TIFF COMPETITION

And the winner, by a nose, is . . .

by Mark Thompson

Speaking at the news conference following the closing ceremony of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, lead actor Koichi Sato said that while working on “Yuki ni Negau Koto (What the Snow Brings)” he “never imagined that this film would go on to receive the top prize at an international event.”

Having viewed all 15 of the films in the competition division of this year’s TIFF, including “Snow,” I would have to say I didn’t foresee this film picking up not only the Sakura Grand Prix but also the Best Director prize and the Best Actor award, given to Sato.

Jury member and producer Barrie M. Osborne correctly described “Snow” as being “well executed,” and it was easily the best showing a Japanese film has ever made in a TIFF competition. Local viewers also applauded this paean to family values and that old gambari (fighting) spirit, giving it the Audience Award, so it was hardly the kind of “controversial decision” that makes headlines.

This year TIFF invited me again to rate the films for their Daily News scoreboard, alongside representatives from seven other Japanese publications. To my own surprise, I went from being the guy who, last year, was the stingiest with his points to being one of the most generous reviewers. Nevertheless, the supposedly heartwarming fare of “Snow” failed to mist my eyes.

The story deals with a cold war between two brothers. After the Tokyo-based business venture of little brother Manabu (Yusuke Iseya) goes belly up, he flees to snowy Hokkaido and the mother and brother he had abandoned. His big brother, Takeo (Sato), runs a stable for massive draft horses that compete by pulling 500-kg sleds around a sandy, hilly racetrack. A gruff and bitter man, Takeo doesn’t exactly welcome the prodigal son with open arms. He is, however, an archetypal practitioner of tough love, and his cool demeanor begins to thaw. Manabu, who has had a habit of running away from responsibility, heals his own troubled mind by training an aging horse that everyone is convinced is headed for the Japanese equivalent of the glue factory: sashimi.

To the screenplay’s credit, the characters aren’t so cut and dry, and director Kichitaro Negishi administers admirable restraint. Eschewing flashy cinematography, the movie gets its visual steam from the sight of these magnificent animals struggling over the track’s two hills, clouds of condensed air billowing out of their flaring nostrils. The story, however, is less impressive as it plods, workhorse fashion, toward a relatively predictable finish.

It’s worth noting that none of the critics gave “Snow” the top score of five stars; they all stopped at four, and I could only muster three (3.5, really, but halves weren’t allowed). The final scores clearly showed that the Grand Prix favorite was “You and Me,” a movie embroidered with quiet humor and delicate details. Though its plot — stubborn old woman bonds with stubborn young woman — might seem as familiar as that of “Snow,” director Ma Liwen managed to make each scene a revelation. Large credit should go to the note-perfect performances of Gong Zhe and Jin Yaqin, which are even more amazing when you consider that both Gong, a 22-year-old university student, and Jin, an 84-year-old veteran of the stage, were making their big-screen debuts.

Jin shared the Best Actress award with another old thespian hand, Helena Bonham-Carter, who was honored for her performance in “Conversations with Other Women.” Again, this choice wasn’t a big surprise, but it did unfortunately block out lesser-known actresses. The real star of “Conversations,” however, was the concept: a split screen that not only visualizes the gap between the sexes, but also the rifts of interpretation and memory. It was an adventurous approach that, for the most part, enhanced this story about a flirting/fighting couple, and one that the jury recognized with the Special Jury Award.

While I gave high marks to the competition’s slick, audience-friendly fare — namely Austria’s “Silentium” and South Korea’s “The Rules of Dating” — I also gave equally high points to more challenging works, such as “Sangre” from Mexico and “The Whispering of the Gods” from Japan. Oppressively grim, “Sangre” features decidedly unglamorous nonactors, a resolutely stationary camera and an almost wordless 10-minute breakfast scene that truly tests a viewer’s patience. Similarly, “Whispering” is relentless in its assault on taboos and the senses. Priests engaging in pedophilia and bestiality, not to mention pregnant nuns, will guarantee it future notoriety. These two were designed to provoke, but they also managed to profoundly question the boundaries of morality and film itself.

I didn’t expect the jury, which had a clear commercial bent, to award these films, but I was disappointed that Adrian Robert Peyo, the director of “Dallas Pashamende,” went home prizeless. Imagine an Emir Kusterica film with less magical realism and more cinema verite, a film that had overcome numerous obstacles (namely the Romanian government). “Dallas” tells the moving story of Gypies subsisting on a trash dump, largely invisible to the waste-creating world, and weaves in both high drama, romance and politics. I thought this would have been right up the alley of jury chairman Zhang Yimou, but maybe I guessed wrong.

Zhang and his colleagues did, however, choose to praise the similarly bleak yet beautiful “Fish Is Loach Too,” the second Chinese film in competition. Director Yang Yazhou was awarded the Artistic Contribution prize for his unusual love story in Beijing’s Forbidden City, and, indeed, its evocative cinematography and strong performances are something to behold.

It was significant that both of the impressive Chinese competition entries chose Tokyo for their world premieres. Too often, Tokyo has to screen the leftovers of other major festivals. The more premieres of this sort, the better.

Overall, the jury’s decisions were in line with their careers. Chairman Zhang is China’s most commercially successful director, and certain jury co-members — Hollywood producers Osborne and Gary Foster, as well as “Ring” author Koji Suzuki — all know a thing or two about what works at the box office. Accessibility can’t be ignored, but neither can the risks that young filmmakers and actors take. TIFF would do well to offer a prize to young filmmakers who show promise.

I’d like to think that I’m not getting soft in my middle age, and that the depth of the festival’s competition is truly improving. What remains to be seen is whether “What the Snow Brings” can run on the global racetrack and still lead the pack.