For our full report on this year's Tokyo Filmex (November 19th to 27th) we thought we would tag team things a little bit, with Chris MaGee and Nicholas Vroman giving their own perspectives on this annual showcase of international filmmaking.
Chris MaGee's Report
This is my second year attending Tokyo Filmex and I'm glad to have seen another batch of great films (both from Japan and elsewhere) programmed for audiences. There were also some interesting parallels between films in this year's programme, although not all the films were as successful as others. The Japanese premiere of Toshiaki Toyoda's "Monsters Club" shared settings with the opening film of this year's Filmex, Kim Ki-Duk's "Arirang". Both are set in ramshackle cabins on the outskirts of civilization, but Ki-Duk's utterly self indulgent cinematic portrait was no match for Toyoda's beautiful protest film. Audiences were better served to attend the screening of imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi's "This Is Not a Film", which may superficially have shared a concept with "Arirang", but had a much deeper meaning. As Nichiolas mentioned below, this is the J-Film Pow-Wow, so I'll quit my meandering and focus on what Tokyo Filmex had to offer Japanese film fans.
Japanese, or Japan set films, proved to be some of the hottest tickets at this year's Filmex. The film that packed the lobby of the Yurakucho Mullion Building to capacity was Iranian director Amir Naderi's Tokyo-set "Cut" starring Hidetoshi Nishijima. Not only was this Japanese premiere sold out, but tickets were actually being scalped for as much as ¥40,000 (nearly $500!). This cut of "Cut" (excuse the pun) was edited down by approximately 12-minutes from the version screened here in Toronto in September, and the good news is that it didn't lose anything from the trimming. This new edit of "Cut" simply tightens the story of a man literally fighting it out in the name of pure cinema. One very interesting piece of information about the film came out during the post-screening Q&A when Naderi revealed that the lead character of Shuji was actually inspired by American indie film legend John Cassavetes. This was news to star Hidetoshi Nishijima, who had grown up idolizing the "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" and "A Woman Under the Influence" director.
Another hot ticket for Japanese film lovers was the Japanese premiere of Shinya Tsukamoto's "Kotoko". With its Orrizonti Prize win at this year's Venice Film Festival the advance buzz on "Kotoko" was significant, and while it didn't disappoint audiences it did leave them more than a little shell shocked. As was the case with the screening of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, Tsukamoto amped up the sound levels for the Filmex screening. The ear-splitting sobs and screams of singer/ songwriter turned actress Cocco in the title role didn't have people walking out of the theatre, as they did in Toronto, but a few got out of their seats and clung to the walls, unsure whether they could take the barrage of sounds and images. "Kotoko" is definitely not an easy watch, but there was an added level of discomfort to this screening as not only Tsukamoto, but Cocco were in attendance. When I first saw the film in Toronto I was blown away by Cocco's performance, but I was unaware that many of the issues that the main character deals with are also ones that Cocco has struggled with over the years, namely cutting and anorexia. This added bit of autobiography made some of us more than a little concerned, while others found that this expanded their understanding of this raw, sublime film.
The biggest treat for fans of Japanese film at this year's Filmex had to be its full retrospective of the films of director Shinji Somai. Somai, who died at the tragically young age of 53 in 2001, is a filmmaker who is known more outside Japan for writing on his films rather than screenings of them. If it weren't for bootleg Hong Kong copies of his 1981 film "Sailor Suit and Machine Gun" his films would probably be entirely unseen in the West. This retrospective went a long way in remedying this, although maybe not as far as it should have. Of the 13 films screened only 4 were screened with English subtitles, an unusual turn of events as Filmex is fanous for fully subtitled retrospectives. Japanese and foreign critics have long lobbied for Somai to be better known internationally, but without subtitles and with certain prints of films from the early 90's already looking faded and worn, it's easy to see why this hasn't happened up to this point. Still, films like "The Catch", "Typhoon Club" and "Moving" (above) were revelations to many. Here's hoping that we see some kind of DVD set released by the folks at The Criterion Collection or Masters of Cinema sooner than later.
In the end it was Tibetan director Pema Tseden's "Old Dog" that was awarded the top prize by the Filmex jury (made up of director Amir Naderi, film critic Philippe Azoury, film scholar Soowan Jung, director Makoto Shinozaki and President of the Nicholas Ray Foundation Susan Ray). Meanwhile a student jury made up of Ryoko Kochi, Naoya Yamaguchi and Matsumi Kaji honoured Yosuke Okuda's first major film production "Tokyo Playboy Club" with a special Student Jury Prize.
Nicholas Vroman's Report
Tokyo Filmex seems like a family affair. That is your family includes a who’s who of contemporary filmmakers and film artists, a legion of Tokyo film buffs and an international cast of film writers, bookers, translators, movers and shakers. It just feels cozy and inclusive. There’s a particular indulgence of viewing a smartly curated selection of films by Shozo Ichiyama. Even if you don’t like them all, they tend to all fit into a clever puzzle of themes, associations and leitmotifs, making the festival itself seem a seamless whole.
Another of the pleasures of the festival is that it brings comrades and collaborators from far and wide. I had the distinct pleasure of having Chris MaGee spend a few nights on my apartment floor and days tag-teaming it to catch films.
I saw a mess of international films – a few terrible ones, a few ma ma, several good ones and at least one brilliant one (Nick Ray’s 1972 “We Can’t Go Home Again”). But as this is the J-Film Pow-Wow, here’s a quick report on films Japanese.
I know that Chris has already weighed in most eloquently on Shinji Shomai’s “The Catch,” but a few comments seem to be in order. From the opening scene that introduces Shomai’s wild camera pan/zoom/truck/crane technics, like most in the darkened house, my mouth was agape with an oh-my-god sort of awe. Several other set pieces throughout the film with the god-like camera floating over water, twisting and turning over the prows of boats, across quays and back again made me wonder if the film was more about impossible camera setups or the somewhat old-fashioned proletarian “Islands In the Stream” story of taciturn and shochu- fueled men men men against the sea. Perhaps I prefer my crazy camera work a little less tainted by plot. Give me Michael Snow most days (even though Snow does play with tainted plots). But there were times in “The Catch” where the figuring out of how the hell he did that shot overwhelmed the drunken drama that was being played out. The film’s ostensible documentary veracity, played against the increasingly melodramatic plotline, made for one of the more novel cinematic experiences of my life. I’m still in awe of and questioning the arcane and retrograde method of catching tuna – long lines drawn in by hand and when the behemoth is finally pulled to the edge of the boat, it being bludgeoned to death. Haven’t they every heard of winches? Or fishing poles? No wonder these guys are so messed up. The images and actions in “The Catch” seem to come from some sort of strange otherworld. Even John Huston’s stylized translation of “Moby Dick,” with Gregory Peck’s overwrought Ahab seems to have more connection with the things of this world than the seemingly more realistic world of “The Catch” which comes off like science fiction.
Of course, Emir Naderi’s “CUT” was the big ticket of the festival. Naderi, with his outsized and generous personality was the head of the festival jury and seemed to be everywhere at the festival, glad-handing and joking – a kind of crazy fun Iranian bachelor uncle you wish you had type. His film was getting the big hype for low-budget art house fodder (Note: I have been a small part of the hype machine with an article I wrote more than a year ago about a visit to the set of “CUT”). The brutal intensity of the film more than lived up to expectations. The lack of dramatic curvature, though, made the parable about the suffering of the artist-cinephile a bit of a slog. And in the penultimate scene where a countdown of 100 great films punctuate the seemingly endless beating one is left with more of an intellectual release rather than an emotional one. What twisted my mind and left me squirming more after the houselights went up was Naderi’s simultaneous critique and exploitation of the idea of violence as entertainment. The direct pleasure of men beating up another man versus the higher aesthetics of cinema art was laid on display for the audience to “enjoy” voyeuristically in a high art film that was laden with violence. It makes the mind boggle.
A couple of buddies were put off by Monster’s Club opening scenes where our hero, a younger, richer and more fashionable Ted Kaczynski (as played by Eita) goes through his hermetic routines - which mainly include sending mail bombs to owners of media conglomerates - in his Hallmark perfect winter cabin. His voice over mouths anarcho-primitivist screeds. They felt that filmmaker Toshiaki Toyoda was in agreement with the sentiments voiced. He may well be, but between Eita’s incongruous (and great) haircut and his character’s acknowledged privileged I felt that he was more of a 3rd Generation type and his motives completely up to question. As his madness ensues he does become a monster, delivering his last payload to the crowded streets of Tokyo – bringing a metaphorical and literal winter with him. Monster’s Club was disturbing, visionary and uneven. The literalizing of his demons was a bit overdone, but the nod toward JLG had a particular resonance. The bigger reference to Kenji Miyazawa, children’s book author and poet may have been a bit too Japanese culture specific to translate beyond borders, but even without the cultural reference the final voice over poem throws the whole thing into a more enigmatic and resonant place. Toyoda’s mixing it up with performance artist Pyuupiru, musician KenKen and a host of others show a generosity of spirit that’s visible in the final result. It’s good to see Toyoda, after his abysmal stoner slog, “The Blood of Rebirth,” finding a bit of footing on a new rocky trail – exploring, taking chances and creating interesting new work.
Most problematic was “KOTOKO.” (above) Like “CUT,” not only was the title all in caps, but gushers of blood stained the screen through most of the running time. In KOTOKO’s case the boundary between fiction and fact were completely upended. “KOTOKO” follows the story of a woman, played by Okinawan singer Cocco, going mad. The manifestations of her madness include hallucinating doppelgangers and non-existent personages along with self-mutilation (cutting in this case) and anorexia – something that the real life actress is known for. She appeared on stage before the screening with director Shinya Tsukamoto, a scary image of walking death, spaced out (on meds?) and nearly incoherent. It was a sad sight. Tsukamoto appears to be genuinely in love with her – not only visible from his appearance in the movie as her potential savior, but even in the Q and A afterwards, it was pretty obvious. KOTOKO’s story was developed from Cocco’s ideas and whether the film exists as some sort of insane therapy session masquerading as a movie or an uber-Polanski exploration into troubled behavior is up to question. It seems that both director and subject are in an extreme enabling stage. Despite the visceral and unrelenting affect of the film (Tsukemoto certainly knows how to put together a film) one wonders if it may be better for Cocco to get some professional help soon.
No Man's Zone
“No Man’s Zone” is Toshi Fujiwara’s documentary meditation on the disaster in Tohoku. If Cocco wears the marks of her self-mutilation on her forearms, Fujiwara wears his Markerisms on his sleeve. Even the voice over by Arsinée Khanjian sounded uncannily like Sandra Stewart, the voice on the English language version of “Sans Soleil.” There was coy set of questions and statements about what you were looking at. A Where’s Waldo “whoops you missed what you should have been looking at” turned with increasing gravity to “the thing you should be looking at – radiation – you can’t see.” For a film that’s about trifecta of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, it’s surprisingly beautiful. The landscapes and still lives of the massive destruction of 3.11 give way to the revival of spring and nature reclaiming the devastated land. But the radiation has made the place a “No Man’s Zone.” Tarkovsky was prescient on this one! Fujiwara’s haunting images of empty and emptying towns serve as a document, a remembrance to our own follies. Where Marker builds his critique of images and documentary truth with trove of historical, and cinematic references and a lifetime of knowledge, Fujiwara tends to shorthand his seemingly pithy third person commentary, leaving the experience of No Man’s Land a bit of a didactic exercise. But as one of the first films that attempts to make some sense of the endless images of destruction and rapidly developing mediated myth of stoic and hardworking Japanese coming to terms with yet another disaster, at least “No Man’s Zone” is trying to look at things with fresh eyes with a certain anger and sadness that says, “Look at this and remember.”