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Community Values: Gavin Smith Reports from Rotterdam 2012

By Gavin Smith on February 27, 2012

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Making an effort this year, I managed to see 14 of the 15 entries in the IFFR’s Tiger Awards Competition, and 11 of them were well worth watching, for better or for worse. Two or three were bona fide discoveries of filmmakers who by rights should go far. As for the others, who knows? Will their films even travel beyond Rotterdam, will they go on to make more, and if so, when? Out of the 52 prizewinners over the past 17 years of the Tiger Awards, 13 films went on to achieve significant visibility at other festivals—and only seven of the filmmakers have become established directors (for the record: Zhang Yuan, Hong Sang-soo, Patrick Keiller, Lou Ye, Pablo Trapero, Kelly Reichardt—and Christopher Nolan). Who can say if this is a pretty good rate of return? And of course, it’s too early to call it for more recent and deserving prizewinners—so keep a lookout for Dau, the next project by Ilya Khrzhanovsky, director of 4 (IFFR ’05), and hope that the maker of Mundane History (IFFR ’10), Anocha Suwichakornpong, gets her next project, By the Time It Gets Dark, off the ground.

Neighboring Sounds

Which is to say what? That small-scale independent filmmaking is a crapshoot, I suppose, and that a Competition win isn’t a ticket to the big time (unless you think it was his 1999 Rotterdam prize that clinched things for Nolan). That said, I’d put money on the likelihood that Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho is on track to become a major filmmaker in the coming years. It matters not that his Neighboring Sounds was passed over by the Competition jury and only picked up a FIPRESCI prize—this is the kind of thrilling discovery that makes festival-going worthwhile. An ensemble film set on a quiet street adjacent to a low-income neighborhood in the city of Recife, it examines the lives of a group of prosperous middle-class families who hire a private security firm to police their block, exploring their discontents, tensions, and anxieties while evoking a palpable sense of unease over a society that remains unreconciled to its troubled past and present social inequities. Filho, shooting in ’scope, makes unexpected and inventive use of space, and his cuts often shift the action in arresting ways, but he handles his meticulously constructed film with great ease. Neighboring Sounds is the work of someone with an acute eye and ear for the push and pull of modern life, and it makes for genuinely compulsive viewing. Even though you may not be quite sure where things are heading during the circuitous build toward its stunning payoff, you know something’s going to happen.

Another troubled community, this time a Polish village that’s virtually cut off from civilization and seems on the verge of dissolution, provides the setting for Anka and Wilhelm Sasnal’s brooding, almost dialogue-free It Looks Pretty from a Distance, the other major Competition find this year. Rough, impassive, and clearly not someone to mess with, Pawel (Marcin Czarnik) scratches out a meager existence scavenging for scrap metal. It soon becomes clear that there’s unspecified bad blood between Pawel and his neighbors—although it must be said that a more spiteful and sour collection of individuals would be hard to imagine. After he and his unnamed girlfriend (Agnieszka Podsiadlik) set up house together, Pawel inexplicably goes AWOL. When said girlfriend moves back in with her parents to await his return, word soon spreads and a steady procession of locals come by each night to loot and vandalize his home, culminating in an almost ritualistic bonfire that draws a small crowd of solemn onlookers. The camera keeps its distance. Shot duration tends to be drawn out and the atmosphere of torpor and vague malignancy that hangs in the air makes those extended shots exceedingly tense. Images of bucolic beauty punctuate the proceedings (perhaps to offset such memorably squalid images as a maggot-infested couch), but nature and the universe remain supremely indifferent—there’s no redemption in the offing. I can’t say if It Looks Pretty from a Distance is allegorical or not, but its opacity and lack of exposition go a long way toward explaining its quietly mesmerizing power. And if it has a very distant kinship with Béla Tarr in narrative terms, the Sasnals’ vision of a world in an advanced state of entropy is all their own. Call it rat-poison realism.

Tokyo Playboy Club

The remainder of the Competition certainly had an above-average share of minor pleasures. Despite a title begging for the Takashi Miike treatment, Yosuke Okuda’s Tokyo Playboy Club proved to be a dry and engaging study of loyalty and redemption that hits its stride when the protagonists are forced to cover up the accidental in-flagrante death of a yakuza underboss. (Elsewhere in the festival Miike supplied the stridently cartoonish Ace Attorney, a semi-futuristic courtroom drama/mystery based on a video game, which despite moments of inspired lunacy proved to be yet another of the director’s over-produced follies.) The steady growth of Chilean independent filmmaking—and art cinema’s annexation of the road movie genre—continues apace, judging by Dominga Sotomayor’s solid, if slight, Thursday Through Sunday. One of three Competition co-winners, the film depicts the widening fault lines in a young couple’s marriage during a long-distance family road trip while the kids in the backseat try not to notice. Needless to say, the film steers clear of histrionics and melodrama in the now de rigueur mode favored from Beijing to Bucharest by all right-thinking festival-circuit directors making what used to be called “relationship movies.” More original and less classifiable, writer-director Eduardo Nunes’s fable-like Southwest plays out the life cycle of a woman from birth to death over the course of a single day. Impressively shot in black-and-white 35mm using an unusually wide 3.66 aspect ratio, the film has a striking sense of landscape and space, suffers from a touch of the Tarr syndrome (watch out—it’s catching), and suggests, taken with  Filho and Hard Labor co-directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra, the emergence of a promising new generation of Brazilian talent.

The competition slot normally reserved for a nasty crime drama went to Black’s Game, by Óskar Thór Axelsson, a protégé of Nicolas Winding Refn. Is it  obligatory now that every country come up with its own version of Goodfellas? Well, here’s Iceland’s. A lurid, bludgeoning, and ultraviolent (i.e., routine) turn-of-the-millennium story about a hapless misfit who joins the crew of a bulging-muscled, tattooed, but savvy dealer bent on seizing control of the Reykjavik drug trade, it’s sleazily enjoyable and completely amoral fare, and should make a nice calling card for Axelsson when he makes the rounds in  Hollywood. Directed by a former assistant to Hong Sang-soo, Romance Joe begins with a writer recounting the plot of his latest screenplay to the parents of a depressed director who’s disappeared following the death of his leading lady. I know what you’re thinking—the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, right? In fact, while Lee Kwang-Kuk also employs Hong’s blindsiding structural gambits, he takes them at least one step beyond into a mise en abyme of nested stories and characters: a boy in search of his missing mother meets a small-town hooker who knew her sort of;  a suicidal director gets involved with the same hooker while returning to his childhood roots; a provincial schoolboy becomes romantically attached to the girl he saves from an attempted suicide; the now-grown-up girl turned big-city prostitute encounters the director of a student film called “Romance Joe” who persuades her to appear as an extra in one shot… The beauty of this playful kudzu-like proliferation of story strands is that while there are obvious links and connections to be made, it leaves the viewer pleasurably dangling in a no-man’s-land of irresolution in which the remembered and the made-up can’t quite be reconciled into a coherent whole. It’s a shaggy-rabbit-hole story, so to speak.

Living

One last Competition film of note: Vasily Sigarev’s Living, an engrossing one-slice-too-many of Russian miserabilism, featuring three stories of devastating loss that culminate in hallucinated beyond-the-grave reunions. Don’t get me wrong, I have a soft spot for films about the defeat of the human spirit (although I admit to growing a little weary of the Interwoven Narrative template that proliferates at international film festivals), and let’s face it, right now the Russians do desolation better than just about anyone. But isn’t anybody happy over there? Not even a little bit? Outside of competition, Twilight Portrait, Angelina Nikonova’s study of a rape victim who, in the throes of post-traumatic stress, takes a cockeyed kind of revenge on her rapist (she moves in with him), was more of the same—but lo, along came Chapiteau-show to provide something like an antidote. Sergei Loban’s upbeat if uneven and sprawling film tells four consecutive stories that all take place during the same few days at a Black Sea holiday resort. Characters from one story occasionally turn up in or even cross over into others but without further entanglement. Over the course of its sporadically engaging but always agreeable 204 minutes, these stories form a light-hearted human comedy framed by a kind of revue show that’s mounted in the chapiteau (circus tent) of the title. It may not be an “important” film, but a little light entertainment goes a long way.


TOP 10:
1. Neighboring Sounds Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil
2. A Simple Life Ann Hui, Hong Kong
3. It Looks Pretty from a Distance Anka & Wilhelm Sasnal, Poland
4. Eight Deadly Shots (1971) Mikko Niskanen, Finland
5. Tokyo Playboy Club Yosuke Okuda, Japan
6. small roads James Benning, U.S.
7. Louise Wimmer Cyril Mennegun, France
8. Romance Joe Lee Kwang-Kuk, South Korea
9. Chapiteau-show Sergei Loban, Russia
10. A Day at the Grave of Karl Marx (1983) Peter von Bagh, Finland

© 2012 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center

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