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Tokyo International Film Festival offers rough but ambitious lineup

by Philip Brasor

Though it’s eight years older than PIFF, the Tokyo International Film Festival, which runs Oct. 18 to 26, has always come across as the neglected little brother in terms of Asian film events. For years, TIFF had the reputation of being mainly a showcase for Japanese studios and distributors, who trot out their new releases for maximum exposure, but with the economy being what it is and sponsorship thinner than before, the festival has had to rely increasingly on its own resources. And this year, the programming, while not quite up to PIFF’s standards, shows imagination and ambition.

TIFF could never be accused of pandering to the indie mentality. Its Special Screening section contains mainstream movies local distributors are hoping you’ll pay to see, and it’s a rough mix as always. The opening film, “Red Cliff,” comes with a powerhouse Asian cast, the biggest budget in Chinese film history, and the return of Hong Kong prodigal son John Woo after a decade of directing Hollywood action movies. “Red Cliff” also comes with a big caveat: It’s part one of a two-part series about a legendary battle, and most of the main action is in the second part. The closing film, Pixar’s animated and mostly dialogue- free feature “Wall-E,” about robots in love, is a more consistent piece of entertainment. Some of the more notable offerings in this section are Madonna’s directorial debut, “Filth and Wisdom,” starring Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz; “Elegy,” a May-December romantic drama starring Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz; and “Assembly,” the patriotic Chinese war epic in the style of “Saving Private Ryan” that opened the 2007 edition of PIFF.

In the past, TIFF’s Competition Section was utilitarian in the sense that any film festival competition invites press attention and that TIFF could always count on one or two high-profile entries, usually from the U.S., that didn’t make it into competitions at Western festivals. However, the majority of entries have tended to be second-rate movies from second-rate national film centers. This year’s selection looks more promising. The standout is “Tulpan,” another Kazakh film produced by Gulnara Sarsenova that has received high marks from critics in Europe. Also vying for the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix is “Four Nights With Anna,” the latest from Polish maestro Jerzy Skolimowski, about a peeping Tom.

What the Winds of Asia-Middle East section lacks in premieres it makes up for in depth. Conveniently divided into three regional subsections and a tribute to Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi, the section includes everything from bubbly urban comedies to bleak portraits of rural despair. The most interesting selections are Kim Tae Kyun’s “Crossing,” which provides a rare dramatic rendering of a North Korean family; “Caramel,” Nadine Labanki’s sassy comedy about five women trying to get by in Beirut; and Jiang Wen’s “The Sun Also Rises,” a wildly ambitious film that attempts to sum up Chinese history in four allegorical and highly stylized tales. Incidentally, most films are subtitled in English — TIFF’s Web site indicates which ones.

Japanese Eyes presents local films that will be released in the near future and offer non-Japanese residents a chance to sample Japanese product with English subtitles. The most anticipated film in this section is probably the world premier of “Buy a Suit,” the movie that Jun Ichikawa was just finishing up when he died unexpectedly several weeks ago. The World Cinema section is highlighted by two movies from Britain: Mike Leigh’s uncharacteristically chipper “Happy-Go-Lucky,” starring Sally Hawkins, who won the Best Actress prize at the last Berlin Film Festival; and “Hunger,” Steve McQueen’s film about IRA inmates in the infamous Maze Prison in Northern Ireland.

In addition, there will be special consideration given to the ecology movement with a section of “green” movies, and a prize, contributed by Toyota, to the film that “gives due consideration to nature, the environment and ecology.” We’ll assume the prize is not a car.

Tokyo International Film Festival, Oct. 18-26, Roppongi Hills and Bunkamura in Shibuya. For a complete schedule in English see www.tiff-jp.net/en/