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Saturday, Dec. 30, 2000

FILMeX gets it right on first take

It was fitting that the lobby-cum-press/jury lounge at Kyobashi's Eiga Bigakko (the Film School of Tokyo), littered with coffee cups and fliers for Tokyo mini-theaters, was the place for both film buffs and filmmakers to hang out during Tokyo FILMeX 2000.

Indeed, a good festival is always more than just a bunch of good films -- it fosters interaction among everyone involved. Tokyo FILMeX, which focused on Asian films, was a success in that regard, with its low-key parties, symposiums and post-screening Q&As (and a nice departure from the stodgy formality that dogs the larger Tokyo International Film Festival).

Kudos should go to festival director Ichiyama Shozo, former programmer of TIFF's highly regarded Cinema Prism selection. Having a personal network of independent Asian filmmakers, he was able to not only attract quality films but also their creators.

For a virgin festival, the overall selection was unusually strong, but it was the Iranians who particularly stood out. Jafar Panahi, director of the acclaimed "White Balloon," showed a solid follow-up with "The Circle," while Bhaman Ghobadi brought his impressive debut, "A Time For Drunken Horses." Twenty-year-old Samirah Makhmalbaf's "Blackboards," an award-winner at Cannes, lived up to all the praise that preceded it. Dealing with topics such as women's rights and the plight of the Kurds, all three films showed a greater sense of social criticism within Iranian film (although it should be noted that none of them have been screened within Iran yet).

While the festival's remit was to focus on auteurs -- directors with a strong personal stamp on their works -- it became embarrassingly clear that the local contingent was nowhere near up to snuff.

The Japanese films, Ujita Takashi's "Ryuko, in the Unfaithful Evening" and Yukisada Isao's "Torch Song," were simply painful, with the directors' artsy posturing and heavy-handed symbolism eclipsing any sort of nuanced observation or understanding of human nature. Lighting a cigarette and "existentially" staring into space is hardly a substitute for character. While these directors obviously have technique, they should be steered away from auteurist pretensions immediately -- some scripts by actual writers might help.

Some very pertinent comments on this issue came during FILMeX's opening symposium, in which panelist Hengameh Panahi, of the Paris-based sales company Celluloid Dreams, spoke of the realities of Asian films breaking into the market in Europe. After stating that all non-U.S./EU films combined made up less than 1 percent of the box office in the EU, she noted that "there's a big difference between critical/festival interest in Asian films and public interest."

In France, she pointed out, 400,000 admissions is considered to be a success; an art film like "Eureka" -- perhaps the most acclaimed Japanese film of the past year -- drew only 5,475 admissions in two weeks in Paris.

The best performance by any Asian film was that of Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love," which drew over 600,000 in France. This was no fluke, Panahi said.

"It was a coproduction with France. Behind it you have a very talented director who is also a businessman, and it's important to realize that art can sometimes go with business. The film is exactly what an Asian film can be on the international market: You have style, beautiful actors, great clothing, so you can attract a mass audience for an artistic film, which is very rare to achieve."

As another success story, Panahi cited the example of how her company built Takeshi Kitano's reputation from scratch over the course of several films.

"It's a very strong collaboration that has other things in mind than just quick money," she said. "Which is actually what I would emphasize, that too many Asian producers only think about the quick money. It really takes time.

"You have to choose the right partners, plant your seeds and then wait for them to ripen."

One could say that Asian filmmakers now have some fertile ground at FILMeX.

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