Damn Life ©2011 Hitoshi Kitagawa at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Damn Life ©2011 Hitoshi Kitagawa at Tokyo International Film Festival 24


The demise of cinema marks a loss even greater than that of vinyl or even books. After all, music sounds almost the same whether played on a record or an mp3, and e-readers do at least replicate the format of paper books.

But the cinema? However gratifying it might be to download a movie torrent in minutes at home, the experience pales in comparison to walking into a darkened theatre, perfumed with the scent of caramel popcorn and soundtracked by the crackle of anticipation, for your eyeballs to be pelted with a flurry of hypersize images and your ears assaulted by booming surround sound. To me, you could drop your inheritance on an enormous flatscreen TV and a Bose soundsystem, and still come about as close to the real cinematic experience as a cellphone jingle does to a symphony.

I think that’s what the 24th Tokyo International Film Festival was getting at when it chose the slogan, “Believe! The Power of Film”. As with most cultural events since the March 11th tsunami, it came close to being canceled, but eventually went ahead with the requisite “Overcoming the Disaster” section tacked on.

The tone of the festival was therefore even more conservative than usual–and that’s saying something for Tokyo, one of the most anodyne international festivals of the annual circuit. If film is about the big screen, for me, then it goes without saying that festivals are about the scandal beyond the silver screen–be it bed-hopping, brawling or wardrobe malfunctions.

Sadly, the absence of Hollywood’s glitterati meant nothing of the kind happened at this year’s TIFF. That’s not to say there were no celebrities at all: this year’s opening ceremony included appearances from Jackie Chan, whose 1911 co-opened the festival, and Milla Jovovich in The Three Musketeers, directed by her husband, Paul Anderson. Whatever happened to the lovely Milla? Sure, in the flesh she still glittered with that ethereal, movie-star grace denied to mere mortals, but… remember when she was an extraterrestrial vixen in Jean Paul Gaultier bondage? Well, now she makes “grt family adventure movies,” according to one of her own appallingly abbreviated Tweets, and attacks movie production companies for under-promoting what is apparently a complete turkey.

Cluttered with bizarre “modern” props such as airships and screened in 3D, I snubbed the musketeers Damn Life, a dark and deeply creepy Japanese flick. It tells the story of Kotani, a boy who cannot help but literally do as he is told. Awkward and seemingly mentally disabled, he starts working on a construction site, where he is severely bullied. The tables are turned on his attackers, however, when one of them accidentally kills another, and then pleads Kotani to kill him out of guilt. Kotani complies with remorseless ease, which kicks off a murdering spree. The actor, Keita Kasatsugu, has the psychopath look down pat: dark eyes peeping out behind a long fringe, a manic laugh, sporadic convulsions. But director Hitoshi Kitagawa, (who is, bizarrely, a monk, who makes films in his spare time) skilfully steers the film away from the gratuitous gore-flick it could have potentially dwindled into, diverting the camera away from much of the violence and employing a static shot to give the scenes a taut, theatrical atmosphere.

Tokyo Drifter ©2011 Tofoo Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Tokyo Drifter ©2011 Tofoo Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

Fukushima Hula Girls ©2011 CineSpecial at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Fukushima Hula Girls ©2011 Cinespecial at Tokyo International Film Festival 24


A calmer and more entertaining response to the disaster was Tokyo Drifter–not a remake of the 1966 Seijun Suzuki yakuza classic, but a feature which follows a busker, Kenta Maeno, around Tokyo’s eerily dark, electricity-devoid streets after the quake. You wouldn’t think that a lone guy bashing ballads out on an acoustic guitar would fill 90 minutes, but it’s curiously captivating. Sadly, the immediate bystanders filmed seem to be either oblivious or indifferent, which only augments Maeno’s hoarse, melancholy notes.

Of the films in the “Overcoming Disaster” documentary section, Fukushima Hula Girls, was the most enjoyable to sit through. Following a troupe of hula dancers at the Spa Resort Hawaiians in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, the documentary delicately balances an optimistic tone with a realistic look at the situation after the nuclear disaster. Particular attention is given to second-in-command Hula Girl Rie Omori, who grew up in Futaba, just two kilometers from the plant, where she remembers playing when she was little. Her grandmother, sitting in her seventh evacuation residence, notes that no-one was anti-nuclear when it was originally built: “We were just farmers and we weren’t rich. But I guess it’s too late now to say we should have opposed it then.”

Underlining her message are the bizarre sights that greet the family when they journey back to their home to recover a few small possessions: cows and even an ostrich wandering aimlessly among the irradiated, waist-high weeds that wreath a large sign declaring “Nuclear power creates a prosperous society”.

Omori is an open and quite charming interviewee, who tries to put a bright spin on the situation. Laughing through tears she recalls how she bought protective

clothing and wore three facemasks at once when revisiting her now contaminated home. There are many awkward echoes of Omori’s very personal situation in Land of Oblivion, which is set in Pripyat, a city just two miles from Chernobyl. It opens with a wedding party that is terminated rather abruptly by the infamous black rain, which stains the cake–and the summoning of the groom to a “forest fire” that turns out to be the nuclear plant. Skipping ten years ahead, it shows the once beautiful bride, Anya–who is a tour guide for French tourists in “the Zone”–now infertile and losing her hair in clumps, but not afraid to eat the local apples.

The immediate events that unfold after the accident are eerily similar to those seen in Fukushima: residents refuse to budge, even when the authorities are carting them out of their homes in their chairs; vigilantes carrying Geiger counters to the market and warning people not to buy meat; the reluctant abandonment of somewhere they used to live, work, play. The same regret and nostalgia that has emerged in Japan is present, too:

“Pripyat was a model Soviet city, the best in Ukraine–it had cinemas, theaters–now it doesn’t even have water or electricity,” says Anya. Later, she reminisces about the past, when they felt infallible: “The Cold War was a good time for us, at least. We felt stronger than the atom.”

Previous residents now have different dreams. One man who was evacuated to a city called Slavutich boasts that it has a radiation research center funded by the international community. “In 100 years it will be a megapolis!” he says, seemingly undeterred by the fact that the city’s success would be built by research into how people die.

Gus Van Sant Restless ©2011 SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Gus Van Sant Restless ©2011 SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

Trishna ©2011 Bankside Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Trishna ©2011 Bankside Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24


The same love and death theme is at the centre of Gus Van Sant’s latest offering, Restless, the tale of two teenage lovers. We first meet the death-obsessed protagonists–Enoch, a troubled orphan, and Annabel, a terminal cancer patient–as they bump into each other when crashing a funeral. On their second meeting, Henry “introduces” Annabel to his parents’ gravestone, and the topic of Annabel’s imminent death is never far from their minds.

Both of the kids are explicitly quirky, which occasionally turns somewhat contrived. Enoch is friends with the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot, Hiroshi, who still wears his uniform and always wins at Battleships. Annabel, meanwhile, is a “bug watcher,” according to Enoch–or more accurately, a Darwinian devotee obsessed with evolution and ornithology. She tests Enoch and herself on names and characteristics of birds, and her unbelievably prosaic attitude to her own death is probably an effect of her belief that every individual human life is nothing but a blip in the grand evolutionary scheme.

Perhaps, as the actor who plays Hiroshi, Ryo Kase suggested at a Q&A after the screening, this is Van Sant’s idealization of a heterosexual relationship (he’s gay). Kase said that he found their relationship a little too “pure” the first time he watched the film, and asked a gay friend about it, who told him that as a member of a minority who “have to live alone”, Van Sant had likely injected a little of his idealized innocence and sweetness into the relationship. I take this to mean that it was perhaps a little unrealistic and not as fractious as it could have been. Moreover, the invention of a ghost as Enoch’s only friend echoes the isolation that can accompany coming out and being gay as a young man.

This is an interesting angle to offer at a film festival in Japan, where homosexuality is not often publically discussed and is often only tacitly accepted. However, it

might be quite a culturally specific reading in that Kase, or even his gay Japanese friend, assumed that gay men “live alone” and are necessarily solitary, which is obviously not always the case.

The love story in Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna is much more bitter, but all the better for it. An adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbevilles, transposed to Rajasthan, it tells the tale of a rickshaw driver’s daughter, Trishna, who is offered a hand of help and employment by Jay, a wealthy British-Indian whose father owns a string of luxury hotels.

Jay’s patience eventually pays off, and they become a couple. They move to Bombay, where the poor peasant girl shacks off her saris for leggings and spandex, learns to drink alcohol in cafes and gains some independence. Their relationship evolves into an equal and loving one–until Jay returns to England to nurse his sick father, leaving Trishna alone.

When he returns they have to move to the more traditional Rajasthan, where Trishna once again works as a maid at the hotel, and their private time is restricted to when she brings Jay lunch. Suddenly, the dynamic of their relationship shifts. As the owner’s son, her boss, and perhaps even as half-British–if you care to read into the colonial context–Jay begins to dominate and abuse Trishna in a way that was unimaginable when he first scooped her up.

I don’t want to give too much away, since this is a movie that you really should catch, but suffice it to say that this is an intelligent, multi-layered analysis of the modern class system in urban and rural India as the country undergoes enormous social upheaval. The acting is superb, and the direction so natural it’s imperceptible, which is a good thing.

Detachment ©2011 Paper Street Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Adrian Brody in Detachment ©2011 Paper Street Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

Cave of Forgotten Dreams ©2010 Creative Differences at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams ©2010 Creative Differences at Tokyo International Film Festival 24


The best that I saw, however, was saved until last: Detachment. British director Tony Kaye takes a highly critical–and dramatic–look at the American education system through the eyes of a substitute teacher, Henry, played by Adrien Brody. On Henry’s first day in the classroom, we see something remarkable: a teacher who’s able to handle even the most violent of kids in a calm and respectful way. In response to some perceived slight, a kid begins heckling him before marching up to the blackboard and threatening to attack. Henry defuses the situation by telling him, “I understand that you’re angry. I used to be angry too.”

Used to be? In the next scene, his temperament makes an about-face: when called to coax his grandfather out of the nursing home bathroom he has locked himself into, he launches a fiery tirade on the nurse for not removing the locks as he had requested. “I could make you lose your job so it’s your children, your family!” he yells, almost spitting with rage. “Don’t ever call me out here at this hour again!” On the way home he has a strange encounter with a child prostitute (looking not unlike Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver) after she gets punched by a john on the bus. He pushes her away, seemingly indifferent to the fact she is bleeding from the mouth.

So: does he care about people, or not? Although he says he “used to be” angry, where is all this current rage coming from? The blurry, color-drenched Super8 footage cut into the movie gives us some hints: his mother. Exactly how his childhood influenced his current state remains unclear until the end of the film, but they’re a constant reminder that this man is damaged. Not, however, as damaged as the kids he’s attempting to teach, or even his fellow teachers. Most reviews have described this film as a biting critique of the U.S. school system, and another string of the movie is a retrospective interview with Henry, who describes all of its failings.

The kids are violent, self-hating, scantily dressed. They hammer cats to death in the gymnasium and hurl expletive-filled insults at teachers in lieu of morning greetings–and their parents do the same when they bother to contact the school. Worn down by relentless abuse and not enough thanks, the teachers are also close to snapping–and their mental state is rendered more explicit by the intermittent animations that pop up, showing frantically scribbled blackboard pictures of guillotines, blood and collapsing structures.

Unlike other school-based movies, there is no redeeming dance team, no one inspiring teacher, no positive figure to save the school. It ends in the same state–if not worse–than it began, and the damaged Henry has barely the power or energy to stop it. The acting is extremely solid–from a tranquillizer-popping James Caan, to the about-to-be-fired Marcia Gay Harden as the principal, or Lucy Liu’s uptight and nervy Dr. Parker. While the dramatic interludes of footage woven through the film–his mother and the blackboards–it’s a little heavy-handed at times, and perhaps a little too open about its manipulation of the viewer. All the same, it’s a solid production that is well worth a watch–if only for the superb Brody, who hasn’t put a foot wrong in his career yet.

The thing about film festivals is that you can’t see all the films. There were many other small productions that I regret missing, however. When Pigs Have Wings by Sylvain Estibal, a quirky comedy which won the Audience Award about a Palestinian man who finds a pig and then tries to conceal it, cleverly woven against the background of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Cave of Forgotten Dreams by the enigmatic Werner Herzog–the first 3-D documentary I have heard of–is about the oldest extant cave art known to man, at the Chauvet Cave in southern France. The list goes on: Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel on director Roger Corman, Lonely Planet a conglomeration of Gogol stories set in Siberia by Edan Zeira, or even the festival closer Money Ball starring Brad Pitt, based on a non-fiction account book about–of all things–baseball by Michael Lewis, and it goes without saying, the winner Intouchables co-directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache which won the festival’s Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix and the Award for Best Actor.

Even without seeing all of these films (an impossible feat I would say few people not being paid handsomely could accomplish and even then…), the hours and days and months and even years of hard work put into them add up to greater than the sum of streaming them on Netflix, greater than the convenience of being able to download them to your iPad or smartphone, greater even than the two hours allotted them in the darkened church of the theatre, that hallowed place of modern worship, where the sound of sticky footfalls pace to find the perfect seat for expectant eyes to perchance take a peek into another world. God, you can take the Queen, but save film!

 

About the Author

Isobel Wiles is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Isobel Wiles is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.

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