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Rotterdam 2001

      Minutes off a plane from Holland, where I attended the 30th Rotterdam Film Festival, I’m hit at an airport newsstand with a blast of Sundance public relations: a fawning, celeb-obsessed fest diary by Bruce Wagner in the February 4 Sunday New York Times. Welcome home! Our media persuade us that the Sundance Festival is the center of the world’s filmic activity. In the days after, lots of US critics, on annual pilgrimages to Sundance, chimed in with their 2001 reports: this year was better than most, less hype, fewer bidding wars, more worthwhile movies. American cinema reigns, alive and thrashing in Park City.

      Well, maybe so. I wasn’t there. But I’ve returned from 10 days of steady film-watching at Rotterdam (a fabulous global festival) with a completely opposite message: it’s Asia that’s kicking rump in the new millennium. For every decent American independent feature there are 20 or 30 at this moment springing out in Asia from so many young, enterprising directors that it’s impossible to keep up. Thrilling films from Hong Kong and China, Taiwan, and, recently, Thailand; and there’s a veritable Korean Renaissance. Japan is back after a sleepy time, filmmaker after youthful filmmaker.

      Perhaps that’s why Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the biggest foreign-language hit ever in the West, is (according to Variety) performing so disappointingly in the East, including Hong Kong, Korea, and mainland China. What seems so exotic and enchanting here (I’m a fan myself) is regarded there as just another martial-arts movie, and in no way as adventurous as other current Asian pictures.

      For example: Kinji Fukasaku’s mind-bending Battle Royale. This sensationally energetic comic book of a movie was the resounding success of the Rotterdam Fest, embraced by both a college-age crowd (I saw it with a cheering audience of 800) and esoteric-minded film critics. A favorite back home in Japan, though politicians tried to censor it, Battle Royale has set box-office records recently in Hong Kong, where, says Variety, Crouching Tiger is dismissed as “cleverly packaged chop suey.”

      What’s the concept? Survivor meets Rock ’n’ Roll High School, and if I were a sly American distributor with deep pockets I’d buy Battle Royale immediately. The plot? Somewhere in the near future, Japan is in chaos, with adolescents out of control. The frightened government hits back. A high-school class is randomly kidnapped and the kids tossed on an island. For three days, boys and girls must kill each other, until there’s only one.

      That’s the heart of the movie: this idyllic island and filmmaker Fukasaku cutting from student to student as they shoot, stab, and hack each other into premature graves, betraying their best friends, carrying out vendettas from school days. What can I say? I found the varieties of bloodletting highly imaginative and strangely exhilarating, even liberating. I had an Indiana Jones kind of great time.

      “The real crisis is the loss of energy in Japan,” explained the filmmaker, coming out to speak. “This film is an attempt to jump-start the Japanese energy.”

      Everyone marveled, for Kinji Fukasaku is a white-haired 70-year-old who has made movies since 1963. “I hardly dared to anticipate the success we’ve had among young people,” he said. “Before shooting, I was quite anxious about the age difference between me and the stars. So my son, Kenta, served as producer and screenwriter. He’s 28 and he created a bridge and a wonderful atmosphere on the set.”

      Kenta Fukasaku contradicted his dad: “Before, we’d never fought, and my father is my favorite Japanese director. But on the film, we were in a fierce battle like cats and dogs. He would yell at me through the megaphone. I’d threaten him, ‘I’m tightening the purse strings. We’re running out of money.’ ”

      The one peculiar thing about Battle Royale is its total chastity.

      “Why no sex and nudity?” I queried the filmmaker.

      “I am myself quite fond of sex and nudity,” he said with a smile, “but I like violence even more!”

(Boston Phoeix, February, 2001)


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