October 19, 2008

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:

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