Tokyo International Film Festival remains an ambitious also-ran on the circuit, even if its
regional-movie showings give cheer

A few days before the 20th Tokyo International Film Festival opened on Oct. 20, an informed friend told me that the festival’s Grand Prix cash prize of $50,000 is the richest prize on offer at any film festival.

With this in mind, you could be confused for thinking that TIFF’s organizers believe money can make a difference when it comes to programming. They did present some significant new films, including Wes Anderson’s well-received “The Darjeeling Limited” and Michael Winterbottom’s movie about the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, “A Mighty Heart,” but they were in the Special Screenings section, which is basically a showcase where local distributors promote movies they are about to release.

In any case, being good at spending money wouldn’t explain why most of the movies in the much-ballyhooed Tokyo in Focus section, which featured Akira Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog,” Nagisa Oshima’s “Diary of a Shinjuku Thief” and 48 other classic Japanese films set in Tokyo, weren’t prepared with English subtitles. Either TIFF isn’t as international as it thinks it is or those red carpets are even more expensive than they look.

In the five years since movie mogul Tsugihiko Kadokawa took over as chairman of the festival, TIFF has grown in ambition without really gaining much status. Kadokawa’s main accomplishment may have been attracting more sponsors — each public screening this year was preceded by 15 minutes of commercials for everything from pachinko to securities companies.

Kadokawa also helped inaugurate the simultaneously held TIFFCOM film- industry market, but according to a colleague who works with many Asian filmmakers, the organizers are still having trouble attracting buyers and sellers to the mart.

TIFF doesn’t have the pull of, say, South Korea’s younger Pusan International Film Festival, which takes place two weeks earlier and is also held in conjunction with an Asian film market. There’s an informal pecking order in the festival biz that affects what kinds of films get shown — and TIFF is still nowhere near the top. The Special Screenings section contains high-profile films from Hollywood, Europe and the major Japanese studios, but it’s little more than a showcase for local distributors, who get to show off movies they are about to release.

This year’s Special Screenings section included only three world premieres — all of them Japanese. The Winds of Asia-Middle East section, which contained 23 films, had none at all. The Competition section, which is supposedly TIFF’s main draw, had two — “Bloody Snake Under the Sun and “Dangerous Parking.”

Which brings us back to the cash prize. The Palme d’Or at Cannes is considered priceless in terms of PR value. TIFF’s Sakura Grand Prix isn’t, which is why the money is helpful in attracting films, and while I’m sure that all of the 668 filmmakers (up from 614 last year) spanning 67 countries who submitted works to the Competition section would be happy just to get accepted.

The value of competitions for lesser-known festivals that can’t attract big-name guests is to attract press notice. This year’s TIFF featured no stars like DiCaprio, Pitt or Cruise, who attended in years past, and apparently it didn’t even attract that many journalists. When I attended PIFF a few weeks ago, it was extremely difficult to secure interviews with visiting filmmakers because the demand was so great. At TIFF, I had festival PR people calling me up begging me to interview directors.

Nevertheless, the organizational issues of a festival aren’t necessarily reflected in the quality of the films shown. The 15 movies chosen for the Competition section were the usual potpourri of regional curiosities, dedicated art-house fare, and conventional commercial films whose producers probably think a film festival appearance looks good on the resume.

“‘Reign Over Me,” a Columbia Pictures release starring Adam Sandler, fell into this latter category. Directed by Hollywood veteran Mike Binder, the movie opens here in December and seemed more apt for the Special Screenings section. Sandler plays a man who, having lost his family in the terrorist attacks of 9/11, has regressed to an adolescent state. It’s a clever idea given that Sandler’s comedies capitalize on his arrested-development style of humor, but the drama is pretty hackneyed.

“The Stone Angel,” another commercial entrant, is an earnest adaptation of a novel that actress Christine Horne, who plays the main character as a young woman, described during a Q&A session as a classic that everyone in Canada reads in high school. Ellen Burstyn stars as a cranky old woman who looks back on her life with some regret. The numerous plot holes seem to indicate that the sagalike story was streamlined significantly for the screen.

The same goes for “Gandhi My Father,” which also recreates an entire life, in this case that of Harilal Gandhi, the ill-fated son of the great Indian passive-resistance leader. Both films contain excellent performances — Shefali Shah won TIFF’s Best Actress prize for “Gandhi My Father” — but their rote reverence toward their respective subjects renders them dramatically inert.

The regional curiosities are usually the best reason to attend TIFF. “The Band’s Visit,” from Israel, deservedly won the Sakura Grand Prize after having been rejected for consideration for a Foreign Language Film Oscar last year because most of the dialogue is in English. Since it was picked up for distribution in Japan some time ago, its quality was vouchsafed even before it was selected for the Competition.

In telling the tale of a touring Egyptian policemen’s orchestra that gets lost in the sticks of Israel, it also has a theme that’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser: friendship between two ostensibly feuding groups of people. Director Eran Kolirin shows how Israelis and Egyptians have a lot more in common that outsiders might think — for the simple reason that they sprang from the same patch of desert.

Sasson Gabai, an Iraq-born Israeli who plays the formal, melancholy conductor of the band, was robbed of the Best Actor prize by a child. Like little Abigail Breslin in last year’s Audience Prize-winner “Little Miss Sunshine,” pre-teen Damian Ul obviously won the jury over with his artless innocence. It helped that the movie he was in — “Tricks” (from Poland), about a little boy who tries to effect a reconciliation between his estranged parents through subterfuge, made up in offbeat warmth what it lacked in narrative cohesiveness.

“Hafez,” a joint Iran-Japan production directed by a past winner of TIFF’s Asian Film award, Abolfazl Jalili, was considered a serious contender for the Sakura, but here Jalili’s impressionistic style served an intricately plotted allegory that no one seemed to understand, including the Japanese actress, Kumiko Aso, who played the object of desire of two devout Muslim men. After the Bunkamura screening, Jalili defensively responded to Aso’s admission by saying he didn’t expect the audience to follow the story but wanted them to “appreciate the images.”

The second-place Jury Prize Winner, “The Western Trunk Line,” is yet another slice of provincial Chinese life set in that lacuna of uncertain national identity between the end of the Cultural Revolution and the start of the Economic Revolution. Though not very original, it’s an assured work with strong characters and a story that develops organically.

The art-house movies were a motley bunch. The joint China-Japan weepie, “Crossing Over,” featuring Japanese star Kiichi Nakai as a love-struck convict, is also slated for local release but it failed to live up to its considerable pre-fest hype.

Both “Dangerous Parking,” a British film by Peter Howitt, who won the Director’s Award, and the Danish satire “The Early Years — Erik Nietzsche Part I,” with a screenplay by the always controversial Lars Von Trier (“Dancer in the Dark”), attempted irreverence with a capital “I.” But with Howitt also starring in his film and Von Trier writing about his days as a film student, the two movies looked like self-conscious vanity projects.

Italy’s “The Waltz” won the Best Artistic Contribution award, probably because it gives the impression it was shot in one continuous 90-minute take, but its tale of upper-class cynicism, lower-class victimization and the media that exacerbates both was so heavy-handed that it almost felt like a parody of an art film.

In welcome contrast was the Mexican anti-romance “Blue Eyelids,” but it was probably too low-key for this particular jury, which was helmed by Alan Ladd Jr. — who once ran the major Hollywood studio MGM-United Artists.

For me, the best film in the Competition was France’s “Waiting for Someone,” which won no awards. It had no big themes, no splashy technique, no epiphanies; just simple, compelling storylines interwoven with such care and skill that the viewer becomes tangled up as well. A really good movie, whether you see it at a festival or not, is one that makes you forget you’re watching a movie.

“Crossing Over” opens Nov. 3 in major cities; “The Band’s Visit” opens mid-December in Tokyo, then nationwide; “Reign Over Me” opens nationwide in December; “Hafez” opens Jan. 19 (Tokyo), then nationwide.

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