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Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010

Japanese films at TIFF fail to thrill, with some notable exceptions


Special to The Japan Times

The Tokyo International Film Festival tries to accommodate the many critics, journalists and other freeloaders who want to see and report on its films, while squeezing as many paying customers into its screenings as possible. So folks in the former group are encouraged to attend special media-only screenings prior to and during the fest. (Otherwise, they have to compete for the few tickets set aside for the regular screenings.)

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Top class: Veteran director Kaneto Shindo (above) picked up the Special Jury Prize for his "Ichimai no Hagaki (Post Card)" at this year's Tokyo International Film Festival; Koji Fukada's "Kantai (hospitalite)," winner of the Best Picture Award in the Japanese Eyes section. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO (above), ©KANTAI SEISAKU IINKAI
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This takes some of the festivity out of the festival for this reviewer, since media types at screenings are usually as animated as coroners at an autopsy. On the other hand, their reactions, some of which will show up in a review or result in a foreign festival invitation, indicate how the critical winds are blowing.

This year, as in many years past, that read on the Japanese films at TIFF was more snarky than celebratory, especially for the films in the Special Screening section. These are mostly commercial releases that will open in the fall and winter months after the fest ends, such as "SP: The Motion Picture 1," the first of a two-parter based on Fuji TV's popular action series about security cops.

Some, however, belong to the dwindling ranks of mid-level releases with artistic pretensions but commercial ambitions. One was Hisako Matsui's "Leonie," an international coproduction starring Emily Mortimer ("Lars and the Real Girl," "Shutter Island") as the eponymous, eccentric, erratically devoted mother of famed 20th-century sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Like many biopic makers, Matsui tries to cram in as much incident as possible, while skimping on motivations, such as why Leonie Gilmour stays so long with her flagrantly unfaithful Japanese husband (played by a smarmy Shido Nakamura) or why she lets her pubescent son Isamu live a lonely existence in the United States while she lingers on, bull-headedly, in the militarizing, increasingly xenophobic Japan of the prewar period.

Mortimer's take on Gilmour as an ungainly, unclubbable but stubborn individualist at least makes her comprehensible (and as an enduring expat type, familiar). The real surprise, however, is the appearance of "Mad Men" sensation Christina Hendricks as Gilmour's conformist college friend, who ends up in an empty, if wealthy, marriage. Why Hendricks took this thankless role is anyone's guess — but she brings a breath of sensual warmth to the film's rather ascetic, otherworldly proceedings.

The Japanese indie film attracting the most media coverage was Kaneto Shindo's blackly comic World War II homefront drama, "Ichimai no Hagaki (Post Card)," which screened in the Competition section. The big reason was 98-year-old Shindo's declaration that this was to be his last film in a six-decade directing career. Confined to a wheelchair, but with a voice still clear and eyes still sharp, he bid farewell to filmmaking again and again, including at the film's world premiere on Oct. 27 and the awards ceremony on Oct. 31, after he was presented with the Special Jury Prize, the festival's second-highest honor.

It was touching to see Kaze Shindo, his granddaughter and a director in her own right, help him onto the stage and, kneeling by his side, reword the sometimes rambling questions from the media into his ear. This, we could all see, was indeed his last hurrah. But when a journo at the awards ceremony press conference loudly urged Shindo to beat the record for oldest active director, held by 101-year-old Manoel de Oliveira, Shindo shot back that "If someone would support me, I wouldn't mind directing another one," an answer that got a big laugh from the crowd.

Later, at the TIFF closing reception, Kaze Shindo told me that another feature like "Post Card" would be impossible, "though he might make a short film," she added. I was reminded of the comment by famed animator Chuck Jones: "I hope that when I'm buried they'll leave a place for my arm to come out so I can make a drawing." On Shindo's grave they can put a director's chair — may that day be long in coming.

The Best Picture Award winner of the Japanese Eyes section, dedicated to new Japanese indie films, was Koji Fukada's "Kantai (hospitalite)." Based on a play by the Seinendan theater troupe of which Fukada is a member, "hospitalite" is a comedy set in a Tokyo printing shop, run by an amiable middle-aged man (Kenji Yamauchi), assisted by his gorgeous young wife (Kiki Sugino). Their little paradise begins to unravel when a pranksterish bearded guy (Kanji Furutachi) insinuates his way into their lives.

The first 30 minutes make the wryly comic most of cleverly minimal means, but after the bearded guy's sexy foreign girlfriend (Bryerly Long) suddenly shows up — and brazenly moves into the shop — the film descends to goofy farce, culminating in a conga line of illegal aliens.

My own choice for the award would have been Hiromasa Hirosue's "Fit," whose unlikely heroes are young call-center workers in charge of customer complaints. This may sound like a setup for another comedy, but Hirosue, working from an original script, instead probes the lonely, conflicted hearts of his principals, who may look groomed for success but are instead sliding toward suicide, crime and failure. Rather than another indie downer, however, Hirosue has made a film that betray expectations in fresh, plausible ways, while creating characters who are odd, likable and real. Not all of his gambles succeed equally well, but at least he is trying to make it new, instead of, like his many commercially minded contemporaries, simply trying to make it.



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