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Friday, Nov. 17, 2006

FILMeX shows size doesn't matter


Tokyo FILMeX enters its seventh year as the smaller, friendlier, artier alternative to the Tokyo International Film Festival.

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Jia Zhangke's "Still Life" is showing at Tokyo FILMeX.

The fact that FILMeX keeps going strong despite following hot on the heels of TIFF in October is testament to how it's carved out a clear identity for itself. As always, this year's FILMeX features a sharply focused selection of Asian auteur cinema, ranging from Iran to Taiwan, Tajikistan to Hong Kong. And many readers of this page will be pleased to learn that nearly all of the films on offer will be screened with English as well as Japanese subtitles.

Of particular interest is Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke's "Still Life," which was a last-minute entry to this year's Venice film festival where it won the Golden Lion award for Best Film. Jia is one of the most astute chroniclers of contemporary China. In films like "Platform" and "Unknown Pleasures," he has created stark portraits of the human cost of China's modernization, with an accent on the rootlessness and dislocation that has resulted. Both, unsurprisingly, were banned in China. "Still Life" probably will be too, given that it's set in and around the environmentally controversial Three Gorges Dam, and it portrays the towns wiped out by the dam's construction, their people displaced to uncertain futures. The lyrical and elegiac story, mostly neorealist but laced with touches of fantasy, follows two people returning to a nearly submerged town to look for lost lovers. The opening film at FILMeX on Nov. 17, this may be the hardest ticket to get.

The competition features nine new films: Three from Iran, two from China, and one each from Tajikistan, Israel, the Philippines and Japan. There are a lot of unknowns here, but a few bear notice. Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi has hit the mark before with "A Time For Drunken Horses" and "Turtles Can Fly," capturing the lives of young Kurds in Iran and Iraq, with a moving mix of desperation and innocence. His latest, "Half Moon," follows a family of Kurdish musicians trying to travel from Iran -- where female musical performance is banned -- to give a concert in Iraq.

Djamshed Usmonor won FILMeX's Jury Prize in 2002 with "Angel On The Right," and his latest, "To Get To Heaven First You Have To Die," has a great title, if nothing else. Its story concerns a healthy 20-year-old who can't seem to be able to consummate his marriage; he tries various ways to fix the problem, eventually finding that it's danger he craves. Meanwhile, former assistant-director to Jia, Han Jie, debuts with a hard-edged look at a youth gang in a desolate coal-mining town in Northern China. Like Jia's films, this is a chilling chronicle of what is happening in areas of China that have become environmental hellholes.

If there's one criticism of FILMeX, it's that its selection of films veers too heavily toward slow, arty fare, full of long takes and pregnant pauses. The closing film, Taiwanese director Tsai Min-lai's "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone," certainly won't disabuse you of that notion. The absence of a token Bollywood film -- or anything from India! -- in the program this year is regrettable, but those looking for more straight-up pleasures can turn to the Hong Kong film "Election," an incredibly detailed thriller set amid Hong Kong's triads and starring Tony Leung. Unfortunately, this is one of the few films without English subtitles. Ditto for the Korean film "City Of Violence," which has fight scenes to rival "Kill Bill" in their excessiveness.

Better bets may be found in the Special Screenings: Indonesian director Garin Nugroho's "Opera Jawa," which is an exquisitely shot piece of exotica combining gamelan music, modern dance, and a sultry love triangle, was described by Sight and Sound magazine as "the sexiest film" at Venice this year. Also look for two of Iran's best directors, Jafor Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, to show their new work. Panahi's "Offside" looks at a couple of girls who try to sneak into a World Cup qualifying match (soccer is banned to women in Iran, along with just about everything else, it seems), while Makhmalbaf gives us "Scream Of The Ants," about which I know nothing, except that this guy has never made a film that wasn't poetic, thought-provoking, and surprising.

Also look for a retrospective of 12 films by Japanese director Okamoto Kihachi: 1961's "Procurer Of Hell" is a great bit of film noir bursting with retro cool. And 1971's "Battle Of Okinawa" is an intriguing Japanese take on the battle from a number of perspectives, and makes for an interesting comparison with Clint Eastwood's forthcoming "Letters From Iwo Jima."



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