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Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2004

FILMeX picks only the best

Tokyo FILMeX, a festival celebrating independent cinema from Japan, Asia and other parts of the world, will hold its fifth edition Nov. 20-28 at Yurakucho Asahi Hall, National Film Center Hall and Cine Quanon Yurakucho. Japan Times senior film critic Mark Schilling recently got together with competition jury chairman Donald Richie, jury member James Quandt and Festival Director Kanako Hayashi to discuss not only the festival, but also the state of cinema in Japan and elsewhere.

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Donald Richie

A longtime columnist for The Japan Times and a world-acknowledged authority on Japanese film, Richie is the author of more than 40 books, including pioneering studies of directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. The Senior Programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto and a widely published cinema critic and scholar, James Quandt is the recipient of the Japan Foundation Special Prize for Arts and Culture in 2004.

Mark Schilling: What is your impression of the FILMeX selection this year?

Donald Richie: One of the things I like most about FILMeX is its choice of films. Kanako Hayashi and [Program Director] Shozo Ichiyama have seen everything and have picked the best films, not the box-office winners as some festivals do. So each year the selection is a real eye-opener -- you realize what good films there are in this world. This year the lineup is especially brilliant, I think. It specializes in Asian films -- they go all around getting the best Asian films. Also the Japanese program -- you have real difficulty getting Japanese films that good.

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Mark Schilling

James Quandt: I actually panicked when I saw the 10 we're going to be judging because it's so solid. I can already see we're going to be giving 10 prizes. (laughs)

MS: What is the key difference between this festival and the many others that now have a focus on Asian films?

DR: There are festivals all over the world with special interests that try to satisfy popular tastes and local preferences. The only question FILMeX asks is "Is it a good film?" The worth of the film is considered much more here than at many other festivals

JQ: FILMeX has established its reputation very, very rapidly. There are so many festivals emerging -- one every day in fact. It's hard for a new festival to make a reputation for itself, but everyone I've talked to who's had anything to do with its programming thinks that it's a terrific festival.

DR: Another thing I should add is that it's strictly about films. A lot of festivals are about celebrities or parties or the starlets jumping into the pool. There's nothing like that here. It's built around what it is -- films. That's sort of rare.

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James Quandt

JQ: One thing that excites me incredibly are the directors and historical spotlights. I love contemporary cinema, but I'm really looking forward to the retrospectives. One director [they're honoring], Gabor Body, I must admit I know very little about -- I've seen only one of his films -- so I'm really thrilled about that opportunity. I'm hoping I can do something about getting [the Body retrospective] shown elsewhere.

DR: Last year they did the Hiroshi Shimizu retrospective. He was not very well known abroad. The result is that his films are not only better known abroad now, they're more widely shown around the world.

JQ: Not to be nationalistic (laughs), but I'd like to put in a plug for the Guy Madden retrospective. He is a Canadian director not very well known abroad, though I think he's a genius. You can't really compare him to anybody. Well David Lynch, but that's a very inadequate comparison. There's a huge difference between his films and his demeanor and persona. He comes off as extremely mild, but the films are absolutely insane. One of his films, "The Saddest Music In the World," has this beer baron who has a glass leg filled with beer. (laughs)

MS: To change the topic a bit, FILMeX specializes in Asian films, more of which are being shown in North America and elsewhere around the world. Are they finally at the point of breaking into the mainstream?

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Tomu Uchida's "Keisatsukan (Police Officer)"

DR: Asian films are so much more popular now around the world than they were before. So many more people are able to see them. Also, Asians make good films -- and they don't only make company products. Directors are actually making what they want to make. There are also festivals, like this one and like Toronto, that are showing them.

JQ: There's a critical consensus now that a lot of the excitement that used to come from Europe or the American independent film movement is now coming from Asia. From mainland China, from Taiwan, from countries like Thailand, whose films have not been seen very much at all. One is being shown at FILMeX -- "Tropical Malady" by Sud Pralad, who is really an amazing filmmaker.

MS: But most of the interest in Asian films among young people in the West seems to be concentrated on genre product. When you look at the message boards on the Internet and so on that's what they're talking about.

DR: I think that people have always looked at genre -- I don't think it's anything new. Most of Japanese film is genre.

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Guy Maddin's "Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary"

JQ: One of your [Donald Richie's] big favorites is very contrary to that trend -- [Hirokazu] Kore-eda.

DR: Yes, he's doing something quite different. You can't categorize it.

JQ: You also have a contrary impulse -- toward a more auteur-directed cinema. The most anticipated Asian film of this year ["2046"] is by an auteur, Wong Kar-wai. There is a small, but very intense, following for a certain number of auteurs.

My attitude toward genre is that anything that will bring people into North American cinemas is great. I would prefer that people would go for other reasons -- that they're following a director's work, but if a genre brings people to [the theater] I have no objection.

DR: I don't know that directors are all that concerned with genres, but producers are wild for genres. It's producers who are producing this genre orgy that is going on.

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Body Gabor's "Narcissus and Psyche"

MS: Yes, they push it, but what I'm seeing now are more young directors making small films, but with the aim of making bigger genre films. Whereas 10 or 15 years ago more were coming in with the idea of going to Cannes or Berlin.

DR: Yes, you also have a genre filmmaker like Takashi Miike who is always trying to do something new. That he doesn't do anything new is obviously due to a lack of talent. (laughs)

JQ: One illustration of what I was saying earlier is a film I'm embarrassed to say I haven't seen yet, which is "Hero." There was so much media coverage this summer about the fact that it was No. 1 at the box office in North America. When was the last time that a foreign-language film with English subtitles was No. 1 at the box office in North America? Obviously, it was the genre that was bringing in those audiences. There was a lot of talk among people I know as to whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. I can't imagine that it's a bad thing.

I guess I still have the naive romantic idea that a person who has seen his first English-subtitled film, such as "Hero," can be nudged into seeing that director's other films.

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Sumiko Haneda's "Into the Scroll: The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa"

MS: One reason many people came to FILMeX in the beginning, five years ago, was that Takeshi Kitano was sponsoring it. His celebrity drew people who then realized that it wasn't just about him -- that there were all these films worth watching. Whatever gets them in the door, I suppose. (laughs)

JQ: I was talking to people at the Canadian Embassy and they were marveling at how many Canadian films are shown in Tokyo. The point is that there are still a number of small distributors and small independent cinemas here. That doesn't actually exist in North America anymore. Everything has been multiplexed by and large and the number of independent theaters is very, very few.

MS: When I open up [the entertainment magazine] Pia every week I see all these small indie films, Japanese mainly, and I wonder who is watching them all?

DR: Yes, it's getting to be quite a film capital here.

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Akiko Shiota's "Canary"

MS: FILMeX is helping in that regard because people coming to it see films from people and places they may have never even considered before. Then they open Pia and say, "Here's another film by that director."

DR: But somebody has to pick them

up, buy the rights.

Kanako Hayashi: The rights to all four Korean films screened at FILMeX last year were sold: "Save the Green Planet," "Into the Mirror," "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring" and "Resurrection of the Little Match Girl."

MS: To run a successful film festival now it seems almost essential to have at least a few buyers come. I program a film festival myself -- the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy -- and when I go to the Japanese companies they always ask two questions: "Do you have a competition?" and "How many buyers come?" If you say "none," they'll say "We'll think about it."

JQ: Among the film festivals and in the industry, increasingly a lot of films are being seen as what they call "festival films." They're going to find their audience and their limits in life on the festival circuit. A consequence of that is a lot of festivals are being charged enormous fees. In the past festivals automatically got films free because they were seen as cultural events.

KH: At FILMeX we never pay.

JQ: More and more festivals are being asked if they have a formalized market, like the Tokyo International Film Festival does starting this year, or if they have a reputation for distributors coming, seeing films and buying them. Obviously, it's easier for festivals who do to get the films that they want or to get films period.

MS: Also, as James mentioned, there are so many festivals out there now.

JQ: There's a New Yorker cartoon that's about 10 years old now -- there's a rocky outcropping in the middle of nowhere and one guy is sitting on it saying to another guy, "What this place needs is a film festival." (laughs)

MS: It is getting tougher -- that's why FILMeX is so amazing. It's come so far so fast, without paying anyone for anything.

JQ: Whenever I look at the program for this festival I get a feeling for the selection and curation. In other words, there's a shaping sensibility. What you might call "taste."

* * *

This year's Tokyo FILMeX, Nov. 20-28, will present 10 competition films, five special screenings and three special programs highlighting the works of overlooked film masters.

Competition films include works from China, Japan, India, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand. The recipient of the festival's grand prize will receive 100,000 yen in prize money. This year's competition jury, chaired by film critic Donald Richie, comprises filmmaker Sumiko Haneda, actress Moon So Ri, film curator James Quandt and film producer Simon Field. Special screenings include the latest from Israeli director Amos Gitai, Japanese director Shiota Akihiko and Hong Kong director Johnnie To.

The three directors in the Filmmakers in Focus programs are Tomu Uchida, Guy Maddin and Gabor Body.

Although Uchida's 1965 film "A Fugitive from the Past (Kiga Kaigyo)" is cited as a masterpiece in Japan, his name isn't among the film masters known overseas. Thirteen postwar works by Uchida (1898-1970) will be screened at the National Film Center in Kyobashi. Several of the films are new prints, and one of the two screenings of "Police Officer (Keisatsukan)" will be accompanied by a live orchestra led by Yoshihide Otomo's New Jazz Ensemble.

Three recent works by innovative Canadian director Maddin -- "The Saddest Music in the World" (2003); "Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary" (2002); and "Cowards Bend the Knee" (2003) -- will be shown at FILMeX. Shooting in black-and-white without any special effects, Maddin deliberately dates his films, making them both tributes to and lampoons of cinema's golden age.

The third Filmmaker in Focus program will show three works by Hungarian maverick Body (1946-1985), whose dreamlike films earned acclaimed in Europe in the '70s and '80s.

On Nov. 23 film critic Tony Rayns will moderate a symposium on international film festivals at Yurakucho Asahi Hall. Panelists include directors Takeshi Kitano, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Shinya Tsukamoto.

Following many of the screenings there will be Q&A sessions with attending guests. All films will have English and Japanese subtitles.

The main venue will be Yurakucho Asahi Hall, with some screenings at Cine Qua Non Yurakucho.

Advance tickets, available three days prior to a screening, are on sale through Pia and other ticket outlets. Most screenings are 1,200 yen in advance, 1,500 yen at the door. Three-screening tickets (weekdays only) are available for 3,000 yen.

For more information and a detailed schedule in English and Japanese, visit the festival Web site at www.filmex.net

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