Rotterdam International Film Festival offered a rich programme in its second virtual edition, with intriguing sidebars on two vastly different artists.
Another year, another virtual film festival. By now I suspect both reader and critic are all but accustomed to these proceedings, so rather than linger on the particularities of how going virtual affected this festival, it’s best to do here what I did when faced with an enormous virtual slate: go right for the highlights. At Rotterdam, that tends to be the retrospectives on individual filmmakers, and this year, one of those was dedicated to Amanda Kramer, a musician best known for her work with Information Society, 10,000 Maniacs, and The Psychedelic Furs who has been making shorts and features since 2016 that might be described, in today’s parlance, as a mood. The first of these, Bark, about a teenage girl accusingly trying to coax her friend or sister to talk to her, makes unsettling use of music and sound design that betray Kramer’s background. As the conversation takes one unexpected turn after another, what most impresses is the director’s attention to light and camera placement; she frequently finds new angles to disorient or obscure the action without calling attention to themselves, and her ability to light multiple planes of action is effortless.
Kramer’s subsequent films saw her take greater stylistic risks, and while her films are sometimes underbaked narratively or thematically, her two 2022 features Please Baby Please and especially Give Me Pity, are astonishing in their vision of mid-century theatricality and recreation of 1980s variety TV specials, respectively. These are films of an acquired taste, but they also are the work of a filmmaker who cares as much about aesthetic and style as narrative.
The festival also dedicated a sidebar to Qiu Jiongjiong, a Chinese painter and filmmaker who has made a handful of creatively invigorating short and feature documentaries over the past decade-plus. These films are broad in both their topics and methods—interviews with an ex-cop, theatrical recreations of the life of a Communist Party member whose right-wing ancestry catches up to him, and observations of a restaurant and performing space in its final days—but they all come together in Qiu’s first fiction feature, A New Old Play, which won a Special Jury Prize winner at Locarno.
Qiu’s background in painting is evident in the way his color palette shifts as the film toggles between its vision of an afterlife and the chronicle of an opera troupe from the late 1920s into the early years of Mao Zedong’s rule, but A New Old Play is more than resplendent tableaux. Qiu’s images are not flat, but on the contrary are theatrical in their use of background and depth of field, to say nothing of the props and décor. As Qiu’s prior films reveal, A New Old Play is based in part on his own family’s history, and it is perhaps for this reason that Qiu can enfold so much into a tale told with both specificity and levity,