How fitting that the International Film Festival Rotterdam awards dinner took place at Tai Woo, the city’s pre-eminent Chinese restaurant, as Asian films copped all but one of the feature film prizes. As usual, the Tiger Award was shared three ways, this time between films all featuring ghosts or outcasts. Eternity (dir. Sivaroj Kongsakul), composed of sun-baked long takes in the Thai countryside, involves a dead man revisiting his first moments with the love of his life. Newly dead ghosts also wander in Spain’s Finisterre (dir. Sergio Caballero), but in a more playfully tongue-in-cheek manner, wearing bedsheets as if trick-or-treating for Halloween. Korea’s The Journals of Musan (dir. Park Jung-bum), also took the FIPRESCI Critics’ Jury award; among all the competition entries, Musan was the most accomplished in terms of old-school storytelling, which may have been a point of distinction in a field rife with narrative discursions and aesthetic wackiness. But it seemed an uncharacteristically safe choice for one of the world’s premier showcase for cinema on-the-edge. Park’s film, with its simpleton North Korean refugee serving as a lightning rod for South Korean prejudice and moral hypocrisy, seems like a carbon copy of the superior holy fool stories served up by Lee Chang-dong (Oasis, Secret Sunshine); it’s no coincidence then that Park served as Lee’s assistant.
The NETPAC Award for outstanding Asian films added two more Eastern-themed titles to the prize heap: Black Blood by China’s Zhang Miaoyan and The Day I Disappeared, Dutch-based Iranian Atousa Bandeh Ghiasabadi’s deeply personal recollection of her flight to Europe 20 years ago. The latter, probably my favorite among the awardees, is a captivating tapestry of memory, weaving personal and archival footage of multiple formats around Ghiasabadi’s poetic voice-over. Ghiasabadi’s narration transforms traumatic events into a bittersweet “once-upon-a-time” fairy tale, an extended meditation on identity and belonging with evocative images throughout: a veiled face blown by a fierce wind; Ghiasabadi performing a Persian dance against total blackness; a wistful family picnic by a riverside back home.
Ghosts of the past also haunt my favorite film that I saw at Rotterdam, Jose Maria de Orbe’s Aitá, a film literally about a house. A historical estate in Basque country that dates back to the Middle Ages is thoroughly explored by Orbe’s tranquil camera. By day, it’s a frail, innocuous setting where a school group tours the premises and workers make note of signs of decay in its walls and stairs. At night, Orbe lets the phantoms loose, staging a phantasmagorical light show by projecting archival footage on the walls, as images of damaged celluloid meld with the peeling interiors. Beautifully filmed in every way by Jimmy Gimferrer, Aita is a quietly stunning testimony to the immutable force and strange beauty of aging and decay.
The Festival celebrated more wonders of the past with two retrospectives, Westerns made in Communist Europe, and a 20-film historical survey of wuxia, the Chinese marital arts film. The Red Westerns were reportedly hit-and-miss from film to film, even with Soviet stalwarts like Lev Kuleshov (The Extraordinary Adventure of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks) and Nikikta Mikhailkov (At Home Among Strangers, a Stranger At Home) in the lineup. The one that I caught, 1979 The Actress, Dollars and the Transylvanians is a juicy Romanian riff on Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, as a band of Romanian émigrés make their way through a stock collection of Western settings (saloon, music hall, main street showdown), leading to an all-out bloodfest. The wuxia retro had all the major figures represented: not only iconic actors Jackie Chan and Jet Li, but key directors like macho beefcake Chang Cheh, master of intrigue Chu Yuen and techno-wizard Tsui Hark. But the King stands tall above them all: King Hu, that is, who did for kung fu sequences what Stravinsky did for symphonies. Watching Dragon Gate Inn (beautifully restored after decades of shoddy prints), one revels in the swirling musicality to his choreographing of fights and dialogues alike. The film was given tearful tribute in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn, which, kind of like a Taiwanese Aitá, is steeped in creeping mortality. But there’s nothing morbid about Hu’s cinema: whether seething in anticipation or exploding in eye-popping fury, Dragon Gate Inn is as full of life than ever.