Poor Japan. With its yen soaring and its global relevance in free fall, its hulking neighbour to the West is suddenly getting all the girls. China, like a tubbier younger brother whose discovery of Clearasil and lifting weights has cured his acne and stunted growth, has dramatically emerged out of its commie slumber to swipe his elder brother’s economic crown. Yet while its new muscles might justify its swagger, it has all the petty combativeness of an adolescent. To cap a recent string of diplomatic disputes with Tokyo, it abruptly withdrew all of its films from the festival in protest at the Taiwanese delegation not being introduced as “Chinese Taiwan”.

Fortunately, even with China gone, Tokyo is still hanging onto the coattails of the zeitgeist with its theme of “Ecology” for the third straight year. Despite not commanding quite the same reputation as the big gun festivals- Venice, Sundance- the verdant carpet does differentiate them from the other T.I.F.F. in Toronto. Which is how there were more than a few high-profile films and Hollywood actors in attendance. In addition to the usual Japanese suspects of Tadanobu Asano and Kyoko Koizumi, Catherine Deneuve was there with Potiche, while other premiers featured Josh Hartnett, Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore (Bunraku), Jeff Bridge and Michael Sheen (TRON: Legacy), Ethan Hawke, Richard Gere, and Wesley Snipes (Brooklyn’s Finest), with Ewan McGregor (The Ghost Writer) and Keira Knightley (Never Let Me Go) representing the Brits.

I found the collection I did see surprisingly polished and varied, covering all the hot topics: water resources, homosexuality and immigration. Click To Tweet

Tokyo puts “Eco” in the 23rd TIFF

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010)

“It’s trauma, it’s… the loneliness of being seen by a big crowd.” So says director Saverio Constanzo of the recently released, The Solitude of Prime Numbers. The adaptation of Paolo Giordano’s hit novel, tells the story of two misfits, Alice and Mattia, whose traumatic childhoods push them together in an awkward and compulsive relationship. Mattia is a mathematic genius who rather pretentiously described their relationship like that of prime numbers either side of a non-prime: close, but forever apart and destined to solitude.

Differing from the linear narrative of the novel, the film flits between three different time periods, and aims for a more dramatic, highly-strung atmosphere than the quietly contemplative prose in the book. “We mixed everything to make something more like a rock opera than a silent book.” said Costanzo, adding, “I go to the cinema to be shocked, surprised, to lose my orientation. Not to see what I already know.” It is beautifully and poetically shot, but at times the tension feels inappropriate and somewhat forced.

And Peace on Earth, based in a suburb of Rome, also fails to live up to its pretensions. Although its press release claims the protagonist is a recently released convict who whiles his day away on a bench, more time is spent following a trio of thoroughly unlikeable layabouts, whose mutual contempt for each other is almost as repulsive as the crime they eventually commit. They get into fights, sniff coke, laze in the sun and insult each other. The director is at pains to reflect Rome’s heritage, with long sweeping shots of architecture, a classical score and textbook cinematography that admittedly does throw up some artful shots. But the characterisation is lacking, and the plot so aimless that the central event- a rape- feels tacked on rather than being the crescendo, and one feels little empathy for any of the characters. Despite the director’s professed desire to make a film that reflected the city as they knew it, the mafia scenes are as cliche as it gets: pushed up tits, knuckle dusters, and lots of smoking.

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Hot young silhouettes in LED Track Suits: Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010)

The gap between the makers’ aspiration and achievement is much narrower for Dog Sweat, an enlightening look into the private lives of young people in Iran. With most people’s impressions of the country formed by mainstream media, from the nefarious President Ahmadinejad and his devious grin to the apparently Twitter-powered “green revolution” last year, director Hossein Keshavarz said “We wanted to do it underground so we could make a film that was authentic, because we wanted to show the energy. There’s such a great energy in Iran.” Yet while politics have an inevitable influence on daily life (the director discloses that making the film after the contested elections would have been impossible), it is also clear that young people are much the same anywhere else in the world. At one point, a guy suggests to a girl that they make a film about Iran. She snorts derisively at the suggestion that they focus on villages, which would merely perpetrate the misapprehension that Iran is full of camels, and suggests that they make it about “what’s really going on- the writers and intellectuals”. No doubt the director was putting his thoughts in her mouth here, although Dog Sweat actually delves into even more controversial topics, such as homosexuality, extramarital affairs and illicit premarital sex.

Keshavarz and co-writer Maryam Azadi vision amounted to, “Well, we’re not all villagers… 80% of Iranians live in cities, 68% of Iranians are under 30 years. So we just wanted to show that there’s a big range of different people in society. And we feel like only a certain range, only a specific range, has been seen of our society.” Shot on handheld cameras, the film is dynamic and energetic, although when obligations begin to encroach on desires, the tone turns melancholy. The lack of freedom and harsh penalties suffered by the characters left a bitter taste in my mouth, but I was also cheered to see how intelligent, eloquent and energetic modern day Iran is compared to the media’s projections.

In contrast, Sketches of Kaitan City only told me everything I already knew about Japanese families: they don’t talk much. Made up of short vignettes focusing on the lives of inhabitants of Kaitan, the film is set by the sea in freezing Hokkaido. The word “sketches” suggests a poetic sensibility, but I found the quiet desperation in each of the stories simply painful to watch. Dissatisfied with his job, a man beats his young wife and berates her stupidity; a young man loses his job and takes his sister up to see the sunrise at New Year, only to disappear afterward; a married woman works in a bar and sleeps with clients when drunk, provoking her husband’s rage. In all, there is a chronic lack of conversation, which made me wonder how anyone can get through life with so few words and so much pain.

The family members in Hospitalité are almost as uncommunicative, but the entrance of a stranger into their lives gets them- and the neighbours- talking. Filmed almost entirely inside a cramped house in a sleepy part of Tokyo’s traditional district, it brilliantly communicates the claustrophobic atmosphere of urban Japanese life. Kobayashi, who lives with his young wife Natsuki and his daughter from a previous marriage, runs a printing business out of the front of his house. One day, an unusually forward stranger, Kagawa, invites himself into the house and deftly inserts himself into their spare room, their business and love lives. It is hard to tell whether his nonchalance is supreme confidence, a hideous lack of perception or simply insanity, but whichever, he manages to ride roughshod over his hosts’ feelings. Using secrets about his hosts’ lives to coerce them, he invites a string of loud, boisterous foreigners into the house, who cause interminable queues for the bathroom, ruin Natsuki’s birthday with a raucous party and generally intensify the petty fears of the gaijin menace in the neighbourhood. While this image does little to dispel the image of foreigners as terrifying, noisy giants that are a threat to social peace, they are portrayed as such from the small-minded perspective of the local anti-crime group. To his merit, Kobayashi scolds one particular busybody for “bad-mouthing our friends” later on in the film, and the end suggests that the alien intrusion actually brought a little excitement and light into their suburban lives.

a video leaked onto YouTube of a Chinese fishing boat smashing into the side of a Japanese Coastguard boat. International audience indeed. Click To Tweet

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Waterlife (Kevin McMahon, 2009)

Catching one ecologically themed movie- Kevin McMahon’s Waterlife, which examined the ecological disasters unfolding in the five Great Lakes between the U.S. and Canada, was a good choice. Although most people view these expanses of water as benign sites for boating and fishing, sinister health risks lurk in their depths. From the menace of the zebra mussel, which pushed out other species and unbalanced the ecosystem in just a year, to the toxic industrial sludge dropped into Erie by unscrupulous industry, it’s a horrifying story of how gleefully and ignorantly mankind has destroyed nature. With the residues of half of America’s medicine cabinet swilling around the seaweed, deleterious plant estrogens are also wreaking havoc. While the image of hermaphrodite frogs (70% have testicular deformities) might be somewhat comical, it reveals the devastating effect that plant estrogens wreak on the environment, and the food chain. Sure enough, it goes up to humans as well; the ratio of girls born to boys in areas around the lake stands at 2:1. After watching the amount of toxic sludge, both faecal and chemical, and the repeated assertion by scientists that the water we drink, bathe in and cook with is a “soup” of chemicals, I was pushed to question my faith in tap water and consider that “bourgeois” bottled mineral water might just be worth it.

Despite all the seriousness on show, the stand outs for me were all centred around children. Like Iván Noel’s ¡Primaria!, a charming semi-autobiographical look at a primary school in Seville that features the same children that the director actually taught for a year. “Everything in the film is something that happened.” Inspired by his experience, Ivan Noel wrote a script and brought in adults to play the teachers. When asked about the direction of the children, Francisco Alfonsin, who plays Jose Maria, quipped, “Actually, we didn’t have a script at all.” The new art teacher encounters chaos in the classroom, but eventually manages to both control and inspire his new charges, even “curing” one boy’s hyperactivity with art. Another teacher warns Jose Maria that another boy, Carlos, “knows more about you than you know about yourself,” a prophecy that becomes evident later on in the film. Some of the children’s perceptions are communicated with cute Michel Gondry-esque hallucinations (such as toy bugs scurrying across the floor or a group of ignorant parents devolving into monkeys and stuffing their faces with bananas). “[Ivan’s] aim was actually…the celebration of childhood and the celebration of teaching as a profession.” It is hard to describe the humour and joy in the film without coming across as cheesy or contrived, but suffice it to say that it leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling.

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

The Solitude of Prime Numbers [La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi] (Saverio Costanzo, 2010)

The delights of childhood are similarly explored  in Hands Up!, in which a group of friends try to save their Chechen classmate from deportation in Paris. Despite being just into double digits, the child actors are incredibly accomplished, and turn out performances so natural it is a wonder that they were sticking to a script. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi is also superb as the feisty mother Cedrine, who takes in the quietly thoughtful girl, Milana, in answer to her son’s pleas, saving her from the claws of the bureaucracy. In contrast to the dark tone that underpins the film, with suicides and a constant police presence, one can also revel in the nostalgia of an idyllic childhood- playing with bows and arrows, making dens, burning leeches with cigarettes, ducking out of chores and establishing biscuits as a main food group. In fact, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that it was the best film about childhood I have seen since my own. However, behind all the charm and romance, director Romain Goupil also manages to criticise a political system that harms where it should help.

Nir Bergman’s Intimate Grammar is a less rosy view of being little, although it has its moments of innocent magic. Aharon, a young boy in a peacetime 1960s Israel, worries his parents by not growing for three years. His mother, an overbearing and unsympathetic ballbreaker, thinks he is to blame. The family is an awkward and argumentative one, with meal times particularly fiery. Aharon’s sister starts dieting, while his father’s dalliance with a neighbor (who is so obsessed with him that she pays him to knock down all her internal walls in exchange for his company) seems to further enrage and unhinge his mother. Aharon feels disjointed and adrift, stuck physically at age 10 while his peers sprout hair, develop deep voices and tower above him. Judged too dreamy and quiet by the girl he is obsessed with, he takes to bed with lovesickness until he decides to make a dramatic decision. Colourful and funny- although the mother is terrifying- Bergman’s film is slick and well put together, but I don’t think as deserving as the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix as either ¡Primaria! or Hands Up! (their matching exclamation marks seem to be of indignation here).

There were many more that I missed, including the intriguing Bunraku, which is described as a blend of “manga, spaghetti westerns, samurai films, video games” and stars Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore, Josh Hartnett and Japanese pop star Gackt. Need anymore be said?

Despite not seeing any of the high-profile offerings, I found the collection I did see surprisingly polished and varied, covering all the hot topics: water resources, homosexuality and immigration. Yet while there were queues of people outside every morning, the publicity was surprisingly subdued, meaning that Tokyo has a while to go before it gains enough clout to pull a truly international audience in. Other than via the green carpet, how can this T.I.F.F. differentiate itself from the (first) T.I.F.F.? Perhaps it needs to invite more controversy. While last year saw the Japanese premiere of the dolphin slaughtering expose, The Cove, the piece of film that garnered the most column inches this year was a video leaked onto YouTube of a Chinese fishing boat smashing into the side of a Japanese Coastguard boat. International audience indeed.