October 31, 2008

Revolution in His Head: Public Enemy Number One (Part One and Part Two)

(Vincent Cassel accepts his Best Actor award via video at the Tokyo International Film Festival as a happy reporter gasps.)
A disclaimer precedes Public Enemy Number One Part One and Part Two, a film about real-life French bank robber Jacques Mesrine. The message is something along the lines of, "the following film is not an entirely accurate depiction of the man; it is a work of fiction. And what is 'real', anyway?" The films will be released one month apart from each other in cinemas, but having watched them back-to-back at the Tokyo International Film Festival, I grew to detest that little disclaimer.

For a film that goes out of its way to say that it isn't based entirely on real events, Public Enemy certainly tells its tale in slavish detail. Part One begins in the early 1960’s and follows Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) as he makes his entry into the criminal world. A hothead with a taste for brutality, he graduates from acolyte of Gerard Depardieu to big-time player turned criminal on the run, ostensibly hiding out in Montreal yet managing to cause mayhem. Part Two sees Mesrine back in his homeland, pulling off increasingly bold jobs and gradually growing cocky with the celebrity his criminal status brings him.

That the public's fascination with Mesrine remains almost thirty years after his death (established in the film’s first scenes) speaks volumes about this figure. Why, then, is his story told in such pedestrian form? With its swirling camera, rapid editing, swelling musical score, and unrelenting violence, director Jean-François Richet strives for bravura, but Public Enemy ends up derivative of greater gangster films and Hollywood thrillers. The narrative is willfully and tediously repetitive, and I lost count of the number of times Mesrine robs banks, kills someone, gets shot, lands in prison, and breaks out. From time to time, Richet inserts a famous French actor into the film (the mouthwatering supporting cast of Cécile De France, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric, Samuel Le Bihan, and the French-Canadian Roy Dupuis), throwing a bone to the frustrated viewer.

Cassel won Best Actor at the festival, with president of the jury Jon Voight placing his performance in the same breath with "some of the greatest performances of all time". As Mesrine, Cassel competently steers the character from a sharp upstart with mercurial mood swings to a paunchy middle-aged man who belatedly realizes his activities have brought him a sympathetic audience. But when Mesrine attempts to secure his legacy by aligning his actions with political ideologies, the film finds itself out of its depth. No matter how hard he insists that he is a revolutionary who is "exploiting the exploiters", the film only depicts him as a man who robbed, killed, and got killed.

According to this article, Senator Entertainment is toying with the idea of editing the two films into one for its American release. While heavy-duty studio intervention can be frequently disastrous for a film, in this case I can't help sympathizing with the studio. For audiences who have never heard of Mesrine, Public Enemy will leave them unable to comprehend why he was deemed worthy of a biopic. Besides, if this isn't really a true account of Jacques Mesrine's life, why should we have to sit through four hours of it?

October 29, 2008

It Takes All Kinds

From the garage of a BMW dealership in Tokyo.

October 28, 2008

The Chrysanthemum Appreciation Club

Walking around the local city hall today, I discovered this modest flower show, comprised solely of chrysanthemums. It was simply four makeshifts tents with flowers, and one more for the organizers to have their tea in. (They'd even brought along their own thermos.) Having moved here relatively recently, I didn't know that the city has been doing this for over thirty years.

An old man was tending to his chrysanthemum, weeding out stray flowers and painstakingly securing each bloom with a straw string. I was amazed to find out that they were all from one plant. It looked like the ultimate "green" Christmas tree, albeit a bit on the short side.

Inhabitants of the nearby old folks' home, many in wheelchairs, had come to see the flowers. One woman was trying to convince the others that there was a cat amidst the bonsai, but the others laughed it off, saying, "You're old; you're seeing things." Look closely, though, and you can see it sleeping behind the tiny tree.

Kicking myself for having forgotten my camera, I made do with my phone camera. Thankfully, I realized afterwards that it was not such a poor substitute.

October 27, 2008

Tokyo International Film Festival, Final Day: Tulpan Wins the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix

(The award winners of the 21st Tokyo International Film Festival. The director of Tulpan, Sergey Dvortsevoy is in the middle of the front row, flanked by actors Samal Yeslyamova on his left and Askhat Kuchinchirekov on his right.)
While I was busy watching films and not getting around to writing about them, the film festival was gradually winding down. The closing ceremony was held today, and myriad awards handed out. There was the expected oh-why-did-I-not-watch-that (I particularly regretted having missed out on seeing Félicité Wouassi, who won Best Actress for With a Little Help from Myself), the huh-what award (Vincent Cassel took home Best Actor for the flashy but empty biopic Public Enemy Number One Part One and Part Two), and the joy of a film that I had adored being recognized with an award.

That would be
Tulpan, the Kazkhastan-set film that received both the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix (and a cash prize of 100,000 dollars) and the Best Director award for Sergey Dvortsevoy (5,000 dollars). Centered around a nomad family living in the steppes, the unlikely crowd-pleaser was a highly naturalistic piece of work that shed light on a culture largely unknown to international audiences.

Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov) is a young man who has just completed the naval service and come to live with his married sister Samal (Samal Yeslyamova) and three children. Asa longs to have his own yurt and flock of sheep, but Ondas, Samal's husband, forbids it until he finds a wife. The only girl in relative proximity is Tulpan (Kazakh for "tulip"), but she rejects him on account that his ears are too big. (Kuchinchirekov he had to get up at 5 every morning to put metal springs behind his ears and make them stick out.)

The film's greatest achievement is the unforced naturalism that fills in the bare bones of the story, creating a rich portrait of nomad life. Shot 500 miles from the nearest town, the isolation, arid land, and winds make the environment truly formidable. Working only with diegetic sound, Dvortsevoy emphasizes its vastness by allowing the viewer to hear sounds such as the wind, or a little girl singing, before panning slowly to catch up with the source.

The cast works wonders, generating the warmth and tenderness of a family without succumbing to easy idealization. The scenes set in the family's yurt are often cacophonous, with the eldest boy reciting news from the radio, the middle girl singing her heart out, and the adorable toddler running amok, but they never descend into madness. So convincing were they all, I initially thought that the director had befriended and filmed a real family. In reality, Kuchinchirekov, now 26 years old, was a student at an arts university in Almaty who was studying to become a director, and Yeslyamova (24) was a stage actress from the north of Kazakhstan
who had just graduated from performing school. The three children, however, were siblings from the south of the country, where the film was shot.

While the finished film is seemingly effortless and fluid, both the director and the actors admitted that production was difficult, particularly when working with animals. (The film features animals such as sheep, a goat, and a mother camel and her baby in crucial scenes.) A scene where an amorous goat kisses Asa took a month of said animal getting used to the actor. And try not to feel queasy when Asa and his brother-in-law take turns breathing air into the mouth of a just-born lamb and sucking the caul out. (Kuchinchirekov said simply, "I trusted [Dvortsevoy] with my life and the results are reflected on the screen.") Then there was the aforementioned two-and-a-half year old boy, whom the director said was "just like the animals."

No matter how "real" a film feels, it is, of course, not reality. The heartbreak of this fact was reinforced when Dvortsevoy dedicated his award to Bereke Turganbayev, who played Beke, the oldest brother. A little after the end of production, he had gone fishing with his father and had drowned in the river. He was fourteen years old.

October 25, 2008

Tokyo International Film Festival, Day Five: Jerzy Skolimowski's Return to Film Form

(Director Jerzy Skolimowski)

Halfway through the press conference for director Jerzy Skolimowski's Four Nights with Anna, a fellow Polishman journalist declared, "You are an institution in Poland." The journalist lamented that perhaps Japanese audiences were not fully aware of what the poet/director/actor/painter represented for the Polish people. He was right. Of the twenty-plus films he has directed, written, or acted in, only a handful are available in Japan and few can be readily accessed. Fans of Roman Polanski may recognize him as the co-writer of the screenplay for Knife in the Water, but much less is known about his own politically charged works in a career that has spanned four decades.
The journalist would be happy to know, however, that Four Nights has an inextricable link to Japan that may make it particularly meaningful for Japanese audiences. The origins are thus: busy with “other projects”, Skolimowski had forgotten the deadline for his latest screenplay, his first film in seventeen years. Faced with the task of writing it in six days, the director (who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Ewa Piaskowska) remembered something he read years ago in the Los Angeles Times. It was a tiny article about a man in Japan who snuck into the room of a woman he was in love with, watching her as she slept because he was too shy to approach her in his daily life. 
Change the setting to a small Polish town in winter and this is the basic premise of Four Nights. As I mentioned in a short review of the film last week, Skolimowski deliberately withholds information on his protagonist Leon and Anna, the object of Leon's affection, and the gradual revelations add a layer of dimension to Leon's seemingly questionable acts. Using strategic lighting, macabre images, and ominous music, he makes us suspect the worst about the man, even as our conscience tells us we are perhaps being misled. The director revealed that his manipulative use of mise-en-scène was an experiment to see if he could make the audience feel shame about their initial reactions to Leon.

I can't think of another recent film where cinematography plays such a crucial role in the storytelling, and one can imagine actors having a difficult time within such tightly controlled settings. It turned out that lead actor Artur Steranko did have some trouble, but for a different reason. A chuckling Skolimowski explained that Steranko, an actor from “provincial theatre”, was shaking in his boots during production. It got to the point where he asked the director to remind him of the sequence of his actions because he was too nervous to remember. This has only worked in favor of his performance. With his bulky frame, Leon initially comes off as imposing, but the real fright is viewing the film through the perspective of a thoroughly inscrutable man. Timid and closemouthed, he is a man so lonely and haunted that the conventional methods of human interaction are simply not possible to him.
(The director reveals a bit of eyeball.) 

As uneasy a topic it is to portray sympathetically, Four Nights invites the viewer to look at Leon and see a man beyond the easy generalization of “stalker” or “peeping Tom”. While this reviewer ultimately found Leon's actions inexcusable, it was clear the character struck a particular chord with some viewers. After a screening last week, an old Japanese man walked up to one of the film festival's organizers and exclaimed, "I was floored! I can see a man like that in Japan, but I didn't know there were people like that in Poland too!"

Tokyo International Film Festival, Day Four: The Russia-Cuba Connection in Ocean

Day four of the festival began for me with a press conference for the Russian-Cuban film, Ocean. Director Mikhail Kosyrev-Nesterov and lead actor Jorge Luis Castro were slated to attend, but for unexplained reasons the director turned up alone. The film follows Joel, a young man from a coastal village in Cuba, as he leaves his home and heads to Havana after a failed romance.

An English interpreter was deemed unnecessary as all the reporters in the room were Japanese, telling evidence that the film did not make much of a splash. As I wrote in my brief review of the film last week, I found Ocean more accomplished in terms of style than storytelling, the handheld camera movements, cross-cutting techniques, and visual motifs unmatched by the ho-hum lead performance and meandering narrative.

Unsurprisingly, the questions tended to focus on the technical aspects of the film. The director spoke of how he set out to capture the spontaneity of Cuban life. During pre-production, he purposely chose not to decide on the number of cuts he would make, and shot the film with a handheld camera so that the emotions of the characters could be felt through the movements of the cameraman's body. All the dialogue was recorded on the spot, as he did not want to ask the actors to re-record any lines that they had improvised, thereby staying as true as possible to the Cuban-inflected Spanish and native slang.

The Cuba-Russia connection may have raised some viewers' eyebrows, but collaborations between the two countries are not as common today as you would think: Ocean marked the first co-production in twenty-five years. Asked why he set the film in Cuba as opposed to his native Russia, Kosyrev-Nesterov replied that the dissolution of family relationships in Russia made it impossible to draw a convincing portrait of a close-knit family such as Joel's. On working in Cuba, the director wearily recalled the amount of paperwork that needed to be filled out and wryly noted, "The Soviet brought bureaucracy to Cuba." (And Russia brought its protection to Cuba, in the form of the KGB, who stayed throughout production as protection.)

The recent economic crisis has proved an unavoidable topic during the festival, with filmmakers from around the globe expressing concern. But Kosyrev-Nesterov’s words hit the hardest when he spoke of the number of films that have had to halt production in Russia since the downturn: 180. Only time will tell of the repercussions the current state of the world has on international cinema.

October 23, 2008

Tokyo International Film Festival, Day Three: Can't Win 'em All

There is no better feeling than walking into the theater, sitting down to watch a film you know absolutely nothing of apart from the title, and being blown away, either slowly or instantly, by what is unfolding on the screen in front of you. I still remember my favorite from last year, Sztuczki (Tricks), and hope year, Andrezj Jakimowski's that one day it is released in Japan. Meanwhile, Sergey Dvortsevoy's Tulpan, set in Khazkhastan, is my favorite so far at this year's festival.
General logic goes that if you watch films with no particular screening process, sooner or later you'll end up with a dud, the kind that drains you and puts you off movies for a little while. Watching the Filipino film Kurap (Blink) was, unfortunately, one of those experiences. Directed by Ronaldo M. Bertubin, the film follows Ambet, a young man who lives in an abandoned building with his sister, a little girl whose eyesight is rapidly deteriorating. Barely scraping by as a small-time crook, he encounters a journalist who offers him money in exchange for information on the black market.

What is most frustrating about Blink is that it is clearly a missed opportunity. The film's setup, of squatters in Manila, is intriguing, but it is served by none of the other elements in the film. Characterization is rudimentary, relying on us to use our knowledge of stereotypes (man with cute kid sister=golden, journalist=rich and soulless) to get us through the film. Blink strains to be cool, with the clunky nu-metal that kicks in from time to time, the montage shots of the city that add up to nothing, and the gratuitous gay and straight sex scenes in soft focus. They only end up making the undeniably low-budget film seem amateurish and dispensable. 

Walking grimly out of the theater, I felt the need to clear (erase?) my mind. Luckily, I had free admission to the Tokyo City View tour, which allows visitors to take the elevator to the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills. Five minutes later, I was 250 meters above sea level, staring out at the night view of the city. Surprisingly, apart from Tokyo Tower, the landmarks of Tokyo were not particularly easy to spot. In their safe distance, they simply twinkled prettily, like the constellations seen in reverse. I marveled briefly at the sight--and then got the heck down, too worried about an earthquake occurring then and there to enjoy it fully.

October 21, 2008

Tokyo International Film Festival, Day Two: The Mechanics of Movie Promotion

On the second day of the Tokyo International Film Festival, due to bad timing and bad organization, I found myself unable to attend a single screening. Deploring my situation, I nonetheless kept busy, hopping from press conferences to Q&A sessions. While I felt guilty covering films that I either had no interest in seeing or would not be able to see, I got to witness firsthand the mechanics of promoting films.
First up was a pre-screening event for The Other Boleyn Girl. A visit to Tokyo by co-stars Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson would have brought the house down; alas, director Justin Chadwick turned up solo. 
How do you go about selling a film that has already been deemed a critical and commercial failure overseas? Show up (relatively) young, charming, and British, that's how. Mr. Chadwick had a puppyish energy and easygoing demeanor, and quickly endeared himself to the audience and the interviewer. He played the game with ease, praising Portman and Johansson for their "intelligence and integrity". He appealed to the audience by stressing the presence of strong female characters in the film, and excitedly slipped in, "I met [popular Japanese singing group] Chemistry last night!" It was not until later that I found out that Chemistry had recorded a new theme song for the film. 

From the youthful to the professional: I attended next the post-screening, Q&;A session of Aide-toi et le ciel t'aidera (With a Little Help from Myself), the new film by François Dupeyron, director of Monsieur Ibrahim. Lead actress Félicité Wouassi was there to represent the film, in a chic black dress and hot magenta boots. She stood in the middle of the stage and enchanted the audience with three warmly-spoken words: "Bon soir, Tokyo."

Wouassi spoke of how she was sent the script after the director had seen her perform in the Roman Polanski-directed play Doute (Doubt). Struck by the sheer political incorrectness of the film, which deals with minorities in the suburbs of France, she phoned the director in the middle of the night to confirm that he was not going to shy away from the subject matter. Having worked in theatre and film since the age of fourteen, Wouassi is well aware of the dearth of minorities in French cinema. In fact, she called Aide-toi one of the few films in recent years to focus on black characters.

Perhaps due to her background in theatre, Wouassi had a strong, clear voice and a commanding presence. At the end of the session, photographers gathered to take her photo, prompting, “Smile!” Ever ready, she threw back her head and laughed, "You don't have to ask me that!" 
Immediately after that was the main event of the day, the stage appearance of the cast and crew of Blindness, the latest film by acclaimed director Fernando Meirelles. One by one, the cast and crew filed out: producer Sonoko Sakai, her partner and fellow producer Niv Fichman, screenwriter Don McKellar, cinematographer César Charlone (he is also a member of the jury), director Fernando Meirelles, actor Yusuke Isetani, actress Yoshino Kimura, and Julianne Moore.

They each spoke a few words about the film. Meirelles noted gravely, "We are living in a crisis period, and I hope you can learn from [the film]". Moore praised the film's "forward thinking", and added, "I think it's time for a movie like this". Isetani joked about McKellar constantly trying to fix his English (all the better to honor the words that he had written), while Kimura, who also discreetly translated for Moore, cleverly tied the film with the film festival's "green" theme by revealing that Meirelles planted trees to offset the amount of carbon used to produce the film.

It goes without saying that Julianne Moore was the most famous in the group, perhaps the biggest celebrity at the festival this year. She seemed no more or no less beautiful than she appears in films and magazines, and effortlessly, gracefully handled the extra attention. It was unprofessional, but I couldn’t help it: I was starstruck. So fascinated was I by the sight of her laughing the same laugh as in the movies, I almost forgot to take photos, take notes. Now that’s the power of a real star.

October 19, 2008

The Elephant in the Corner

Near the Aoyama/Omotesando area.

Are we not going to talk about this?

A Brief Taste of the 21st Annual Tokyo International Film Festival

Ever wonder how writers are able to comment on films playing at Sundance or Cannes before the festival has even kicked off? It's no secret that a large amount of it is hype, or information culled from press releases. It wasn't until I was able to obtain a press pass to a film festival last year that I found out members of the press have a secret perk: pre-festival, invitation-only screenings.

It is in this way that I am able to write about a handful of the films in competition at the 21st Tokyo International Film Festival, held from Saturday, October 18th to Sunday, October 26th. For the uninitiated, it is the largest film festival in Japan, featuring 300 films selected from around the world. The festival is held in two venues: Roppongi Hills cinemas in Roppongi, a sleek business district, and Bunkamura cinemas in Shibuya, a grimier part of Tokyo that attracts a younger crowd. The filmmakers and the cast frequently turn up to promote their films, participating in Q&A sessions that frequently provoke thoughtful questions from the audience.

The films are divided into six categories such as "Special Program", "Special Competition", "Winds of Asia-Middle East", and “World Cinema". While they may seem confusing and arbitrary to moviegoers, the clusters are divided according to films that are in competition for prizes, films that have already secured distribution in Japan and are receiving special advanced screenings (such as
The Other Boleyn Girl), those that have already played at other film festivals (Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, Steve McQueen's Hunger), and so on. In light of growing environmental concerns, a new category featuring ecologically-minded films has been set up, ranging from the unknown to the lauded (Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World) and olders classics (An Inconvenient Truth, deemed a “masterpiece” by the TIFF)

While the festival has been accused of pandering to a pre-established market by showing films already set for release and inviting big Japanese stars, it is worth noting that the fifteen "Competition" films are receiving their East Asian premiere. Here is a brief review of four of the films:

-Four Nights with Anna (Poland)
In this drama by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, Artur Steranko plays Leon, a man of few words with a seemingly random—and dangerous—fixation on neighbor Anna (Kinga Preis). Skolimowski deliberately withholds even the most basic information about Leon, cleverly manipulating our take on the man with tantalizing images, flashbacks, dark lighting, and portentous music. The film's gloom and doom sets in from the very first shots of grey sky and arid ground and permeates throughout. Even as the viewer gradually pieces together the story, we're still left feeling helpless when the film ends.

Hamoon and Darya (Iran)
Director Ebraham Forouzesh presents one of the oldest stories in the world. Star-crossed lovers Hamoon and Darya are torn apart by a disapproving society, but when Darya is afflicted with an incurable disease, Hamoon sets off on a journey to save her. The film may be set in a small desert village in Iran with camels, pomegranate trees, and dotaars, but cultural details can't inject excitement into a melodrama so well-worn, especially with such colorless characters and exaggerated acting to boot.

Ocean (Russia-Cuba)
A coming-of-age film set in Cuba, Joel (Jorge Luis Castro) decides to leave his fishing village after being jilted by girlfriend Maricel, much to the dismay of his mother (Alina Rodriguez Ruiz) and two younger brothers. He heads for Havana, where, in quick succession, he meets a prostitute with a heart of gold (Monse Duany Gonzalez), and a boxing trainer. Director Mikhail Kosyrev-Nesterov displays an interesting use of technique, cross-cutting between the characters and employing a hand-held camera to enhance immediacy, but his use of actors is less successful. Castro as Joel is unconvincing as he aimlessly drifts from fisherman to prostitute’s boyfriend to amateur boxer, and Kosyrev-Nesterov fails to harness the passion and ferocity that Ruiz and Gonzalez inject into the film, leaving their characters shrill caricatures.
-Tulpan (Germany-Switzerland-Kazakhstan-Russia-Poland)
Despite the international backing, Tulpan takes place exclusively in the steppes of Kazakhstan, focusing on Asa (Askhat Kuchichirekov), a young man who comes to live with his sister Samal and her family after completing the naval service. First-time feature film director Sergey Dvortsevoy crafts a remarkable film with a high degree of naturalism. Working with a handheld camera and sticking only to diegetic sound, he gracefully fills in the details of nomadic life beyond the most well-known images of yurts, sheep, and total isolation. A scene where veterinarian pulls up at the family's yurt in a motorcycle, an injured baby camel sitting in the sidecar, drew warm laughter from the audience for its sheer unexpectedness. The performances are natural and unforced across the board (from the credits, it appears that the actors may be playing characters molded after themselves), and in particular Samal Yeslyamova radiates tenderness as Asa's sister and mother of three children.
For more information, including showtimes, ticket prices, and how to get to the venues, visit: