Archive for November 2008
Following on the heels of the Pusan International Film Festival, the Tokyo International Film Festival, ever wanting to position itself as the festival to go to for new Asian cinema, seems to get sloppy seconds. Even newcomer, Bangkok International Film Festival programmed an edgier Asian section, scooping the new Naomi Kawase film, Nanayo, a few weeks before TIFF. Long the rollout fest for fall product for the Japanese market, it still carries its weight doing its duty to Japanese distributors. This year’s opener was John Woo’s Red Cliff and closing was Wall-E – Red Cliff premiering at the festival a few days before settling into a theatrical run.
The festival is flush, centered in Roppongi Hills, the high class mega development in central Tokyo, boasting countless cafes, shopping galore, an art museum, apartments and offices and a toney new 6-plex cinema. An environmentally friendly green carpet opening night brought out the star power with the likes of John Woo, Fernando Meirelles, Jerzy Skolimowski, Julianne Moore on hand for their Tokyo premieres and John Voight as competition jury head. They even had a special fly-in on the last weekend of the fest with Chen Kaige and Nikita Mikhalkov for lifetime achievement kudo, the Akira Kurosawa Awards.
This is a festival that brazenly programs epic schlock along the lines of Kim Tae-kyun’s The Crossing, Feng Xiaoning’s SuperTyphoon and Journey to the Center of the Earth, quality pics like Hunger and Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky – that will make into theaters anyway, festival faves along the lines of Jose Luis Guerin’s In the City of Sylvia and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys and various rejects from Pusan and Bangkok. But still there were a few diamonds in the rough and discoveries that made the festival worthwhile.
TIFF’s Japanese Eyes section started 4 years ago in reaction to the challenge mounted by Edo’s other big film festival. Tokyo Filmex, which early on took on the mantle of breaking new Japanese films and talent. TIFF’s always had a bit of a problem, from curatorial choices and from the fact that hot new Japanese films are going to other festivals or making their runs outside of the fest circuit. Nonetheless, out a rather dreary lineup, there were some genuine winners. Taking the Best Picture Award was buy a suit, the last film by woefully neglected auteur, Jun Ichikawa, who sadly passed away a month before the scheduled festival debut of his film. It’s a wonderful no-budget chamber piece that’s part city symphony and part Ozu-channeling family drama – a moving denoument to an amazing career. Kaizo Hayashi’s The Code, a clever thriller spoof featured an remarkable Joe Shishido, Seijun Suzuki’s favorite star, showing that minus cheek implants and at 74, he still is a commanding presence.
The competition section was mixed bag of offering from the truly questionable, to several lackluster Japanese, American and French entries, to the new Skolimowski and some premieres by very talented unknowns. Among the best were Planet Carlos, the debut film by German filmmaker, Andreas Kannengießer, about a dirt poor Nicaraguan teenager trying to make a go of life in gigantona, a sort of street poetry/dance/performance art. The Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix winner was Tulpan, a first feature by Kazhakstani filmmaker, Sergey Dvortsevoy’s. It’s wry ethnographic social comedy that fits into a new genre of films defined by the likes of The Story of the Weeping Camel. Winner of Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year, the film is making the rounds, winning prizes nearly everywhere it goes. Skolimowski walked away with the Special Jury Prize for 4 nights with Anna. Though perhaps not his greatest film, it’s good to see him back after 17 years. The audience award went to a Japanese oddity, Tetsu Maeda’s School Days with a Pig, an awkward adaptation of a TV documentary about a class that spends a year raising a pig from birth to the dinner table.
A new section was added with the Toyota Earth Grand Prize, part of an eco-friendly promotion by one of the festival’s major donors. The winner was the amusing, but clichéd Ashes from the Sky, a Spanish anti-nuke Local Hero.
Like Roppongi Hills itself, TIFF is big, sprawling and very commercial, but there are many nooks and crannies where one can find some great things.
Originally published in Filmmaker Magazine, November 6 2008
Nara-based film director Naomi Kawase made a quite a splash on the international film scene last year when her film, The Mourning Forest, won the Grand Prix at Cannes. The story of a caregiver and her testy relationship with an Alzeiheimer’s stricken man – both coming to terms with family and loss was a marvel of intense emotion, careful structure and quiet intensity. A far cry from the usual wall-to-wall action blockbusters, feature-length advertisement for Disney rides, ham-fisted weepies and infantile comedies that usually command the big screens around Japan, The Mourning Forest stood out by its intelligence and its very real emotion. A simple chamber piece, with brilliant direction of non-actors, it seemingly came out of the blue.
Kawase, though, has been building a body of work since the early 90s, primarily with a series of documentaries turning the camera on herself and her family. Her most recent, Tarachime, in which she documents in disconcerting detail, her relationship with her grandmother and the birth of her child, received the Special Prize at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival last year. She’s simultaneously been making her mark with fiction films. She was feted at Cannes in 1996 with the Camera D’Or for her debut feature film Suzaku.
Her new feature – her 5th – Nanayomachi premieres throughout Japan on November 1. Like The Mourning Forest, Nanayomachi’s tale is built around a spiritual and emotional journey. The story follows a young 29-year-old woman, Saiko who has just arrived in Thailand. Why she’s there is unexplained. A vacation? Running away? It’s left up to the viewer.
Escaping from a suspect cab ride, she runs into the woods – straight into the arms of French heartthrob, Colin Gregoire, who as the character, Greg, takes her to where he lives and studies – a small school of traditional Thai massage. Greg, the master masseuse Amari, her son and an old maid are the only people living in this enchanting place in the heart of the forest. Even the strange taxi driver, who happens to be the Amari’s brother, reappears. Together they all form an odd pseudo family. They do not understand each other’s languages – Thai, French, English and Japanese – but through the touch of Thai massage, they communicate nonetheless. Mystical and physical happenings, random meetings – all build to revelations for all involved. What could have easily become a shallow new age screed carries a subtle profundity.
Saiko is brilliantly played by Kyoko Hasegawa. She made her name in the popular TV drama, Bokudake no Madonna (My Only Madonna), and through smart casting choices is showing her chops a Japanese star to watch. Like Mike Leigh, Kawase’s method of working with actors (and non-actors alike) is not to reveal events, motivations, or even plot. Viewers share the very same situations, feelings and moments that the actors themselves discovered. And Hasegawa is particularly adept in working with this technique. Nanayomachi highlights not only actors, but also director Kawase at top form.
Originally published in Japanzine, November 2008