The International Film Festival Rotterdam, whose 29th incarnation closed just two weeks ago, has been doing so many things so well for so long now, it‘s tempting to begin to think of it as a somehow traditional affair — like the Japanese tea ceremony, perhaps, a metaphor that’s particularly tempting given the festival‘s long-term focus on the cinema of Japan. Tempting, that is, if your idea of the tea ceremony includes about 30 seconds of Zen calm, followed by a nihilist explosion of drunken yakuza slashing their way through the shoji screens, tackling the geisha and disrupting anything well-ordered or mild-mannered. If this overwhelming, 200-plus-film festival has something like a well-honed tradition, it is simply, exuberantly this: Let sex, politics and a fistful of Japanese action flicks be the whole of the law.
Hosted by the Dutch port city once bombed into near-oblivion during World War II, and subsequently reborn as a riot of pre-postmodern architectural insolence, the IFFR, as you’ve probably heard by now, has become the world-traveling cineaste‘s annual pleasuredome. Overload and overlap are the orders of the day. While Ice-T hosts a crowded panel on Internet media marketing in one venue, Lou Ye’s splashy Chinese-German co-production Suzhou River is winning one of the fest‘s $10,000 Tiger Awards in another. Dash to catch Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon — a sui generis Thai documentary that bounces unpredictably between intimate fragments of everyday life, and an invented-on-the-spot story about a handicapped boy and the homunculus that emerges from his tutor‘s apron — and your first challenge is making it past the mob waiting outside Sleepy Hollow’s Dutch premiere.
Rotterdam has taken an activistarchivist attitude toward Japanese cinema for more years than anyone can seem to remember, but its commitment amounts to more than a succession of boutique assortments, fan-boy panderings or colonialist incursions. The IFFR doesn‘t just exhibit Japanese film, it engages with it. In the Tech.Pop.Japan lounge, patrons were treated to a kind of inadvertently retro children’s museum, replete with desultory sushi bar, software concession stand and a few of the latest video-arcade novelties, while old-fashioned film screenings ranged from antique Japanoiserie such as Fritz Lang‘s 1919 Harakiri to a pair of documentaries about Takeshi Kitano and three films from relative newcomer Miike Takashi — who’d made all three in the last year. Takashi‘s nerve-grinding Audition, a ghost story about the sweet, singing sound piano wire makes as it saws through flesh and bone, made an especially lasting impression on Dutch audiences, along with sales to a number of European distributors.
Despite the punk-ironic slogan of “No Cherry Blossoms” that the festival’s programmers had apparently hoped might bind this year‘s Japanathon together, not every bud smelled sweet. Many critics, for example, had pinned high hopes on a retrospective, complete with a spate of gorgeous new CinemaScope prints, of the films of Kinji Fukasaku, past master behind titles such as Street Mobster and Yakuza Graveyard. Make no mistake, Fukasaku’s got chops — he‘s a genius at moving enormous groups of rampaging toughs in aviator shades across the widescreen frame — and his films are chock-a-block with episodes of snarling glee. But his critical acclaim began to wither when, some half-dozen films into the series, it became clear that Fukasaku exhibits neither the color-coded, cartoony flair of pulp sensation Seijun Suzuki, nor the intellectual rigor and dialectical frisson of a world-class director like onetime Rotterdam mainstay Nagisa Oshima.
“He may be a studio hack,” frowned Fukasaku defender and festival guest Patrick Macias, co-author of the recent Japan Edge: The Insider’s Guide to Japanese Pop Subculture, “but he‘s still a great hack. His films smuggle in all sorts of cultural criticism, but it’s all been geared down to appeal to mainstream, action-movie audiences. Maybe Fukasaku‘s just not radical enough for Rotterdam.” Macias has a point, but he needn’t worry. After 400 years of harmonious Dutch-Japanese relations, the last thing Rotterdam‘s cine-savvy and trend-resilient audiences are interested in is chopping down the festival’s ever-thriving cherry tree.