Now in its 15th edition, Tokyo Filmex is Japan’s leading art-over-commerce festival, offering a lineup packed with films screened earlier this year at major festivals around the world, while disdaining the glitz and glamour of the recently ended Tokyo International Film Festival. The Filmex guest list, though, typically includes well-known names from world cinema.
The festival runs Nov. 22 to 30 at three cinemas near Tokyo’s Yurakucho Station — Yurakucho Asahi Hall, Toho Cinemas Nichigeki and Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho — and with the same basic Asian-focused program as editions past.
This year Filmex will unspool a competition section with nine films — eight are from Asia and the Middle East and one is from Japan (Izumi Takahashi’s “Dari Marusan”) — a retro program of three “Shochiku Noir” films from the crucial year 1960 and a section devoted to the early work of Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, whose new film “Maps to the Stars” is one of the 11 films in the Special Screenings section.
In addition to its rigorously curated movie program, Filmex will present Talents Tokyo, a workshop for up-and-coming Asian directors and producers whose aim is not only to nurture the future creative leaders of the Asian film industry, but also to supply movies for Filmex itself. Past alumni whose films later screened at the festival include Anthony Chen (2010 Talents Tokyo participant), Pornmanus Rattanavich (2011) and Hannah Espia (2012).
All of this may make Filmex sound rather forbidding, but compared with other larger festivals, which bristle with security and reek of insider privilege, Filmex is audience-friendly, with Q&A sessions after many screenings and English subtitles for most films. But like any other festival, it has limited seating, with sellouts a possibility, especially on weekends, though it offers advance tickets in stores, by phone and online.
To begin at the beginning, the Filmex opening film, Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Nobi (Fires on the Plain),” is the best thing this veteran provocateur has done in years. It is a remake of Kon Ichikawa’s classic 1959 film about Japanese soldiers in the Philippines during the last days of World War II, though Ichikawa based his film on Shohei Ooka’s novel of the same name. The movies lacks the production values of local big-budget commercial war films, but succeeds in conveying the life-or-death desperation of soldiers reduced to shards of humanity by starvation, illness and combat. Nothing is beyond them — cannibalism included.
Starring Tsukamoto himself as an ill, emaciated soldier wandering in a tropical countryside rife with mortal danger from friend and foe alike, “Fires on the Plain” has been criticized for its high quotient of shock and gore. Tsukamoto’s aim, however, is less exploitation than a truthful accounting of what a brutal battle for survival feels like from the inside. Critics have long hailed Ichikawa’s “Fires on the Plain” as the among the best of Japanese war films, if hardly one that is easy to watch. Tsukamoto’s goes several steps further.
Another standout on the Special Screenings program is Ryuichi Hiroki’s “Sayonara Kabukicho (Kabukicho Love Hotel).” This ensemble drama about a day and night in the life of a love hotel marks a return to form for Hiroki, the maker of the road-movie masterpiece “Vibrator” (2003), after several less-then-inspired commercial outings. As usual he gets a career-peak from his female lead — former AKB48 star Atsuko Maeda, playing an aspiring musician whose live-in boyfriend (Shota Sometani) is the hotel’s slacker manager. But Hiroki examines the personalities and dilemmas of all the characters with his trademark precision as well as an unusual (for him) playful sense of humor.
Also on my to-see list is the first digital print of Shochiku’s first New Wave period film, “Bushido Muzan (The Tragedy of Bushido),” by Eitaro Morikawa, a period drama from 1960. It tells the story of a 16-year-old samurai ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) and the decision of the woman who raised him to introduce him to the mysteries of Eros before his untimely end.
Another rarity in this section is Osamu Takahashi’s 1960 film “Kanojo Dake ga Shitteiru (Only She Knows),” a tense urban noir about a police hunt for a serial killer that takes an unexpected twist, though its edge is blunted by a tinkling lounge jazz score in every scene.
Among the foreign films in the Special Screenings program, one highlight is “The President,” Mohsen Mahkmalbaf’s drama about a dictator of an unnamed country who falls from power and makes an incognito escape with his 5-year-old grandson. Shot in Georgia, with veteran Georgian actor Misha Gomiashvilli playing the president, the film has been described as a parable of the various bloody uprisings around the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring.
“Revolutions break the thin ice of society and the violence of our animal nature comes up,” Mahkmalbaf said at a press conference for the film at the Busan International Film Festival last month. As an Iranian exile who has had several attempts made on his life, he should know.
In the competition, one prize contender is Korean filmmaker July Jung’s debut feature, “A Girl at My Door.” A critically applauded selection for the Cannes Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, the film stars the always-excellent Bae Doon-na (“Linda Linda Linda,” “Air Doll”) as a policewoman in a remote fishing village who takes a battered and bullied girl (Kim Sae-ron) under her wing.
Although other films in the section premiered at festivals in Berlin (Zhao Dayoug’s “Shadow Days”), Locarno (Park Jungbum’s “Alive”), Cannes (Asaf Korman’s “Next to Her”) and Venice (Naji Abu Nower’s “Theeb”), festival pedigree alone hardly predicts a victor. But for the audience, the deliberations of the jury led by Chinese director and Filmex regular Jia Zhang-ke hardly matter. At a festival like Filmex, they are certain to find a personal Grand Prize winner in whatever section they choose.
Asahi Hall and Square, and Toho Cinemas Nichigeki in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district.
Tickets are ¥1,800 can be purchased at theaters on the day of each screening. For more information visit www.filmex.net.