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Friday, Oct. 2, 2009


Tokyo offers tasty platter of film

TIFF serves up homegrown gems and foreign films unlikely to get a Japan release

Special to The Japan Times

The Sept. 16 press conference for the 22nd Tokyo International Film Festival, which runs Oct. 17-25, was more stimulating than usual.

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Culture club: Sam Worthington in director James Cameron's sci-fi epic "Avatar," "select footage" of which will be shown at TIFF. © 2009 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

TIFF Chairman Tom Yoda announced that the festival had decided to screen "The Cove," that controversial documentary about the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. The producers of the film had submitted it to TIFF last summer, and in August the director, Louis Psihoyos, told the Toronto Star that it had been rejected, but at the time TIFF said no final decision had been reached. Yoda admitted that, initially, the festival decided not to present the movie but changed its mind after receiving "international criticism." In the end TIFF agreed to show it after reaching an agreement with the documentary's producers that the latter would take "full responsibility" for any problems the screening might cause. Yoda didn't elaborate on what these problems might be.

TIFF is usually such an insignificant blip on the international film festival radar that controversy can only help. Coming after two more consequential fests — Toronto in September and Pusan in early October — TIFF has an also-ran reputation reflected in its lineup, which, except for its Japanese product, tends to go heavy on movies being pushed by local distributors and light on premieres of major films. But the current situation in the local film industry makes TIFF's selection more important this year.

The Special Screenings section is usually the festival's main draw, since it offers movie fans sneak previews of some major films from all over the world. This year 12 of the section's 21 films are Japanese, reflecting market realities. Box-office takings for foreign films have been way down in recent years, and many distributors who in the past specialized in non-Japanese films have been cutting back or switching to domestic fare. Three foreign-film distributors went out of business just this last summer. Even Hollywood movies are suffering. Paramount Japan doesn't have anything slated for release until early next year, when the new Martin Scorsese film, "Shutter Island," opens. The same goes for Asian films. The so-called Korean Wave has lost its momentum, and far fewer Chinese films have opened in Japan in 2009 compared to previous years.

Consequently, TIFF may be the only opportunity for local movie fans to see certain high-profile foreign films, since it seems unlikely that these films will find local distributors.

For the World Cinema section, TIFF has selected films that made big impressions at this year's other major festivals and which, as of Aug. 31, had not secured Japanese distribution. The most prominent is "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," a tale about an overweight, illiterate teen mother who tries to turn her life around. It won the Audience and Grand Jury Awards at Sundance and is already being touted as a Best Picture Oscar contender.

Colin Firth won the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for his portrayal of a gay man whose partner dies in "A Single Man." The bittersweet claymation feature, "Mary and Max," about a pen-pal correspondence between an 8-year-old Australian girl and an obese 40-year-old New York man, won the Feature Film Award at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France.

The latest works by several established directors will also be shown, including Ken Loach's uncharacteristically upbeat "Looking for Eric"; "Cinema Paradiso" creator Giuseppe Tornatore's autobiographical "Baaria"; and Jacques Rivette's biopic of writer Raymond Roussel, "36 vues du pic Saint-Loup." Also on the bill is Oliver Hirschbiegel's Northern Ireland melodrama, "Five Minutes of Heaven," starring Liam Neeson; and three very controversial films by the young Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas that have never been shown in Japan before. The Wings of Asia-Middle East has a bigger lineup, highlighted by the latest sex comedy from South Korean director Hong Sang Soo, "Like You Know It All"; Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami's experimental "Shirin," which features the faces of 110 actresses as they watch a movie; and acclaimed Palestinian director Elia Sulieman's semiautobiographical portrait of his hometown, Nazareth, in "The Time that Remains."

Of the films that make up the Special Screenings section, the most eagerly anticipated is James Cameron's long-gestating followup to "Titanic," the 3D sci-fi epic "Avatar." The festival print contains only "select footage," but people who saw this footage at U.S. previews were impressed.

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From sex comedy to raw reality: Hong Sang Soo's "Like You Know It All" (above) and Lee Daniels' "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" are both showing at TIFF. © PUSH PICTUTES LTD. ("PRECIOUS . . .")

The opening feature, "Oceans," is another of Jacques Perrin's eye-popping nature documentaries, which does for the sea what the French director did for terra firma in "Earth." The closer is Pixar's latest animated success, "Up," which opens here Dec. 5. Of the remaining films, the most interesting are screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's ("Being John Malkovich") directorial debut, "Synecdoche, New York"; Sam Raimi's return to gross-out, tongue-in-cheek horror, "Drag Me to Hell"; the Japanese-language version of the 2004 Oscar-winning indie hit "Sideways"; and a documentary about the late screen idol Yusaku Matsuda.

The independent films that make up the Japanese Eyes section are all by local directors who've made names for themselves on the international festival circuit. Two documentaries stand out: "Jungle-House Three-Farts" is an in-depth look at the life of the late, beloved comedian Sanpei Hayashiya and his talented progeny, while "Live Tape" captures in real time a 74-minute "guerrilla performance" by musician Kenta Maeno.

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The centerpiece of TIFF is the Competition, which promises to be as wide-ranging as it always is. Some 743 films from 81 countries were submitted. The most promising are the Bulgarian film "Eastern Plays," about two brothers living on society's fringe; noted Philippine director Raymond Red's "Manila Skies," about a hijacking; and "Staten Island," a black comedy about suburban mobsters starring Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'onofrio. But the Competition film that will earn the most press is "Acacia," Japanese director Jinsei Tsuji's presumably heartwarming tale about the relationship between a retired pro wrestler and a lonely boy. The frail-looking Tsuji attended the press conference with the cartoonishly manic wrestler Antonio Inoki, who, given the sentimental storyline described, obviously plays the lead role with what we can only assume is uncommon restraint. Together they made quite a pair on stage, the serious, skinny artist and the big, motor-mouthed attention-grabber. It was a fitting contrast for a festival that promises something for everybody.

TIFF 2009 is at Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills and Cinemart in Roppongi. Almost all non-English language films will have English subtitles. For schedule and tickets see www.tiff-jp.net/en/

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