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Friday, April 1, 2011

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Helping hand: Comedy duo License at last week's Okinawa International Movie Festival, which raised over 10 million yen for quake and tsunami survivors. EDAN CORKILL

Okinawa laughs till it cries at benefit fest

Special to The Japan Times

Going to Okinawa International Movie Festival only for the films would be like going to an Okinawan restaurant for the rice. They were certainly central to the third edition, held March 19-27, but for the fans, especially the students on spring break who accounted for most of the 310,000 admissions, the main attraction were the stars from TV and film on abundant display. (Certainly not the week's cloudy, chilly, occasionally rainy weather.)

Yoshimoto Kogyo, the comedy specialist talent agency that sponsors the festival, sent a small army of comics and staff to the Okinawa Convention Center in Ginowan City, where they could be seen everywhere soliciting donations for disaster relief (550 Yoshimoto folks collected a total of ¥10,949,189 during the event) or greeting fans from the stages of the complex's four theaters prior to screenings. (Most of the new Japanese films were coproduced by Yoshitomo together with TV networks and other partners.)

Some took their stage remarks seriously, speaking about the March 11 quake and aftermath that prompted Yoshimoto to change the festival to a charity event at the last minute. Yuichi Kimura, the star and director of the comedy "Omuraisu (Omlette Rice)," told the crowd that the quake struck when he was editing the movie. "This is a film that my staff and I fought our fears to make. We cried, thinking there must be a meaning to finishing it," the usually stone-faced Kimura said with rare emotion.

But there were plenty of laughs as well, with Yoshimoto comics entertaining the crowd at the beach-front stage, trading quips with actors and directors at the butai aisatsu ("stage greetings"), emceeing at the nightly invitation-only parties and otherwise brightening the mood. Okinawan musicians also performed in a variety of venues and styles, including the traditional island sounds whose propulsive rhythms are a standing invitation to dance.

As Yoshimoto President Hiroshi Osaki explained in his remarks at the closing ceremony, the laughter and music were intended to energize and encourage. "We hope to send that energy from Okinawa to the people in Tohoku," he explained.

The 12 titles in each of the two main competition sections — Laugh (mostly but not exclusively comedies) and Peace (ditto for dramas) — were mainly pop entertainment, with occasional dips into art. This was also true of the seven films made in partnership by Yoshimoto with regional film commissions, though titles such as "Kansha Osaka (Thank You Osaka)," about a shy Chinese guy taking a journey into his past with the help of a perky local girl, and "Horumon Onna (Hormone Girl)," about a young bureaucrat's initiation into the delights of horumon (offal) noodles in Tsuyama City, Okayama, were also combinations of travelogues and tourist promotions.

The winner of the Uminchu Grand Prize in the Peace category, as well as of the Golden Shiisa Award presented by the jury, headed by Pusan International Film Festival director Lee Yong Kwan, was "Hankyu Densha: Katamichi 15-fun no Kiseki (Hankyu Train)." The film's theme — that one stranger helping another can set off a positive chain reaction that changes lives — was fitting for the current moment, though the execution was blatantly tear-jerking.

In the Laugh category, the Uminchu Grand Prize went to the Thai teen drama "A Crazy Little Thing Called Love," which also earned a special mention from the jury. The story, about a cute, sweet girl (Pimchanok Lerwisetpibol) who does everything from mastering the baton to acing tests to win the affection of a criminally inattentive (if similarly cute) guy (Mario Maurer), was a sex-role-reversal trifle, but the heroine glowed with unaffected charm and the twist ending, which at first seemed a bad miscalculation, finally hit exactly the right note.

All of the ¥6,470,000 in prize money was donated to the Japanese Red Cross Society, including that for Grand Prix winner "Balloon Man the Challenge" in the World Wide Laugh short-film competition, and the Grand Prix-winning commercial film submitted by Masako Suzuki of Okinawa Prefecture to the Jimot CM competition.

My own favorite was Michihito Ogawa's "Koun no Tsubo Good Fortune (Pot of Good Fortune)," a comedy starring Yoshimoto comic Hosshan as a henpecked husband who starts to think dark thoughts about killing his hectoring wife (Kumiko Aso), but is horrified when she dies in circumstances that make him a murder suspect.

Unlike many Japanese comedies that follow a clever setup with nothing but formula, "Pot of Good Fortune" builds to ever-bigger laughs, propelled by not only Hosshan's frantically funny performance but also a great supporting cast, including Aso, taking a refreshing break from her usual sweet ditz roles, and newcomer Aimi Satsukawa, who plays the hero's annoying little sister with unbridled, inspired comic verve. A lucky find for real.

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