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IFFR 2015: Sex, Violence, and a Bit of Music

The 44th International Film Festival Rotterdam (or IFFR for short) is underway, and of course the ICS was there to report. Here are short thoughts on some of the 200+ films playing the festival, which is one of the largest in Europe.

 

The World of Kanako (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2014)

It is easy to see why this explosive fever dream is based on a novel (2004′s Hateshinaki Kawaki by Akio Fukamachi) that was deemed for years to be unfilmable: two rapes, possible incest, and countless instances of heavy bloodletting, often in gruesome detail. And most of it on the count of the film’s anti-hero, down-the-drain former police investigator Akikazu Fujishima (a physically brutal role by Kôji Yakusho). Months after his resignation, after ferociously beating up the lover of his wife, and drowning in a sea of alcohol, he gets a call from his now ex-wife who tells him that their daughter Kanako (Nana Komatsu) has gone missing. Fujishima’s investigative blood gets pumping again, and he starts to follow the trail of his daughter, who in interspersed flashbacks is shown to have a dangerous streak and a love for Alice in Wonderland. And if ever someone went deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, it’s this girl, and in turn her father. There is no love lost between the two, and the real motives for Fujishima’s search never become completely clear (though hate is certainly a part of it), but as the bodies start piling up and more sinister parties start crossing the raging dad’s path, more and more unsavoury details about this seemingly innocent schoolgirl come to light.

This film is certainly not for the squeamish, and makes films like Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer look positively tame in comparison, but director Tetsuya Nakashima’s frantic storytelling and often devilishly humorous touch make this a far cry from the standard ‘missing girl’ genre, not in the least because the missing girl is perhaps the film’s most evil character (which is really saying something when you’re up against a double rapist). The editing is too hectic at times, but very deft in general, giving the film a restless pace on its course to the dark Wonderland where Kanako leads her dad. And Nakashima layers this with effective tongue-in-cheek music choices that will cause you to laugh whether you like it or not. Trust me, you’ll never listen to Dean Martin’s “Everybody Loves Somebody” in quite the same way after this film.

 

A Blast (Syllas Tzoumerkas, 2014)

The crisis in Greece has caused a lot of tempers to flare in the place where Western civilization began. Civilization is hard to come by, however, in the family of Maria (Angeliki Papoulia), a microscopic representation of a country in turmoil. A mother of three, restless, feeling trapped in a family she despises and a marriage that is on the skids, she decides to drastically change her life one day. Through flashbacks we see that her life, while not exactly idyllic, has not always been this depressing, especially after she meets container ship captain Yannis (Vassilis Doganis). An emotional powder keg in everything she does, Maria dives head first into this passionate relationship (and yes, that also applies to the quite graphic sex scenes), but as Greece’s economy starts to fall apart, the cracks in this marriage also start showing, and Maria’s pent-up anger is unleashed in explosive, raw bursts, until she decides to go all out.

Papoulia’s phenomenal and brave performance is what carries A Blast, a film that is rather straightforward about the dire state of affairs in Greece caused by the financial crisis. There is a fire and a rage in Papoulia’s eyes that channels the film’s anger, even though Maria’s end goal is somewhat unclear. The departure seems to be a rash decision, and her fate is left in a cut-to-black, thus depriving the film of an easy resolution, though this might be seen as a metaphor for the Greek situation in general. But a nifty structure and a set of strong performances keep sophomore director Tzoumerkas’ film on the rails for a long time, however bumpy the ride. Maria’s final scenes are perhaps the weakest, but there is a raw quality to the film that will certainly gain it fans.

 

Eden (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2014)

Loosely based on the life of Mia Hansen-Løve’s brother Sven, Eden tells the story of Paul (an excellent Félix de Givry), who dreams of being a DJ during the surge of garage house in ’90s Paris. Though successful locally in his own right with the duo he forms with his friend Stan, over the next almost twenty years he cannot make that jump to stardom that he dreamt of, in contrast to two of his friends who start around the same time. Those two friends? Superstar duo Daft Punk (who are not playing themselves actually, although a recurring joke in the film makes clear they easily could have). While they rise to fame in the background, Paul struggles to make ends meet, racking up debts while always seeming to be on the verge of breaking through. But a life of parties and drugs takes a toll on his personal life, as he is struggling to make relationships work (including some interesting cameos by Greta Gerwig and Golshifteh Farahani). Twenty years later he says goodbye to the music, disillusioned. But was it all for naught? The film doesn’t clearly answer the question, but in a pivotal scene near the end it does seem to suggest that Paul got stuck in the past too much, while a successful act like Daft Punk manages to adapt and stay current.

The film’s meandering structure may be off-putting to some, but the aimlessness is part of Paul’s life. Some of the plot strands feel unresolved (there is more to the story of his graphic artist friend, for instance), but Eden successfully captures the atmosphere of the ’90s and early ’00s club scene. The soundtrack of this film is one of its highlights, filled with staples of the garage genre as well as less recognized work, although funnily enough the only on-dance track (The Style Council’s “Shout to the Top”) is the most poignant selection. Though the story spans two decades, the film lacks an epic feel it could have easily been gunning for, but it keeps it a small and personal story about the shattered dreams of one man, a pioneer who misses the boat that he helped set afloat, and all the frustrations that this brings with it.

 

Belluscone: una storia Siciliana (Franco Maresco, 2014)

Befuddling. Hilarious. Shocking. Confusing. Surrealistic. All these adjectives could easily be applied to Franco Maresco’s documentary that tries to lay bare the ties between Silvio Berlusconi, Italian media magnate and former prime minister, and the Sicilian and Napolitan mafia. But the former comedian and satirist Maresco forgoes the straightforward route, instead focussing on one of Berlusconi’s powerbases, his own city of birth Palermo and some of its more colourful inhabitants. At the centre of this is Ciccio Mira, an impresario for several neomelodic singers who perform at local festivals for throngs of adulating (mostly female) fans. Even though he never fully admits it, this man clearly has ties to influential mafia figures, and against this background, that more often than not becomes foreground, the connections between Berlusconi and the mafia are painted. It shows a side of Italy that is baffling and at times hard to believe. The festival’s programmers continuously stress that everything on screen is real, but even then an occasional headshake of disbelief cannot be stifled. To add to the confusion, Maresco frames his tale in what clearly is a setup, a film critic following his trail after the director has ostentatiously gone missing, turning the documentary into some sort of ‘found footage’ project. In the end, Maresco sows just enough doubt about the reality of his story to leave the audience puzzled, while in the meantime still heavily implying Italy’s most well-known politician of the last 50 years is closely tied to organized crime. Belluscone is a tremendously entertaining documentary that shows an Italy that many suspect to exist, but never really see. The film is eye opening, and thanks to Maresco’s satirical streak extremely funny. But is it real?

 

La La La at Rock Bottom (Yamashita Nobuhiro, 2015)

Japanese superstar Shibutani Subaru brought some of his stardom to the festival, as he seemed to be everywhere in its early days. He was in Rotterdam for his starring role in the world premiere of his latest film, La La La at Rock Bottom, a nice enough but ultimately forgettable story about a gangster who is roughed up, and loses his memory in the process. His only recollections seem to be music and singing, which first shows itself when he breaks into an outdoor concert. Taken in by the band’s sound & light engineer, Makiko, his ability to sing pushes him into the limelight as frontman of the band. However, as bit by bit his memory comes back, triggered by Makiko’s search for his past, his newfound simple happiness is strained by confronting truths from that past.

While this could have easily fallen into a romantic comedy trap, and it seems as if the film is constantly setting itself up for that, director Yamashita manages to steer clear of this to give us a slightly more original tale, even if in the end everything is neatly wrapped up. Front and centre of this film, however, is the incredibly charismatic Shibutani Subaru, whose acting choices may not always work (memory loss apparently also makes someone a bit of a zombie), but who has created an endearing and confused anti-hero. This film will not expand his stardom outside his native country, but at least it made him the star of the festival for a couple of days.

 

This Is My Land (Tamara Erde, 2014)

Part of the Signals program Every Day Propaganda, the young Erde, herself Jewish, shows without much comment the teaching (or absence of it) of Palestinian history in six schools (in various age ranges) in both Israel and Palestine. Interspersed with interview snippets with some of the teachers and two researchers in the field, the classroom discussions do not give rise to much optimism that the next generations will come any closer to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whereas on the Palestinian side the discussions mainly focus on subjects like freedom and oppression, on the Israeli side the Palestinian story is completely ignored, as any mention of it is routinely censored from textbooks by the government.

One of the schools is mixed culture, with pupils and teachers of both Israeli and Palestinian origin. During some discussions, even the teachers here (one Israeli and one Palestinian) cannot agree upon basic points, which makes you wonder what this does for the children, although in this class they at least get two opinions on the matter instead of the singular point of view in the other schools.

Erde also shows how the history of the Holocaust colours the views of the Israeli children and how it influences the identity of the Palestinians, especially during Jewish commemoration ceremonies. It is an important part of the history classes, whereas Palestinian history is completely absent. Exactly in this light one would hope it would look further at what the world has learned from this greatest of atrocities, but as one of the researchers says, “The Holocaust is used to teach fear.

This Is My Land is a sobering look at how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict divides even the youngest, and how easily they can be influenced. Every day propaganda indeed.

 

Valedictorian (Matthew Yeager, 2015)

He is in this world, but not of this world,” says a girl about Ben (Brian Dell), the twenty-something centre of Valedictorian, the debut of New Yorker Matthew Yeager. One day Ben leaves his job, his girlfriend, his house, and his friends behind, as he starts aimlessly wandering the streets of Brooklyn (home to the director). It is never quite clear why he does this, although what the girl says tries to come close. Ben doesn’t feel he belongs in the life that he is living, as if it isn’t his. Unfortunately, the screenplay (also by Yeager) gives very little insight into the inner thoughts of its protagonist, whose only real meaningful dialogue is early in the film as he quits his job and discusses this with a co-worker.

The film wanders off Ben’s path at times, seemingly at random and with no discernible goal. This makes for frustrating viewing, as you constantly wonder why you are watching and why you should care. The acting is authentic enough to the hipster milieu the film is set in, although without any real diamonds in the rough, and sound design and cinematography give the film a restlessness that befits its central character, but as the motives are unclear and the ending is open, you’re left wondering if this was all. The film falls into the trap that so many American indies fall in, that of not knowing what it actually wants to say, but being very certain about how it should look and feel. It’s blissfully short, but still feels like a slog, and that’s never a good sign.

 

Court (Chaitanya Tamhane, 2014)

Tamhane’s first feature film won the Best Debut prize in Venice, as well as a slew of awards at other festivals around the globe. The praise is rather baffling. Court is an interesting and at times amusing look at the Indian justice system, but it rarely goes below the surface as to why this system works the way it does, and when it does try to dig a little deeper it is rather opaque in what it is trying to say. The little characterization the main participants are given makes them feel like puppets in a theatre set up to be critical of the Indian court system, but in the end it is rather toothless.

The main case the film is framed around involves a protest singer who is arrested because one of his songs allegedly led a sewer worker to take his life, instigated by the song’s lyrics. It soon becomes clear that the case is less than flimsy, yet it drags itself through court, showing how the system is plagued by inefficiency and corruption. Its accusations never have much bite though. Delving into the private lives of the singer’s lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge also offers little insight on how the system has become what the film shows it to be. As such, the film is superficial, and should only appeal to those curious to see the inside of an Indian courtroom.

 

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 2014)

To say Pedro Costa’s films are challenging is like saying water is wet, and this is especially true of his latest work, Horse Money, a somewhat confusing English title, as at one point the main character talks about a horse he once owned that went by the name of Money. A narrative is hard to discern in this film, which presents itself as shards of the fractured brain of its protagonist Ventura, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and a memory in disarray. At times in reality in the hospital he is admitted to, at times roaming ghostlike through his own memories, and in a striking 20-minute scene being trapped in the metaphoric elevator of his own brain, the story of this poor Cape Verdean immigrant is built up of memories and meetings that might live just inside Ventura’s brain, and illustrate the misery of immigrant workers through DP Leonardo Simões’ sublimely photographed static world of dimly lit hallways and caverns. Are these the hallways and caverns of Ventura’s mind, or are they real? It’s hard to tell, but they conjure up a melancholy and tender sadness that are deeply affecting. A tough film to fully understand, but also a tough film to shake.

 

The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)

A relationship is about giving and taking, and that of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is no different. Although it is different to most in the sense that theirs involves BDSM, so ‘giving and taking’ is a double entendre here. And while Cynthia is the dominant one in their role playing, it is actually Evelyn who is in control, giving Cynthia cues by writing her notes on how she wants to be humiliated. Her wishes get stronger and more demanding, and it is taking a toll on Cynthia, who feels troubled by demeaning her girlfriend that much. So she subtly tries to take back control, in order to salvage their relationship.

The film itself has not a lot of meat to offer other than the power struggle between two women who are very much in love, but trying to find a middle ground for both their needs. The consistent style Strickland applies, from lush, soft-lensed cinematography (at times resembling a ’70s softcore film) to romantic music and impeccable production design and costumes, makes for an enjoyable watch though. And both lead actresses excel, even if Knudsen has to carry the heaviest burden. The screenplay is its weakest part, because there is not much there in terms of story. One could say the emperor has no clothes, though there is a lot of tantalizing lingerie. A very sensual film, but a bit empty.