Sexual Perversity in Rotterdam

As I type these words, sitting in the press office of the Rotterdam Film Festival (with one Grolsch, nine cigarettes, two glasses of red wine, and too many days of too many screenings blurring my vision), 17 Dutch kids between the ages of four and 12 are leaping around on a parquet three floors below me, egged on by a throbbing techno beat. The rumpled Austrian reviewer at the desk next to mine recoils and says, "That is disgusting"--this from a man who two days ago screened a Japanese pink eigu (pink porno) movie in the fest's "Critics' Choice" sidebar. One of the girls below me wears a headband with tiger ears attached--the same gear, believe it or not, that a thug in last night's movie had worn before tracking down a murderer by sniffing the crotch of one of the killer's rape victims.

Welcome to the 31st International Film Festival Rotterdam: the preeminent cultural event of the Netherlands, and--this year, anyway--a sadomasochist's delight. As any fest with hundreds of films from nearly as many countries is wont to be, Rotterdam is a different event to everyone who attends it. The outrageous diversity of this program--known historically for its emphasis on sex and politics--works to the distinct benefit of the spectator, particularly the American one who often depends on the purchases of native distributors to signal what's worth watching. The movies I've seen--including new fare from France, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Canada, Britain, the Philippines, Argentina, Portugal, and (oh, yeah) the United States--have appeared either minimal or assaultive, ultra-romantic or hyper-erotic, crazily passionate or haunting and austere. As usual at Rotterdam, the mix is positively bracing.

Two years ago much of the Rotterdam roster was devoted to Japanese cinema, and a number of the directors who broke through here then continue to make their unique presence felt. Miike Takashi (Audition) showed up with four very different films--a musical, an action-packed gangster epic, an audacious buddy movie, and a sick-ass horror comedy--proving at once his impressive profligacy and his erratic sensibility. The best of these, Ichi the Killer, sprang out of a popular manga (Japanese comic) serial, which the director claimed had revolted him so much that he couldn't resist adapting it into a movie. Introduced at its first screening by a British critic who referred both to Miike's "caring and sharing" style and to the possibility that body parts might be found littering the aisles of the theater, Ichi tells of an innocent, brainwashed sadist whose killings complicate the ambition of a bleach-blond masochist. Any ten-minute portion of this hilariously brutal barrage would define all meanings of the word gag: Meat hooks, body jewelry, lawn darts in torturees' cheeks, and heels with razors are prevalent enough to qualify as supporting actors.

Another superb Japanese oddity that won't be picked up by Miramax anytime soon is Tokyo X Erotica, a virtuoso sex fest by the virtually unknown director Zeze Takahisa. Nearly plotless, the movie portrays a cavalcade of pivotal couplings and triplings that eventually coalesce into a meditation on time, religion, and politics. As a response to the terrorist attacks that killed nearly a hundred people in Tokyo subways a few years ago, Takahisa's film--which follows a path to spiritual regeneration paved with erotic spasms and kindly ejaculate--is at once flagrantly allegorical and startlingly frank. Indeed, American directors struggling with both the studio system and themselves in order to render indescribable grief would do well to study Tokyo X Erotica--in which, among other things, the God of Death gives one character the courtesy of a reach-around (as Full Metal Jacket's drill sergeant would put it).

Among American selections, none suited Rotterdam's perverse poetry as well as a new Stan Brakhage retrospective--which, culled from his six decades of work, emphasized the Colorado-based avant-garde guru's many extremes. Where Brakhage's work is best known for its puzzle-like landscapes and abstracted eyefuls of birth, sex, and death, his 1971 film The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes--the highlight of the retro--scrambles shaky images of various autopsies, giving the human body an existential kick. Amid an overwhelming array of ingeniously bizarre world cinema, Brakhage alone (give or take the rumor that Brian De Palma secretly attended the festival just for kicks) allows the American movie lover to leave Rotterdam without feeling totally ashamed of his heritage.

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