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Horse shagging and Jodorowsky: a report from Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

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.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in "Drinking Buddies"

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in “Drinking Buddies”

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.

Alejandro Jodorowsky in "Jodorowsky's Dune" (© 2013 City Film LLC)

Alejandro Jodorowsky in “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (© 2013 City Film LLC)

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

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Ashkan Khatabi and Amir Jafari in “Bending the Rules”

And the Mud Ship Sails Away (Hirobumi Watanabe)

And the Mud Ship Sails Away has the nonchalant, half-assed feel of one of those Downtown sketches that start out funny and then refuse to end. The opening title – “Inertia” – pretty much sums up this meandering, no-budget hymn to the tedium of life in rural Tochigi, hinging around the exploits of an unrepentant bum called Takashi (played by the manically charismatic Kiyohiko Shibukawa). Living with his superannuated grandmother, Takashi spends his days idling in front of the TV or heading to the local bowling alley and pachinko parlor, occasionally stopping off to collect unemployment benefits that get swiftly snatched away as alimony by his ex wife. The arrival of a young girl claiming to be his half-sister doesn’t upset the balance of his life – if anything, he seems more bothered by the well-heeled former schoolmate who’s now running in a local election. But, pfft, this isn’t the kind of thing you’d watch for the story: until a bewildering final quarter that’s completely at odds with the rest of the film, And the Mud Ship Sails Away is content to be a mundane, nothing-happens comedy in the vein of early Jim Jarmusch.

Au revoir l’été (Koji Fukada)

After flunking her university entrance exams, Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) joins her translator aunt on a trip to the Shonan coast, and proceeds to do what any self-respecting teen would do in the circumstances: mooch around, hit the beach and study as little as possible for her impending re-sits. When her aunt is reunited with an old flame, Sakuko quickly takes an interest in the man’s nephew, Takashi, who’s later revealed to be a refugee from Fukushima. But wait: if this has the markings of a damp-eyed coming-of-age drama, it really isn’t. Koji Fukada’s contribution to the seishun eiga genre opts for naturalism over melodrama, and if you’re willing to give yourself over to its softly-softly approach and meandering, sometimes inconsequential dialogue (confession: I found the first half-hour tough going), it’s quite a charmer. Recently seen in Sion Sono’s riotous Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Nikaido is an equally radiant lead here, even if the material doesn’t give her a whole lot to do. There are some weighty themes lurking just beneath the surface: not only the ongoing Fukushima situation, but also prostitution, infertility and adultery, though none of them are overly dwelt on, and even the potential big scenes feel deliberately underplayed. It’s a slight pleasure, leaving a lingering glow rather than a deeper, more lasting impression.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

A Prayer For Rain

Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain (Ravi Kumar)

On the night of December 2-3, 1984, a gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal killed more than 10,000 people. In depicting the worst industrial disaster of all time, Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain manages at least not to trivialize the tragedy. Heavy on the archetypes but relatively light on the melodrama, it’s elevated from TV movie-of-the-week level mainly by the quality of its production values. Ravi Kumar’s film is clearly designed for an international audience, which means shoehorning Indian history into pre-dinner banter, introducing a fictitious and wholly superfluous foreign journalist to the story (Mischa Barton), and getting Martin Sheen to channel a little of the old West Wing magic as CEO Warren Anderson. But in its determination to take an even-handed approach, the film ends up saying very little.

Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam)

Part Haneke-esque home invasion drama, part macabre modern-day fairy tale, Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman is a splendidly nasty headfuck. Turfed out of his underground lair by a shotgun-toting priest, the scrawny, hirsute protagonist (Jan Bijvoet) goes in search of a new hideout. His attempts to ingratiate himself at the luxurious home of TV producer Richard (Jeroen Perceval) ends with him getting a sound hiding, though Richard’s wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) takes pity on the stranger, allowing him inside for a bath and something to eat. But there’s something odd about this drifter, whether it’s the way he manages to slip through the house unnoticed, the pair of dogs that follow him around, or his increasing hold over Marina and her children, especially the youngest daughter, Isolde. The supernatural elements at play in Borgman are just one complicating factor in a film that keeps its secrets closely guarded. While the rakish interloper and his associates work with a meticulous, sick logic, their intentions remain opaque even once the credits roll. Borgman is content to bewilder, but it’s quite a ride.

With its working class setting, all-enveloping nihilism and lovingly filmed sex scenes, Disregarded People feels like a throwback to the golden age of Roman porno. The anti-hero of Woman with Red Hair was a charmer compared to Yusuke Mamiana, a middle-age lowlife who returns to the scene of a troubled childhood in the Goto Islands. “I’m a survivor, like a cockroach,” he tells the virtuous Kyoko – great body, shame about the enormous birthmark on her face – after her bicycle collides with him. She’s the only person who’s smiled at him since his arrival, so he rewards her by raping her, setting the tone for the rest of the film. Kyoko admits that she found inspiration in the endlessly forgiving heroine of Crime & Punishment, but try as I might, I couldn’t find any such depths in Disregarded People. It seems to wallow in, even celebrate, the inadequacies of its protagonist, whose only redemption comes through the revelation that the people around him are nearly as bad as he is. Nao Omori gives it his all as Yusuke, leering at butts and slouching as if he was bearing the world’s consternation on his sloped shoulders. But why should we care? Even Kyoko’s eventual moral corruption, depicted in an extended coda, doesn’t reveal much, in that her character was never believable in the first place. And Yusuke? His problem lies in the asset that he considers his most valuable: at the end of the day, he’s just a dick.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

The Double

The Double (Richard Ayoade)

There’s a lot going on in The Double, maybe too much. Richard Ayoade’s loose adaptation of the Dostoevsky novella locates the action in a drab, dark retro-future of indeterminate nationality (though it looks most like London). The director has mentioned AlphavilleEraserhead and Kafka’s The Trial as influences, a list to which I’d add BrazilBarton Fink and Jam (whose Chris Morris makes one of a number of distracting cameos). Our hero, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg, playing to type), is a smart but socially inept office worker at a data processing firm presided over by a faintly ominous patriarch known as The Colonel. While his colleagues can’t remember his name and even the office lifts seem to be working against him, he attempts to derive small pleasures where he can, not least by creepily spying on neighbour Hana (Mia Wasikowska) with a telescope. But his life gets upended when his office employs a man who appears to be his mirror image, right down to his name, James Simon (Esienberg again, playing very much against type). Where the original is bumbling and awkward, this interloper is gregarious, confident and unashamedly lazy, getting his lookalike to do all the work while he fools around with the manager’s daughter (Yasmin Page). There’s enough here to sustain a stylish existential thriller, and The Double kept me guessing. But it feels overburdened by its eccentricities: the quirky setting starts off charming and later becomes merely distracting. I wonder if this might have been stronger – and more sinister – if Ayoade had ditched the quirk and located the action in a more grounded reality: one whose mundanity felt tangible, rather than like an affectation.

Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg)

Vivacious, flirty and with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for craft beer, Kate (Olivia Wilde) is the kind of person your girlfriend probably hates. She’s maybe a little too close to Luke (Jake Johnson), the bearded charmer who works with her at a hip Chicago microbrewery, though when they go on a double date to a lakeside cabin, it’s their respective others who end up taking things too far. Drinking Buddies isn’t the first film to ask whether “just friends” can really stay that way, especially when you want to retain canoodling privileges, but it’s seldom been done this well. Writer-director Joe Swanberg has a good feel for relationships: his characters are fickle, uncertain of what they really want. But his canniest ploy is getting the cast to improvise the dialogue themselves: the conversations overlap and trail off in the way that real people talk, rather than the constantly wisecracking characters that populate most indie rom-coms. Wilde and Johnson deliver impressive performances as the will-they-won’t-they pair at the centre of the action, though I also enjoyed Anna Kendrick’s sweet, ever-so-slightly dorky turn as Luke’s other half.

Forma (Ayumi Sakamoto)

There’s an easy crack waiting to be made about Ayumi Sakamoto’s Forma, a film where form is exactly what’s lacking. There’s probably a taut 90-minute psychological drama hiding within the blubber of this needlessly drawn-out flick, in which even the big reveal takes nearly half an hour. Sakamoto worked on a number of Shinya Tsukamoto films, though the director’s preference for brevity clearly hasn’t rubbed off. Ayako (Nagisa Umeno), a single office worker living with her father, has a chance encounter with former schoolmate Yukari (Emiko Matsuoka), who’s managed to snag an eligible fiancé despite working as security at a construction site. When Ayako offers her a job at the same company, Yukari takes it, though it soon becomes clear that her old friend’s intentions may not be altogether charitable. Forma derives much of its power from implication: key moments are played out off-camera, motivations left unclear, while the non-chronological structure allows it to withhold key information in a way that makes its effects on the characters feel all the more disquieting. But the pacing is too languid for it to sustain tension across its 145-minute running time; all those long-distance shots sap the momentum even before we get to the film’s big, exhausting set-piece. There’s plenty here to suggest that Sakamoto might be a name to watch, but for her next film I’d suggest drafting in a stringent editor.

Jîn (Reha Erdem)

It opens with rugged mountain vistas, intercut with close-ups of insects and animals at play, and then… BOOM. Gunfire and explosions strafe the forest, aimed at 17-year-old Jîn (Deniz Hasgüler) and her Kurdish separatist comrades. Reha Erdem’s film, one of two screening at TIFF this year, offers two hours of sweeping landscapes and Thomas Hardy-grade strife, as our eponymous heroine attempts to survive in a world populated by men who seem only interested in either raping her or blowing her up. Very little is explained here: when she descends from the craggy peaks and attempts to leave the area, it’s never entirely clear if Jîn’s cover story about visiting a sick grandmother is really true. In Erdem’s conception, the Turkish troops who threaten the heroine’s existence take on the same elemental quality as any other force of nature; partly because of budget constraints, the army helicopters and planes are heard rather than seen, with the gunshots and explosions seeming to come out of nowhere.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Alejandro Jodorowsky in “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (© 2013 City Film LLC)

Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich)

The most inspiring argument for the importance of ambition and inspiration in moviemaking at this year’s TIFF came from a film about a film that you’ll never actually be able to watch. In retrospect, it seems bizarre to consider that Alejandro Jodorowsky might ever have been handed the reins of a big-budget sci-fi picutre; back in the mid-’70s, pre-Star Wars and with memories of his lysergic masterpiece The Holy Mountain still fresh, it probably seemed even stranger. But the Chilean celluloid messiah wasn’t just approaching studios with a hazy concept: he had the whole thing mapped out in detail, with storyboards by Moebius, artwork by H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, music by Magma and Pink Floyd, and a cast including Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí. Frank Pavich’s sublimely enjoyable documentary makes the sensible decision to let Jodorowsky himself do most of the talking, and the 84-year-old is on hilarious form. His description of the games he played with Dalí in order to get the artist on board – the surrealist agreed to take part if it made him the most lavishly paid film star of all time (oh, and he wanted a burning giraffe) – is just one brilliant anecdote in a film that’s full of them. Storyboard animations recreate some of the intended sequences from the film, while its would-be director and many of the other key players recount the years that they spent producing a staggeringly detailed treatment. (One can only hope that this document, packaged in a hefty coffee table book of which only a few copies now remain, is eventually made available to a wider readership.) Jodorowsky’s tale is one of almost messianic vision and extraordinary good luck – at least, that is, until he headed to Hollywood in an attempt to get a studio on board to finance the project. It’s a crying, if not entirely surprising, shame that this film never got made, yet Jodorowsky’s enthusiasm is utterly infectious.

Love is the Perfect Crime (Arnaud & Jean-Marie Larrieu)

Mathieu Amalric – short, nervy, bulgy-eyed Mathieu Amalric – is irresistible to women. Teaching creative writing at an Alpine university, Marc has pert young students lining up for a taste of the action, though unfortunately one of them has the temerity to die post-coitus. When the girl’s distraught stepmother (Maïwenn) turns up at campus, he attempts to seduce her – while at the same time trying to resist the advances of a persistent student, fob off the detective investigating the case, and stop his department head copping off with his sister, Marianne (this being a sibling relationship that, let’s say, goes places it probably shouldn’t). Love is the Perfect Crime draws inevitable, and not especially flattering, comparisons to Hitchcock and the more noirish Coen brothers films. Amalric is an immensely watchable actor, though I just couldn’t believe that he’d be an industrial-grade chick magnet, and his character here is resolutely unsympathetic to boot. The plot’s twists are mostly pedestrian (particularly a final reveal that you’ll probably see coming way in advance), and it’s only intermittently tense. On the plus side, Amalric’s isn’t the only engaging performance here: Karin Viard is on particularly fine form as his incestuous sibling.

Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson)

This blackly comic ensemble piece crams more incident into its 81 minutes than I would ever have expected from an arthouse film set in rural Iceland. The barren countryside provides the setting for a series of interwoven tales of accidental death, horse shooting, local rivalries and simmering middle-aged passions. It’s like The Archers with better scenery. The film is amusing in places and frequently attractive to look at, and the 300-strong cast of horses is impressively marshaled. Would that we were given time to care about any of the humans involved. Director Benedikt Erlingsson is working in the Short Cuts mould, but at less than half that film’s running time, it’s hard for any of the stories in Of Horses and Men to gain much traction. Scenes that might have marked the emotional high point of another film are tossed off every 10 minutes or so, and by the time one of the characters disembowels his steed to take shelter inside it during a snowstorm, I was pretty much past caring. The closest the film comes to finding a running thread is in the relationship between the prim, kind-of-handsome Kolbeinn (Ingvar E Sigurdsson) and his neighbour Sólveig (Charlotte Bøving), which is complicated somewhat when her stallion forces its affections on his prized mare. There’s pleasure to be had in watching how this one-sided romance gets resolved, with its implication that human relationships aren’t really any more complicated – or tidier – than between horses.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

“Patema Inverted” (© Yasuhiro YOSHIURA/Sakasama Film Committee 2013)

Patema Inverted (Yasuhiro Yoshiura)

Up is down and down is up for the protagonists of Patema Inverted, a plucky fantasy that should provide a brief pick-me-up for anyone mourning Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement. After an experiment to extract energy from gravity goes horribly wrong, much of the planet is sucked into the sky, while the earthbound survivors huddle together in a comforting authoritarian state where people go to school and work on oh-so-allegorical conveyor belts. But there’s a whole different world lurking just beneath the surface – one where physics has been flipped on its head. When Patema ventures to the surface, everything is upended: ceilings become floors, and the sky is a terrifying, gaping void, waiting to carry her off. Fortunately, she immediately runs into Age, a sympathetic youngster who discovers that this inverted, gravity-defying girl comes in handy as a human air balloon. But can our topsy-turvy twosome conquer the forces aligned against them, chiefly the refusal of their respective worlds to acknowledge each others’ existence? Patema Inverted skips along at a brisk pace, and though there are plenty of rote anime elements (off-the-rack characters, generic production design, self-aware in-jokes at the expense of atmosphere), the ingenious concept and occasionally inspired visuals were enough to compensate. And while some modern anime feels incredibly jaded, this one keeps its sense of wonder throughout.

Red Family (Lee Ju-hyoung)

The eponymous Red Family – a quartet of North Korean agents living undercover in a suburb of Seoul – have been embedded for so long that their squabbling, feckless next-door neighbours have begun to resemble a paragon of domestic contentment. Other comedies have thrived in less likely scenarios, but this Kim Ki-duk-penned production never really gets off the ground. The opening minutes make it abundantly clear that Red Family won’t be a work of realism, but it’s too clumsy in its sloganeering to pass for satire, and too nasty to work as a knockabout farce. (Does a film this broad in its stereotypes really need to be so realistic in its violence?) It’s worth sticking around mainly for the finale, where – having resigned themselves to execution by their shadowy overseers – the agents role-play one of the domestic tiffs that they overheard between their neighbors earlier in the film. It’s a scene of such weirdness, and conducted at such a hysterical emotional pitch, that I found it genuinely cathartic. If only the rest of the movie had yielded even a glimmer of that originality.

Rigor Mortis (Juno Mak)

First-time director Juno Mak’s tribute to the Hong Kong vampire movies of old, Rigor Mortis is so desaturated that even the mortal characters have a deathly pallor. Haphazardly paced and sometimes downright confusing (a working knowledge of the genre might help, but then again maybe not), it works mainly on the strength of its visuals and some strong performances from a cast of predominantly veteran actors. Chin Siu-ho (playing himself, kinda), is a washed-up screen star who moves into what must be the least densely populated apartment block in the city – too bad that he’s picked the scene of a gory murder-suicide as his new abode. Before long, he’s had a pair of ghost vampires attempt to occupy his body, mid-suicide attempt – though it turns out that there’s a far wider range of spooky happenings taking place in the building. Mak (who also wrote the screenplay) prefers to explain via flashback, and sometimes not to explain at all, meaning that there are significant stretches of the film where – if you’re anything like me – you might find yourself wondering what on earth’s going on. The climactic showdown is undoubtedly impressive to watch, but I’d struggle to tell you what actually happened; ditto the twist ending. Veterans of the original Mr Vampire series appear – not just Chin, but also Antony Chan as a past-his-prime vampire hunter who struts around all day in a gown and underwear. But it’s Nina Paw who leaves the most lasting impression, bringing real depth and vulnerability to the role of a bereaved widow who goes to desperate lengths to bring her spouse back.

A Street in Palermo (Emma Dante)

Rosa (writer-director Emma Dante) and her girlfriend, Clara (Alba Rohrwacher), have been having a heated argument when they come nose to nose in a narrow street with a car driven by Samira (Elena Cotta), the mute, long-suffering mother-in-law of Saro and his extended family. When both women refuse to back down, the situation escalates to farcical extremes, as the street’s residents first implore the outsiders to move along, then start placing bets on which of the drivers will budge first. It’s too bad that the titular street in Palermo is clearly wide enough for two vehicles to pass, because otherwise this is a wickedly satirical window into Sicilian culture and the extents of human stubbornness. While the brutish Saro (Renato Malfatti) and his male cohorts assume they’re in control of the situation, it’s the women who end up taking the upper hand; there’s a brilliant little standoff at one point, where Rosa and Samira leave their vehicles to toss away the food that’s been brought out to them, then watch each other pee in the street. Dante films most of the proceedings in restless close-up shots that seem to cling to the action, supplying momentum even when the narrative sags halfway through. Stick with it, though: the closing shot is absolutely glorious.

The Tale of Iya (Tetsuichiro Tsuta)

The publicity material for The Tale of Iya makes much of the fact that it was shot on 35mm, as if the medium was what made golden-age Japanese cinema so good. It’s a distraction (though I’ll say it: the visuals have a texture and richness that’s been far too absent in Japanese cinema since the indie crowd went digital). Director Tetsuichiro Tsuta may be a disciple of the masters, but he’s done more than just mimic their techniques here. This is a big, bold, shaggy picture, part Naked Island realism, part fantastical eco-parable. In the opening sequence, a lone mountain man stumbles upon a crashed car and its sole survivor, a baby girl. Flash forward and that girl is now an impossibly plucky high schooler who the locals compare to Princess Mononoke. Living together in an isolated mountain house, they go about their lives with steadfast devotion, doggedly hauling supplies and water up the slopes every day. Meanwhile, a group of predominantly foreign tree-huggers are waging a campaign against the construction of a mountain tunnel that they claim will disrupt the valley’s ecosystem (or something like that – this is by far the weakest segment of the film). And then there’s the idealistic Tokyoite with zero back story (Shima Onishi) who gets it into his head that mountain farming is cool. The Tale of Iya seems to change its mind a few times about what it wants to be, which only really becomes a problem during an extended, Tokyo-based coda that verges into science fiction territory.

There’s Nothing to Be Afraid Of (Hisashi Saito)

To say that not much happens in There’s Nothing to Be Afraid Of would be an understatement. Hisashi Saito’s film is a tender, well acted and beautifully lensed portrait of a married couple with lives even more mundane than mine is. Eri and Fumiya are a young, happily married couple whose lives together seem like a model of domestic harmony (he even gets up early to make breakfast) – and, though they don’t make a big deal about it, they aren’t about to let kids screw things up. While he gets up late and comes home even later from his unspecified salaryman job, she works at an arthouse cinema (which should give you an idea of where the flick expects to find its audience). I found it hard to dislike There’s Nothing…, because what it does, it does well. It’s just that there’s so little dramatic grit here; what could have been a pivotal scene comes too late, and then seems not to have left as deep an effect on our protagonists as you might think it would. In a recurring motif, Eri reads aloud from a storybook she’s borrowed from a colleague – something that initially seems like a symbol for the couple’s unborn child, though I later began to suspect it was just because it was more interesting than what’s happening onscreen.

Those Happy Years (Daniele Luchetti)

“Can we at least smash the car outside?” Guido’s sons ask as he turfs them out of his art studio so he can cavort with an attractive model. “Sure,” he replies, “here are some tools.” Daniele Luchetti’s autobiographical Those Happy Years draws on his experiences growing up in the 1970s, and the not-so-watchful eyes of a self-obsessed artist father and a mother increasingly exploring her own independence and sexuality. These two wouldn’t win any parenting awards, but they’re depicted with genuine affection, even when Guido is punching an art critic who savaged his lousy performance piece, or Serena is getting rather too intimate with a female friend at a feminist camp in France. The period detail is subtly done (the soundtrack only features a few songs from the period). It’s a warmly nostalgic work, funny and sexy, with a commanding performance by Micaela Ramazzotti.

Tinker Ticker (Kim Jung-hoon)

Tinker Ticker is a stylish executed low-budget thriller based around a conceit so implausible that I was longing for the whole thing to self-destruct. Life hasn’t been kind to Jung-gu since he blew up an abusive teacher while at high school, but he’s trying to get things back on track with a respectable university job, even if it means he has to sleep in his car every night. Oh, and he also makes bombs that he offers to people for free on the Internet. Eh? After running into a headstrong student with a surly pout worthy of a K-pop group, Jung-gu anonymously gifts the kid with one of his creations, so helping his latent sociopathy bloom. This begins a cat-and-mouse game between bomb maker and bomber – only with the former giving the latter his tools. It might somehow make sense if the script explained why Jung-gu behaved the way he does, but it’s awfully fuzzy on the psychology. Is this a budding bromance? Is he using a surrogate to enact his own violent urges? Without that key piece, Tinker Ticker is hobbled; worse, it just ends up seeming rather silly.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

“To Live and Die in Ordos” (© Inner Mongolia Blue Hometown Production Co., Ltd)

To Live and Die in Ordos (Ning Ying)

Genuinely virtuous characters present a challenge to filmmakers; if it’s a real-life character, you’re practically opening yourself up to charges of hagiography. To Live and Die in Ordos doesn’t quite manage to avoid that fate itself. Hao Wanzhong (Wang Jingchun), police chief in the resource-rich city of Ordos in Inner Monoglia, drops dead at the tender age of 41, leaving behind him an apparently unimpeachable legacy. When a po-faced, sceptical political journalist (Sun Liang) is assigned to write an article about him, he initially declines the job on the grounds that anything he produced would be ripped apart by China’s millions of netizens. But could it be that Hao was actually as unblemished as his reputation suggests? The journalist’s investigations are mixed with flashbacks to Hao’s life, sometimes jumping from one to the other in ways that are formally ingenious, though which never seem to imply that there’s a gap between the reality and people’s accounts of it. At the end of the day, Ordos doesn’t reveal much about its subject other than that he cared more about his work than his family and could be a bit bossy, and its wider critiques of society are muted at best. Fine performances and respectable production values make it an agreeable watch, but as the realisation dawned that it wasn’t inching towards any deeper insights, my attention waned.

Unbeatable (Dante Lam)

Friday night entertainment doesn’t come much finer than Unbeatable, Dante Lam’s pummeling, unapologetically ripe tale of buff men finding redemption through MMA. MM what? Don’t worry: it’s nothing that a couple of montage sequences can’t prepare you for, and they’ve got ringside TV commentators to explain tactics to the audience without being too blatant about it. Nick Cheung is Ching “Scumbag” Fai, the former boxing champ turned indebted ne’er-do-well, who ends up sharing an apartment in Macau with an emotionally troubled mother and her cute, precocious daughter. (To its credit, the film doesn’t sidestep the issue of mental illness, and this potentially tricky plot point is handled reasonably well.) Fai finds work at his friend’s gym, where – between conducting boxercise classes with dumpy middle-aged women – he ends up training Qi (Eddie Peng), the son of a disgraced businessman, who’s searching for meaning of his own in the ring. If this sounds over-familiar, there’s still pleasure in seeing tropes done well – and the story takes enough unexpected turns to hold the attention. Cheung’s considerable charm helps carry things, of course, though the depiction of him and his cohabitants fumbling their way towards something like contentment aren’t as cloying as they could be. Then again, it’s in the ring that the film really comes into its own: shot cleanly, without the shaky camerawork and flurry of edits that seem to pass for fight sequences in most Hollywood films, the MMA scenes are electrifying to watch. It helps that Lam’s cast clearly know their way around a fistfight and are in peak physical condition; as a friend commented, the 45-year-old Cheung’s rippling muscles are the most impressive visual effect he’s seen in a fair while.

What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love (Mouly Surya)

This dreamy Indonesian drama isn’t as Carver-esque as the title might suggest. Set in the hermetic (though alarmingly loosely supervised) world of a special needs school, it follows the contrasting efforts of two female students to find love. While Diana (Karina Salim) pines for a fellow student, Fitri (Ayushita Nugraha) is courted by a deaf-mute punk who seduces her by pretending to be a ghost doctor. The musical number that opens the film suggests that it’s going to be a real original, and the remainder doesn’t quite live up to that promise, even if it’s peppered with arresting moments. Some of the best bits just hinge on a smart mise-en-scène, as when Diana listens to a radio drama while her roommates preen and pray around her. The loose, impressionistic structure means that it drags more than it should at this kind of running time, and the side plots can feel more like distractions, but there’s still plenty to like here.


Click here for our a rather more concise Tokyo International Film Festival 2013 report

James Hadfield writes about music, film and other stuff. You can find him at @JamesHadfield

HESO Best Documentary Film 2012

Best Documentary Films of 2012

HESO Best Documentary Film 2012

HESO Best Documentary Film 2012

The Gatekeepers (Cinephil), Dror Moreh

The Gatekeepers (Cinephil), Dror Moreh

Presumably, any moderately blog-centric “critic” end of the year best-of listing is the easiest part of the job–compiling a blurb heavy inventory of all of the films reviewed over the year. That is if said reviewer actually has access to the myriad documentaries produced and shown around the multifarious festival circuit, the breadth of which is nightmarish to imagine traversing in person. So, email queries are sent. Press kits are downloaded. Youtube is accessed. DVDs are watched on laptops. Our hypothetical critic could theoretically list the entire lineup of documentaries (unalphabetically of course) shown at the Toronto International Film Festival as the official Best of, and be sure of a comprehensive and well-endowed catalogue. As it stands, just wiki-ing, i.e. copying and pasting the prepared blurbs, seems a bit overly 2011. A dark year of documentaries unveiling the wrongs of the world, more to understand than to right them, HESO looks at the Best Documentary Films of 2012, doing our photographic duty to represent the efforts of directors and crews worldwide in their valiant attempts to document the various truths and lies, sublimities and atrocities, living and dying and everything in between, in this one paltry end-of-the-year-best-of-bullshit-attempt-to-grow-our-online-readership blog post.

Best Documentary Films of 2012

The Best Documentary Films of 2011 seemed to be mostly light-hearted and satirical in a way that the 2012 field can’t comprehend, mirroring the shadowy gloom of big feature film releases (Dark Knight Rises, Lincoln & Zero Dark Thirty). Meanwhile, women writers and directors (Alison Klayman, Marina Zenovich, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, Lauren Greenfield and many others) are not just gaining acceptance and respect in the film industry, while documenting the world, they are taking it over.

Take the Middle East going full frontal with a slew of portrayals from all ends of the spectrum, including a few inner sanctum expositions on Israel’s complex workings and philosophies. Beginning with The Gatekeepers (Cinephil), directed by Dror Moreh, who interviews six former heads of the Shin Bet–Israel’s secret service–who reflect publicly on their experiences and attitudes during, and after, their service. Winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, The Law in These Parts (Praxis Films), from Shilton Ha’Chok interviews the architects of the Israeli military legal system in the Occupied Territories.

5 Broken Cameras (Kino Lorber), Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi

5 Broken Cameras (Kino Lorber), Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi

Contrast these with 5 Broken Cameras (Kino Lorber), directed by Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi, a record of a Palestinian attempting to record the struggles of his community in the occupied West Bank. Preceding the United Nations General Assembly granting Palestine non-member observer State status, State 194 (Participant Media) from Dan Setton, documents how in 2009, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad launched a plan to demonstrate that his people were deserving of statehood, inspiring them to change their destiny and seek U.N. membership.

Director Damien Ounouri describes his film, Fidaï (Kafard Films), “During the Algerian Revolution, my great-uncle El Hadi joined his sister in France and became an active member of a secret FLN armed group. Settling of scores, attempted murder, hiding, imprisonment and finally deportation back to Algeria in 1962, his personal journey tells the story of countless ex-fighters for Algerian independence, and echoes the current effervescence of the Arab World. Today, at the age of seventy, El Hadi reveals this dark part of his life for the first time.” While This Is Not A Film, (Kanibal Films) reveals director Jafar Panahi video diary travails of being banned from filmmaking in Iran, yet continuing to practice his art while under house arrest. As if We Were Catching a Cobra (Ramad Films), documents Syrian director Hala Alabdalla’s foray into the art of caricature in Egypt and Syria, and in the meantime captures insurgencies breaking out in both countries.

Despite the turmoil in Israel, Palestine, Egypt and the war in Syria, the rest of the world continues to be absorbed with its own vital intricacies. Picture the opening of North Korea to the world and Marc Wiese’s Camp 14 — Total Control Zone (Engstfeld), which tells the story of Shin Dong Huyk, who says, “Our sole purpose was to follow the rules of the work camp and then die. People on the outside call this place the ‘Total Control Zone.’ We knew nothing of the outside. All we knew was that our parents and our forefathers were guilty and we had to work hard in order to make up for it. Sometimes new people entered the camp but I never saw anyone pardoned for their crime and allowed leave. So none of us thought we would ever leave this place. Sometimes people tried to escape, driven by fear of starving or being beaten, but they were publicly executed and became the object of hate for those of us who were left behind.” The Girl from the South (Taskovski FIlms), chronicles José Luis García fascination with the story of a young South Korean student activist he met who crossed over into North Korea and what happened to her.

Ai WeiWei - Never Sorry

Ai WeiWei – Never Sorry

Fighting censorship has always been the role of the artist and 2012 has seen some of the loudest artists in recent memory. In Alison Klaymans’ Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (United Expression Media), we travel alongside the Chinese “dissident” activist throughout his dealings with the Chinese government. In the same vein is Abdoul Aziz Cissé, The Walls of Dakar, chronicling Dakar’s spontaneous mural frescos, produced by marginal painters, rappers and taggers, as one of its rare sites for free expression.

The ubiquitous face of the most obvious film for the role of the artist in society hangs on nearly every college dorm wall (next to the Che poster), Marley (Shangri-La Productions), the long-awaited Kevin MacDonald bio-pic which uses little-seen archived filmstock and live concert footage to put together a cohesive and even-handed portrait of the man everyone thinks they know. Someone you likely don’t know is the subject of Brad Bernstein’s Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, which depicts the renegade children’s book author and illustrator Ungerer’s wild, life-long adventure of testing societal boundaries through his use of subversive art. Marina Zenovich’s second film on Polanski, Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, following Wanted and Desired, “explores the bizarre clash of politics, celebrity justice and the media.”

But what about ‘Merica? What ever happened to the good ol’ days? When we ruled the world…Detropia (Loki Films), directed by Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing, an artistic look at the decline of the quintessential American Car city and The Queen of Versailles (Magnolia Pictures), directed by Lauren Greenfield, which shows us the 2008 financial crisis from the point of view of the 1%, won, respectively, the U.S. documentary editing award and the U.S. documentary directing award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer

Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer

Interviewing The Wire producer David Simon, Arianna Huffington, Woody Harrelson, Eminem, Susan Sarandon and infamous drug kingpin “Freeway” Rick Ross, Matthew Cooke’s How To Make Money Selling Drugs (Bert Marcus Productions) spends the first half of the film literally teaching the viewer how to do so, and soon offers glimpses into the lives of those on both sides of the “war on drugs.” Drugs is one thing, but what about the pimp? Told through interviews Chris Rock, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, Quincy Jones, Snoop Dogg and with Iceberg Slim himself, Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp (Final Level Entertainment), directed by Jorge Hinojosa, shows us the crazy life of the man who reinvented himself from the pimp to founder of Street-Lit by authoring of seven books.

Well-known directors had another banner year in documenting the unknown abuses still happening throughout the world. The Werner Herzog, Errol Morris-produced The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer lets the Suharto-backed Indonesian death-squad leaders tell the story of their atrocities by writing the script, playing themselves, as well as their victims. Less bloody, but equally affecting is Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Alex Gibney’s exposition on the abuse of power in the Catholic Church. And The Central Park Five from Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns, the story of how five black and Latino teenagers were wrongly convicted of raping the Central Park Jogger.

Men At Lunch (Sonta Films), directed by Seán Ó Cualáin and narrated by Fionnula Flanagan, tells the story behind one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, Lunch atop a Skyscraper, taken on the 69th floor of the Rockefeller Building in the autumn of 1932, an unprecedented race to the sky and the immigrant workers who built New York. From New York to London – The Modern Babylon, from director Julien Temple, who tells how it was the marginalized–the immigrant and the artist–that created modern-day London.

Finally, if Vanishing of the Bees and Queen of the Sun failed to impress upon the film-watching populous that the looming epidemic of disappearing honeybees for reasons still obscure, then Markus Imhoof’s More Than Honey should suffice. The tagline of Bitter Seeds (Teddy Bear Films), the final film of Micha Peled’s Globalization Trilogy (Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town and China Bluereads) reads, “Every thirty minutes a farmer in India kills himself.” Enough said? Not even close.

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Tokyo puts “Eco” in the 23rd TIFF

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.

TIFF - Echo of Silence

21st Annual T.I.F.F. (Tokyo International FIlm Festival)

TIFF - Echo of Silence

TIFF - Echo of Silence

The only time I’d usually watch this many films in a day is on a long-haul flight. 37,000 feet over Siberia, the combination of cabin pressure and free booze conspires to dull the critical faculties, allowing second-rate popcorn flicks to pass themselves off as works of dazzling subtlety and emotional depth. There was no free booze at the Tokyo International Film Festival, or at least none that I could find. This was undoubtedly one of the biggest disappointments – well, that and the sad realization that I’m finally over Aoi Miyazaki.

And where was the glamour? It seemed to begin and end with the opening gala, where glitz was awkwardly balanced with the event’s eco-friendly theme. The red carpet was replaced with a green rug, and the stars were forced to forego their limos and crumple their designer threads into a fleet of dinky eco-cars provided by sponsor Toyota.

Yeah, it was a giggle.

This year’s panel of judges was headed by Jon Voight, which would have seemed like a surefire guarantee of quality until you remember that he votes Republican and was last seen in National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Still, he was mighty entertaining in the panel’s press conference, getting producer Michael Gruskoff in a headlock, leading his fellow judges in a chorus line and waxing at length about the labyrinthine layout of Roppongi Hills, where TIFF is held.

Since Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan won this year’s Sakura Grand Prix, and will dominate the headlines, I’ll focus on some of the other participants. Early on, it was obvious that they wouldn’t be picking Feng Xiaoning’s Super Typhoon, a disaster film of quite heroic, life-affirming awfulness that presumably made it into this year’s competition section on the strength of its tacked-on environmental message. Jennifer Phang’s Half-Life was far more promising, an end-of-days suburban drama that, in its tone and splashes of dream logic, came across like a less arch Donnie Darko.

T.I.F.F. Jon Voight (HESO Magazine)

Jon Voight heading T.I.F.F.'s Selection Committee

Echo of Silence, the directorial debut of actor Atsuro Watabe, deserves credit for its audacity, if nothing else. Well lensed and beautifully acted, it was notable for the fact that each scene was shot in a single take on multiple cameras, allowing for a naturalness and fluency that’s absent in most cinema. It’s a shame that Watabe chose to use these techniques in the service of such an uninvolving narrative, but he remains a name to watch.

Still, one of the films that stuck with me the most wasn’t even in the main competition. Kanji Nakajima’sThe Clone Returns to the Homeland will probably be dismissed as pretentious tosh in some quarters, but I found it enormously satisfying. An unashamedly artsy (and at times painfully drawn-out) sci-fi, it wrestled with the issues posed by human cloning, drifting into the territory of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Without the influence of cabin pressure or free booze, it was also the only film that moved me to tears.

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