Comparisons and Contrasts By Ninian Doff

in 23th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Ninian Doff

The Tiger Awards Competition is the main prize of the Rotterdam Film Festival. It is from this selection of 14 films that the Tiger Jury and the FIPRESCI Jury had to choose the winning films (the Tiger Jury presented three equal prizes).

This year’s Tiger selection was truly international with films coming from Brazil, Spain, Vietnam, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Malaysia, The Netherlands, Russia, Norway, Japan and South Korea. All the films must be a debut or second feature to qualify for selection, this year eleven Tiger films where debuts.

The 14 Tiger Films were: O amigo Dunor (Dunor My Friend) by Jose Eduardo Alcazar, Brazil/Paraguay: A complex film within a film, which is also an experiment in deconstructing narrative. El cielo gira (The Sky Turns) by Mercedes Alvarez, Spain: A gentle documentary made by the last person to be born in a village that’s slowly being abandoned. She documents the lives of the final 14 elderly residents and the landscape around them. Hat mua roi bao lau (Bride of Silence) by Doan Minh Phuong and Doan Thanh Nghia, Vietnam/Germany: A historical drama set in the sweeping Vietnam landscape. Allein (Alone) by Thomas Durchschlag, Germany: Follows the life and relationships of an unstable girl who tries to fix her problems through promiscuity, self-harm and drugs. Onde (Waves) by Francesci Fei, Italy: Explores the relationship between a blind musician and a woman who’s extremely self conscious about the large red birthmark on her face. Las mantenidas sin suenos (Kept and Dreamless) by Vera Fogwill and Martin Desalvo, Argentina: Various troubled Mother/Daughter relationships intertwined within the main story of a drug addict mother and her old-before-her-time daughter. Nemmeno il destino (Changing Destiny) by Daniele Gaglianone, Italy: A fragmented story about the friendship between two teenage boys from troubled families. Sanctuary by Ho Yu-hang, Malaysia: A slow study of loneliness and identity in the troubled lives of three characters. Paradise Girls by Fow Pyng Hu, The Netherlands: Three separate stories about Chinese women. Two of the stories explore a Chinese-Dutch angle and the final, longest story, takes place in Hong Kong and follows a mother trying to cope with and fund a serious heart operation for her 3-year-old boy. 4 by Ilya Khrzhanovsky, Russia: As the film follows three characters, with an emphasis on the story of a prostitute visiting her village for a funeral, the director reveals a strange, nightmare vision of Russia. Boginya: kak ya polyubila (Goddess) by Renata Litvinova, Russia: A surreal mix between a police thriller and a fairytale, which goes from a missing girl case to an exploration of death. Hawaii, Oslo by Eric Poppe, Norway: Multiple narrative ensemble piece covering the interwoven lives of various characters on the hottest day of the year in Oslo. Aru asa soup wa (The Soup, One Morning) by Takahashi Izumi, Japan: A marriage becomes increasingly strained and difficult as the husband becomes distanced from reality and obsessed with a cult. Frakchi (Spying Cam) by Whang Cheol-Mean, South Korea: Most of this film takes place in one hotel room in which a policeman is protecting a witness. Their friendship and power balance shifts and subverts as they deal with their boredom by acting out scenes from Crime and Punishment and spying on the sex life of the people in the neighbouring room.

Whenever a group of such disparate films are placed together in a selection a common problem arises: the impossibility of comparison, or even the absurdity of comparison. Some of these films are so different in motivation, intentions and technique that the only common factor is the fact they consist of moving images. To place such films alongside each other and debate which is “better” is a curious challenge. For example, discussing Ho Yu-hang’s Sanctuary alongside Eric Poppe’s Hawaii, Oslo . Sanctuary is a very slow Malaysian film, shot on a shaky and basic digital camera, which tries to explore the nature of identity and a changing country. On the other hand, Hawaii, Oslo is a far more commercial film (Norway’s nomination for the OSCAR), with a far larger budget, and is a multiple narrative film containing bank robberies and car crashes, its principle aim being entertainment. Comparison and debate relies upon a common ground between two subjects, and the discussion of which was more successful within the context of this common area. When the films, such as Sanctuary and Hawaii, Oslo , share no obvious common ground, real debate becomes a challenge. There is even a danger that, as the two are such polar opposites, the result can be an outright dismissal of one simply based on a critic’s preference of genre.

Perhaps due to the fact that the award is for first or second time filmmakers, it is true that all of the films in the selection had problems or shortcomings. It seemed like the selection was to encourage and celebrate the beginnings of directors who show promise, rather than reveal a director’s first masterpiece. Films either stretched themselves too far, and therefore seemed to lose control of themselves, or didn’t dare to push themselves enough and as a result lacked anything new to say. For instance 4, Goddess and Spying Cam all tried to cover a lot of ground in terms of themes and ideas, as a result they also lost most audiences when it came to following the plot. The opposite of these films were those that were too traditional or hesitant with their plots. As a result such films like Allien and Onde had strong performances from the cast but were let down by plots that felt unoriginal or clichéd. Looking at the decisions from the various juries it seems the message is that trying and failing produces more interesting results and should be rewarded, rather than playing it safe and therefore achieving little.

The Tiger Awards went to 4, Nemmeno il destino (Changing Destiny) and El cielo gira (The Sky Turns). The FIPRESCI award went to Frakchi (Spying Cam). 4 also won the Golden Cactus, a new award for maverick filmmakers in memory of Theo Van Gogh.