Threads of Competition at the International Film Festival Rotterdam

Wading Through a Field of Vision: “The Image Threads” (dir. Vipin Vijay)

“XL” is the theme of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, ostensibly referring to its 40th anniversary, but also to a jumbo selection of films, videos and installations spilling across 40 locations. It’s an overwhelming array of programming fit for a jubilee celebration: aside from the annual Tiger Competition and Bright Future showcases of emerging talent, there are tantalizing one-time retrospectives of Communist “Red” Westerns (featuring Czech cowboys and East German Indians) and Chinese martial arts movies (for which the festival erected a bamboo teahouse to stage daily wuxia showdowns). Perhaps the only drawback to the festival’s super-sized theme has been in selling “Rotterdam XL” branded apparel to body-conscious females; at least that’s what I was told at the gift shop.

“Bleak” Night (dir. Yoon Seong-hyeon)

For the first half of my stay, I’ve focused exclusively on the Competition lineup, if only to see how my assessments will stack up with the official awardees to be announced tomorrow by the Tiger jury, which this year includes Argentine director Lucretia Martel and uber-guitarist Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. Over the years Rotterdam has distinguished itself as a showcase for youthful, edgy work with a global bent (exemplified by So Yong Kim’s 2006 prize-winner In Between Days). This year kicked off with Greece’s Wasted Youth, which initially promises to follow the lead of last year’s Greek breakout Dogtooth in chronicling oddball family dysfunction laced with incestuous undertones. But it splits into father-son dual narratives that clearly show more creative investment in the younger side,  though not necessarily for the better: do we really need to see teen boys circle-jerking while inexplicably shouting “Chuck Norris?” Such gimmickry is often confused for originality at Rotterdam; but credit the programmers for allowing for a more subdued and disciplined approach to boys behaving badly, Bleak Night, Korean Film Academy’s Yoon Sung-Hyun’s graduation project.  A meandering yet tense probe into a student’s death amidst his peers, the film gets at a festering vulnerability at the heart of adolescence. It’s more convincing than the other South Korean entry, The Journals of Musan, which uses a naïve North Korean refugee as a simple foil for writer-director Park Jung-Bum to slap the wrist of his countrymen with a laundry list of their moral hypocrisies.

“Alicia, Go Yonder” (dir. Elisa Miller)

In many respects films by and/or about women outshined their male counterparts. Alicia Go Yonder, Elisa Miller’s wispy cinematic journal carved from 300 hours of footage,  follows a young Mexican woman’s whimsical odyssey to become a trapeze artist in Argentina. The film itself is a high-wire act that dangles perilously on fleeting moments and delicate sensations, and at times dazzles with an ephemeral beauty that matches the best that Sofia Coppola could offer.  For all of its drift, its more focused than Love Addiction,  an earnest but overly drawn-out Japanese relationship drama built on awkward exchanges pushed to unbearable limits of passive-aggressiveness.  Both films bear an emo ethos that’s world’s away from Headshots, Berlin-based American Lawrence Tooley’s rigorously unsentimental portrait of love at youth’s end. Loretta Pflaum pulls off a tough, reserved performance as a pretty thirty-something photographer waking up to personal and professional crises, rendered in segments as fragmented as the shards of her life. Neither the film or its protagonist set off to be likeable,  occupying themselves instead with ruthlessly peeling away the layers of a posh urban lifestyle down to a seemingly empty center.

Elevate Me Later: Sergio Ramos’ “The Sky Above”

The sole documentary in Competition, Sergio Borges’ The Sky Above, applies a similar thoroughness in detailing the lives of three thirty-something Brazilians, most notably a transsexual prostitute who lets the camera roll while servicing an anonymous john.  The explicit scene attests to the incredible intimacy afforded to Borges camera, which he milks to the point of doting on his subjects, with close-ups of their bodies and personal effects. These visuals, vivid yet matched with a brooding quiet, hint at an unshakeable melancholy shared by all three, resulting in the most emotionally accomplished work of the Competition.

But for sheer visual splendor and imaginative fervor, two films stand out. On one level Finisterrae, by Spain’s Sergio Caballero, feels like a child’s reverie: two ghosts (decked in Halloween bedsheets) wander mountainous landscapes wishing to be human (the dialogue carried inexplicably in Russian, suggesting a whimsical bedtime story scripted by Andrei Tarkovsky). The film coasts through a series of borderline-silly scenarios (one ghost talks with what looks like a stuffed seagull-raccoon hybrid) while never looking less than gorgeous, thanks to cameraman Eduard Grau.

Watch the trailer for Finisterrae:

The Image Threads, by India’s Vipin Vijay, is more visually and conceptually hyperactive, connecting an IT programmer’s cyber-sexual musings with his grandfather’s spiritual odyssey of generations past. Some think Vijay’s ambitions get the better of him; I can’t say for sure, as the film dives into a thicket of cultural, religious and philosophical references I can’t pretend to grasp after one viewing. But the film’s non-stop stream of surprising visuals attests to a compelling creative force, a mix of the exasperating and the enthralling that pretty much sums up what the festival is about.

Watch In Between Days, the Critics’ Prize winner of the 2006 International Film Festival Rotterdam, on Fandor:

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