly strong for more sensitive viewers. Rather gentler and more poetic is veteran Austrian director Michael Pilz’s Rose and Jasmine, an elliptical travelogue showing everyday life in Iran without commentary or explanation, and with sparing piano accompaniment – evanescent and calming, and the kind of decidedly non-commercial enterprise which one hopes will always find a berth in Europe’s leading port city.
2nd February 2010
Jigsaw Lounge’s Rotterdam index-page