Once fears over incoming typhoons had subsided, the discussion topic of choice during this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival was status. With new artistic director Yasushi Shiina at the helm, one felt the weight of scrutiny everywhere, as punters and guests alike debated whether the festival had arrived as a truly international event.
The talk was the product of a clear case of status anxiety. This year’s ‘TIFFJP’ may have hosted Tom Hanks - here presenting Opening Night Film Captain Phillips - but you could feel the organisers casting furtive glances over the water to Busan, the younger but significantly plusher South Korean behemoth, with its glitzy facilities and international reach. With TIFF’s cosy setup in Roppongi Hills a stone’s throw from the weird, neon-layered energy of Tokyo’s nightlife, one hope’s the festival will learn to embrace what it has slightly closer to home.
The programme also felt like a product of attention diverted elsewhere. In competition the standout was Au revoir l’ été, in which director Koji Fukada injects Eric Rohmer, Japanese social awkwardness, and post-Fukushima anxiety into its story of a teenage girl summering by the seaside. Staring the fantastic Fumi Nikaido (last seen slicing up yakuza in Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play In Hell?), it’s full of layered detail and warm observation, even if it occasionally resembles an artier Nicole Holofcener in its more on-the-nose moments.
A well matched partner for Au revoir l’ été was The Empty Hours, which like Fukada’s film is about coming-of-age while killing time on the coast. Running his uncle’s quiet, rundown motel in Veracruz, Mexico, Sebastian’s boredom finds an outlet in a flirtatious friendship with Miranda, a twenty-something woman kept waiting at the motel by her lover. With an amusing rapport between its leads, and the motel setting offering only an illusion of privacy for those looking to hook up there, it’s a breezy diversion of a film, full of sex and vacancy.
Other competition films were interminably long, or downright dour. Disregarded People was a miserablist slog, asking us to buy a story of a rapist in domestic union with his victims; while Singing Women saw Turkish auteur Reha Erdem (Times and Winds) struggling to reconcile a story of female friendship, patriarchy and impending natural disaster with heavy-handed spiritual themes. To Live and Die in Ordos, an account of a real detective's war on crime in the Inner Mongolian city, was billed as a state-of-the-nation thriller, but turned out to be an episodic exercise in hero worship.
Icelandic Oscar entry Of Horses and Men, meanwhile, was a likably daft series of blackly comic fables on the man-steed relationship, with one or both meeting grisly ends at the close of each chapter. One brilliant moment sees a horrified rider still in-saddle while his horse is mounted by a suitor; but ultimately it doesn’t add up to much. In that sense it could have stood in for most of the competition, although Red Family, written by South Korean vulgarist Kim Ki Duk, was an endearingly hysterical portrait of a group of North Korean spies going native in Southern suburbia. Haphazardly put together in almost every conceivable way, its style strangely suited its scenario.
The oddly named Japanese Cinema Splash section was mostly made up of culturally-specific comedies and domestic dramas. The exception was Forma, a strange, glacially-paced account of the passive aggressive relationship between two old school friends reunited in adulthood, which moves from friendship towards enmity, and eventually violence. Its subtext regarding social mobility, codes of deference and the place of women in Japanese society made it genuinely involving.
The Asian Future section was the home of punkier, more risk-taking films from first and second-time directors, and the festival’s real finds. Mixed-format Filipino thriller Rekorder and Hong Kong vampire flick Rigor Mortis (recently at the London Film Festival) were fun genre oddities, whilst Today and Tomorrow was a timely exploration of China’s young, educated unemployed. A Prayer for Rain, meanwhile, reconstructs the events that led to the Bhopal tragedy with the help of American stars Martin Sheen and Kal Penn. Clunky and a little televisual, it nevertheless features some powerful moments.
Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy was Tokyo’s first major highlight. Offering pleasures that were alternately formalist, idiosyncratic and empathetic, the film is a dramatic interpretation of 410 Tweets by a real Thai schoolgirl known only as @marylony. Director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s previous film consisted of only 36 shots, but he’s gone into overdrive here, with social media updates – accompanied by the sound of typing and jarring title cards – used to develop both plot and character. Weaving themes of youthful rebellion and friendship into set pieces involving exploding phones, teacher face-offs and murder, it’s an inventive, occasionally twee exploration of young adulthood in the social media age.
The Tale of Iya, though, put everything else in the shade. Filmed in Japan’s last untouched region, its stunning snow-covered opening sees a man rescue a baby girl from a car wreck. Years later, their harmonious way of life is threatened by local development, and the young man who falls for the now-teenage girl. Shot on 35mm by 28-year-old second timer Tetsuichiro Tsuta, it’s searingly beautiful, capturing a tangled, wild vision of Japan. Understandably drawing comparisons with Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama, it also offers shades of Terrence Malick in its motif of a communion with nature tested by encroaching modernity; and a particularly-Japanese type of surrealism in its mindbender of a third act. 169 minutes long, and utterly engrossing for all of them, it’s the sort of film that renders questions of status completely irrelevant.
Follow Andrew Simpson on Twitter here @andrew_simpson_
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