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Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2003

Slim pickings

Does Tokyo have an A-list competition?

The 2003 Tokyo International Film Festival, the first under new General Producer Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, was in many ways a rousing success. Screenings, held Nov. 1-9, were well attended, even on weekday mornings in the cavernous Bunkamura Orchard Hall. A new seat-reservation system eliminated the usual mad scrambles, making the whole festival-going experience more civilized. A red carpet, laid outside Bunkamura on opening day, was another new touch, allowing the crowds to get an up-close look at the stars as they made their grand entrances, decked out in tuxedos and designer gowns.

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Li Jia and Guo Xiaodong in "Nuan"

Finally and most importantly, the various sections of the festival, as well as such associated events as the Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival and Tokyo International Women's Film Festival, offered a smorgasbord of cinematic choices that only the cloned could take full advantage of. As a reviewer of Japanese films, I could have spent a full week just sampling selections from the Nippon Cinema Classics and Nippon Cinema Forum sections, the Ko Nakahira retrospective and the Japanese Animation Special Program.

Instead, I devoted my schedule mostly to watching the 15 competition films, including three by Japanese directors. The festival office had asked me to contribute to a critics' panel whose one-to-10 ratings were being published in a daily newsletter for the media and fans. I had contributed to a similar panel at the Cannes Film Festival and knew that people actually paid attention to these ratings -- and even glanced at the critics' names. It might be fun, I thought, to wield a bit of clout for a change.

Also, after years of hearing other critics say unkind things about the competition section, I was curious to see the whole thing myself, instead of cherry-picking the most interesting-looking films as I had done at previous festivals. After all, Kadokawa and new competition programmer Kayo Yoshida had vowed to make changes following last year's embarrassing discovery that three of the competition films had previously competed in other festivals. This was a violation of the rules TIFF is obligated to follow as an A-list festival. Membership in this elite group, which includes Cannes, Venice and Berlin, and is determined by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations, is a matter of huge importance to TIFF officials.

There were no disqualifications this year, but the selections often had me shaking my head at their awfulness or oddity. I later found that my reaction was not only shared, but comparatively mild. At the post-festival party, two of the competition jurors -- best not to say who -- told me the jury was "furious" at what they had been forced to endure. "I got angrier every day," one juror confided. "A lot of these films did not belong in a competition."

At the bottom of the heap was "The Omen" -- a Thai horror film about as scary as a grade-school Halloween pageant and not nearly as cute. This was not a bad genre film trying and failing to kid its own conventions -- this was a bad genre film that meandered from cliche to cliche, with no awareness of its own lameness.

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Nao Omori and Shinobu Terajima in "Vibrator"

Other selections did not plunge to this depth, but they left me wondering what, if any, policy the programmers were trying to follow. Cannes has long aimed for artistic excellence in its competition section, box-office considerations be damned. Tokyo, judging from the evidence presented at this year's competition, can't seem to make up its mind, mixing art and commerce for reasons murky, at best.

One example of this confusion was "Calendar Girls," Nigel Cole's attempt to remake "The Full Monty" with middle-aged women disrobing for the cameras and a charitable cause. This feel-good movie might make good in-flight fare -- the emotional bumps are mild enough not to upset nervous passengers -- but as a competition selection it is a puzzler. Was it chosen simply because it qualified -- and nothing else of acceptable quality was available from its part of the world? Hard to believe, given the recent abundance of more artistically original, if less commercially viable, films from the United Kingdom. Was it shown because it would fill seats and please fans? Then why not put it in the Special Screening section, where the box-office rules?

But while half the selections fell into the jaw-dropper or head-scratcher category, several others were worthy of the prizes awarded. One of these was the winner of the Grand Prize, Huo Jianqui's "Nuan." Telling a story of thwarted love that leads to regrets -- and one last attempt to bridge the gap the years have opened, "Nuan" reached beyond the usual melodramatics to an elegiac beauty and pathos. True, Chinese films for the festival circuit have been selling a similar beauty and pathos for nearly two decades now, right down to the rich, somber colors of the landscape -- but Huo's version happens to be pitch perfect. An intense, compact performance by Teruyuki Kagawa as a mute peasant who comes between the film's two lovers, won the Best Actor's prize.

My own favorite was Ryuichi Hiroki's "Vibrator." A road movie about two strangers who are drawn together by lust but who end up revealing their inner selves, all in the space of two days. "Vibrator" is a tour de force of scripting, acting and directing that feels refreshingly natural -- and unpredictable. Playing a freelance writer on the verge of a nervous breakdown, newcomer Shinobu Terajima delivers an all-stops-out performance that is as coherent as it is courageous, as nuanced as it is powerful. She was a slam-dunk winner of the Best Actress prize.

Surprisingly, she had to share it with Khristy Jean Hulslander, who plays a mysterious, glowingly sexy Christmas angel in "Santa Smokes." In this zero-budget film by Chris Valentin and Till Terror (aka Schaunder), an out-of-work actor (Schaunder) ends up working as a street Santa -- and falling for Hulslander's character. Ingenious in its use of a mini-DV camera to extract amusing "found" performances from unsuspecting New Yorkers, "Santa" was nonetheless too clunky and sitcomy for my taste. Was the award for Best Director given to its two makers -- both first-timers -- based strictly on merit, or was it the jury's unspoken comment on the patchy quality of the competition?

The other prize winner was Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov's "The Suit," which scooped the Special Jury and Best Artistic Contribution awards. Shot in a resort town on the Black Sea, the film serves as an enticing and atmospheric tourist promo. Eyeing the sparkling blue water, the town rising picturesquely up to the hills and the beautiful local women, who are seldom out of the frame, I was ready to book the next flight there. The film's coming-of-age story, which centers on three young louts convinced their aimless lives will change if they can collectively own a designer suit, goes nowhere fast, however, while the manic cavorting of the principals reminded me uncomfortably of "The Monkees," only with worse choreography. Usually a heavy diet of festival competition films leaves me hungry for entertainment. After "The Suit," though, I was ready for a stiff shot of Bresson.

Still, I wouldn't mind that Black Sea vacation.

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