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The headquarters of the Rotterdam Film Festival is in De Doelen, which is the city’s rough equivalent of the Kennedy Center. It’s an ugly building, but of the motley postmodern style, not of the KC’s monumental neo-neo-classicism. What makes De Doelen appealing is that it’s tucked tightly into the city fabric, and its exterior is studded with businesses, mostly restaurants. From a distance, the building has a whiff of failed grandeur, but at street level it’s more concerned with function than form. That seems emblematic of Rotterdam: It’s a city that works, and doesn’t obsess on appearances.
With a dozen or more screenings happening at once, strategies for choosing the right film range from the intuitive to the arbitrary. Sometimes, a sold-out screening is aggravating; other times, it’s useful in reducing options. I generally went for films by directors whose previous work I’ve liked, ones that look interesting and seem unlikely ever to show in D.C., or are from countries whose cinema particularly interest me. I generally skip retrospectives, although I toyed with seeing movies by this year’s featured director Johnnie To. Thanks in large part to the Freer’s annual Hong Kong series, I’ve seen a lot of To films, which are wildly variable.
This year, I saw films by two Japanese directors whose movies were highlights last time: Hiroki Ryuichi, whose emotionally complex It’s Only Talk was shown recently at the Freer, and Nobuhiro Yamashita, whose charming Linda Linda Linda got a brief New York run but doesn’t seem to be headed for a larger U.S. release. Both men disappointed this time. Ryuchi’s M is a sort of contemporary Japanese Belle de Jour, but with more elaborate (and not altogether convincing) forays into sexual violence. Yamashita’s The Matsugane Potshot Affair is an absurdist small-town gangster comedy that has its moments, but doesn’t click.
Both directors appeared with their films, as did the maker of Lost in Tokyo, an appealing low-budget film about a post-funeral drinking binge for two 32-year-old college classmates. I saw the three films back to back, and felt a little sorry for the guy who’s apparently the fest’s only Japanese-to-English translator, and who worked all three Q&As. (All the postscreening chats I saw were in English, with only a preliminary greeting in Dutch, if that.)
Two directors whose films rivaled or surpassed previous work were Benoit Jacquot (subject of a recent National Gallery retro) and Lou (Suzhou River) Ye, whose Summer Palace is a powerful work that’s risky on at least two levels. The screening of the latter opened with the word that the semiautobiographical drama has been banned in China, which was no great surprise. Most Chinese art films are banned at home, but this one could hardly not be: It’s the most sexually explicit Chinese movie I’ve ever seen, and its centerpiece is the Tiananmen Square massacre. Narratively, the big danger is that the rousing, shocking Tiananmen sequence comes at roughly the halfway point, so the rest of the film plays as anticlimax. That was intentional, the filmmaker said after the screening, to show how his generation lives in the aftermath of that crackdown.
Jacquot’s The Untouchable, the final film I saw in the fest, was the second (after Scream of the Ants) to venture to the holy Indian city of Varanasi. It’s a characteristically freewheeling, documentary-style fiction, starring the director’s acknowledged muse, Isild de Besco. Both she and the filmmaker took questions, and watching them together was revealing—and amusing. Questioned in English, which de Besco speaks during part of the film, both insisted on answering in French, although each occasionally slipped and began a response in English.
Monday evening, before Jacquot’s exhilarating film, I made another attempt to get a festival catalog. It was still not available in the afternoon, and the shop was closed when visited around 9:30.