Short-film festival offers flicks for free

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Short films are today both everywhere but nowhere, even for many who consider themselves film fans.

With digital cameras and other filmmaking gear becoming ever more affordable, the number of short films in every genre is exploding. But little of this huge output plays at the local multiplex and, unless you seek it out, it might as well not exist.

Why take the trouble? While shorts are still the training wheels of the film industry, made by beginners to impress future bosses or potential investors, they also give even the most established talents a chance to experiment — something that is hard to do in the feature film world, with its genre formulas and box-office pressures. The volume of bad-to-indifferent films, however, is large and rising, thus making well-curated short film festivals ever more important.

In Japan, one such festival is Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia, which began in 1999 as the American Short Shorts Film Festival, with actor Tetsuya Bessho as its founder and first director. In 2004, Short Shorts Film Festival Asia launched to present shorts from Japan and the rest of Asia. The two festival strands have joined forces to make Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia, the region’s largest short film showcase.

Held this year at two venues in Tokyo (Omotesando Hills Space O and Laforet Museum in Harajuku) and one in the Minatomirai district of Yokohama (Brillia Short Shorts Theater), Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia will present a program of 200 films, winnowed from nearly 4,000 entries submitted from 110 countries and regions.

Organizers have sorted films into four clearly defined competition sections: Official, CG Animation, Music Shorts and Save the Earth! (nature and environmental shorts). The winner of the Official Competition’s Grand Prix qualifies for possible Academy Award nomination, giving that section an added buzz.

For festival director Seigo Tono, however, the most significant element of this year’s festival is that admission for “all sections is free. It’s the first time we’ve taken such an initiative,” he explains. “The short-film genre is still not well known among the general public, so we decided to lower the hurdles for everyone to give them a chance to see and discover short films.”

While championing short films to the public, Tono admits finding good ones is not becoming any easier, despite the rising number of submissions from around the world.

“We see a lot of technically high-quality films, but we rarely see truly original short films,” he says. “I find many short films with themes and stories somewhat like those we have seen already. Also, it’s a pity that for financial reasons many young Japanese directors cannot cast professional actors in their short films. Even if a film is of high-quality technically, if the actors are bad or unconvincing, the film becomes uninteresting.”

Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia takes its support of short films beyond the festival itself.

“One difference between us and the other short-film festivals is that we screen our award-winning shorts at our own exclusive theater (Brillia Short Shorts Theater) throughout the year,” Tono says.

Another difference is that Tono’s organization helps filmmakers who have previously participated in the festival by producing other films with them.

“We produced 11 shorts that we are going to premiere at this year’s festival,” Tono says. “This initiative gives filmmakers opportunities to continue making films, as well as to work with professional actors.”

What are the highlights of this year’s festival? Tono and his staff have considerately spotlighted several in each of the Official Competition’s three sections: International (films from outside Asia), Asia International (films from the Asian region) and Japan.

International Competition

This section features 37 shorts that were chosen from 3,297 submissions received from 17 countries and regions.

“The number of animated shorts from European countries such as France and Poland has increased,” Tono points out. Animation in general “has been strong for the past two years,” shifting the balance away from the live-action shorts that were once dominant.

Tono also notes that this year’s International shorts are similar in their lengths (around 10 to 15 minutes), and their angle of approach.

“They present clear messages as opposed to vague statements that rely on individual viewers’ perceptions,” he says.

Among Tono’s recommendations in this section are Wes Anderson’s “Castello Cavalcanti” (the adventures of an Italian racing driver circa 1955), Manjinder Virk’s “Out of Darkness” (aid workers who examine their pasts), Aneil Karia’s “Beat” (a lonely man confronts an elemental force) and Ryan Hunter’s “Woodrow Wilson” (a high school prank goes awry).

“These are must-see shorts — films you won’t see appearing as a single lineup anywhere but here,” he adds.

Asia International Competition

For this section, the festival selected 17 films out of 635 submissions from nine countries and regions. The lineup, according to Tono, is notable for emotional “human” dramas from China and Southeast Asia that “depict family ties and relationships between various generations, as well as social issues and problems.”

“They bring social and political messages directly to the eyes of viewers,” he adds.

Among his picks are Tae-yong Kim’s “One Summer Night,” featuring up-and-coming star Ko Kyung-pyo of the hit Korean TV drama “Flower Boys Next Door,” and “Vesuvius” by Filipino director Erik Matti whose short “On the Job” screened in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

Japan Competition

This section will present 14 shorts selected from 332 submissions. Tono says these films are mainly on the long side, “with shorts under 10 minutes, primarily animation and experimental works, taking a back seat.” Among his favorites are mid-length (10-to-15 minute) films that mix comedy and drama.

“While being touching, heartwarming dramas, they also demonstrate a comic sensibility,” he says.

One of his favorites is “Oh Lucy!” directed by 2013 Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia Grand Prix winner Atsuko Hirayanagi. Internationally acclaimed actress Kaori Momoi stars as a middle-aged office worker who decides to open an English-conversation school. Last week, the film won second prize at the Cannes Film Festival’s Cinefondation section for short films.

Another must-see is Hideto Mori’s “Miyuki,” which stars Rena Nounen of the hit NHK TV drama “Amachan” as a traumatized girl who is fascinated by a mysterious hunter.

There is much more to explore in this year’s program, including a selection of shorts from France, Switzerland, Taiwan and South Korea, a section devoted to past Academy Award winners and, as a lead-in to the World Cup next month, a selection of five soccer-themed films.

The film selection should be enough to get people’s attention, but as ought to be repeated, the screenings — all 200 of them — are free.

Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia takes place at Omotesando Hills Space O and Laforet Museum, Harajuku, in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, from May 30 until June 8; and at Brillia Shortshorts Theater in Nishi-ku, Yokohama, from May 30 until June 15. For more information on film times and venues, visit www.shortshorts.org.