Incest, cassoulet and never-say-die Chinese narco cops feature in the gems of this year's Rotterdam Film Festival.
Eschewing the flashbulb glitz of festivals like Cannes, Venice and Sundance, the Rotterdam International Film Festival caters directly to those with a taste for unfettered cinematic experimentation. Its line-up traditionally favours new talent with a central competition (in contention for Tiger awards) that's made up entirely of first features, which means that while high masterpieces are perhaps few and far between, audiences do get a chance to see from where the art film stars of tomorrow may emerge. Running alongside this is a very well-chosen survey of films which may've slipped through the critical net during 2012. LWLies jumped on the Eurostar for a flying visit and here are our five top picks.
The curse of creative ubiquity strikes hardest when a workhorse director like Hong Kong's Johnnie To insouciantly drops a hot contender for film of the year and it glides by regrettably unnoticed. Though early reviews of Drug War from the time of it premiered at the Rome Film Festival late in 2012 suggested that To had sidled away from the balletic formal stylisations of films like Sparrow and Mad Detective, that is simply not the case: Drug War is a connoisseur’s gangster epic which is constructed with staggering technical brio and crackles with dryly comic visual motifs and eccentric, memorable characters who make a deep impression with just a few moments of screen time. This is also notable (politically as well as financially) for being To's first film made on the Chinese mainland, and its depiction of cops willing to go to destructive lengths to make their arrests offers something of a wry critique on the nature of state intervention.
The set-up is simple: tinpot drug producer Timmy (Louis Koo) is nabbed by insanely driven narc cop (Honglei Sun) who offers his captor a plea bargain to save him from the lethal injection. All he has to do is give up his contacts and help crush a major Chinese cartel. With numerous narrative plates spinning at one time, Drug War is also a testament to how micro-technology has enabled prolonged and costly police raids to happen at a moment's notice. The focus on taking care of business swiftly and firmly mirrors To's own directorial career, as he punches out quality genre films at an alarming rate. While the film operates impeccably as a gloriously pleasurable action saga, it's the small touches that nudge the film into greatness: during a climactic shoot-out, one women obsesses over the broken heel of boot, even after taking a bullet to the chest.
Don't let the fact that this superb, intimate drama from South Korean director Jang Kun-jae runs at just over sixty minutes, as its emotional scope and the richness of its characters belie its miniature formal casing. It offers a lilting chronicle of lower-middle class thirtysomethings wrestling with the iniquities of maturity and potential parenthood and its big climax centres around the evolution and subsequent reparations following an entirely pointless argument. Critically speaking, it's nothing-really-happens plotline makes it a difficult film to commend in terms more sophisticated than, 'it's just really awesome'. But it's the performances by the central couple Kim Ju-Ryoung and Kim Soo-hyeon which elevate the potential modest, meandering material into something that teeters dangerously close to the transcendent.
Though writer-director Dan Sallitt moonlights as one of New York's most discerning writers on film, he's no Tarantino when it comes to brashly flaunting his cinephilic influences. That's not to say his stunning, slowburn, near-gothic portrait of youth gone awry, The Unspeakable Act, is entirely divorced from the masters of yore. It's a work which bares the indelible watermark of both Korea's Hong Sang-soo and Eric Rohmer (to whom the film is lovingly dedicated), particularly in its shrewd understanding of the disconnect between what people say and what they really want to say.
Newcomer Tallie Medel is magnetic (casually so) as lightly snarky highschooler Jackie who wants nothing more than to fall into the arms (and bed) of her lackadaisical older brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). They talk frankly and openly about the possibility of physical congregation, but Sallitt's treatment of this potentially tabloid-baiting material is a judicious, near-scholarly psychological parsing of specific situations and impulses. Detailing in crisp, carefully framed shots Jackie's prolonged period of sexual convalescence, the film hits full stride during its various lengthy dialogue exchanges, in particular Jackie's visits to a therapist which comprise some of the most intense and beautifully written dramatic passages you're likely to see on a screen this year.
One of the better Tiger entries at this year's festival, Eduardo Villanueva Jiménez's Penumbra is, in essence, a White Hunter, Black Heart for the Lisandro Alonso set. More of an ethnographic portrait of life on the economic fringes of rural Mexico than straight narrative drama, the film documents the life of a dirt-poor husband and wife who're nearing the end of their lives. She is a tinpot domestic godess, bakes his tacos (literally) and tends to him in every which way while he wanders the stark landscape with his shotgun, looking for a big kill. And that's pretty much it – the film is about reliving past glories, the nostalgia of old age and the simple joys that can be gleaned from the unspoiled natural world.
Known for his love of juxtaposing crackpot philosophical and mystical theories with hardcore lesbian sex, France's Jean-Claude Brisseau has moderated his past dalliances for his latest and arguably greatest work, The Girl From Nowhere. Set almost interlay in his own musty, DVD-and-book filled Paris apartment, he also stars as an elderly widowed mathematician who spends his days writing withering existential tracts and eating cassoulet direct from the tin. When Virginie Legeay's Dora is beaten up in his stairwell, he nurses her back to health and finds in her a strange paramour who ends up helping to edit his book. In many ways, the film works as a less politically-inclined partner to Jafar Panahi's This Is Not A Film, in the way that it's about psychological imprisonment and the nature of moviemaking. The ruddy-faced Brisseau poetically muses on life, love, creativity and memory in a manner that is pitched both at heart and head, plus he makes for a lumbering if lovable screen presence. And while this may appear on its surface to be a doodle or side project, it is in fact one of the director's most wholly satisfying. By its final reels, you'll probably even shed a tear.