Tokyo celebrates a wide world of cinema

Tokyo International Film Festival screens leftfield foreign flicks

by Philip Brasor

Because it offers few world premieres of high-profile films, the Tokyo International Film Festival is not the world’s most significant. European and American festivals get all the good premieres, and South Korea’s Pusan International Film Festival, the region’s best, has a wider selection of Asian premieres and sponsors Asian filmmaking. TIFF’s real value is local, in that it offers Tokyo cinephiles a chance to sample a wide variety of international films that will likely not play in a nearby theater anytime soon, if ever.

That aspect has become pronounced in recent years as more foreign film distributors in Japan shut up shop. In the 1990s, Tokyo was one of the best world cities in which to be a film nut, but not anymore. As proof, two major award-winning British movies that screened at TIFF two years ago, Mike Leigh’s “Happy Go Lucky” and Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” still have not been released in Japan, even on DVD.

Last year’s TIFF Sakura Prize winner, the Bulgarian film “Eastern Plays,” finally opens in Tokyo this month, but the vast majority of non-Japanese films in the Competition section are never released here. You can expect that Competition films will vary widely in quality and that there will be at least one semi-Hollywood ringer. This year it’s “Never Let Me Go,” a United States/United Kingdom coproduction based on the best-selling futuristic novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and starring Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley.

Other entries that show promise are two period films with Jewish themes: “Sarah’s Key,” a French movie starring Kristin Scott Thomas as a woman sent to camp during the German occupation of Paris; and “Intimate Grammar,” about an unusual adolescent growing up during Israel’s peaceful lull of 1963.

The gold is usually found in the World Cinema and Film Panorama of Asia-Middle East (formerly called the Winds of Asia-Middle East) sections, since they tend to offer works that made big impressions at other festivals. However, the latter category does include one major international premiere: “Moss,” the new thriller by Kang Woo Suk, who directed the box office hit “Silmido.” Unfortunately, it will be screened without English subtitles. Other Asian highlights include two romantic Hong Kong films: “All About Love,” the latest from veteran director Ann Hui; and “Hot Summer Days,” a romantic comedy comprising five separate stories that take place in three different cities. In addition, there will be a selection of six films from new Taiwanese directors; a retrospective of the work of Turkish director Reha Erdem, including his latest, “Kosmos”; and a tribute to Bruce Lee on the occasion of his 70th birthday that includes one Lee classic (“Enter the Dragon”), another lesser-seen work (“Game of Death”), and four recent Asian films influenced by the kung fu master.

The World Cinema section features a number of strong American and European movies, including Roman Polanski’s latest, “The Ghost Writer,” which stars Ewan McGregor as a biographer who uncovers some messy details while producing a memoir for a former British prime minister; Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s “Essential Killing,” an award-winner at the Venice Film Festival, with Vincent Gallo in the unlikely role of a Taliban prisoner of war; Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debut, “Jack Goes Boating”; Michel Gondry’s latest, “Thorn in the Heart,” a light-hearted exploration of his family history; and “Bellamy,” the last film by France’s master of suspense, Claude Chabrol, who died last month. The section’s must-see movie is “Winter’s Bone,” an American indie set in Appalachia that won the Grand Prix at Sundance and is already being touted as an Oscar contender.

The festival’s meat and potatoes, at least for Japan’s major film distributors and studios, is the Special Screenings section. All these movies have distributors and almost all will be released in Japan by the end of the year, so the main reasons for seeing them at TIFF is to get a jump on everyone else or to see a non-English-language film with English subtitles.

The opening film is David Fincher’s topical take on the rise of Facebook, “The Social Network,” and the closing movie is Ben Affleck’s caper drama “The Town.” The big event of the festival is the long-awaited sequel to Disney’s 1982 cyberspace fantasy “TRON.” However, like “Avatar” at last year’s TIFF, only select footage of the new “TRON: Legacy” will be shown: about 20 minutes’ worth. And 3-D animation fans beware: Only the Japanese-dubbed versions of the U.S. box office hits “Despicable Me” and “Shrek Forever After” will be screened.

Other Special Screenings include a Korean remake of John Woo’s classic crime thriller “A Better Tomorrow”; “Countdown to Zero,” a documentary about the lingering danger of nuclear arms that was produced by the same team who made Al Gore’s Oscar-winning global warming seminar “An Inconvenient Truth”; two Ethan Hawke vehicles, the cop drama “Brooklyn’s Finest” and the vampire thriller “Daybreakers”; Francois Ozon’s latest, “Potiche,” starring Catherine Deneuve; and the excellent low-budget ensemble drama, “Stone,” starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Milla Jovovich.

Tokyo International Film Festival takes place Oct. 23-31 at venues around Roppongi. For more information, visit