Another Battle (Sakamoto Junji)

Film festivals usually take place in a realm of their own. You fear intensely you might miss something that will never surface again or you’re so eager to encounter that specific movie right now that you accept an overload of films. And curiously, only in retrospect and upon reflection, do themes, often not intended, surface.

The first theme I encountered at the 30th Rotterdam International Film Festival was, oddly enough given the festival’s dedication to cinema in all its forms, TV. Cyrus Frisch’s Forgive Me (2001) remains a calculated provocation. Increasingly concerned with exploitation in talk shows and similar programs, the Dutch filmmaker shot mentally and physically disabled people, the alleged goal being far from noble: he wanted to deprive them of any dignity. And indeed he succeeded: Frisch’s film presents a world solely of freaks – the disabled are freaks, the audience watching them (often with glee) are freaks, even the director himself is a freak (albeit a superior one – an excerpt from Murnau’s Faust [1926] draws a parallel with its title character: to expose the cruelty of our media Frisch has struck a pact with the devil). The result is a pitiful mess. Frisch conflates documentary, staged scenes and footage without any discernible aesthetic sense; in many ways Forgive Me even fails in its attempt to provoke (the film was expanded to feature length only after a successful screening of the previously shot material – Frisch arguing that he had to take the inhumanity to a new level, trying to one-up the cruelty of the media he wanted to expose). A bad taste movie in every sense. Where films like Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) or Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997) hypocritically want to have their cake and eat it too, Frisch only insists on stubbornness as raison d’être – at least there’s no moral pandering to the members of the audience while they wallow in their basest of emotions.

If Paul Verhoeven, a director who has made such an aesthetic precisely his main dish (and thus somehow represents the only Hollywood filmmaker who consciously exposes the cynicism inherent in blockbusters), should ever get his hands on Battle Royale (2000), the most recent film by yakuza veteran Fukasaku Kinji, we’re probably in for the Hollywood remake – though it seems unnecessary. The Japanese master employs exactly the same techniques as the Dutch émigré – a fondness for bloodletting, deadpan black humor with satirical overtones and hyper-realistic sound design – and he achieves the same effects. He’s not cynical towards the audience, but he exposes the cynicism of the material – in this case the Survivor format of television shows, thought to its extreme: none other than Takeshi Kitano in a restrained performance is the teacher who has his class shipped to a deserted island to kill each other until there’s only one left. Fukasaku’s swift actioner follows this sarcastic extrapolation, allowing only short segments of the teenager’s memories (and a few tender moments added by Takeshi, not unlike he does in his own films, equally enhanced and compromised by off-beat humor) to interfere with his relentless pacing.

Far from Fukasaku’s timely work, Sakamoto Junji’s Another Battle (2000) registers mostly as a tribute to the former’s most legendary film – the 1972 breakthrough Battles Without Honor And Humanity. Ultimately it doesn’t add up to much more than its title. Yet another gangland warfare with a few compressed big-beat-action sequences and some interesting, occasionally distracting realistic details. For all its rather monotone verbal assaults in between that go nowhere, it nevertheless has a moral center, a claim that I couldn’t make for my first encounter with the acclaimed cult director Miike Takashi whose new macho-worshipping potboiler The City Of Lost Souls (2000) drags equally in its middle part, but apart from some slam-bang action sequences doesn’t even register as a tribute, much less a vision. A feeble excuse for some bravura shootout stagings and postmodern winks at the audience (mostly the wet dream of an adolescent male, from Spaghetti Westerns to Peckinpah), the film’s greatest moment arrives when two CGI chickens go through the Matrix moves, which is also pretty much all I remember about it two weeks later.

Equally concerned with machismo, albeit in a critical manner, was Die Bad (2000), the feature debut by Ryoo Seung-Wan. Consisting of four parts (two of which were separate shorts previously), it is littered with interesting moments that never quite come together. Part indie take on the gangster genre, part deconstruction of male aggression, its assemblage of different styles and viewpoints seems to stem from improvisation rather than a concept. That brings a much needed freshness to its generic situations, but when a protracted showdown sets in that makes Oliver Stone look as subtle as Antonioni you better forget any notions of originality. Screened with the amusing (and far more successful, if a bit childish) short Anatomy Class (2000) – a black comedy with a few stabs at social behavior that starts off with three soldiers blowing their brains out in front of the snickering schoolgirls to provide them with the material for the title’s object lesson. It’s a failure, but at least there’s a sign of trying something personal, a sense I didn’t get from Park Ki-Hyung’s Secret Tears (2000), another South Korean film, this time a rather tepid mystery thriller that gets its kicks mostly from a nicely drained color palette, all green and red hues, while the script tries to distract from its vapidity with unnecessary mysticism. Equally steeped in visuals, but with three or four longer sequences that satisfyingly work as genre set pieces, Bangkok Dangerous (2000) by the brothers Danny and Oxide Pang from Thailand is mainly another entry at the altar of Wong Kar-Wai worshipping (only fitting that the press conference of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung for his fabulous In The Mood For Love [2000] turned into the Festival’s equivalent of a ‘celebrity event’). The directors get a bit of amusing mileage out of the premise (a deaf-mute hitman, once again torn between job and love), but mainly they’re content with slick genre emulation.

Bad Company

The latter two films were among the entries for the Festival’s Tiger Awards, but I’m pleased to announce that among the three winners was Furumaya Tomoyuki’s Bad Company (2000), a promising second feature. Leisurely paced, it has a sharp sense of spatial dynamics – cleverly contrasting blocked interiors with landscape shots in which the characters repeatedly seem to get lost. Which somehow sums up the central conflict – Furumaya’s movie follows a group of school children torn between the rigid demands of the education system and nonconformist attitude.

Somehow that insecurity extends to the film itself: it unfolds in a realm of constant waiting, always giving you the feeling there’s some unexpected twist to arrive. It never comes, but Bad Company is filled with surprising gestures and moments, often provoking conflicting emotions within the same frame. Its generosity towards its characters even extends to the harsh teacher (who divides his class into three categories: “delinquents”, “scum” and “people”) who is as dedicated as he is truculent.

Far from the sensitivity displayed by Furumaya but equally rewarding was a double feature by Sogo Ishii (unfortunately I couldn’t catch his third film that got a screening, Gojoe [2000]), nicely representing both sides of his oeuvre. The Master Of Shiatsu is an elegant, musical short in which – after a particularly inspiring massage – the world melts away before the heroine’s eyes: nerve knots become street crossings and a delirious sense of half-remembered colors overwhelms the images. If The Master Of Shiatsu is a piece of ambient music, the not even hour-long Electric Dragon 80.000 V (2000) lives up to the unrelenting punk hysteria of its title via pure energy. There’s not much of a plot to talk about (“Thunderbolt Buddha” and “Electric Dragon” Morrison, both electrically charged in their youth – Mr. Morrison draws pretty inspirational guitar solos from that incident, battle it out on behalf of a stolen lizard on a skyscraper), but like the shorter movie it works fabulously as an exercise in style. Not since Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo (1991) have I met such a frenetic assault of rock’n’roll overdose – the black and white looks definitely as retro-futuristic and the editing is like hyperventilation; almost as if the movie is over before it started.

On the level of pure visceral satisfaction, the only film to match Ishii’s exuberance was a slender, surprising B-picture from Canada, John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000), a consistently clever coming-of-age-meets-the-werewolf-story that has so many unexpected turns that I don’t even want to talk about its plot because the less you know the more there is to enjoy. In fact it was so good that its last thirty minutes or so – a competent, but generic showdown – felt like a serious letdown: Matthew Bright’s Freeway was the last time I encountered a comparably convincing and comical rearrangement of genre conventions. Given Ginger Snaps‘ slightly Cronenbergesque cinematography, it was only apt that it was preceded by the master’s new short titled Camera. This 6-minute reflection upon cinema, life and death is both funny and moving, more overtly than any of Cronenberg’s feature length films to date, yet it is just as ambiguous.

Having thrown in the name of Cronenberg, this is as good a moment as any to get to the films that made their way on the festival circuit during the last year but that I only caught up with in Rotterdam. The only disappointment among them was Pollock (2000), in which Ed Harris not only presents a bio-pic as shopworn as they come, but hams up the part of the tortured artist with every tired mannerism possible. Even Pollock‘s best sequences – the crafting of the paintings which are presented with a certain tactile grace (that occasionally extends into adjacent scenes) – seem flabbergasted by their own futility: divine intervention as inexplicable riddle. But there is something of a divine intervention in Harris’ overlong effort. Marcia Gay Harden, playing his tortured partner, gives a superb performance that provides the film with an emotional center it otherwise painfully lacks.

Lack, of social responsibility to be precise, is one of the topics of Sérgio Bianchis amusing and occasionally powerful Chronically Unfeasible (2000). The Brazilian director arranges a series of satiric vignettes dealing with the chaotic state of affairs in his home country Brazil and while his sense of humor is alarmingly close to a TV sketch at times, his feel for musical counterpoints – and towards the ending, an emerging anger reminiscent of Cinema Nuovo – mark it as definitely cinematic, countering the lightweight approach with which he uses transparent methods of intervention.

Neither lightweight nor transparent, Béla Tarr’s (at least according to me) long-awaited follow-up to his epic masterpiece Satantango (1994), Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) isn’t entirely on the level of its predecessor, but that might be a bit too much to ask. The Hungarian’s sense for black-and-white composition and his hypnotic use of long takes are as assured as ever, but about an hour into the film it teeters off balance, losing the perfectly crafted rhythm that made Satantango so invigorating despite its seven-hour-plus running time. Werckmeister Harmonies returns to form soon enough and despite the misgivings, remains a major work: nobody else in world cinema could shoot a scene (to pick one of the many mesmerizing moments at random) like the one where an ecstatic mob’s activity suddenly stops dead at the sight of a skeleton-like, almost mummified old man shuddering in a bathtub.

As idiosyncratic as Tarr, Roy Andersson’s Songs From The Second Floor (2000) is ultimately a bit too over-ambitious for its own good. Clearly designed as some kind of satiric millennial statement, it nevertheless astounds with a sincerity in its attempts to impress. Absurd and painterly, composed in 46 static (and one moving) tableaux, at its best it suggests a demented Kubrick failing at doing a stylized Tati and the commercial version of Buñuel’s iconoclasm at the same time. Obviously it’s doomed not to work out but the sheer idea of trying fills one with a certain awe. And it would be unfair not to mention that it is very funny at times.

Otesanek

Jan Svankmajer, the Czech animation master – like most surrealists – has had his share of Buñuelian comparisons. But in his case they seemed justified – less for the images he comes up with (which are entirely his own) than for his editing through which he tries to communicate complexity via simplification. Otesánek (2000), the adaptation of an old Czech folk tale, in many ways registers as a magnum opus (incorporating detailed elements from his earlier films), but in any case it’s at least as good as Conspirators Of Pleasure, previously his best feature effort.

As usual he mixes suspense with subversion, but it’s the uncertainty lingering behind the psychosexual traumata and black humor that registers more profoundly than his variations on a theme. “Every interpretation is right”, as Svankmajer himself announced before the screening.

While Svankmajer’s soundtracks operate primarily around the shading of individual effects and voices, South Korean veteran Im Kwon-Taek comes close to a musical with his lush, equally brilliant epic Chunhyang (2000). The real, magnifying twist of his exotic love story which would be gorgeous enough to watch on its own terms, is set up by the introduction. A Pansori, the traditional narrating singer, kicks off the film and the vibrant rhythm of his voice repeatedly takes over during the movie’s progress. As a result, Chunhyang works not only as a tale, but also as a reflection on the act of telling, its most spellbinding achievement being that these two levels never interfere with each other.

The same concern with the medium is the most distinguishing aspect of Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000) – the first half, in which a hopelessly confused Ethan Hawke as the prince of the Denmark corporation tries to unravel the dark family secrets with his digital camera – gives the rather dubious notion of modernizing a classic powerful background. Almeyreda’s film seems less concerned with the themes of Shakespeare’s play than with the means of their representation. While the second half seems like a Pyrrhus victory (the brisk, captivating pacing is maintained, but the subtext gets lost somehow), his fascinating encounter with modern filming strategies – further enhanced by two terrific supporting turns by Bill Murray and Kyle MacLachlan that make the film worth seeing on their own merits – comes to a giddy high with a found footage flower by Lewis Klahr: the cut-up master gleefully arranged the film’s centerpiece, the movie-in-the-movie supplanting the-play-in-the-play.

Engram Sepals

And (saving my favorite film for the end), Engram Sepals (1994-2000), a collection of seven shorts shot between 1994 and 2000 by Lewis Klahr, were the most fascinating discovery of the Festival. Suggestively subtitled as a series of melodramas, they managed to combine the two missions that seemed at the core of the Festival – to represent a sense of film history as well as a challenging encounter with new strategies.

There are moments reminiscent of Kenneth Anger (the clash of romantic music, private mythology and sexual fervor, for instance in the weird Jimmy Olsen fantasy Pony Glass), Ken Jacobs (sex dissolves and a visual improv beat emerges to Mercury Rev in Downs Are Feminine) as well as those that seem indebted to Jacques Tourneur (the vibrating frames in the noirish title track, so to speak) or Douglas Sirk (in the last short A Failed Cargigan Maneuver, finally, a woman returns, her shape long rendered into a polymorph riddle by the constant gender bending of the whole program and “I’ll love you forever” belatedly blazes through the speakers), but they’re all predominantly and clearly the works of Klahr, his visual palindromes and associations. It’s not only his distinguished collage technique or his unerring sense of rhythm, it’s the unmistakable imprint of a worldview that marks the films as his personal vision. Most moving is the longest entry: Govinda, a lost home movie imbued with a remembered sense of sexual freedom and enigmatic memories of landscapes and people that seem to be long gone (incidentally my reference point, though no more associative than the above, was Ron Rice’s Chumlum), first arranged to an Indian chorus, then to The Stooges’ “We Will Fall”, seemed much too short and lasting forever at the same time – and the choice of the latter piece seemed compulsive, inevitable in this case – not like an afterthought as in Forgive Me.

So the circle has closed and the next series of associations can begin.

About The Author

Christoph Huber is the main film critic for Die Presse (Vienna). He has published on cinema and pop music for various film magazines, newspapers and websites and writes the program notes for Vienna’s Cinémathèque.