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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2001

TIFF take 14

Japan has one of the largest film markets in the world. Accordingly, every year the Tokyo International Film Festival serves up world cinema on a grand scale, screening more than 140 films over the course of a week.

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
"Goal Club"
"Peony Pavilion"
"No Man's Land"

The festival, celebrating its 14th year, kicks off Saturday with no major changes in the overall programming. There will be the Special Screenings, featuring mostly big films looking for a flashy local debut, along with a couple of Japanese period dramas thrown in for the tourists. There's the hodgepodge of the Competition, a broad mix of filmmakers competing for the large cash prize. Also returning are the showcases of new and classic Japanese cinema, superlative Asian film in Cinema Prism and the usual constellation of satellite events, including selections of "fantastic films," women's cinema, Korean film and even Disney classics.

The one significant change is a new man at the helm, Michiyasu Kawauchi. At a recent press conference, the self-confessed film-biz neophyte announced his intentions of making the event one of the world's top festivals by 2005.

More power to him. While always popular, most festival-followers would agree TIFF has quite a way to go before it will be mentioned in the same breath as the festivals of Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Toronto.

What will it take for TIFF to find its groove, attract top-drawer films and stars and establish its own identity in a crowded field? As Director General Kawauchi may soon realize, the solutions are far from clear, but everyone seems to agree that certain issues -- what's working and what's not -- need to be addressed.

Pulling power

Of course, a bit of glamour and glitz can do a lot to broaden a film festival's appeal. TIFF traditionally achieves this by choosing Hollywood blockbusters to open and close the fest. This year, both of the festival's opening and closing selections will highlight the state of current animation with "Shrek" on Oct. 27 and "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" on Nov. 4. The festival, however, has yet to equal its 1998 coup of scoring the world premiere of "Titanic," and too many subsequent openers have been schlockbusters on their way to video-store shelves in the United States and opening in Japan mere days after the "exclusive" festival screening.

The bigger problem here, though, lies in the gap between the mass-entertainment Special Screenings and the much slower, artier, low-budget films that comprise much of the festival fare.

"If the people who are coming to see 'Shrek' also went to see some unknown Asian film as well, that would be nice, but that's not going to happen," observes Shozo Ichiyama, former director of TIFF's Cinema Prism and current director of Tokyo FILMeX, a new, modestly sized, Asia-oriented festival. "What they need to do," says Ichiyama, "is to feature an outstanding artistic film that is somewhere between those extremes."

This year, that would obviously be "Apocalypse Now Redux," a fine selection, but what's so "special" about "Lucky Break," already available as in-flight entertainment, and "Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah"?

The right profile

Media coverage is the oxygen of any festival craving influence. To ensure that winning films get exposure, TIFF organizers should invite more foreign journalists, suggests Tadao Sato, noted film critic and director of the Fukuoka International Film Festival.

"If the festival doesn't get any coverage internationally, it's going to be hard to attract a good selection of films," says Sato. He cites the example of the Pusan Film Festival, which is aggressively courting the press and has seen its reputation rise rapidly as a result.

TIFF's budget for inviting journalists has shrunk considerably and -- between airfares and hotels -- Tokyo is too costly a destination for most cineastes. But that's only part of the problem, insists FILMeX's Ichiyama.

"It's ultimately a question of having films that people need to see," says Sato. "At Cannes, Venice, Berlin or, recently, Rotterdam, there's a chance to see a lot of films for the first time. Tokyo has a lot of stuff that's already played at other festivals -- it's not a lineup that's essential."

Ichiyama also points out the importance of retrospectives, which attract interest with comprehensive selections of rarely screened films. For example, Nantes focuses on African film, while Berlin has paid homage to German directors Fritz Lang and Erich von Stroheim. TIFF's Nippon Cinema Classics would appear to fit the bill, but insiders agree that the departure of the programmer Yamane Sato is a great loss. This year's theme? Takarazuka Actresses on Film. Another head-scratcher is the retrospective of anime wizard Mamoru Oshii, which -- aside from "Ghost in the Shell" -- will be screened without English subtitles. So much for foreign coverage.

Gotta have personality

A festival needs a unique brand to stand out. TIFF, however, has often stretched itself thin by trying to be everything to everybody. This year there appears to be some downsizing, though, which might not be such a bad trend, if the festival focuses on its strong points.

With the inauguration of an Asian Film Award several years ago, TIFF shifted its weight slightly toward Asian films. A wise decision, since the Cinema Prism section, with its Asia-centric films, has consistently featured films that outshine the Competition and Special Screenings. Part of this is no doubt due to Prism's freedom to choose films without the competition's constraints, but a bigger factor may be who's picking the films. Prism has a director, who is able to impose a sensibility, while the competition is decided by a committee, many of whose members obviously lean toward the conservative side.

This year's Cinema Prism selection is slim but shouldn't disappoint. FILMeX's Ichiyama, who has seen many of the films on offer, recommends works from Sri Lanka ("This Is My Moon") and Taiwan ("Bird Land," "Too Young"). Israeli director Amos Gitai will be previewing his new documentary, "Wadi Grand Canyon," which covers two decades of relations between Jews and Arabs in the suburbs of Haifa -- no doubt, a timely film from a voice of reason.

One potentially successful strategy is to play up the local content. Global interest in Japanese film has certainly increased, as evidenced by the international recognition given to films such as Shinji Aoyama's "Eureka," Hirokazu Koreeda's "Afterlife" and Takeshi Kitano's "Hana-bi." But getting a hot Japanese director to premiere a new work at home isn't easy, as anyone will tell you that a prize overseas carries much more weight. Furthermore, local distributors' influence on the festival's program has resulted in some embarrassing inclusions that pull down the overall image.

It's easy to carp and second-guess TIFF's decisions, but a few simple changes would help immensely. Start by making some bolder choices in the competition category (and try not to repeat 1995, the year when the competition was so dire, the jury refused to pick a winner). Enforce a rigorous standard for local films -- regardless of industry connections (could someone please banish Godzilla Inc. to the Fantastic Film Fest?). Build on the idea of showcasing the best of Japanese cinema and let the world know this is where to see it (three hints: quality, quality and quality). And go with what works (namely Cinema Prism, which has introduced directors like Iran's Mohsen Makhmalbaf years before his films ever opened here).

And finally, while we're asking for the world, how about more parties with the Kano sisters?

Advance tickets (two days prior to screening) are 1,000 yen-1,500 yen; day-of-screening tickets are 1,200 yen-1,500 yen.

TIFF venues are Bunkamura's Orchard Hall, Theater Cocoon and Le Cinema; Shibuya Joy Cinema; Shibuto Cine Tower 3, Shibuya Pantheon; Cross Tower; and Tokyo Women's Plaza (U.N. University, B1). Festival schedules and programs are available at these locations.

Q&A sessions and guest appearances will be held at many screenings. For more information, call (03) 5777-8600 (7 a.m.-11 p.m.) or see the official festival Web site (www.tiff-jp.net).

TIFF ticket giveaway

Japan Times readers are being offered 35 pairs of tickets to films screenings in the Competition division of the Tokyo International Film Festival, which opens Saturday. These films are as follows: "Anam," Oct. 30, 11:20 a.m.; "Kewaishi," Oct. 30, 3:20 p.m.; "Human Nature," Oct. 30, 7:20 p.m.; "Under the Moonlight," Oct. 31, 11:20 a.m.; "Slogans," Oct. 31, 3:20 p.m.; "Mr. In-Between," Nov. 1, 11:20 a.m.; "The Lament of a Lamb," Nov. 1, 3 p.m.; "The Rebel," Nov. 2, 11:20 a.m.; "Vidocq," Nov. 2, 3:30 p.m.; "The Chimp," Nov. 3, 10:50 a.m. All the films will be showing at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya, Tokyo. To apply, send a postcard to The Japan Times Arts & Entertainment Dept., 4-5-4 Shibaura, Minato-ku 108-0023, with the following information: name, age, occupation, address, phone number and your film of choice. All applications must be postmarked by Oct. 25.

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