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Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006


Theme of dysfunction runs thick

Special to The Japan Times

Directors don't seem to care for competitions, but they understand their value as publicity generators for international film festivals. Movie stars are the main media draw, followed by competitions. Without either, festivals would only be noticed by local critics and movie buffs.

Thirteen Princess Trees
Jury Prize winner "Thirteen Princess Trees" (above) and "Dog Bites Dog" ART PORT INC (bottom)
Dog Bite Dog

However, as in the old Warner Brothers cartoon where Daffy Duck's vaudeville routine is to blow himself up, you can only do it once. A given film is limited to one international competition, and the higher-profile productions shoot for Cannes, Venice, etc. Although the Tokyo International Film Festival boasts that it is Asia's biggest, it is not in the same league, and its Competition section usually contains movies that have little chance of being accepted at the above-mentioned fests. That's not to say the TIFF movies are necessarily second-rate; only that there's a pecking order.

There were 614 submissions for consideration in the Competition. The selection is a reflection of the programmers' tastes, but it can also be seen as a cross-section of the themes that currently interest independent-minded filmmakers.

Of the 15 films in the Competition section of the 19th TIFF, three contained serious drug use, four school bullying, three sub-plots dealt with incest, three dead or dying fathers; three had scenes in which a character killed or threatened another with a knife, and three featured people who slashed their wrists -- two on screen. I couldn't say if these statistics point to patterns, but you can assume that anyone who sees all of these films in the space of a week will need to decompress with a pitcher's worth of Martinis and a Cary Grant DVD.

The statistic that does point to a pattern is that eight films dealt more or less with dysfunctional families. The most representative film was Jonathan Dayton's and Valerie Faris's "Little Miss Sunshine," winner of the best director, best actress and audience awards. The quirky characters and the story, about an extended family traveling in a Volkswagen van to a beauty pageant in California, could serve as a primer for current indie comedies.

"Sunshine" is typically American, in that it is set on the road. Quirky European and Asian films stay put, usually in rural settings where the characters stew in their own bizarre juices. Igor Apasyan's "Graffiti" celebrated the grotesqueness of provincial living in a Russian village, while Nobuhiro Yamashita's "The Matsugane Potshot Affair" looked pitilessly and often humorously at a Japanese mountain community where every male seems to be sleeping with the same underage girl.

Provincial stupidity was also a sub-theme of Peter Schonau Fog's "The Art of Crying," based on a Danish best-seller about a milkman who terrorizes his family with self-pitying temper tantrums. In the same vein but from a different universe, "The Exam" looked at a truly isolated community in China that uses subterfuge to keep its only school teacher from transferring to town.

School was a positive force in "The Exam," which couldn't be said of the Jury Prize winner, "Thirteen Princess Trees," or the Australian shocker "2:37." "Thirteen" is an awkward attempt to empathize with students who are expected to make lives for themselves in 21st century China. "2:37" was an elegant but nonetheless blatant stylistic ripoff of Gus Van Sant's "Elephant," in which several high-school students are burdened with every heavy-duty adolescent problem you can think of. The film's powerfully assured ending couldn't dispel the air of contrivance that hung over the rest of the movie. Director Murali Thuralli was barely out of high school when he made it, and basing his script on a personal tragedy added emotional subtext to the drama. Subtext was also important to an appreciation of the overwrought Israeli film "Forgiveness," about an Israeli soldier who accidentally kills a little girl in the Occupied Territories, but I didn't walk away from it with any clearer understanding of the Palestinian problem.

Consequently, the genre movies were a relief. The best film was "Dog Bite Dog," a Hong Kong police thriller that presented a world where the brutality that rules the lives of the dispossessed ends up infecting those who think they're above it. Another good movie was Hong Sang Soo's "Woman on the Beach," the kind of subtle sex comedy that rarely wins festival prizes since it contains no obvious themes. Of course, the meticulous French spy farce, "OSS 117, Cairo Nest of Spies," contained even less in the way of themes, and I think that's why it won the Grand Prix. The jokes in "OSS 117" obviously made the jury laugh more than the Orchard Hall audience, but as derivative as it was, it was clearly the most distinctive film in the Competition. There's only so much dysfunction a person can take.

"Little Miss Sunshine" will open in Tokyo at Cine Quinto in late December. "The Matsugane Potshot Affair" will open nationwide in the spring.

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