A whiff of the absurd was in the air at the closing ceremony of the 14th Tokyo International Film Festival, held Sunday at Orchard Hall in Shibuya. It wasn’t necessarily the presenters’ hairdos and breathless patter, nor the new formal dress code imposed on the attending filmmakers. It wasn’t even the boxes of Fuji Film digital cameras passed to the winners and then flashed, like a game show, on the big monitors.

News photo
Standing (from left) are jury member Yasuki Hamano, directors Hur Jin-ho and Reza Mir-Karimi, jury chairman Norman Jewison, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, and jury members Daniel Schmid, Joey Wang and Catherine Dussart. Kneeling (from left) are screenwriter Yoshi Yokota and actors Andrew Howard and
Artur Gorishiti.

No, it came wafting in right after the announcement of the grand prize. Without warning, the crunching chords of “Wild Thing” burst over the speakers as spotlights crisscrossed the stage. While minds reeled to find a link between the prizewinning “Slogans” — a film about communist oppression in ’70s-era Albania — and the lyric “You make everything grooovy,” a figure appeared. It was prodigal son No. 2, Kazuhiro Sasaki, and the audience tittered as the ballplayer descended the stage’s central staircase, looking every bit as clueless as the shell-shocked star of “Slogans.”

But wait. There was more.

After hands were shaken and trophies passed, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara took the opportunity to remind us how he also directed a movie or two. He told us that “Jean Truffaut” (um, would that be Francois’ brother?) had credited Ishihara’s screenplay for “Kurutta Kajitsu (Crazed Fruit)” with inspiring nouvelle vague. He also added that Another Famous Director, Andrew Marlowe, had once told him that “only Japanese can understand infinity in an instant.” (Was this somehow related to Mr. Sasaki’s pitching?) Ishihara was there to promote a new “location box” and mentioned that he wanted a film set in Tokyo to be shown at the next festival, but my mind was still reeling.

Given the topic of “Slogans,” I suppose this farce was coincidentally fitting. Based on a true story and set in a remote Albanian village, the film depicts a teacher’s Kafka-esque struggle against communist policies, in particular, one that requires teachers to lead their students in the construction of massive slogans (such as “American imperialism is a paper tiger”) on a nearby hillside, each spelled out stone by stone. The tragicomic absurdities escalate as a goat-herder is singled out as a subversive and local party bullies gear up for the visit of a high-ranking official. (Interestingly, at a Q&A session, a Japanese viewer expressed incredulity at the cruel Stalinist policies, while another pointed out the behavior of local officials whenever the Imperial family takes a trip.)

Unfortunately for Artur Gorishti, the star of “Slogans,” the film’s director Gjergj Xhuvani could not attend the festival, so the actor had to field questions in his limited English. But not much elaboration was needed. “Slogans” is as straightforward as they come, and we knew exactly what Gorishti meant when he said some Albanians laugh and some cry when seeing the same scene.

Still, despite its moving portrait of human strength in the face of inhumane ideology, “Slogans” wasn’t at the top of my score card. I was rooting for either South Korea’s “One Fine Spring Day” or Iran’s “Under the Moonlight” to win the gold. In the spirit of encouraging directors in need of exposure and financial support, the jury’s choice was obvious. According to Gorishti, Albania has an annual output of around four films. Jury head Norman Jewison stated, before announcing the top prize, that audiences will always go for true stories. But that maxim could also be applied to many of the festival’s strongest films.

Perhaps, on the surface, “One Fine Spring Day” didn’t offer the social commentary that festival juries often demand, but its nuanced look at a seemingly ordinary relationship was entrancing. In carefully paced scenes, embellished with understated touches, director Hur Jin-ho skillfully depicted the intoxication of unconditional love and the realization of its temporality.

In an interview, Hur summed up the difficulties that directors face when trying to walk the line between challenging art and audience-pleasing entertainment.

“If you try to make it too cerebral you’ll lose the audience. Conversely, when you shoot ordinary, everyday topics, it can become too simplistic. When the film is too close to the audience, they don’t have time to think. And when it’s too detached from the subject, it’s too boring.”

I’m sure audiences will agree that Hur gets the balance right in “One Fine Spring Day.” At least the jury recognized the “artistic contribution” of his film, which beautifully weaves in the theme of sound — the sounds we tend to overlook, such as wind through a bamboo forest.

Unlike last year’s grand-prix winner, “Amores Perros,” the power of this year’s standouts came from their restraint — from the quiet coming-of-age tale of “The Chimp” to the musicless “What Time Is It There?” Tsai Ming-liang’s hypnotic contemplation of life’s cycles. Likewise, Andrew Howard’s prize-taking portrayal of a violent assassin in “Mr. In-Between” was impressive more for the rage he concealed.

The “art” of Reza Mir-Kirimi’s “Under the Moonlight” might not be as apparent, but it is very much there — a masterful mix of documentary techniques with evocative music and dialogue. Its story of a young theology student struggling with doubts of his spiritual duty showed a rarely seen side of Islam. On the eve of the student’s graduation, his vestments are stolen by a street urchin and, in his pursuit of the boy, he stumbles upon a reality that few clerics see. In the film’s most poignant scene, homeless men under a bridge write a petition to God, asking for an explanation.

“The problem we have in [Iranian] society,” Mir-Kirimi said in an interview, “is that some people think they know religion better than others. And that’s why they divide people into different groups.”

The way Mir-Kirimi explained his approach to filmmaking says much about his humanism. For example, he interviewed homeless people and drew his screenplay from their experiences. In his direction of nonactors, a common practice in many Iranian films, he never scolds them or makes them feel they are less professional than he is. He only does a brief rehearsal of their lines before shooting — and “the first take is always the best take,” he said.

Not surprisingly, it was Mir-Kirimi’s speech at the closing ceremony, in which he condemned terrorism but asked for fuller understanding of Islam, that brought the proceedings down to earth.

Yes, there is an officious side to TIFF, which insists on old-school showbiz and protocol and wants so badly to be world-class. But at least there is another side at work that somehow manages to bring over exceptional, even world-class, films. And that’s what’s really groovy.

And the winners are . . .

Tokyo Grand Prix “Slogans”

Special Jury Prize “Under the Moonlight”

Best Director Gjergj Xhuvani (“Slogans”); Reza Mir-Karimi (“Under the Moonlight”)

Best Screenplay Yoshi Yokota (“Kewaishi”)

Best Actor Andrew Howard (“Mr. In-Between”)

Best Actress Luiza Xhuvani (“Slogans”)

Artistic Contribution Award Hur Jin-ho (“One Fine Spring Day”)

Asian Film Award “Canon on Tuesday”

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