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Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006

This lens lacks focus

Improved lineup not enough to rescue Tokyo International Film Festival

Special to The Japan Times

The Tokyo International Film Festival is an event moving in opposite directions at the same time. On the one hand, past failures and a distinctly commercial organizing committee have sullied the movie fair's global reputation. On the other hand, programming quality has risen noticeably in the last two years. But there is no guarantee that this will continue.

OSS 117 Cairo Nest of Spies
"OSS 117, Cairo Nest of Spies," directed by Michael Hazanavicius, took the Sakura Grand Prix at this year's Tokyo International Film Festival

When it started in 1985, TIFF engendered great excitement both in Japan and abroad. Asia was lagging behind in terms of film fests. Aiming to establish an instant reputation, TIFF offered an unheard of 35 million yen in prize money to "young" (age under 35, or less than three features to their credit) filmmakers. Shinji Somai's evocative and excellent "Typhoon Club" won the first Young Cinema award, but the fest quickly fell victim to second-rate films and, bizarrely, a dubious commitment to international standards for film festivals. One example of this was 1992's special screening of highly touted French film "Indochine" (with Catherine Deneuve), which was shown without the advertised English subtitles.

Also, while TIFF added an open International Competition in 1987, sadly this has focused too heavily on commercial Japanese fare, a mishmash of unremarkable mainstream Hollywood flicks and lesser art-house directors.

The problem is that TIFF is not put together by film aficionados, like other festivals. It has always been run by the major Japanese studios. At present these include Shochiku, Toho, Toei and Kadokawa, and this has resulted in an emphasis on blockbusters. Perhaps the low point came in 1995 when the International Competition jury, led by Hugh Hudson, refused to award a Grand Prize, asserting that no film was worthy.

Noticing their international reputation rapidly receding, festival organizers dropped the Young Cinema competition in 1998 and eventually took the logical step of focusing on Asian film. The prominent Winds of Asia section was established in 2002, and last year saw the creation of the spotty but interesting Japanese Eyes section. Respected Shukan Spa! film critic Ken Okubo is extremely enthusiastic about the Asian focus. "I think Winds of Asia has created a great section that has a lot of individual character and vision," he said. "The program director, Sozo Teruoka, has a great connection with Asian filmmakers and new trends in film."

Meanwhile, the International Competition lacked quality control, tarnishing the entire event's credibility, until Chiseko Tanaka was chosen as program director ahead of last year's festival. Tanaka is an internationally respected expert in cinema who has appeared on a jury in Cannes. Her role is all the more important because until 2003 the International Competition was programmed by a committee comprised of members appointed by the major Japanese studios, often with disastrous results. Tanaka acknowledged last year that she pays less attention to "red carpet" films than to those by "young, ambitious directors ready to pursue their visions." Since her appointment, the Competition's quality has risen markedly, as evidenced last year by the clever "Conversations With Other Women," a bold programming choice that won the Special Jury Prize.

Ironically, at the same time as the programming in the International Competition and Winds of Asia sections has improved by leaps and bounds, TIFF's international reputation has nosedived. Foreign journalist participation fell off the table this year, and film industry insiders seem to agree that the TIFFCOM market is little more than a stopover on the way home from the highly regarded Pusan International Film Festival.

That said, TIFF's International Competition is still the richest around, awarding $100,000 in prize money for the Sakura Grand Prix and $20,000 for the Special Jury Prize. This year's Grand Prix was not without controversy, as it was won by the cute-but-lighter-than-air '50s spy parody "OSS 117, Cairo Nest of Spies." Reliable sources noted the cozy relationship between winning French director Michel Hazanavicius and countryman/Jury Chair Jean-Pierre Jeunet. At the press conference, jury member Mitsuo Yanagimachi went out of his way to contradict Jeunet's claim that the Grand Prix decision was unanimous. The verdict was disappointing in light of other excellent entries.

The Winds of Asia category offered a huge number of intriguing films, and the $10,000 Asian Film Award went to "After This Our Exile." Other interesting entries included "Love Story," which wove the tales of romance a novelist was writing with the man's own life and loves. But the section did not avoid a taint of commercialism. This year, it shone a spotlight on Malaysia, an under-appreciated film country to be sure. Yet the fest termed the program "Truly Asia" -- the catch phrase of the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board. Until the TIFF can differentiate between a commercial campaign and an artistic program, things may not get better for it.

Indeed, the specter of commercialism at the festival only grows more daunting. Starting next year TIFF will incorporate itself into a larger "International Contents Carnival." This amorphous event is aiming to promote Japanese video games, music, anime and film theoretically to markets abroad. Rather than striving for film of higher quality, the move appears to be pushing TIFF toward easily accessible commercial film that can be (somehow) sold to distributors in the West. This concentration on business was driven home by the Closing Ceremony speech of Akira Amari, Minister of Industry, Trade and Finance, who pompously declared: "I believe Tokyo will be the Mecca for contents in the 21st century."

After weathering spotty programming in its early years, TIFF has established high-quality programs with the International Competition and Winds of Asia.

Whether these sections can survive artistically in an "International Contents Carnival" remains to be seen.

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