a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Tokyo International Film Festival Report

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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

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 6, 2008 at 1:42 am

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