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410,000 attend Okinawa movie fest, but it’s still a money-loser

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

The fourth edition of the Okinawa International Movie Festival, held from March 24 to 31, was a strange beast, combining screenings of 102 films from Japan, Asia and elsewhere with manzai comics and other acts from the powerful Yoshimoto Kogyo agency, which underwrote the entire event, in cooperation with corporate and government partners. “It’s not a film festival — it’s a Yoshimoto matsuri (festival),” one waggish staffer told me.

In addition to entertaining large crowds at the Beach Stage near the Okinawa Convention Center in Ginowan, Yoshimoto comics appeared at butai aisatsu (stage introductions) in the convention center’s four theaters, at which they bandied quips with the director and stars of the film to be screened, some of whom were Yoshimoto talents themselves.

To the cinephiles who patronize artier festivals, this combination might seem odd; to many of the young local fans at the fest screenings, the comics, not the films, were the main attractions.

The 13 films in each of the two competition sections — the Laugh section for comedies and the Peace section for dramas — were a mixed bag, ranging from Yoshimoto variety-show skits and segments spun out to feature length to Michel Hazanavicius’ Oscar-winning “The Artist” and Ann Hui’s drama “A Simple Life,” selected for the competition at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

Hui’s film, about the relationship between a successful film producer (Andy Lau) and the elderly family maid (Deanie Ip) who raised him, unfolds with subtle narrative simplicity and unobtrusively artful character development. The ending is completely unsentimental — and heartrending.

It deservedly received the top Golden Shisa Award from a jury headed by Taiwanese producer Qiu Fu-Sheng, as well as the Uminchu Prize audience award for the Peace section. The Uminchu Prize winner in the Laugh section was the Thai musical dramady “SuckSeed,” whose broad juvenile comedy and TV drama cliches bored me insensible, but made it a big hit with audiences in Thailand — and Okinawa.

Unlike last year’s festival, which unfolded soon after the March 11 disasters and was devoted to raising funds for victims in Tohoku, this year’s edition had a lighter, more festive vibe, aided by the almost daily blue skies and balmy weather. The festival venues, including the Okinawa Content Bazaar where 50 mostly media-related companies promoted their wares, were thronged all day, every day. Total attendance was 410,000, compared with 310,000 in 2011.

Yoshimoto President Hiroshi Osaki, whose quick smile and easygoing manner suited the Okinawan kariyushi shirts he wore all week, told me in an interview that, despite the crowds, the festival was a money-loser. “We spend a lot on plane tickets and accommodations for the people we bring down here,” he explained.

On opening day, 346 Yoshimoto talents and other invitees, including opening-ceremony MC Koji Imada and Akira of pop mega-group Exile, walked down the red carpet as thousands of fans leaned over the barriers to take photos, shake hands or get autographs.

Of course, this generated massive publicity for the festival, with reporters from major Japanese media outlets filing daily stories and TV shows and segments featuring Yoshimoto talent in Okinawa airing around the country.

But Osaki, an Osaka native who told me his own love affair with Okinawa goes back three decades, also has a bigger goal for the festival. “We want to support the development of Okinawa as a destination for Asia and the world.” That, not coincidently, is also the dream of Okinawan tourism officials, who told assembled journos that they hoped to boost the number of foreign tourists from 280,000 in 2010. “We need to look for new markets,” one explained. “Japan is facing a declining birthrate and an aging population.”

Osaki has his own ambitious plans for Okinawa, specifically a Las Vegas-like “entertainment city” that will begin with the establishment of an “entertainment school” teaching everything from stage craft to nail art, with students coming from Okinawa and around Asia. One prerequisite, however, is the return of land now used by American military bases. “The bases are a burden on the people here,” he commented, but when that burden might be lifted he couldn’t say.

On closing night, after a procession of dignitaries that included Minister of Trade, Economy and Industry Yukio Edano, Osaki took the stage in a justifiably upbeat mood. The festival had gone well, the convention center theater was packed and a beach-side concert featuring the biggest Okinawan band, Begin, was about to start. “Okinawa is the rare prefecture where people live everyday singing, dancing and enjoying themselves,” he said. “Next year we (at Yoshimoto) want to work together with everyone here to bring this film festival to the world. Let’s all sing and dance and get rich together!”