The Tokyo International Film Festival wrapped last week. TIFF is a sort of vertically sprawling film festival commanding 8 days, several screens and a story or two of the Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills, a post-modern plaza, shopping mall, art museum, cinema, office center in the heart of Tokyo. Its programming is all over the place, too. There are several sections: the Competition, Special Screenings, Winds of Asia – Middle East (highlighting new work from the Asian continent), a sidebar on contemporary Taiwanese cinema, Japanese Eyes, World Cinema and natural TIFF (highlighting nature docs and any number of thing that they can loosely crowbar in). Beyond that there’s the TIFFcom market festival (where I’m amusingly mistaken as a film buyer) and about 20 other subfestivals, seminars and events that fall under the rubric of TIFF.
I spent several nights and days catching a mixed bag (what can one expect?) of offerings. This is the sort of festival that shows stuff like Tron Legacy 3D and Shrek Forever After in addition to quality films that will open in Japan soon (for example The Social Network played as the festival opener) and obscure offerings from the Philipines (good buzz on Halaw/Ways of the Sea!) and Uzbekistan. This year’s TIFF left me pleasantly surprised. Of course, there are some gems that may forever remain unseen by me, but I’ll note the things that impressed me most.
First off, hidden in the eco-ghetto of natural TIFF was what has become for me the best film of the year, if not for several years. I went and saw Michelangelo Frammartino’s The Four Times for the program still alone. It won the Europa Cinemas Label, whatever that is, at Cannes. It should have won the Golden Palm. What starts off deceptively as a somewhat slow meditation on rural life becomes a profound essay on life, death and goats. Between its brilliant sound design and some truly astounding mise-en-scene, The Four Times posits Frammartino as a post-modern Bresson. If you don’t weep in the goat sequence, you’re not qualified to be called human. I would suggest that it takes Au Hassard Balthazar to the next step, where unlike the donkey of Bresson’s masterpiece, the goat in question becomes not merely a moral witness, but the nexus of our own morality.
Other films of note were Hossein Keshavarz’s Dog Sweat, a Cassavettes-like Iranian look at youth in Tehran. In Keshavarz’s fiction, they’re after the same things most young folks are after – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Though with a few religious, cultural and ideological impediments in the way. It’s a little light, but great performances, tight editing and an energetic and passionate style make for an incisive slice of life. Also, Jose Luis Guerin’s exploration of documentary modes and ideas, Guest, stood out. What starts off in a seemingly self-indulgent place (Guerin documenting his 2 year worldwide tour to film festivals with the success of City of Sylvia) turns into thrilling and heartfelt docu-journal that speaks about film, religion, politics and a whole lot more.
My one assignment was to see new Japanese product. And as usual, TIFF, had a number of dogs, including one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It’s called Into White Night. Based on an obscenely popular novel it’s bound to do good box office. However, there were two standout films, one by an old master, Kaneto Shindo (maker of Onibaba) and one by a relatively young auteur, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri.
Shindo, now 98, has said that Post Card is his last film. Perhaps he should heed the career of Oliviera and pump out a few more masterpieces before he hits 110. Post Card is a broadly played anti-war story that bounces audaciously between broad black comedy, tragedy, big symbolism and tender chamber drama. It’s all done in sort of old-fashioned declamatory style of acting, that after years of naturalism and method-acting, looks surprisingly fresh. It’s also one of the most passionate and cutting of anti-war films committed to screen. Etsushi Toyokawa plays the duty-bound soldier delivering his dead comrade’s long-delayed post card to his widow, played by Shinobu Otake, hardened by too much tragedy in her life. They are both magical.
Kumakari’s Kaitanshi Jokei (Sketches of Kaitan City) moves the soul in a different way. A sprawling omnibus film, following 6 different stories, brings to life a fictional place, Kaitan (based on Hakodate, a port city in Hokkaido). Built less on a Babel-like series of random connections, Kaitanshi Jokei, uses place as the metaphor and connecting point between the different stories. The stories are all pretty much downbeat – though there is a little ray of hope with a tale of an old woman and her lost cat. But for a slice-of-life in post-boom post-recession contemporary Japan, Kaitanshi Jokei, lays it out bare. It’s POV is entirely unsentimental, which is a welcome change from the forced sentimentality of most Japanese cinema.
Neil Jordan headed the competition jury which handed out the Sakura Grand Prix Award to Nir Bergan’s Intimate Grammar. I didn’t have the opportunity to see it.
A satisfying few days of film immersion. If there’s any complaint, it’s the incessant green-themed eco-nonsence that accompanies each and every film, press release and hack article written about the fest. The Green Carpet runway! “TIFF screens with green energy.” Hybrid car promotions! Give me a break. I’m all for green things, but there’s something going to one of the most excessive inner-city developments (Roppingi Hills was where Lehman Brothers was located) in the least green of world cities, that leaves some false notes and off-flavors in one’s mouth. A small complaint for a week of cinematic indulgence.