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Archive for October 2011

Exclusive report from the 2011 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival

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Every two years, the town of Yamagata in the north of Honshu, for one week becomes the focal point for a slew of Japanese and international documentary filmmakers, students, doc fans, volunteers and acolytes to immerse themselves in films, discussion and drinking sessions – all centered around the current state of documentary production. In my opinion, it’s the most interesting and important film fest in Japan. I hit the fest only for the last few days, missing the critical mass of the opening weekend, but still walking away with my head buzzing around the current state of documentary filmmaking in Japan – and the world.Yamagata province is just over the mountains from Fukushima. The earthquake, tsunami and the ongoing nuclear disaster continues to preoccupy the national discourse. The festival programmers quickly pulled together a program, the Great East Japan Earthquake Recovery Support Screening Project. Symposia and a collection of 29 films became the focal point for discussions about how the disaster was mediated, the general quality of these inquiries and a larger look into the function of committed filmmakers in the national dialogue. Endless images of wasted landscapes commanded screens over the opening weekend. Many were earnest, but dull. One in particular, “311” by Mori Tatsuya, Watai Takeharu, Matsubayashi Yoju and Yasuoka Takahara, sparked weeklong conversations about documentary ethics. Naomi Kawase’s “3.11 A Sense Of Home Films” had an international who’s who of filmmakers weighing in with short meditations on the tragedy. Victor Erice completists, take note! By far the most well-received was Matsubayashi Yoju’s “Fukushima:Memories of a Lost Landscape.”

This was just the tip of the iceberg from a festival that has huge ambitions, a very let’s-put-on-a-show feel and succeeds wildly. Among the sections of the festival are an International Competition (this year’s judges included Atom Egoyan and Haile Gerima), New Asian Currents (Takahise Zeze and Mickey Chen were the judges), New Docs Japan (mainly well-meaning, but marginally crafted works) and some special focuses for this year. Islands / I Lands, NOW – Vista de Cuba was a monumental program on Cuban documentary. My Television focused on Japanese TV documentary from the 60s and 70s. A Reunion of Taiwan and Japanese Filmmakers;12 Years Later brought together young filmmakers who came to Yamagata for a program 12 years before and got them back together to see where they are now. Matsue Tetsuaki was part of that bunch. And there was whole lot more in the way of formal programs and events, but much of the action and chat takes place at on of the best watering holes in all of Japan, the Komian Bar, where every night after the final screening, basically everyone gets down to continue the discussion until well into the wee hours.

The festival The festival closed with a screening of “Regarding the Lives of Others,” a bit of a hagiography of Tsuchimoto Noriaki, most famous for his series of films on Minamata. but the film channelled a palpable excitement following Noriaki and his generation’s invention of committed documentary cinema. Having his longtime cameraman, the generous and slightly cranky Otsu Koshiro on hand for chat and comment only added to the screening.

Again, Yamagata pulled off another amazing festival. Next year, the program is replayed in Tokyo. And in two years, the 13th edition unveils itself. I can hardly wait.

Originally published in J-Film Pow-Wow, October 24, 2011


Written by Nicholas Vroman

October 24, 2011 at 3:20 am

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An Interview with Octubre’s Diego Vega

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Octubre, the first feature film by filmmaking brothers, David and Diego Vega Vidal was the winner at Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2010. Their darkly comic humanism falls into Latin American film traditions, but is informed by their unique vision and beautifully crafted film style, opening up a window on an under-represented (at least in the USA) film culture – that of Peru. I had a little email chat with DIego about influences, the present and the future of Peruvian cinema, and a few other things.

Octubre plays at NWFF from Friday, October 21 to Thursday, October 22. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

NV – Octubre has been compared to Aki Kurismaki and Jim Jarmusch films. Do these or other international directors inspire your work?

DV – We like movies that they both make. Both handle the humor in a very particular manner and point of view. For sure if we follow their references they’ll lead us to the same well. But from them we managed to create our own style. I think that Bresson is between us and their models and there was one of his movies in particular, L’Argent, that gave us the first idea to start writing October. Eventually that first idea changed a lot and I think (hope) we’ve managed to create something of our own. In general, speaking of references is complicated because all the movies you see help you as you write or prepare a film.

NVRegarding film from Latin America, I see a similarity with Arturo Ripstein – or even to Bunuel or Berlanga. Are they influences? Are there other Latin American or Spanish filmmakerswho have influenced your work and ideas?

DVI have in mind some films by Ripstein, others by Buñuel, but only one or two by Berlanga that I barely remember. I think Octubre has nothing to do with those movies that I remember by Berlanga, and maybe I could find some similarities with some of the atmosphere of Ripstein – but with a different tone – and, although I fail to see it, some people have told us that Octubre reminds them Buñuel’s films, which pleases and honors us. But in this sense, neither Ripstein, nor Buñuel nor Berlanga were direct or conscious references. When thinking about directing actors we have to mention Argentine films we like El Otro, Whisky and El Custodio, and also Lumet’s The Pawnbroker.

NVRegarding Peruvian cinema, are there filmmakers that have inspired you?

DVThere are good movies, but what has inspired us is seeing people making them more than one film in particular.

NVFrom your short film, Interior Baja Izquierda to Octubre, you main characters seem to be people who lead marginal lives. Could you comment on your attraction to this side of life?
DVI don’t think that all our main characters live marginal lives. In the case of Don Fico in Octubre and the elderly couple in Interior Baja Izquierda, I think his condition has more to do with age – the end of their lives and how they got to that point. Don Fico, for example, has a pension – not a big pension but the state hasn’t forgotten about him completely. He knows how to navigate the rapids and even manages to save some money for a trip. I think what’s marginal is not having done so well in life and “doing time” while you think of how to get your girlfriend out of the hospital to leave Lima  and die. As for the short, the elderly couple have reached the end of life as they did and have been closing in on themselves. I believe this is related to the marginality to which you refer I think. Clement and Sofia live a modest but not insignificant, each has his home, which is not luxurious, but it’s neat, clean, and they can say that they live with dignity. Our intention in both cases, now looking at it in a dispassionate way, was always to look into the fact of being alone. In the end we’ve constructed stories of people who are lonely for different reasons, and are looking for ways to no longer be [lonely] or to feel better.

NVAre the characters in your film related to real people in your lives?

DVWe’ve unconsciously borrowed very close experiences and feelings from reality. So we started writing and in the process we understood where those ideas came from. With the film already made, and as we talked with people who had seen it, made interviews and read some reviews, we understood much better the origin of the central themes of the film and also understood that feeling that remains after watching it. Because for a long time we were working and searching to reproduce a feeling rather than create a plot.  When we started writing Octubre we did it in part with the idea of describing what we felt. I think, somewhere between disappointment, unease and disillusion.

NVThere seems to be a renaissance in Latin American film making now. Can you comment on why you think this is happening? And how you fit in?

DVI think this renaissance is most noticeable in contrast with what happened between the 80s and 90s when governments of different countries coincided in eliminating laws for film or didn’t comply with or even have laws. Countries that now have functioning cinema laws (for better or worse) at the time had no laws or if they did they weren’t much use. Thus, there was a time between the 80s and 90s in which you didn’t hear much about  good movies unless they were from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico or Cuba. Today, countries that previously didn’t do anything or very little, are producing a lot – Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Uruguay –  and besides, the long-time greats – Brazil, Argentina, Mexico –  have revitalized their laws and are producing more films. Even in countries where there are no film laws or where the laws don’t function like everyone would like, there are filmmakers beginning to make movies – for example, Guatemala, Paraguay and Costa Rica. There is a huge need for expression and film laws are helping. This unfortunately isn’t always synonymous with good movies but they are very good things. Cinema in Latin America, like it or not, is almost a genre and major festivals are connected with it, so it’s normal to hear about Latin American cinema, so many movies are premiered at major festivals. The interesting thing also, I think, is that there’s a cinema that’s produced and exhibited independent of these film laws that still have no access to the big festivals, that the world still doesn’t know about. But I’m sure that in time great works will will come out. As for us in the midst of this revival, we’re two filmmakers with our first work which fortunately went well and will allow us to prepare – with hope and optimism – our next movie.

NVIs there a movement of new Peruvian filmmakers?

DVI don’t know if there’s movement, but there are definitely many people who want to make films and are making movies, with better and worse results.

NVAre there other filmmakers that you collaborate with that the world should know about?

DVWe haven’t worked directly with anyone but we’re good friends of with some, we read scripts at times and we show short films. We’re aware of what everybody’s doing. Héctor Gálvez, for example, director of the great film Paradise, is a very good fiction and documentary director.

NVCan you tell us a little about your next project?

DVIt’s tentatively titled The Mute. It’s the story of an honest and anonymous public official, who after being shot, begins to believe he’s more important than he actually is. So he begins to make sense of  his little fight against corruption that until then was inconsequential. We’re thinking of it like a black comedy and hope to shoot it next year.

Click here to view their short film Interior Baja Izqierda.

Originally published in Hot Splice, October 18, 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

October 18, 2011 at 5:59 am

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The 33rd PIA Film Festival

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The 33rd edition of the PIA festival wrapped on Friday, September 30. A week and an half in the rather dowdy National Film Theatre saw a slew of hipsters, film students, pedants, critics and film fans making their annual pilgrimage to check out the newest of the new – with hopes of discovering the newest and best of the Japanese film scene. PIA has played host to the first-time efforts of such folks as enfant terrible Sono Shion as well as the more gentle international festival favorite, Naomi Kawase. Recently they’ve been nurturing the career of whipsmart indie wunderkind, Yuya Ishii. This year’s festival opened with the Japanese premiere of his newest feature, Mitsuko Delivers. Like the best of Ishii’s work Mitsuko Delivers delivers a smart social satire couched in situation comedy. Riisa Naka handily plays a very pregnant Mitsuko, who embarks not only on controlling her own life, but nearly every one else’s around her, too.

PIA is divided into its Competition section, this year showcasing 17 films – shorts and feature length – and a few small, but well conceived sidebars. This year, there was the “Temptation of Black and White,” a odd, but fun celebration of the monochrome with screenings of Bela Tarr’s monumental Satantango and silents by Naruse and Lubitsch. With live piano accompaniment by silent film specialist Mie Yanashita, a double bill of Naruse’s last silent film, the near perfect Street Without End and Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful 1926 So This is Paris, was an eye-opener. Naruse’s early masterpiece, though a bit more somber than anything by Lubitsch shares similar modernist film stylings. And when Naruse’s characters go to a screening of The Smiling Lieutenant, it becomes obvious.

The opening week continued with a series of “Cinema Lessons” featured the likes of Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Tokyo Sonata) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo) commenting on some of their favorite films. Kurosawa took on Shinji Aoyama’s 1999 Shady Grove while Tsukamoto, literally flying in from his screening of Kotoko in Toronto, gave his two bits, including a very credible imitation of Toshiro Mifune, on The Seven Samurai.

For the last 20 years, PIA has thrown it’s might – the main business of PIA is in entertainment promotion and ticket sales – around the funding and promotion of a single Scholarship Film. Last year’s effort was the brilliant feature Household X, now finally opening in Japan. This year PIA debuted Shoko Kimura’s Ordinary Love as its Scholarship Film. The film, in a shorter version won their Special Jury Prize in 2009 and has been worked into a feature film. Kimura boldly explores a young woman’s budding sexuality in her intriguing debut feature.

As for the competition, a jury consisting of producer Shuji Abe, directors Shinya Tsukamoto and Takahisa Zeze, and actors Kaho Minami and Eita gave out awards for the top films at an award ceremony at the National Film Center. The “Grand Prix” winner was Hitoshi Kitagawa’s Damn Life, a dark and broad surreal comedy. Other top prizes went respectively to Shintaro Hihara’s As the Season Goes Around, Kashou’s Iizuka’s Our Future, Michitoshi Nambu’s Passion – featuring a brilliant performance by Isumi Takahashi collaborator Hiromasa Hirosue – and Rokuro’s (Taito). Special awards went to audience favorite, Tominaga Park by Ryu Morioka and Shingo Takeda’s Children.

The top winner, Damn Life, is a rambling yarn about Kotani, an emotional shipwreck of a human being who takes matters violently into his own hands after a series of humiliations by his co-workers. In a sort of absurdist comedy that becomes a bit of a splatterfest, Damn Life reaches for something that it doesn’t quite catch. The super low-budget effects are brilliant and a few scenes are funny in a very creepy way, but the whole doesn’t come together all that well.

My personal favorite of the fest was Takehiro Kano’s Rumination. Reminiscent of Sally Potter’s Thriller or early James Benning – mini-drama deconstructions – but with a whole lot more heart than Potter and a lot less formally tight than Benning. Kano takes a quite unexplained relationship between a pair of couples in some Japanese backwater and runs through a repetitive series of shots and situations. The basic scenes are repeated with slight variations – slightly different angles and camera movements, slightly different actions and dialogue. By the time the viewer gets through the fourth variation, things are definitely changing and getting mixed up.  At nearly two hours, the film could have used more judicious editing. His characters could have certainly used a bit more definition and drama, but Kano’s ideas on cinema are definitely original and going against the usual grain. I’m looking forward to his future efforts.

It’s always a mixed bag of films, but PIA’s an intimate showcase where one can rub shoulders with the newest and freshest indie talents alongside a who’s who of established filmmakers. PIA marks the beginning of the festival season here in Tokyo. Mid-October brings the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, a bi-yearly event that brings a who’s who of international documentary makers to a small town in northern Japan. TIFF – that’s the Tokyo International Film Festival — takes one through the end of October. And November is the time for Filmex, an intimate fest that highlights the best of international and local film. The PIA fest, with its intimacy and new images and ideas is an appropriate way to start off the fall viewing in Japan.

Originally published in Filmmaker Magazine online, Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

October 8, 2011 at 11:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

REVIEW: Street Without End

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限りなき舗道 (Kagirinaki hodo)

Released: 1934

Mikio Naruse

Setsuko Shinobu
Hikaru Yamanouchi
Chiyoko Katori
Shinichi Himori
Nobuko Wakaba

Running time: 88 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

The opening day of the PIA Film Festival highlighted a screening of Mikio Naruse’s last silent film” Street Without End.” It was screened in program with Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful 1926 silent “So This is Paris” – an appropriate pairing as Naruse quotes a Lubitsch film within “Street Without End.” With live piano accompaniment by silent film specialist Mie Yanashita, an added dimension was added to the screening. Too bad there wasn’t a benshi!

Mikio Naruse cut his teeth at Shochiku, finally getting his first directorial gig in 1930. Butting heads regularly with producer Shiro Kido, in 1933 he took on “Street Without End,” the less than promising but popular novel by Komatsu Kitamura with the deal that he would get more artistic freedom on his next project. Kido reneged on his promise and Naruse moved on to Photo Chemical Laboratories (PCL), a fledgling production company that would soon become more famous as Toho. At PCL, with considerably more artistic freedom, his career soon began to flower with critical and commercial successes. “Street Without End” was not only his last film for Shochiku, but also his last silent film. It was also one of the first of his masterpieces.

Despite the somewhat farfetched melodramatic plot, Naruse carefully constructed a touching drama of woman caught under the weight of societal mores. Naruse’s signature theme, the plight of women in Japan, is apparent in this early work. The impeccable use of mise-en-scene countered by flourishes of Eisenstein style editing show a young director in full command of film grammar. Creative cutaways and the generally low-key approach of the actors show Naruse exploring new ideas of how to structure drama. The smart use of tracking shots and beautifully composed shots by cinematographer Suketaro Inokai serve the film impeccably.

The film opens with a set of stunning images of 1930’s Ginza. The modern, bustling, electrified neighborhood is where Sugiko (Setsuko Shinobu) has come to find work. She waits tables at a moderne diner, the Compal Café. Here’s where the new, lower class, urban workers start in the new Japan. Caught between a marriage proposal from Harada (Ichiro Yuki), her self-serving boyfriend (he wants to get out of an arranged marriage) and the offer of some film touts to be groomed as a new star, she absent-mindedly steps off a curb into an oncoming car. The driver is Hiroshi Yamanouchi (Hikaru Yamanouchi), the well-heeled scion of a bourgeois family. As he rushes to the hospital with her, boyfriend Harada sees her in the arms of another man in the passing taxi and assumes the worst. He will soon disappear into his arranged marriage. Sugiko recovers quickly and is soon courted by Hiroshi. In a mix of true love, a sense of duty and a way to assert himself against his domineering mother (Ayako Katusragi) and sister (Nobuko Wakaba) he proposes to her under the looming presence of Mount Fuji. Sugiko warily accepts and finds herself in an oppressive household. Unaccepted by the unrelenting harpies and barely defended by her new husband, she endures gracefully. Hiroshi falls into drinking and womanizing and Sugiko finally asserts herself and leaves. Hiroshi continues on his drunken escapades getting into a major car accident. Implored to come back to the family, she comes to his bedside, delivering her final statement, accusing mom – and the system – of guilt in the tragedy. As she leaves the hospital room, Hiroshi dies. The film ends with Sugiko back at the café, a little wiser and world-weary. A long shot of her staring quietly leaves an enigmatic denouement.

Amidst this thick plot are a couple of subplots that build on the themes. One involves her savvy co-worker and roommate Kesako (Chiyoko Katori) and her clueless artist boyfriend Shinkichi (Shinichi Himori). She ends up taking the acting job that Sugiko didn’t, only to find it completely unsatisfying. The other subplot is the arrival of her brother Koichi (Akio Isono) to the big city. His desire for making it is to learn how to drive. And he actually succeeds. But in the light of Hiroshi’s ill fate with driving, there are ominous overtones.

The pleasures of “Street Without End” are myriad. The street shooting alone remains an indispensible document of 1930s Japan. The neon lit buildings, the electric power lines, the new trains and new fashions serve as backdrops and signifiers for a changing society. But from Naruse’s point of view, the changes are merely on the surface. Much of the second act of the film takes place in the confines of the Yamnouchi family residence. Unlike the new Ginza or even the simple, small apartments where Sugiko, Kesako and Shinkichi live, the Yamanouchi house is shot from low angles highlighting the oppressive ceilings and roof beams. Often the restless camera shows Sugiko in the background, her husband, sister-in-law and mother-in-law commanding the foreground space and confining her literally in the frame.

One startling sequence opens with the incongruous image of Maurice Chevalier in Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Smiling Lieutenant”. A quick cut reveals Sugiko and Hiroshi in the movie theater. Chevalier’s light romancing contrasts starkly with the state of the newly married couple.

But there are also moments and sequences of lightness and beauty. Early in the film, Sugiko and Harada walk through the dark city streets where he proposes to her. She remains reticent. But the sequence is built with a gentle dynamic framed in compositions foregrounding moon-like street lamps and the arcs of bridges and overpasses. The mood is magical. The shots continually reframe the couple, gently highlighting the shifting emotions, moods and feelings of each.

One intertitle emphatically declares Naruse’s declaration on the state of things. In translation it says, “Even today, feudalistic notions of family crush the pure love of young people in Japan.” He cuts from the intertitle to Kesako in the dressing room of a studio and her Shinkichi, now a set painter. Some comic business ensues with Shinkichi before Naruse cuts to the Sugiko’s travails in the Yamanouchi household. A subtle jab at the feudalistic film industry seems to be operating by the placement of the movie set scene.

“Street Without End” is of its time, yet its recent rediscovery show it to be still cogent, particularly within the context of Naruse’s oeuvre and revelatory in his impeccable story telling and consistently inventive and brilliant use of camera and editing.

“Street Without End” is available on DVD in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse.

Originally published at J-Film Pow-Wow, Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai / Ichimei / 一命

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Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Takeshi Miike’s serviceable remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 masterpiece, Harakiri leaves on wondering why? Why remake one of the undisputed masterpieces of cinema – particularly if the only noticeable addition is the use of 3D. Even with the very good performance of Kabuki sensation and drunken brawler, Ebizou Ichikawa as Hanshirou Tsugumo, the avenging ronin at the center of the story, Miike’s version is surprisingly flat. The 3D is used rather ineffectively, with far too many pans merely motivated to include foreground clutter and overuse of CGI snow, which becomes annoying after a certain point. The cinematography, though appropriately dark and moody, lacks the tightness and formal austerity of Yoshio Miyajima’s work in the 1962 original. The lead up to the final reckoning, a fight scene which on its own works well in the new version, lacks the tension that made the original even more exciting and meaningful. At least he’s trying to copy the best and perhaps Miike’s version may inspire a new generation of cinephiles to rediscover the original.

Originally published in EL Magazine, October 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

October 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Household X / 家族X

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Household X opens with a handheld shot of a family photograph – a mother, a father and their son. Perhaps it’s held a little too long in the unsteady gaze of the camera’s lens, but serves as a perfect metaphor for the shaky and unstable foundation that holds this particular Japanese family together. We will only see the family together again in a single frame in the closing shot of the movie. By then, the tragedy of contemporary alienation that director Koki Yoshida has committed so well to the screen will have covered some familiar territory, but with a clear hard eye and technical and emotional finesse. The story follows a few days in the lives of Michiko (Kaho Minami), an obsessive bulimic on the verge of a breakdown, her concerned, yet clueless husband (Taguchi Tomorowo) on the verge of redundancy at work and her angry and uncommunicative son (Tomohiro Kaku), stuck in a world of dead end temp jobs. Yoshida takes a simple family tragedy and brings it to a searing emotional denouement.

Originally published in EL Magazine, October 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

October 4, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Hayabusa / はやぶさ

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Among the slate of movies on Hayabusa, the little satellite that could, coming out this year, Hayabusa is the first to hit the big screen with a promotional vengeance.  The next big one in 3D with Ken Watanabe is due out later. With this one, the viewer will have to settle with a lesser, though credible cast of character actors. Yuko Takeuchi stars as the appropriately nerdy cutie who insinuates herself into the fold of rocket scientists who babied the building and sending of Japan’s most famous satellite to a strangely turd-like asteroid. Hayabusa is more Spielberg, excessively wringing out every ounce of tension and emotion from a rather bland story, than Hawks. With musical fanfares telegraphing every triumphant moment, more loving pans around the spacecraft than the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and an excess of sentimentality, Hayabusa is a better cultural window than a good movie. To understand Hayabusa-mania or learn how to build your own satellite – there’s an amazing amount of technical exposition and detail shown – Hayabusa’s recommended.

Originally published in EL Magazine, October 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

October 4, 2011 at 1:05 pm