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Archive for November 2007

Tokyo Filmex 2007 – boxoffice.com blog #10 – wrap up

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Tokyo Filmex wrapped on a glorious Sunday. While much of Tokyo was out shopping and enjoying the sunny weather, a large group of diehard cineastes were at the Yurakucho Asahi Hall or at the National Film Center catching the last few films on the program.

Fillmex runs for nine days. It’s not as huge as the Tokyo International Film Festival. In fact, it’s a small, but very well curated festival. The competition section highlighting new Asian cinema contained 10 films. The Special screening section represented 10 films of cutting-edge international directors. And 2 special director retrospectives, one screening 12 delightful discoveries by postwar generation Japanese film director, Yamamoto Satsuo, another rescuing from the vaults 4 masterpieces by Bengali director, Ritwik Ghatak. That makes for 36 films, 37 if you count the extra short film, Ten Years, that played with Jia Zhang-ke’s Dong.

Though they didn’t have the numbers at hand, chatting with some staff members, I was assured that this was the best attended festival of their 8 year run.

Sunday at noon a press conference was held and the prize-winners were announced. The jury included Dorothee Wenner, from the Berlin Film Festival; Christian Jeune, from the Cannes Film Festival; film director Yukisada Isao; cinematographer Yamazaki Yukata; and Korean film director and jury head, Lee Chang-dong. Lee’s impressive and moving feature, Secret Sunshine, was also the closing film of the festival.

And the winners were…

The bearish and soft-spoken Lee gave the announcement. The 2nd place Special Jury Prize, which was $8,000 worth of Kodak negative film was given to Yau Nai-hoi and his feature debut, Eye in the Sky. Personally, not being a fan of the film, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt in that it was a solidly made entertainment.

The Grand Prize, 1,000,000 yen, and that’s about $10,000, went to Tehilim, a touching parable set in contemporary Israel. The disappearance of a father sets the plot in motion for a series of repercussions that brings personal dramas and a larger look at humans cast adrift in the world. Director Raphael Nadjari and producer Fred Bellaiche were on hand to accept the award. Nadjari was endearingly surprised and a bit inept at his acceptance speech.

The Audience Award of 200,000 yen went to Hong Kong stalwart, Johnny To and his new actioner, Exiled. In good To style, it’s a gripping crime drama that never lets up. And it’s got a great shoot ‘em up ending that had everybody holding on to their seats.

One bit of late breaking news is that Filmex is planning to publish a book of photography about Tokyo as seen through the eyes of film directors. They invited the young and talented Hana Makhmalbaf, whose feature debut, Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame to become one of the guest photographers.

Personal reveries from the festival include the Tokyo premiere of Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain. As a personal disclaimer, I used to work for Northwest Film Forum, which helped produce the film. But nonetheless, Maddin’s delirious masterpiece probably left more than a few heads scratching, but I’m sure they left the theater realizing that they’d never seen anything quite like that before – and hopefully hungry to see what else may bubble up from Maddin’s fervid imagination. Hey, I felt kind of proud.

And then there was the discovery of Yamamoto Satsuo’s work. His Zatoichi film is available in the US – and it is one of the best directed of the many Zatoichi films – but it was a rare opportunity to see films by this neglected master of Japanese cinema.

There were the late night discussions with friends and collaborators at smoky izakayas, where deep (and somewhat drunken) recaps of the day’s screenings were the order of business.

There was the genuinely thrilling discovery of new cinematic talent by the likes of Hana Makhmalbaf and Chinese director Yu Guangyi and his film Timber Gang.

Which brings up an exciting trend of new documentary from China. After the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and seeing new docs at Filmex by Jia Zhang-ke, I’m convinced that there’s something happening in the middle kingdom around the art of documentary filmmaking. Keep your eyes open.

All in all, Tokyo Filmex was a great ride. I’m looking forward to edition number 9.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 27, 2007 at 3:03 am

Tokyo Filmex 2007 – boxoffice.com blog #9

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It’s the last day or Filmex. It’s been quite a ride through a lot of cutting edge international cinema. And a couple of the big ones have been saved for the last day.

One o’clock and I’m walking through the packed foyer into the big cinema. Lines of festival volunteers in random voices call “irashaimase” – welcome – the classic greeting one gets everywhere in Japan, at the convenience store counter, in the restaurants, everywhere. Welcoming is built into the culture, and people seem to go out of their ways to accommodate guests. It’s no different at Filmex, where guests, press, and public are very well taken care of.

The movie I’m going to see is Michelange Quay’s Eat, For This is My Body. Filled with dreamy imagery, it’s the first feature by the Haitian-American director. Beautifully shot, it’s full of beautiful people (Sylvie Testud, from La Vie En Rose and a cast of Haitian unknowns), a mess of allegorical and symbolic images, and boy, is it slow. Quay, at the Q & A and later at a presentation on the Unknown Haitian Cinema, is an affable and smart cineaste. He’s quick on his feet, excited about presenting his film, excited about Japan, and manages to get the crowd a bit more enthusiastic about the overblown
symbolism at the heart of his film. But still, even in the arthouse or at the festival his
film, unfortunately doesn’t quite measure up.

But the closing film, Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine certainly does. Lee is a veteran Korean filmmaker, who recently returned from a stint as Minister of Culture and Tourism to create a tour-de-force. Unlike a lot of outré Korean oeuvre that has crossed the pond to the US, Secret Sunshine is a moving portrait of a woman dealing with the grief of her son’s murder. Jeon Do-yeon, who plays the main character, Shin-ae, rightfully won the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year for this role. It’s a smart, perfectly shot film, that in addition to Jeon’s all-out performance, has a lot of heart and soul and empathy for the human condition. Lee’s been a big presence at the film festival, heading the head of competition jury and being a regular recognizable face at many of the screenings.

Festival prizes are given (more on that, with the festival wrap up). The screenings are over. Now it’s time to party!

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 26, 2007 at 3:02 am

Tokyo Filmex 2007 – boxoffice.com blog #8

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And now a word from out sponsors.

There are a few films at film festivals that everyone sees. Largely put up with, sponsor ads that precede every screening are ubiquitous at most film festivals. The amusing commercial on day one of the festival often becomes by day seven a dreaded and obnoxious test of audience mettle. Filmex runs the same three ads in front of every film screened. Here are some quick reviews.

Keirin Ringring. This obnoxious minute and a half promotes the Ringring efforts of the Japanese Keirin Association. What? Let me explain. Keirin is a bicycle race that has become a popular betting sport in Japan. Competitors follow a pacer for one or two laps (it’s up to the pacer) jockeying for position. As soon as the pacer leaves the tracks it’s sprint time to the finish line. Ringring is the do-good promotion of the Keirin Association – working with kids, the elderly and the blind.

The commercial quick cuts between kids on bikes and trikes, old people, a seeing-eye dog, a few happy workers, all overlaid with floating bike wheel graphics and a few katakana phrases. It’s frenetic, doesn’t make a whole lot of visual sense and has an incredibly shrill soundtrack. It makes me shudder whenever I see the first images of happy kids.

Meiji Probio Yogurt LG 21. A high angle shot of Beat Takeshi, poker-faced. Cut to Beat looking up at an oversized poster of himself. The music goes a little whacky. A voice over kicks in. Beat does a somewhat lame kung fu kick. Cut to Beat tapping his stomach and grinning. Cut to the money shot, a close-up of a spoon dipping into yoghurt. And out with the high angle shot of Beat, this time looking at the camera with a little smile. Hmm. It looks OK, It’s got Beat, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what it’s all about. And what is Probio Yogurt LG21 anyway?

Air France. When I asked my girlfriend, “What about that stupid Air France commercial?” She said, “What Air France commercial?” An ad’s job is to get the brand stuck in a person’s brain. This one obviously fails. A beautiful lake in the country. A beautiful woman lounges on a dock. A frog. A dragonfly. More lounging. A pan across the landscape. It looks professional, totally insipid, and uninspired. The worst of advertising “art.”

And what about the real movies today? Well, there was The Bride from Hades, a 1968 Ugetsu style story from Yamamoto Satsuo, that had a huge influence (and still does) on Japanese horror movies. It still looks great after all these years. And then there was Jia Zhang-ke’s Dong, a strange documentary on art-making, work, and the human condition. Intriguing, difficult, the images are sticking with me, though I’m still perplexed by the whole thing. And unfortunately I missed the special session Angela Mao Ying (Lady Kung Fu). She played Bruce Lee’s younger sister in Enter the Dragon, and had a long career as an action star. She’s here with a Shaw brother’s classic, Hapkido. Word up she was gracious, funny, and still very much a star.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 25, 2007 at 3:01 am

Tokyo Filmex 2007 – boxoffice.com blog #7

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Thursday came around this week and Thanksgiving was held quietly at home with a nice little nabe (a quick stew cooked in a specially made ceramic pot) and dispatched with a nod and a toast. They don’t do Thanksgiving in Japan. Well at least I thought they didn’t.

Friday’s a national holiday and I’m planning to go the tori-no-ichi festival in Shinjuku, a wonderful matsuri where one buys ceremonial rakes for good luck and for rakin’ in the good fortune that will come during the coming year. But the national holiday is actually not about the traditional good luck festival, its called Labor Thanksgiving Day, which is all about commemorating labor and production and giving one another thanks. No turkey, just the thanks. And in the good tradition of laborers around the world given a day off, why not go to the movies?

The afternoon screening of the new Hong Kong actioner, Eye in the Sky, is packed. The directorial debut of Johnny To screenwriter, Yau Nai-hoi, it’s a loud pounding dud of a film. Even with the saving graces of favorite character actors, like Simon Yam and Tony Leung Ka-fai (the other Tony Leung), it’s an endlessly sentimental chase movie, that most gallingly, celebrates the constant surveillance of contemporary life. In Yau’s world, it’s all OK, as long as you get the bad guy.

However, the day is redeemed by Hana Makhmalbaf’s Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame. Her feature debut is uneven, but loaded with powerful ideas and searing images. The plotline is simple, a picaresque journey of a six-year old Afghani girl deciding that she has to go to school, so she can learn to read. Ah, but it’s not all that simple. First she has to sell the eggs to buy the notebook. Then she has to find the girls’ school because she can’t go to the boys’ school. And then there’s the group of older boys playing Taliban, who capture her, threaten to stone her, and generally act like monstrous bullies. Her film is at times a bit overwrought, and some of the situations are a bit unbelievable, but she brings a very human, eye to what’s happening in contemporary Afghanistan.

Good movies, bad movies, no matter. What better way to celebrate Labor Thanksgiving Day than in a dark theater, It’s a holiday tradition.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 24, 2007 at 3:00 am

Tokyo Filmex 2007 – boxoffice.com blog #6

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Moving into the final weekend, Filmex is gearing up with more guests and screenings of buzz films. Young director Hana Makhmalbaf is here with her film Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame. She made her first film at 9. At 16, her first documentary played Cannes. Now at the ripe old age of 19 she’s screening her first feature.

Lee Kang-shen is also in town. He’s as quiet and taciturn in real life as the roles he’s played in most of the films of his mentor, Tsai Ming-liang. From Rebels of a Neon God to I Don’t Want to Sleep Any More, he’s been Tsai Ming-liang’s favorite alter ego and anti-hero of contemporary Taiwanese alienation and confusion. With his gentle face and disarming good looks he’s played a series of hip loners and losers, creating a bittersweet on-screen persona that gives a rich resonance to otherwise dour and downer films.

This year he’s at Filmex, not only in person and on screen, but also behind the camera. Help Me Eros is his second directorial effort. It’s a gorgeous film, all neon and candy colors, with inventive mise-en-scene, where there’re often several fields of action in a single frame. The film is positively dripping with sex and desire. Lee’s learned well the look and style of his mentor. In fact, Tsai Ming-liang gets credit as executive producer and production designer.

Lee plays the weirdly lovelorn and perpetually stoned main character, Ah Ji, his eyes at 3/4 mast throughout the film. And he has a hilarious touch with presenting the foibles and repressed (and not-so-repressed) desires of a set of demimonde personages. But he himself portrays a character with such lack of empathy and connectedness, that when it came to the end and Ah Ji’s defenestration, I was just kind of happy the whole thing was over.

Nonetheless, kudos to program director, Ichiyama Shozo for taking chances and presenting films that themselves take chances – and sometimes miss. But giving Help Me Eros the benefit of the doubt, it is quite sexy, though heartless, and could become a bit of hit in Asia and on the festival circuit.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 23, 2007 at 2:59 am

Tokyo Filmex 2007 – boxoffice.com blog #5

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On the way to the National Film Center, I come across a funky street corner display for a celebrity gossip magazine, The Big Issue. The current and past issues were dutifully wrapped in plastic and binder clipped with an appealingly naive creativity on a small rolling suitcase. On the covers of the three most prominently displayed were contemporary superstars, Angelina Jolie, Milla Jovavich, and Johnny Deep. One of the many lovable things of Japan is the mangling and misspelling of things English.

But there’s no time to dawdle. I’m rushing off to Film Center where I’m going to catch a film featuring a true and enduring superstar, Shintaro Katsu. Better known by his most famous film role, Zatoichi, Shintaro created the character of the blind swordsman/gambler that kept him busy for 25 films over a little more than a decade. The film is Zatoichi Breaks Jail (aka Zatoichi the Outlaw). It’s playing as part of the Yamamoto Satsuo retrospective. This delicious 1967 romp has it all – lots of swordplay, decapitations, a great stock of evil character actors, Shintaro outdoing himself as the genial, yet conflicted swordsman. And to top it off, in Yamamoto’s hands all the chanbara action works toward a social message of organizing and rising against those that oppress you. The audience of young film enthusiasts and a large number of retirees give it a healthy applause as the houselights come up.

Next up, is rushing back to the Asahi Hall to catch Kenneth Bi’s The Drummer. The Drummer stars another rising and most likely to be superstar, Jaycee Chan. Jaycee’s Jackie Chan’s son. He’s a chip off the old block. Bi’s well-produced and acted action drama is a solid piece of hackery, finely engaging, but ultimately dissatisfying. It’s a mix of Hong Kong gangster action epic with a new age Zen twist. Irresponsible gangster’s son, Chan, gets involved with rival boss’s girlfriend. Chan gets sent away to Taiwan to chill out and lay low. He comes across a commune of Zen drummers. He finds new meaning and reason for his life as a drummer. Dad gets murdered. Son comes back to attend to business and revenge, but at the very last moment spares the murder’s life. It’s a hackneyed story made with some panache, a fine team of character actors, and some great sequences of taiko-style Zen drumming.

On the way home I duck under the Yurakucho line tracks to grab a beer at an old izakaya. On the retaining wall across the sidewalk from the bar are old movie posters – Charlie Chaplin in the Great Dictator, obscure Japanese films from the past, superstars that come and go.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 22, 2007 at 2:58 am

Tokyo Filmex 2007 – boxoffice.com blog #4

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Today felt like a good day to check out some of the retrospective screenings that Tokyo Filmex justifiable is building its reputation on. Seeing old movies in Tokyo is surprisingly easy. Tokyo still has a few repertory theaters that show old classics and obscure chanbara. Shinbun Geiza in Inkebukuro and La Puta (well worth the visit just to see the beautiful post-modern confection of a theater) in Asagaya are just a couple places to catch up on Japanese cinema history. What Filmex does, though, is partner with the National Film Center and other institutions and digs deep, finding some true gems and then presenting them in the context of director retrospectives.

This year is no exception. Director Yamamoto Satsuo’s work has been gracing the screen at the National Film Center, the other Filmex venue, for the last few days. Serious cinephiles are flocking to the 2nd floor of the center to see magnificently restored prints of Satsuo’s work. Roughly contemporaneous with Kurosawa, Satsuo had a long career working in the Japanese film industry. From lefty legit theatre in the 1930s, he jumped into the cinema. Getting through the war years making propaganda films, his left-leaning social conscience re-blossomed after the Japanese surrender and he worked the industry, putting his messages into the most unlikely of pop entertainments.

The afternoon screening of The Burglar Story was no exception. Presented in a crisp new B&W widescreen print, this delightful movie from 1965 started as a bit of a clinical Clouzeau-like caper flick, following the adventures of a hardened crew of post-war bandit/profiteers. Soon it turned into a comedy of bumbling burglars. Then, as our hero, played by great character actor, Mikui Rentaro, goes straight, it became something like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It was a wonderful discovery. I’m looking forward to the Zatoichi film he directed, screening tomorrow.

Later, at the Yurakucho Asahi Hall, Ritwik Ghatak’s 1973 A River Called Titash played. Ghatak’s work is what Filmex’s other retrospective is covering. One of the titans of Indian cinema, his oeuvre has been largely neglected since is death in 1976. Titash could easily be retitled Que Viva Bangladesh. A truly odd movie, it looks like something that could have been shot in the 1930s (but was made in the 70s), has completely unnaturalistic performances, beautiful and stilted tableau shots, and a sprawling story, that I must admit, got a bit tiring.

Bleary eyed, I went to a talk session with two of the festival competition judges – Christian Jeune, from Cannes, and Dorothee Wenner, from Berlin. Young filmmakers and festival guests (plus one homeless guy) listened as they described programs that both their festivals have instituted to help produce new work by new directors. I can only hope that someone listening to Jeune and Wenner today may become the subject of Tokyo Filmex’s 2057 director retrospective.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 21, 2007 at 2:57 am