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Stroll away from the “centrum” of Rotterdam and you’ll encounter coffeeshops, usually named for reggae stars, where cannibis is the whole point of the menu. There’s probably a red-light district, too, although I haven’t encountered it. Still, no one could confuse this pragmatic port town with hedonistic Amsterdam, an hour by train to the north. The city’s principal aesthetic indulgence is its annual film festival. For 12 days in late January, the center-city cinemas fill with audiences eager (or at least willing) to see the sort of international films that are increasingly unlikely to be shown in the U.S. Since central Rotterdam doubles as the city’s Chinatown—that means lots of Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian restaurants, mostly tucked into characterless modern buildings—it’s fitting that one of the fest’s strengths is Asian film.`

For those who spend weeks on the European film-fest circuit, Rotterdam leads to Berlin, which opens in early February. I’ve attended both, and find Rotterdam more manageable. For one thing, all the major venues are within walking distance of each other. Also, the closest international airport is a direct flight from Dulles, while traveling to Berlin is more of an ordeal. For the English speaker, both have their complications. Berlin employs German and English subtitles alternately, so you have to check the fine print to make sure you attend an English-subtitled showing. And sometimes, with all the competing screenings, the only available show is one subtitled in the wrong language. At Rotterdam, most films are screened with English subtitles. But a few that have already premiered at other European festivals—perhaps 30 of this year’s more than 400 entries—are shown with Dutch subtitles only. Thus I won’t be going to see the new films by Last Year in Marienbad’s Alain Resnais (Coeurs), The World’s Jia Zhangke (Cannes best-film awardee Still Life), or The Circle’s Jafar Panahi (Offside). I tested my rudimentary knowledge of French last year at a Dutch-subtitled screening of Patrice Chereau’s Gabrielle, and I won’t make that sort of mistake this year.

One more linguistic complication: The festival catalogue, which is bilingual, isn’t available yet. It was promised for Friday, but by that afternoon the word was that it wouldn’t be ready until Monday. That leaves the Web site, which requires visits to an Internet cafe or wi-fi hotspot; the Dutch-only guide published by a local newspaper; and the daily fest newspaper, which is partially in English but covers only that day’s offerings.

Here are quick notes on a few of the films I’ve seen so far:

  • Hana—The first period piece by Hirokazu Kore-eda (Maboroshi, Afterlife, Nobody Knows) turns out to be an earthy comic riff on the most-filmed tale in Japanese cinema: The 47 loyal ronin. Nicely done, but the revisionist samurai film doesn’t really play to Kore-eda’s strengths.
  • The Scream of the Ants—Once a supporter of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Mohsen Makhmalbaf has recently worked mostly outside his country, away from its censors. (So have his wife and daughter, both also noted directors). This wildly pretentious but fascinating film was shot in India, where a couple that’s “originally from Iran” goes in search of enlightenment. It’s surely unshowable in Iran, not only because it includes nudity, but also because of its irreverent commentary on the world’s major religions (including Islam).
  • How Is Your Fish Today?Xiaolu Gao’s narratively double-tracked road movie plays like fiction, even though 90 percent of it is documentary footage. The first-time director, who took questions after the screening, thanked the festival for including her movie. Chinese art films never are approved to show in their native land, she said, but if they appear at prestigous international fests, that guarantees that bootleggers will distribute them on pirated DVDs.
  • Love Conquers All—The first product of the “Malaysian new wave” that I’ve seen, this is a terse, deadpan (and ironically titled) account of young woman’s growing involvement with a tough guy. The debut feature by Tan Chui Mui, who was at the screening, it fully expresses a personal worldview she described as “not so optimistic.”