ROTTERDAM 2009 {LATEST : ‘Daily Tiger’ article, linked Thu.12.Mar.}

AGORAPHOBIAN UTOPIA (guest column for Daily Tiger newspaper – it’s on the left-hand side of the 2nd page – the pages are all “zoomable”)  (linked Thu.12.Mar)

‘Fat Cat Seeks Dietary Assistance’


Tuesday 27th January

[Morfiy : 102m : Russia 08 : Alexei BALABANOV] seen at Cinerama cinema (press show)
: :  Adaptation of reportedly “autobiographical” M.Bulgakov short stories, detailing the comic/tragic misadventures of a greenhorn doctor after arriving at a remote Russian hospital in 1917. Features a small handful of exceptional sequences – including a couple of pleasingly grisly, not-for-the-squeamish operations – but overall is frustratingly uneven and too choppily episodic. Disappointing to see it become, after a promisingly strong start, the predictable descent of its protagonist into a self-made hell of morphine-obsession. Worth a look, but a disappointment after the director’s superb Cargo 200, with only intermittent flashes of that picture’s deliciously dark combination of acerbic humour and political/philosophical seriousness.

[92m : China 08 : ZHAO Ye] Cinerama (press)
: :  Ponderous, slow-burning drama about the close bond between a railway worker on the verge of retirement and the much younger colleague who reveres him as a kind of mentor/father-figure and has great difficulty accepting the oldster’s departure. Has potential to be engaging, but the protagonists’ relationship, constituting the main element of what slender plot there is, never really comes into proper focus and we’re left with a series of striking images. Indeed, the picture is if anything too slick – the glossy visuals and intrusive, manipulative orchestral score sitting incongruously with the hard-scrabble, industrially/scarred landscapes in which the story unfolds.

Wednesday 28th

[103m : UK 09 : Simon ELLIS] Cinerama (press)
: :  Rubbishy, mirthless Brit-com1 that’s opportunistic and exploitative, but without any of the positives of old-school “exploitation cinema.” Slim but convoluted plot hangs on the illicit sexual activity ‘dogging’ – semi-public in-car coitus – a practice that made some salacious UK tabloid headlines a couple of years back. Here it becomes the saucy/seedy pretext for a sloppily-scripted, tut-tutting exercise in larkish prurience, involving various feckless young adults (one of them a priapic Geordie satyr played by newcomer Richard Riddell, who deserves much better material) in and around the Newcastle region. Surely Go Forth, Tyne Dogger would have been a better title.

1Astonishing that this was the only British film reckoned worthy of a slot in the Tiger Competition at Rotterdam 2009. Programming the film at all was a baffling move, but to position it in such a prestigious slot is an embarrassment for all concerned.

[Xiao li zi : 90m : China 08 : YU Guangyi] Cinerama (press)
: :  Another fine, rough-edged piece of rural Chinese cine-journalism from the man who brought us Timber Gang a couple of years back. The focus is again on a remote logging-camp, though this time it’s inhabited not by loggers by a farmer displaced by the construction of a nearby reservoir – plus his wife and a hapless handyman, who gradually (and intriguingly) becomes the focus of the piece. A paean to persistence, one which doesn’t pull its punches in identifying who’s to blame for the tough circumstances we observe (“And it’s all the f*cking party’s fault,” someone fumes, “Communist Party, my ass!”)

[93m : UK 08 : Alexis DOS SANTOS] Schouwburg (public :  ‚¬9)
: :  Indie-hipster romantic-comedy-drama from Argentine writer-director responsible for 2006 IFFR hit Glue. That debut was subtitled “A Story of Youth in the Middle of Nowhere” – but now the characters are very much in the middle of somewhere: swinging London, magnet for mooching youth from all over Europe and beyond (this status attributable partly to the development of Stansted as a cheap-flight hub, and to English having so quickly become a global linga franca.) Quite nice, but essentially disposable and a little too pleased with its own post-slacker cuteness to appeal to those too different from its own charmingly dishevelled protagonists.

[Shui shang ren jia : 88m : China 08 : HE Jianjun] Cinerama (press)
: :  Illuminating, empathetic – and, it must be said, decidedly slooooow – Chinese documentary (very lightly fictionalised, to be accurate) about the folk who eke out a precarious subsistence by fishing on one of the country’s massive, muddily torpid rivers. Usually easy on the eye, and more than serviceable a solid example of empathetic ethnography – one whose “narrative” ebbs and flows are perhaps intended to mimic the sluggish progress of the river itself. Somnolent, elegiac, observational fare, which comes over best in the numerous dialogue-light sequences – and the viewer’s patience does obtain reasonable reward as the minutes meander by.

[92m : UK 08 : Nicolas Winding REFN] Cinerama (public :  ‚¬9)
: :  Show-offy Danish director Refn proves a surprisingly inspired choice for this violently comic, comically violent cross between Hunger and Chopper. It’s neither a profile of Hollywood tough-guy Charles Bronson nor, despite appearances, a biopic of ‘Charles Bronson’, the former bare-knuckle fighter and all-round hard-nut born Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy, near-unrecognisably bulked-up in a full-tilt-shenanigans performance that even Daniel Day-Lewis might consider “a bit much.”) Instead this is actually, beneath the surface Russellian/Lynch-esque flashiness and bluster, a powerful, dead-serious indictment of Britain’s shamefully archaic penal-system. Matt King, meanwhile, is just terrific in his all-too-infrequent appearances as Bronson’s drawling, viciously queeny ‘agent.’

Thursday 29th

aka L’ange   8/10
[70m : France 1982 : Patrick BOKANOWSKI] Cinerama (public :  ‚¬9)
    : : Dazzling example of early-80s avant-garde experimenta is essentially non-narrative, though it’s possible to piece together some aspects of what might constitute a “story” (involving shenanigans in a cavernous mansion at some point in what looks like the 18th century.) That would, however, be somewhat to miss the point: what is presented is a series of discrete “episodes”, each executed in a slightly different style, but all relying on fundamental ideas of repetition, disorientation, and the scrutiny of the projected celluloid image. It doesn’t all come off, and one or two of the sequences descend into banality. But at its best – such as the first nine minutes, which constitute one of the most astonishing and original openings in all of cinema – the work reaches genuinely sublime heights of brilliant transcendence.
more on this film at The Auteurs Notebook

[Blue film no onna : 78m : Japan 1969 : MUKAI Kan] Cinerama (public,  ‚¬9)
: : Enjoyably OTT example of the famed Japanese pinkku (soft-ish porn) genre, unexpectedly timely 40 years on thanks to the Credit Crunch.  When a respectable citizen is bankrupted via disastrous stock-market speculations, he’s at the mercy of a cruel creditor who demands an unusual form of ‘payment.’ Fatal consequences lead to the debtor’s daughter concocting an elaborate revenge-plot (with shades of Bunuel’s Belle de Jour.) Colourful and fast-moving melodrama, whose lurid interludes are moderately explicit but seldom erotic. Story goes off the rails somewhat at the end – the title turns out something of a misnomer – but it’s never dull.

   [88m : Switzerland 2009 : Peter LIECHTI] Cinerama (public,  ‚¬0) {English-language version}
: : : Intriguing and original in form and concept, but ultimately a little underwhelming in terms of content and execution, this is an extended, ambitious meditation on life and death. Mainly death. On the soundtrack, we hear the “sound of insects” and other forest goings-on, interspersed with the diary of an individual who, we are informed in a prologue, committed suicide by starving himself in such surroundings.
His desiccated corpse – the “mummy” of the subtitle (no Egyptian high-jinks here, more’s the pity) – was found some time later, along with his handwritten notes. The film’s visuals consist of (colour, DV) images of the forest (including lots of multi-legged critters), some avant-garde (monochrome, celluloid) interludes – which serve as fleeting, beautiful, dream-like epiphanies – plus decidedly drab glimpses of the city (Zurich?) whose air of soulless anomie, we conclude, brought the protagonist closer to his drastic decision.
Based on a Japanese novel, this is a complex, ambiguously multi-layered “text” – but it’s let down on several key fronts. There’s the repetitiveness and thudding banality of so many of the “diary entries” – despite his professed atheism, for example, our unnamed hero goes on and on (and on) about the river Styx and “the next world”. There’s the fact that the journal-jottings very seldom convince as the ruminations of an individual in such dire mental and physical states. And, most problematic of all, there’s the soporific dullness of the narration by Canadian cinematographer/documentarian Peter Mettler.
As with Gerhard Friedl’s Wolff Von Amerongen documentary, which likewise was produced in parallel Anglo and Teutonic edits, it’s a safe bet that the voice-over in the German-language version of the picture is decidedly more stimulating – viewers should therefore probably seek the latter out, though both “formats” have, despite the enterprise’s inherent faults, much to recommend them.

Friday 30th

[Liu li : 107m : China 09 : PENG Tao] Pathe (public,  ‚¬0)
  : : “I feel a little dizzy,” someone remarks early on during this disappointing follow-up to writer-director Peng’s heartbreaking Little Moth (2007). Audiences may well sympathise, given how Peng’s hand-held DV camera wobbles up and down during most scenes. This gimmick adds an unhelpful, distracting air of pseudo-experimental affectation to what’s otherwise a gritty, raw – if somewhat slow-paced – story of a drippy 17-year-old’s misadventures in a grubbily run-down city. It’s essentially a very old-fashioned cautionary melodrama about how Nice Girls can so easily get into Trouble, though Peng’s concern with exposing the tough specifics of present-day exploitation does him credit.

[Uzak ihtimal : 89m : Turkey 09 : Mahmut Fazil COSKUN] Pathe (public,  ‚¬0)
: : : They say love is blind, and viewers of this wry, low-key, gentle-paced,notably chaste ‘romance’ (whose protagonists exercise such demure restraint that it makes Brief Encounter look like Last Tango In Paris) mustn’t to examine the plot too closely if they want to fall under its refined spell. Predicated on a series of unlikely events and even more improbable coincidences (rather than a teeming metropolis of 20 million, Wrong Rosary‘s Istanbul, while pungently evoked, seems more like a small village) the soapy script relates the very slow-burning attraction that develops between a lovelorn muezzin (Nadir Saribacak) and his meek-and-mild neighbour (Gorkem Yeltan). The latter is an ultra-mousy Catholic spinster who was – for reasons revealed during the movie’s wildly melodramatic prologue – brought up in a convent, and has plans to become a nun.
Shot on classy, slighty dusty/milky high-definition DV, this character-based charmer tackles some weighty and topical issues relating to cultural and religious divides, but does so with a strain of gentle humour that prevents things from getting too preachy or worthy. A little more background on the muezzin’s role in the mosque and the community might not have gone amiss, however, as we don’t get much sense of how transgressive his behaviour might be regarded by his ’employers.’ Nor does the nature of his relationship with Islam really come into proper focus, instead his status as muezzin coming across primarily as a tricky – if somewhat nebulous – obstacle standing in the way of his heart’s true desires.

[Ci qing : 100m : China 09 : WANG Liren] Cinerama (public,  ‚¬0) walkout after 1hr
: : : Circumstances beyond my control meant I had to bail on downbeat social-realist gangster-drama Tattoo just after halfway. There was the option of subsequently catching the remainder in the IFFR Videotheque, but I hadn’t been sufficiently impressed or engaged by the first hour (who’s who? what are they up to? why should we care?) to go to such trouble.
The film – not to be confused with the famously berserk 1981 Bruce Dern vehicle of identical title – is set in the present, but has an oddly bygone-days feel, partly because the scruffy locations used appear to have changed very little over the past few turbulent decades. It’s the gritty-grimy story of a commune-like criminal gang in an unspecified, underdeveloped Chinese town, mostly unfolding in the barracks-like building that serves as HQ, training-camp and lair. Endlessly chain-smoking, gambling and fuelled by booze, this undisciplined, avowedly non-ideological, cash-obsessed gaggle of taciturn, amoral toughs expend much of their time and energy on internecine bickering – mostly sparked by issues relating to the small handful of molls in their macho midst. Presumed eventual moral: women and crime don’t mix.
Despite the strong emotions, vividly surly characters and atmospheric milieux on view, the film somehow feels a bit underpowered – although, to be charitable, this may have been a deliberate ploy to ensure that the inevitable third-act melodramatic and histrionics packed even more of a punch. One day, maybe, I’ll find out – but for now, this is one Tattoo that leaves a less-than-indelible mark.

KIKOE   5/10
[99m : Japan 09 : IWAI Chikara] Cinerama (public,  ‚¬0)
: : Relentlessly and bracingly uncompromising, this jaggedly cacophonous mash-up of a documentary on seminal Japanese jazz-funk-folk-punk screecher/guitarist/composer Otomo Yoshihide is easier to admire than endure. Taking inspiration from Otomo’s default mode of protean dischord (“collage is all about breaking boundaries”) the picture is a wild blizzard of (brief) clips featuring performance, analysis, interview and myriad tangential ephemera. The tone veers beguilingly from verbosely erudite (talk of “the surrealist or realist problematique”) to larkishly daft, as Otomo becomes a launch-pad to explore mind-stretchingly eclectic artistic and cultural concepts. Significantly outstays its welcome at 90+ minutes, but can’t be faulted for ambitious originality.

aka Forbidden Door   4/10
[Pintu terlarang : 115m : Indonesia 08 : Joko ANWAR] Cinerama (public,  ‚¬0)
: : Glossy, tonally wayward example of “I-Horror” has an offputtingly dull, sub-Lost Highway first hour in which sinister happenings unnerve a modishly successful (and implausibly wealthy) sculptor. This hallucination-punctuated opening ‘act’ is pretentious, chaotic and confusing, but proceedings suddenly click into gear with a mid-section that nimbly combines Videodrome and The Game as our (obnoxious) hero uncovers a nightmarish conspiracy of surveillance, control and sadism. After a show-stoppingly gory dinner-table massacre, however, the wheels come flying right off the wagon during a daft, clumsily-handled “twist” denouement. Forbidden Door certainly has its pleasingly “unhinged” moments, but overall constitutes a frustrating, time-wasting misfire.

Saturday 31st

[122m : Thailand 09 : Uruphong RAKSASAD] Cinerama (public,  ‚¬0)
   full review here

[Babi buta yang ingin terbang : 77m : Indonesia 08 : ‘EDWIN’] Pathe (public,  ‚¬0)
   full review here

[93m : Germany 08 : Christian PETZOLD] Doelen (public,  ‚¬0)
   full review here

   aka Turistas   7/10
[104m : Chile 09 : Alicia SCHERSON] Pathe (public,  ‚¬0)
   THR review : “Gently comic, idyllically picaresque character-study of a woman at an emotional crossroads casts a quiet but effective spell.”

[Otroci : 100m : Slovenia 08 : Vlado SKAFAR] Pathe (public,  ‚¬0)
: : Life’s rich, bittersweet, sometimes painful pageant is on full display in this wide-rangingly emphathetic documentary, much of which consists of interviews with ‘ordinary’ Slovenians, of various ages, in various corners of the country. At the start the interviews are with children – schoolkids, then (articulate) teenagers – then with young adults, then with young parents, then young childless folk, then middle-aged (bereaved) parents, and finally with senior citizens: a married couple, and a widower (who reads a work by Slovenia’s national poet, France Preseren).
Director Skafar is never shown, but he’s frequently heard – breathily relating details of his own past, or posing respectful, judicious questions (in what sounds like post-dubbed voice-over, with a distinct air of interior thought-processes) to his well-chosen interviewees. Some of them, it must be said, are more engaging than others, while several are allowed to ramble on to slightly excessive length.
A continuum – a community, in a way – is nevertheless created, as the focus gradually shifts from the specific subject of children (including broody paeans to their “beauty, spontaneity, sincerity”) to more generalised ruminations and philosophical speculations.
This is very personal, essayistic film-making (we even hear the scratching of pencil on paper during the more epistolary sequences) with segments of direct autobiography (we see family snaps and 8mm footage). Its hazy visuals and uncompromising talkiness are perhaps better suited to small-screen rather than cinema play, though the use of hand-held video-cameras certainly adds to the intimate, occasionally even conspiratorial atmosphere of the production.

Neil Young
28th January – 24th February, 2009

ROUNDUP for TRIBUNE magazine

NB :  ‚¬0 = complimentary tickets

II : GETAWAYS                                       

La Nana
A Room and a Half
35 Rhums
The World’s Greatest Sinner

Black Dogs Barking
California Company Town
Crespia – The Film Not the Village
Il Divo
A Faint Trembling of the Landscape
FILM IS. a girl & a gun
(aka FILM IST. a girl & a gun)
Gushing Prayer (1971)
The Headless Woman
The Housemaid
Images of Liberation
(52m, 1982)
The Land
Modern Life
(plus L’Approche [2001] and Le quotidien [2005])
My Village (2008)
Not Quite Hollywood
O’er the Land
No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti
Paulo Benvenuti retrospective, including Puccini and the Young Girl
Rachel Getting Married
Rerberg and Tarkovsky – The Reverse Side of
Service (aka Serbis)
The Terence Davies Trilogy
Three Days of Darkness (clear bottom in the audience-voting)
Tokyo Sonata
Waiting For Sancho
Wild Field

* : Asya’s Happiness (1966); Be Calm and Count to Seven; Be Good; The Coffin; Dada’s Dance; The Damned Rain; The Dark Harbour; Delta; Eldorado; Er Dong; Exhausted; The Frontier of Dawn; Frozen River; German + Rain; The Hungry Ghosts; I Sell the Dead; Jerzy Skolimowski retrospective; Last Conversation; The Middle Mystery of Kristo Negro; My Magic; Next Attraction; Now Showing; Nucingen Haus; Paper Soldier; Perfect Life; The Rat Herb; Schottentor; Songs From the Southern Seas; Still Walking; The Strength of Water; Sunrise/Sunset; Teza; Tokyo OnlyPic; The Tree; Tulpan; 24 City; West of Pluto; Why We Men Love Technology So Much; Yes, I Can See Dead People

III : ALREADY SEEN & REVIEWED                                                                                   

8/10 Of Time and the City
7/10 The Inheritors
A Week Alone
6/10 Better Things; The Chaser; Gomorrah; Liverpool; Slumdog Millionaire; Snow; Tony Manero; Wendy and Lucy
5+/10 Our Beloved Month of August
5/10 Birdsong; Good Cats; I Am From Titov Veles; Picture of Light (1994)
4/10 Helen
3/10 The Bastards (aka Los Bastardos)