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Blow by Blow

By Gavin Smith

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Most of the highlights and some of the low points from eight days at the IFFR

Thursday, January 23

Seventh Code

Seventh Code

1:02pm Arrived at the brand-spanking-new Rotterdam Centraal railway station, checked in at Citizen M, a futuristic state-of-the-art hotel (an iPad in every room to control Wi-Fi, television, blinds, temperature, and mood lighting with Business, Relaxation, Television, and Romance settings), paid 40 euros for press accreditation at the International Film Festival Rotterdam HQ, and got down to the business at hand.

4:45pm In Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Seventh Code, a seemingly clueless girl (Japanese pop star Maeda Atsuko) arrives in Vladivostok, Siberia, to stalk a guy who stood her up on a date. He’s involved with the Russian mafia, and she turns out to be an intelligence operative. Terrific girl vs. guy hand-to-hand combat scene. Cue music-video interlude. A fun back-to-basics exercise gets things off to a pleasant start.

9:45pm Marvin Kren’s Blood Glacier, a shameless rip-off of Carpenter’s The Thing, is fun. Gerhard Liebmann is no Kurt Russell, but he does his best. Old-school FX. Angela Merkel–esque environment minister proves to be the toughest of a group besieged by mutants in an Alpine research station. Comic highlight: female ministerial aide eats banana while having hysterical fit. German title, Blutgletscher, is unpronounceable.

Friday, January 24

Anatomy of a Paperclip

Anatomy of a Paper Clip

9:30am Brazilian cinema is happening at the moment, but Paulo Sacramento’s Competition entry Riverrun is a dud: entropic love triangle with woman torn between cerebral art critic and moody but sexually satisfying ex-car-thief. Vague semi-existential drama about social resistance. Critic writes article entitled “Against the Dictatorship of the New”—I know how he feels. Ponderous but full of remarkable visual coups and striking interludes.

11:30am Coffee with Olaf Möller and Marco Grosoli. Möller assures me that the retrospective of Danish filmmaker Nils Malmros is the shit.

1:15pm Akira Ikeda’s Anatomy of a Paper Clip. Barely-there minimalist story of a sad sack working in a handmade paperclip workshop. Low-voltage would-be Kaurismäki-esque deadpan absurdism. One of three Tiger Award winners, for (per press release) “challenging narrative form . . . observations of the absurd in human behavior . . . brings it into the poetic domain.” Whatever.

10:00pm Day ends charmingly with quintessential IFFR abjection cinema outing Atlas by photographer Antoine D’Agata. Tenebrous, languid tableaux of junkies and prostitutes gathered in a globe-trotting trawl of the lower depths with rambling existential/nihilistic voiceovers by a multilingual cast of women from Bombay to Berlin. A morally suspect director implicates himself by participating in on-screen sex and drug use. This is a painterly voyeuristic wallow aiming for Costa/Sokurov poetics. Catnip for fans of sometime D’Agata instructor Larry Clark.

Saturday, January 25

Hard To be a God

Hard to Be a God

6:00pm Aleksei German’s spectacular Hard to Be a God, an unremittingly immersive three-hour blood-and-guts mud-bath that suggests a movie directed by Bosch and written by Chaucer. On an alien planet where civilization has stalled in the Dark Ages, a scientific observer from Earth (rivetingly played by Leonid Yarmolnik) has gone native and gained a position of power as an invincible warrior in a battle between The Greys and The Blacks—there’s a touch of Heart of Darkness’s Kurtz about him. Like all science fiction, the film holds a mirror up to the present day: the ongoing purge of intellectuals and artists is an unmistakable comment on the direction of post-Communist Russia. At the same time, German’s sardonic epic with a cast of thousands harks back to a feudal land-that-time-forgot Russia that bypassed the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution on its way to Communism. Realized, as with all German films, in a never-ending succession of elaborate plans-séquences and prodigiously inventive, constantly unfolding production design, Hard to Be a God reveals a fully imagined, if often incomprehensible and never-less-than-anarchic world made treacherous by the machinations of a variety of barons and clergy. (Terry Gilliam and Emir Kusturica, eat your hearts out.) One can only imagine the grim conditions endured on a shoot that lasted anywhere from five months to six years depending on who you ask, but pace those who can discern no narrative in the director’s magnum opus, the story didn’t get lost in the mud, as attentive viewers will attest. Surely it will be all downhill from here.

Sunday, January 26

El Futuro Luis López Carrasco

The Future

9:30am Completely unprepared for Luis López Carrasco’s sublime The Future, a 68-minute Warhol-esque microbudget portrait film, defiantly shot in 16mm, that bowls me over. Set in an apartment on the eve of the 1982 Spanish election that would bring the Socialists to power, it takes in an assortment of twentysomething partygoers, studied in singles, pairs, and groups, in a series of prolonged, attentive, but loose and informal medium shots. A rough-and-tumble soundtrack of half-heard talk and to-die-for Spanish New Wave music completes the picture. Still unsure why I found this lyrical, self-contained kammerspiel so moving. It may have something to do with the fact that Carrasco was born in ’82 and is now the same age as his characters.

10:00pm Another Tiger Award winner, Han Gong-Ju by South Korean writer-director Lee Su-Jin. Engrossing, worthy, but completely familiar social drama that begins with the eponymous traumatized teenage girl being transferred to a new high school after an undisclosed incident. Said incident is gradually revealed in fragmentary flashbacks, as the events of the recent past begin to catch up to the protagonist. You can guess the rest.

Monday, January 27

Darkness by Day

Darkness by Day

10:00pm In the tautly restrained, brooding Argentinian horror film Darkness by Day, a withdrawn young woman afflicted by a debilitating malady comes to stay with her aunt in an isolated village and takes to wandering the countryside by night as a malign atmosphere gradually permeates the area. Employing suggestion rather than shock tactics and sustaining a mood of dread with impressive control, writer-director Martín Desalvo is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

Tuesday, January 28

Few of Us

Few of Us

9:00am Brazilian cinema hangs in there with Fellipe Barbosa’s Casa Grande, a nothing-new but solid drama about class in which an underachieving teenager at an elite school searches out sexual experiences while his parents, struggling to hold on to a luxurious lifestyle they can no longer afford, jettison the servants. Proof that films like Neighboring Sounds don’t grow on trees.

11:00am Christian E. Christiansen’s On the Edge occupies IFFR’s de rigueur Scandicrime slot with a gritty prole Fast & Furious, Danish-style. A youth is sentenced for manslaughter after a street race with his best mate leaves a pedestrian dead. Best mate, conscience-stricken, finds solace with the jailed youth’s girlfriend. Jailed youth starts to unravel, gets paroled, and things get uglier.

2:30pm Sharunas Bartas’s almost wordless, stunningly shot 1995 Few of Us, in which the director’s late muse Katerina Golubeva moodily wanders about in Siberia before eventually having a very-real-seeming knife fight with a couple of shady locals. Part of a 14-title retrospective of films supported by the Hubert Bals Fund that looked like a who’s who of new generation filmmakers, including Elia Suleiman, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Martín Rejtman, Celina Murga, Carlos Reygadas, and Vimukthi Jayasundara.

7:15pm Olaf wasn’t kidding. Nils Malmros’s absolutely wondrous Tree of Knowledge came as a revelationand I’m not prone to those. With his 12-film, 45-year career, Malmros’s intense autobiographical engagement can be likened to that of Philippe Garrel, although the similarities end there. This 1981 film about the sexual development of children takes place in the late Fifties, and is set in a high school for the upper classes modeled on the one Malmros attended. In a series of episodes and anecdotes of amazing subtlety and clarity, Malmros captures with dead-on accuracy the dynamics at play in the relationships and behavior of boys and girls on the cusp of adolescence. A tender, compassionate film of looks and smiles, mischief, troubling glimpses, and school’s merciless politics of popularity (understood here as having a sexual dimension). Made over the course of two years so that his cast of nonprofessional actors could grow up on screen, it’s among the most moving and delightful films about childhood I’ve ever seen. The film is 110 minutes long, and left me wanting much more—I wasn’t ready to leave the world Malmros had created.

Wednesday, January 29

The Hope Factory

The Hope Factory

9:00am The Competition received its requisite dose of Russian miserabilism with Natalia Meschaninova’s The Hope Factory, the not-so-edifying story of two women’s divergent efforts to escape their dead-end futures in the industrial city where they’ve grown up. As portraits of contemporary Russia go, I’ve seen grimmer.

10:00pm No edition of the IFFR is complete without a second-tier Takashi Miike film, and this year it was The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji, a not-all-that-funny, very broad comedy about an inept beat cop who is recruited to infiltrate a yakuza gang. As with most Miike films, it has its moments but wears out its welcome long before the end. It has to be said that the last first-rate Miike film was 13 Assassins, which is seven—wait, make that nine—films ago.

Thursday, January 30

Pain of Love

Pain of Love

2:00pm Two more films by Malmros, Pain of Love (92) and Boys (77), to wrap things up.

Friday, January 31

9:00am Arrive at Rotterdam Centraal extra early to catch the 9:30 train to Paris. Due to an accident, the train is delayed by 40 minutes. I wander around the station’s shopping mall and then settle on a bench in the freezing cold and begin to read a printout of Senses of Cinema’s 2013 World Poll. Somebody has to. 

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