The fall film festival season in Tokyo commences in mid-September with PIA, which over the past 34 years has been the one to watch for new Japanese talent. Its annual competition highlights work largely by recent film school graduates and has launched the careers of more than a few commercial hacks. But it’s also uncovered geniuses, from Sion Sono, whose Bicycle Sighs screened in 1991, to Kohki Yoshida, whose perfect first feature Household X was produced by PIA’s Scholarship Film program a few years ago.
The Charm of Others
The pleasure of PIA is discovering raw or sometimes fully formed new talent. There’s a lot of dross, usually well made, but inconsequential at best. The 16 films in this year’s main competition followed suit. By far the most exciting debut was Ryutaro Ninomiya’s The Charm of Others. The rambling story follows the uneventful lives and petty power struggles of a bunch of guys working dead-end jobs at a repair shop for broken vending machines. These déclassé losers are portrayed not just with bitter satire—though there’s plenty of that—but also with a lot of affection and understanding. Ninomiya’s canny direction and dramatic set pieces would have made Cassavetes proud. Ninomiya himself plays one of the main roles with an oddly winning and ambiguous charm.
The Town of Whales
The Charm of Others won the Runner-up Award and went on to play Vancouver Film Festival’s venerable Dragons & Tigers section a week after PIA. Hopefully festival buzz will keep it in the public eye for a while. The inexplicable Grand Prize winner was Keiko Tsuruoka’s The Town of Whales, an inept coming-of-age drama, overloaded with symbolism and burdened with a plot full of head-scratching motivations. Not only that, it looked terrible. But the film will definitely grace at least one more festival: the award guarantees a screening berth in the Tokyo International Film Festival’s Japanese Eyes Competition.
The Tokyo International Film Festival is the mother of Japanese film festivals. Its nine days are a whopping mix: premieres and test-marketing of international and Japanese product already scheduled for release; an international competition section; the Japanese Eyes section, showing new independently produced Japanese films; the Winds of Asia/Middle East competition; World Cinema, highlighting films that have been hitting other festivals; plus a few other special presentations. This year featured tributes to Hong Kong producer Raymond Chow and Roger Corman, who headed the festival jury. There’s also a market section and a number of sub-festivals and talk sessions. All in all, it’s a week-plus of too much.
TIFF (as the festival is known here—sorry, Toronto) fits uncomfortably between Busan, which gets first dibs on the best of Asian product, and Tokyo Filmex, which in late November delivers a smaller but better curated festival, usually premiering at least a couple of the most challenging new Japanese films of the year. However, amidst the perhaps too generous, sprawling offerings of TIFF, there are always a few surprises.
The biggest one this year was the general quality of the competition section. Programming director Yoshi Yatabe always has his work cut out for him, attracting enough meritworthy work to a festival that’s not quite as influential as it wants to be. The $50,000 Grand Prize generally keeps the pickings interesting, but recently the competition has had a couple of films that stood head and shoulders above questionable cohorts. This year, most of the selections, if not confirmed stand-outs from other festivals such as Pablo Larraín’s No, revealed a fair number of filmmakers showing off some of their best.
Atambua 39 Degrees Celsius
Of genuine interest was Indonesian director Riri Riza’s Atambua 39 Degrees Celsius, an impassioned drama about a family split by the 1999 referendum that made East Timor independent. If the politics and history can grow a bit arcane, the personal drama and the cultural window that Riza opens are fascinating and moving. Atumba follows the hard-headed and bitter Ronaldo (Petrus Beyleto) who’s taken his teen-aged son Joao (Gudino Soares) to live in Atumba, a town flooded with refugees on the Indonesian side of the new border. Refusing to set foot again in his old hometown on the East Timorese side until there’s once again a united Indonesia, he’s turned into a calcified alcoholic wreck. The son ultimately brings him back home to reconcile with his estranged wife. A cast of first-time actors speaking mainly in Tetun, a dialect heavily inflected with Portuguese, bring color and new life to an archetypal tale.
Michael Rix’s Accession is a brutal and unrelenting study of a South African man who goes to terrifying and insane limits in an attempt to cure himself of HIV. The doomed trajectory of his life and his reprehensible actions—which include raping a child in the belief it would rid him of the disease—pushed the audience’s comfort level to the extreme. This modern horror story about township life and a particular psychopathology brought up more questions than it answered, particularly in how far a filmmaker should go in representing truly disturbing material. But that’s what Rix sets out to do, and he does so with a striking formal conceit. Short of a few establishing shots, the camerawork never strayed more than a foot or so from lead actor Pethro Themba Mbole’s head. In over-the-shoulder shots as he rambles around his bleak surroundings, or in full close-up as he interacts with off-screen characters, the audience is forced to share his personal space.
Ship of Theseus
Another newcomer with an ambitious film and the wherewithal to pull it off was Indian director Anand Gandhi. Ship of Theseus (which premiered at Toronto) turns on a classic thought experiment: when all the planks and parts of Theseus’s ship have been replaced, is it still the same ship, or is it something new? Gandhi probes the idea with an assured trio of stories revolving around transplanted organs. Moral, ethical, and philosophical conundrums abound in the tales. A holy man, long involved in the fight against animal testing, comes to terms with his own mortality and accepts the liver transplant and animal-tested drugs that will save his life; a blind photographer loses her “eye” once she gets new corneas and can see again; and a man tracks down the recipient of a kidney stolen from a poor Indian and demands its return. Neeraj Kabi brings a firm and gentle honesty to his portrayal of Maitreya, the Jain monk facing his mortality. Rising Bollywood star Sohum Shah shows he can handle serious material as Naveen, the apathetic stockbroker who finds a new cause in confronting the scourge of the illicit organ market. Gandhi revels in portraying a modern Mumbai that’s considerably more diverse and interesting than the poverty-stricken hell that’s become a cinematic cliché of this great city.
One competition film, Wang Jing’s Feng Shui, caused a bit of controversy, not because of its subject matter—a woman’s life becomes a tragedy of China’s booming Nineties—but because of the souring of political relations between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands. At the last minute, the distributors pulled the film, citing Japan’s intransigence in the latest kerfuffle. Tom Yoda, outgoing chairman of TIFF, kept the politics clean and simple, insisting contractual agreements be kept—and Feng Shui played to an eager house. Wang Jing, unfortunately, didn’t make it for his world premiere.
The Other Son
The Grand Prize winner was Lorraine Levy’s The Other Son, a switched-at-birth drama redeemed by exceptional performances from all, especially Jules Sitruk and Mehdi Dehbi as the other sons in question. Of the two Japanese films in the competition, Matsue Tetsuaki’s Flashback Memories 3D was by far the more captivating selection, going on to win the Audience Award. It’s a very loud movie—and a total head trip. Tetsuaki filmed a 2012 studio performance by didgeridoo player Goma and his band of three percussionists, the Jungle Rhythm Section. As the 72-minute concert progresses, Goma’s life is illustrated through green-screen superimpositions of old videos, photographs, concert posters, and whatnot.
All of which amounts at first to a hagiography of the young and talented musician’s rise through Australian didgeridoo competitions to becoming a club favorite in Japan. But then it’s revealed that in 2009, Goma suffered brain damage in a car accident. Suddenly everything shown to this point takes on new meaning, particularly once you learn that Goma doesn’t remember any of it—including, as is explained at the film’s end, the very performance you’re watching. History, memory, and Goma’s particular way of surviving by performing and living in the present collide, making this testament to a fascinating artist a genuinely moving experience. Goma himself appeared at the premiere, bringing down the house with his nakedly emotional response to the film. TIFF has been nurturing Tetsuaki, hosting the premieres of his earlier films Live Tape (09) and Tokyo Drifter (11), both of which featured singer-songwriter Kenta Maeno. Tetsuaki has become one of the more intriguing nonfiction filmmakers working in Japan, mixing up straightforward performance documentation with other, deeper themes.
The Japanese Eyes section featured 10 films ranging from the abysmal to the OK. The winner was Yutaka Tsuchiya’s GFP Bunny, unseen by this reviewer. But the best of the rest was Ryohei Yoshino’s Akaboshi, about a grieving woman who finds some reprieve by joining a Christian cult resembling the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She ends up going over the edge in her desperate zealousness. It’s all seen through the eyes of her son, played brilliantly by the young actor Aren, who becomes the emotional center of the film as a kid thrust too soon into a position of responsibility.
2012 marked TIFF’s 25th anniversary. For most of its existence it’s been overloaded and unfocused, trying too hard to be a major player in the international festival circuit. That said, TIFF remains something of a cinematic lifeboat as more and more movie theaters in Japan shutter each year, distributors of foreign films drop out of sight, and the local product from the big three (Shochiku, Toho, and Toei) becomes more banal. Between PIA and TIFF, there are always a few gems, and this year bore some hope-inspiring signs of filmmakers making strong and affecting small films. How they will survive in a rapidly changing world of commercial distribution and exhibition remains to be seen. But at least these festivals, one huge and one tiny, are trying to nurture new talent and keep cinema, and moviegoing, alive.
Originally published on the Film Comment Blog, 11.14.2012