Tokyo film competition rewards tantalizing tales

Judges of the Tokyo International Film Festival's Competition section award the storytellers

by Philip Brasor

When I was at the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea a few weeks ago, I discussed the Tokyo International Film Festival with some journalists, who disagreed with my assertion that TIFF’s Competition section was a dumping ground for movies that couldn’t make it at other film festivals. They admired TIFF’s Competition program, saying it bucked convention by promoting mainstream films, or, at least, “mainstream” in the contexts of their countries of origin. Film-festival competitions tend to be filled with movies that appeal to film-festival audiences, rather than to general audiences.

So I tried to approach the 15 movies in the Competition section at this year’s TIFF with an open mind, and perusing the list of contenders beforehand I saw potential, especially in terms of storytelling, which happened to be the aspect that appealed most to the jury. At the Oct. 20 press conference with the six people who would judge the TIFF competition, American producer Michael Gruskoff and scriptwriter Koji Takada said that their main criterion for judging a film would be “story,” while actress Fumi Dan mentioned “characters.” Even the technicians, Chinese director Huo Jianqi and Uruguayan cinematographer Cesar Charlone, said they were looking for something that would “touch their heart.”

These professionals implied that they wanted to be swept up by the films, and so I decided to abandon myself to the peculiar charms of each entry regardless of any formal or stylistic drawbacks, meaning the kind of things only movie critics care about. But it wasn’t easy.

The one Competition entry that should have passed this particular test with flying colors, “Public Enemy No. 1,” certainly qualified as high-quality mainstream entertainment. Based on the life of Jacques Mesrine, the most famous criminal in postwar France, the movie was formulaic to a fault. Director Jean-Francois Richet avoided the psychoanalysis you find in Hollywood biopics, but despite a charismatic performance by Vincent Cassel, who won TIFF’s Best Actor prize, Mesrine was a jumble of stereotypes. The only strong impression I got was that he liked his notoriety. In every other regard he was a two-dimensional movie gangster — sadistic, sentimental, dashing.

So the best thing you could say about “Public Enemy No. 1″ was that, at 246 minutes, it didn’t drag.

You could say almost the same thing about another intended crowd-pleaser, the much shorter “Super Typhoon.” Having been told by a Taiwanese film distributor that this Chinese disaster movie had been rejected by every non-Chinese film festival except TIFF, I was prepared for trashy fun. But while the special effects were sometimes thrilling, the film’s development about a powerful storm that almost wipes out a coastal city is mainly concerned with reinforcing trust in authority. The steel-jawed mayor resists the business community’s self-interested entreaties and makes decisions that save everyone, or, at least, everyone we see. It was the first disaster movie I’ve ever attended in which no one dies on screen.

Would I have appreciated “Super Typhoon” more if I were Chinese? I doubt it, and my problems with “Hamoon and Darya,” an Iranian forbidden-romance story based on a classic fable that probably has real resonance there, were also probably culturally determined, but the filmmaking still seemed pretty clumsy.

More successful was the bite-size Italian confection “Mid-Afternoon Lunch,” about a middle-aged Roman alcoholic taking care of four elderly women. You didn’t need to understand the cultural background of the story to enjoy its small, throwaway pleasures. It was successful on its own terms.

I couldn’t say the same about the more formally ambitious Competition films. Of these, the most experimental was “Half-Life,” the sole American entry. In the past, the American movies in this section were usually bigger-budget indies, but with its lack of recognizable names and nonlinear plot, “Half-Life” will probably have trouble finding distribution. Centering on a dysfunctional family in a dull central-California suburb, the film features flights of animated fancy that only highlight the contrived quality of the situations.

The Hokkaido-set “Echo of Silence” might be considered experimental in that first-time director Atsuro Watabe said his movie “has neither a dramatic story line nor a strong message.” It also lacked compelling dialogue and characters.

“Claustrophobia” could conceivably be mainstream fare in Hong Kong, what with the participation of bankable stars Ekin Cheng and Karena Lam, but the backward- moving plot vector drew more attention to its structure, and given the pedestrian office-romance story, the reverse-time gambit came off as a gimmick.

“Sing for Darfur” was also gimmicky: Forty ministories linked in tandem and taking place during a single day in Barcelona, where some famous pop stars are giving a charity concert to raise money for Darfur refugees. The stories, some of which last no longer than a minute, are meant to illustrate how a tragedy such as the attrocities in Sudan is ignored by the world because we are too caught up in our own lives. It’s hardly an original or provocative idea, and it was difficult to discern what the filmmakers hoped to accomplish except to stimulate guilt.

Japan’s “School Days With a Pig” also had a didactic purpose and also failed to make its case. It was based on a true story about a schoolteacher who charged his sixth-grade class with raising a pig over the course of a year, at the end of which the class would eat it. The film initially promised to say something about our relationship with food, and naturally the children become emotionally attached to the animal. But the issue of where our food comes from was never addressed. It was just about one cute pig and a lot of weeping children, which is probably why it won the Audience Award.

Two Competition films involved directors working in foreign countries, specifically Latin American countries. “Planet Carlos,” a German production, was an episodic, documentarylike study of poor children in Nicaragua, while “Ocean,” a melodrama by Russian director Mikhail Kosyrev-Nesterov, told a typical story about a country boy losing himself in the big, bad city — in this case Havana.

In “With a Little Help From Myself,” the Best Artistic Contribution winner, director Francois Dupeyron explored what might be considered foreign territory in France — the Paris suburbs occupied by poor minorities and elderly white pensioners. The central character, played by Felicite Wouassi, who won the Best Actress prize, was an African-French matriarch struggling to keep her family together.

In the end, what tended to “touch the hearts” of viewers in these movies were not the stories so much as the raw settings, since all were filmed on location. But the overlay of fiction blurred the power of the images.

Ultimately, the movies that satisfied were those that more or less made clear dramatic sense. I didn’t find the three character-driven story lines in “Under the Tree” always credible, but they contained enough emotional realism to give me a vivid impression of what it is like to be a woman in Indonesia. And if it’s difficult to sympathize with the emotionally stunted protagonist of “4 Nights With Anna,” Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s long-anticipated comeback, which received the Special Jury Prize, the movie vividly illuminated his personality.

I didn’t sympathize with any of the characters in “Tulpan,” either; even the kids were annoying. But the central idea of this Kazakhstan film was so unusual that it remains the most indelible of the Competition films, and I was pleased that it won the Sakura Grand Prix, even if my reasons for liking it were different from those of the jury. A young and deluded ex-sailor is determined to marry a woman he has never seen in order to start a life in a place he believes is paradise on Earth but which we can see is really dusty, dull and difficult. Jury head Jon Voight said he and his colleagues were “deeply touched” by the struggles of the family depicted, which “made us discover our hearts and our identities.” To me, “Tulpan” was a big, black joke that reconfirmed certain beliefs I hold about human nature. If that makes me a cynic, then you can blame it on the movies.

Top of the quips — the filmmakers mouth off

As with any film festival, the quality of the work selected for this year’s TIFF varied greatly, but one feature of the festival that was uniformly excellent was the postscreening Q&A sessions with filmmakers and guests. Here’s a sample of some of the better quotes.

“I spent 6 months being Sonia (her character in ‘With a Little Help From Myself’), so on the last day, I shaved my hair off as a farewell to her. It will grow back soon, but a shaved head feels nice.” — Best Actress winner Felicite Wouassi on her new look

“One day I read an article about a shy Japanese man who sneaked into the bedroom of the woman he was in love with and secretly slept alongside her for a few hours.” — Jerzy Skolimowski explaining the inspiration for his Jury Prize winner “4 Nights With Anna”

“The Soviet Union is deeply responsible for what they did to Cuba. In Cuba, a contract needs signature after signature from government officials for it to be valid. When I complained about this, I was told it was the result of the bureaucracy we forced upon Cuba.” — Mikhail Kosyrev-Nesterov, the Russian director of “Ocean,” talking about filming in the still socialist country

“Mehran is shy to admit this, but as he was playing his role, he fell in love with the girl playing Darya. Actually, since Darya was the only girl on the set, all the boys fell in love with her.” — Ebrahim Forouzesh, director of “Hamoon and Darya,” on his 17-year-old leading man

“It was very difficult to direct them, especially the woman who played my mother. She did not listen to me at all. So I let them do as they pleased and simply filmed them.” — Gianni De Gregorio, the director and lead actor of “Mid-August Lunch,” on the four elderly amateurs he cast as costars

“Roppongi Hills is a big maze. I would never be able to get back to my hotel room without an escort. I think we should give a prize to the architect.” — Jon Voight talking about his biggest challenge as the head of the Competition jury.

“Small pigs are so charming; they feel like life itself. And though I know they are destined to be slaughtered, I think they are adorable.” — Director Tetsu Maeda on the various actors who played the titular character in “School Days With a Pig”

“I was shocked. He changed the ending, and now I’m dead!” — Actor Nadia Saphira commenting on how director Garin Nugroho altered the fate of her character in “Under the Tree” during the editing process