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Japanese Heart Beating in the Dark: the talk of the Rotterdam Fest

On day number three of the Rotterdam film festival the buzz is still going strong regarding the new Japanese film "A Heart Beating In the Dark" (Yami ni utsu Shinzo) by maverick Nippon director Shunichi Nagasaki. Mr. Nagasaki has been around for a long time but his films are so wide of the mainstream that he is barely known outside of Japan and not particularly well known even in his own country. Rotterdam, a festival which specializes in introducing new faces as well as older ones who have not as yet gotten the recognition they deserve, selected the latest Nagasaki opus for the coveted
festival opening slot, and those who have seen it can't stop talking about it. Arriving a bit late in the city of Erasmus I missed the opening night festivities but expect to catch up with "Heart in the dark" within the next few days. The director, cutting an elegant figure under a neat shock of grayish hair with a Douglas Fairbanks moustache and orange shades, is here accompanied by his wife, actress Mizushima Kaori, who also is one of the stars of the film. This is actually a remake -- or rather an update -- of a film the director made back in 1982 on video which was pretty much lost in the shuffle. Nagasaki likes to deal with offbeat anti-social themes, and the basic subject of this film is the unsavory topic of infanticide. In the earlier work a young couple have killed their baby and are on the lam. In
the present work the director is making a film about another couple who have just killed their child, and then meet the couple, now twenty years older, from the earlier film. This is thus a film within a film, but the novel twist is that the older child killers now advise their younger "colleagues" on how they should play the roles in the new film -- or are these people really child killers, or what! Sounds a bit Eight-and-a-halfish to me and perhaps a bit confusing, but local youngsters who saw the film assure me that the director makes everything clear with no loose ends hanging. Well, we'll see.

From modest origins back in 1972 the Rotterdam IFF has grown into one of the biggest film fests in Europe, a not-to-be missed venue for festival selectors and other professionals interested in the off-beat and independent cinema of a large variety of countries. In a sense this festival, whose symbol is a tiger, can be seen as something of a European answer to Robert Redford's Sundance Festival in Utah which specializes in the introduction of American independents. An historical note in the festival catalog advises that at the opening film of the first Rotterdam festival 35 years ago there were only 17 people in the audience, whereas this time around the main theater seating somewhat over 2,000 was packed to capacity. As Werner Herzog once put it, "even dwarfs started small".

Today there is certainly nothing dwarf-like about the Rotterdam fest, from the huge selection of films on view -- more than a thousand (!), including shorts and videos -- to the cavernous (but ultra modern) central festival facility located in a building known as " De Doelen", a short walk from the central train station. De Doelen during most of the year is an international conference center combined with a philharmonic auditorium. At festival time the film fest takes over all the office space, lounges, refreshment areas, seminar rooms, etc., and uses the auditorium for gala events. Around the corner and across a large open square is the Pathe cineplex with seven cinemas of varying size, all state of the art viewing facilities serving as the main venue for festival films (among others). In spite of the size of the festival the atmosphere in the labyrinthine De Doelen (with striking views of the city from the upper levels) is quite relaxed and unhurried, and the mixed staff of Dutch as well as foreign young people, are as amically efficient as any to be found in any festival anywhere. It should be added that Rotterdam itself, the second largest city in Holland after Amsterdam, with the busiest seaport in all of Europe, is the polar opposite in looks from the capital, Amsterdam. While Amsterdam is quaint and ancient looking, with twisty streets along the canals, Rotterdam is all spic and span with geometrically correct high-rise buildings and broad straight boulevards -- a result of the fact that the city was bombed nearly flat by the Germans in the early days of World War II and, consequently, had to be re-built nearly from scratch after the war.

Coming as it does in January this festival has to reach back into the preceding year for its film pickings, but this is in a sense an advantage, as a selection of interesting films from other festivals -- (the ones one may have overlooked even if they were there) -- are also on view here. One such, seen this morning, was the European premiere of a Polish film entitled "Ode To Joy" (no relation to Beethoven). This film, a three-part invention, made by three young directors from the famous Lodz film school (whose graduates include Roman Polanski) was screened at the Polish film week in
Gdynia back in September, where it received a special jury prize, but has yet to find a commercial distributor in its own country, let alone outside of Poland. The presence of "Ode" here is indicative of the perceptive programming in Rotterdam. Each part of the film is set in a different part of Poland, the grim and grimy coal mining region of Silesia, the capital Warsaw, and Pomerania along the Baltic seacoast. Part I, directed by Anna Kazejak, takes place during a prolonged miners' sit-down strike and features a striking new actress by the name of Malgorzata Buczowska; Part II, (director, Jan Komasa) set in Warsaw, features a frenzied but talented Polish rap artist (sic -- yes, they're rapping in Poland these days) with criminal tendencies, played most intensely by Piotr Glowacki; and the 3rd section, (director, Maciej Migas) set in a small trailertrash fishing community along the Baltric features a Polish Brat Pitt look-alike, Leslaw Zurek.

What unites the three diverse stories is that in each one a central protagonist, fed up with grey Polish reality, dreams of escaping to the symbolic paradise of London. In part I, Malgorzata has, in fact, just come back home after a year of working in London as a charwoman, where she has scraped together a considerable nest egg. Upon her return to Silesia she is non too subtly relieved of her savings one way or another by her very own family and friends, and ends up ready to go back to London for good. Post screening audience reaction was both strong and diverse. One person asked the visiting directors (all three were on hand) why they chose to paint such a dismal picture of contemporary Poland and, couldn't they have made at least one segment more "optimistic" to relieve the bleakness. The collective answer was; "this is the way our generation sees things in Poland these days, and it was our purpose to speak to and for our generation".
"Does that mean that you see no future in Poland and want to leave it yourselves?” asked another. Here, Jan Komasa, clad in a gray baseball cap, spoke for the others saying, "Hell no! The fact that we made this film in Poland shows that we see plenty of things to do here". Judging by the collective talent displayed in this film by three young directors (two of them still in film school) and three talented young actors, one gets the feeling that this just might be the beginning of a Polish Nouvelle Vague.

And lots of luck!
Alex Deleon

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