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Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2002

Less is more at FILMeX

Tokyo FILMeX comes only a month after the Tokyo International Film Festival on the calendar, but there's no danger of mistaking the two. Just take a look at their opening films: "Minority Report," a Spielberg Hollywood blockbuster for TIFF, and "Russian Ark," a deep meditation on 300 years of Russian art and history for FILMeX.

News photo
Shinya Tsukamoto's "A Snake of June"

If entertainment is the flag flown by TIFF -- indeed, their press releases used to speak of "discovering the next Spielberg or Lucas" -- then their competition films rarely live up to that standard. For FILMeX there is no such gap: their opening film screams "art," and the rest of the festival retains a consistent focus on Asian "auteur" cinema.

This year's line-up sees nine films in competition, 12 special screenings and a pair of nouvelle vague Soviet films from the '60s. All the films are selected by FilmEx director Kanako Hayashi and program director Shozo Ichiyama (formerly of TIFF's Cinema Prism section). While the two have their own separate likes and dislikes, Hayashi said with a laugh, "we don't fight over it that much."

"Our most important criterion for selection, especially in the competition, is finding young talent we can support, people who display creativity and originality," Hayashi added. "It's not like every film we choose will be a masterpiece -- though hopefully some will be! -- but more a filmmaker who shows promise, who leaves you with the feeling that you want to see what he does next."

Hayashi is particularly pleased with this year's selection of Japanese films, several of which are world premieres. In competition are a pair of Japanese films from proteges of "Afterlife" director Hirokazu Koreeda: "Kakuto," directed by actor Yusuke (from "Distance"), is a "street movie" about kids looking to score some dope, while "Wild Berries" sees Miwa Nishikawa moving from assistant director to director, with a tale about a prodigal son. And simply unmissable is "A Snake of June," a Special Screening film by Shinya Tsukamoto of "Tetsuo" fame, which creates an ominously rain-drenched hyper-noir atmosphere for its tale of kinky voyeurism. Tokyo's rainy season has never looked so malevolent.

Tsukamoto's film already picked up an award at Venice, reflecting the belief among many younger Japanese directors that overseas acclaim is the road to success. FILMeX hopes to change that pattern.

"We hope to give these artists a boost," Hayashi pointed out. "There are a lot of international festival programmers watching our line-up, so a film that premieres at FILMeX could still go on to play Rotterdam, Berlin, or Cannes. I'm sure some of them will, because they're strong films."

Notable among the Japanese film premieres is "bright future," from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of "Cure" and "Kairo (Pulse)."

When it comes to the Special Screenings, the choices are made based on "films that really moved us, made by filmmakers who've already mastered their art," Hayashi said. "Not films that you watch and forget just as quickly, but rather works that bear the mark of an auteur, something that only that director could have made."

Big names in the Special Screenings include Amos Gitai ("Kedma") and Ann Hui ("Visible Secret"), but FILMeX's decision to push the "cinema d'auteur," where works are seen to originate primarily from the director's vision, is a double-edged sword. "Russian Ark," by Alexander Sokrov, is typical of the genre. It weds technical daring -- a 90-minute, one-shot, one-take time-trip through St. Petersburg's Hermitage museum -- with sumptuous visuals and intellectual rigor . . . and still ends up playing like an overly long museum tour accompanied by a rambling guide. It's entrancing for some, soporific for others, and both reactions were clearly on display at a recent preview screening.

The selection is varied, however, and film buffs are encouraged to consider the following works.

"Blissfully Yours" is a beautifully shot Thai film about Myanmarese exiles living in the deep forests along the country's border, which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes earlier this year. Far less tranquil is "Nothing to Lose," by Thai director Danny Pang, hot off of the success of "Bangkok Dangerous." This one features a ruined gambler and a floozy who meet on the same roof they're about to jump off of . . . higher octane than your usual auteur fare.

"Chicken Poets," from China's Meng Jing-hui, is in the unenviable position of being about exactly what its title says: unsuccessful poets who decide to run a chicken farm, a premise that would work like Kryptonite on any commercially minded producer.

Korean films continue to be the flavor of the month, and many of them continue to walk the edge: "Too Young To Die" looks at "the sex lives of senior citizens," while "Oasis" follows a forbidden relationship -- sex and all -- between a simple-minded man and a woman crippled with cerebral palsy.

Any film described as dealing with "alienation" can find a festival berth, but don't miss "Unknown Pleasures." Not only was director Jia Zhangke cool enough to lift a Joy Division song for his title, he's also managed to capture the "no future" outlook of kids in China's rust-belt. A decent follow-up to his critically acclaimed "Platform."

Finally, there's the Closing Film, "Monday Morning," which took the Silver Bear award for Best Director at Berlin. It says something about FILMeX that even this film, the one out-and-out comedy, is about an alienated factory worker. He blows off his lousy job and loveless family to go to Venice, where he can smoke all the cigarettes he likes and even encounter naked nuns. Imagine a French "American Beauty" with a comic sense somewhere between Jim Jarmusch and Jacques Tati. Can't do that? Neither could I -- just see the film.

Tokyo FILMeX runs Dec. 1-8 at Yurakucho Asahi Hall and Cine La Sept. Almost every film has English and Japanese subtitles. Tickets are 1,200 yen in advance, 1,500 yen same day, available from Ticket Pia. For a full schedule see: www.filmex.net

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