Sharing acronyms can be a real shitter, especially when you’re forever relegated to second place. A month after Toronto International Film Festival wraps up its annual media frenzy, Tokyo wheels out its own TIFF – an event that, but for its accreditation by the FIAPF, might as well not exist to the wider world. You’ll find no Oscar buzz here: even local directors tend to save their best efforts for Cannes, Venice, et al., and though the winner of the US$50,000 Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix occasionally goes on to greater things (as with the international success of French comedy Untouchable in 2011), the accolade doesn’t seem to have much bearing on a film’s fortunes.
This was the first TIFF since the departure of long-standing chairman Tom Yoda, though the most glaring absence was that of Toyota, whose prominent five-year sponsorship of the festival had included a special eco-themed section. Natural TIFF was out this year, though that wasn’t the only shake-up in the programming: the unwieldy Winds of Asia Middle-East has given way to a more streamlined section, Asian Future, limited to directors producing their debut or sophomore features. It’s encouraging to see TIFF make a concerted effort to support emerging talent; perhaps more importantly, this is a corner of the market where it might conceivably be able to wield some clout.
Sayonara Yoda, Hello Asian Future
Asian Future turned out to supply some of the highlights of this year’s festival, not least Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s The Tale of Iya. (Confession: despite watching a fair few flicks, I managed to miss the winners of both this section and the main competition – Yang Huilong’s Today and Tomorrow and Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, respectively.) Set in the wilds of Tokushima, this ambitiously conceived eco-parable follows the exploits of a mute mountain man (butoh dancer Min Tanaka) and his adopted daughter (Rina Takeda), as the outside world threatens to encroach on their natural idyll. Big, bold and shaggy, it’s part Naked Island humanism, part magical-realist fable, and though it sprawls for nearly three hours, it held my attention throughout. The 29-year-old Tsuta also takes producer, screenplay and editor credits – on this evidence, he’s one to watch in the future.
The rules for entry at TIFF aren’t as stringent as for more high-profile festivals, meaning that some of the films in this year’s competition had already been doing the rounds before arriving in Tokyo. Richard Ayoade’s The Double and Daniele Luchetti’s Those Happy Years both screened at Toronto, while Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies originally premiered at South by Southwest back in March. All were genuinely enjoyable. The Double transports Dostoevsky’s novella into a retro-futurist nightmare redolent of Alphaville and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and though it gets a little overwhelmed by its own eccentricities, it suggests that Ayoade is blossoming into an assured filmmaker. Luchetti’s autobiographical comedy-drama casts a loving eye over his ‘70s upbringing and the troubled relationship between his parents; warm, funny and sexy, it also boasts a commanding turn by Micaela Ramazzotti, as a mother torn between devotion to her narcissistic artist husband and an increasing desire for independence.
I spent much of Drinking Buddies admiring the way that writer-director Swanberg’s dialogue preserved the awkward, overlapping rhythms of authentic speech, only to discover that it wasn’t his dialogue at all: he gives his actors pointers and then gets them to improvise the rest. Even if you consider this a cheat, Drinking Buddies is as refreshing a romcom as you could ask for, bolstered by warm, believable performances from Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson as the titular twosome. Filmed at Chicago’s Revolution Brewing, it also serves as a surprisingly effective advert for craft beer, though anyone attempting to turn the viewing experience into a Withnail & I drinking game would probably end up in hospital.
Of the local contenders, I was far more taken with Koji Fukada’s Au revoir l’été than Hideo Sakaki’s Disregarded People. The former is a slow-moving but ultimately beguiling seishun eiga, where even the moments of high drama feel deliberately underplayed. Treading lightly around some weighty themes – one of the characters is a refugee from Fukushima; another runs an illicit love hotel – it’s a film that’s content to leave a lingering glow rather than a deeper impression (and yes, rising star Fumi Nikaido is a more than welcome presence). Sakaki’s film, by contrast, is an unremitting bummer: a two-hour manga adaptation that resembles the most nihilistic Roman porno in its grim view of humanity and its lovingly shot rape scenes.
Horse shagging and Jodorowsky: a report from Tokyo International Film Festival 2013
Other competition films went to even greater extremes: set in rural Iceland, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men crams so much incident into its 81-minute running time, including sex (both equine and human), death and disembowelment, that it feels like The Archers with better scenery. I wasn’t hugely taken by it, though Erlingsson’s Best Director award felt well earned for the skillful way in which he manages a 300-strong cast of horses. The eponymous Red Family in Lee Ju-hyoung’s debut feature – this year’s Audience Award winner – is actually a quartet of North Korean agents living undercover in a suburb of Seoul, who grow attached to their feckless, capitalistic next-door neighbours. Notable mainly for being written and produced by notorious provocateur Kim Ki-duk, this deeply wonky pic never manages to find a good balance between its comedic and thriller elements, alternating between clumsy satire, sentimentality and some unnecessarily graphic violence on the way to a bizarre and genuinely unexpected climax that I found weirdly cathartic.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was Behnam Behzadi’s Breaking the Rules, an intelligently crafted drama that initially struck me as rather slight, but ended up lingering with me for days afterwards. This tale of a group of students attempting to take their theatre production overseas has plenty to say about the generational divides in modern Iranian society, and Behzadi’s preference for long takes and meticulously directed group scenes gives his cast ample opportunity to shine. In a competition section that was heavy on sex and sensationalism, it was nice to see this walk away with the second-place Special Jury Prize.
As is so often the case at TIFF, some of the best films were screening outside of competition. Already a big hit in Hong Kong, Dante Lam’s Unbeatable is an implausibly entertaining MMA drama, generous in its sentiment but genuinely thrilling in its action sequences. Emma Dante’s A Street in Palermo takes a simple conceit – two cars come head to head in a narrow street, and both drivers refuse to move – and turns it into a wicked satire of Italian society and gender politics, with sterling performances by Elena Cotta and the director herself. And while I’m not sure I’ll ever figure what the hell was happening in Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman – a po-faced, Michael Haneke-esque home invasion drama with macabre fairytale elements – it’s a fascinating curio.
Ironically, the most convincing case for the importance of imagination and ambition in cinema came from a film about a film that never even got made. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a wickedly entertaining account of how the lysergic movie messiah responsible for The Holy Mountain almost got handed the reins of a big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic. Director Frank Pavich makes the sensible choice of letting Jodorowsky do most of the talking himself, and the 84-year-old rises to the occasion, recalling with infectious glee how he courted Salvador Dalí and Orson Welles to play key roles, or subjected his son to two years’ worth of intensive martial arts training in order to portray the lead character, Paul Atreides. “I was raping Frank Herbert,” he says, grinning wildly, “but with love.”
Click here for brief reviews of all of these films, plus many others featured in this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival.
James Hadfield writes about music, film and other stuff. You can find him at @JamesHadfield