Tokyo film fest shuns controversy


Special To The Japan Times

The 24th edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival ended on Sunday, after nine days and 128 films, without any major mishaps or controversies. This was a disappointment to one journalist friend: “A good film festival invites controversy,” she told me at the closing party. “TIFF hates it.”

This is true enough, although director Masahiro Kobayashi stirred up a bit of indignation at the competition jury press conference with his open advocacy of “Play,” Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s drama about the psychological bullying of black immigrant children in the town of Gothenburg. “It’s a racist film,” one American documentary filmmaker complained to me, “and Kobayashi was saying it should have won the Grand Prix.”

Instead, “Untouchable,” a French film about a cranky aristocrat paralyzed from the neck down and his ex-con black caregiver, won the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix, while Shuichi Okita’s “Kitsutsuki to Ame (The Woodsman and the Rain),” a dramady about a 60-year-old lumberjack (Koji Yakusho) riding to the rescue of a troubled indie film shoot, took the Special Jury Prize.

Ostlund, however, had the compensation of the Best Director prize, which jury chairman Edward R. Pressman said was a unanimous decision. My personal jury was out on “Play,” which I did not see, but I quite liked “The Woodsman and the Rain,” a finely balanced, low-key blend of culture-clash comedy and generation-gap drama, made with heart and smarts.

Another worthy winner was Keiichi Kobayashi’s “Momoiro Sora wo (About the Pink Sky),” which took the Best Picture Award in the Japanese Eyes section for local indie films. This black-and-white first feature turned the saccharine conventions of the seishun eiga (youth drama) genre on their heads with a stubbornly individual teenage heroine (Ai Ikeda) and an ingeniously plotted story that revolves around not the usual love troubles, but rather a lost wallet.

Most of its competition, however, was disappointingly weak. Tetsuaki Matsue won the section’s Best Picture prize in 2009 with the brilliant “Live Tape,” in which odd-squad singer-songwriter Kenta Maeno busked his way through Kichijoji in one 74-minute take packed with funny observations and touching introspection about his life and foundering career. But Matsue and Maeno’s followup, “Tokyo Drifter,” which screened in this year’s Japanese Eyes, had little in the way of arc or theme, while exposing the limits of Maeno’s modest talents.

From Monday the 24th to Wednesday the 26th, I traipsed about TIFFCOM, the TIFF-affiliated movie and television market held on the 40th floor of the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills, to scout films for an Italian film festival and gather news for an American trade magazine — aims not as contradictory as they may seem.

Of the dozens of Japanese films on offer at sales company booths, few generated genuine buzz among foreign buyers and programmers. One reason: Many had already been presented at previous markets. Another: Most were targeted first at domestic audiences, with outlanders an afterthought.

One exception was Yuya Ishii’s “Hara ga Kore Nande (Mitsuko Delivers),” his followup to “Kawa no Soko kara Konnichi wa (Sawako Decides),” a dramady about a young woman’s trials in running the family clam-packing factory. The new film, whose 24-year-old heroine returns to her childhood neighborhood nine months pregnant to restart her life, is similarly quirky and even more high-energy, engagingly powered by Riisa Naka in the lead role. “Sawako Decides” became a foreign-festival favorite last year and “Mitsuko Delivers” seem likely to repeat that success.

Naka and many of the other talents connected with TIFF films appeared on the opening-day Green Carpet, as well as at prescreening stage greetings and TIFF-orchestrated press conferences. But foreign journos and festival programmers hoping to get close to them at the many evening parties were mostly disappointed.

At the opening-night party at the Roppongi Hills Grand Hyatt, the most glittering of all, we reporters found ourselves relegated to the B-list floor, where we bumped into each other again and again as we scrambled for the canapes while the A-listers partied on the floor above us. No wonder a few of us, like my above-mentioned friend, felt like venting on the last day.

TIFF hits and misses

Loved it

Gourmet cinema fare: Piping-hot rib sandwiches, airy chiffon cake, real gelato.

Chic merchandising: Fashionable full/half tote bags with TIFF logo, charity bracelets.

Asian superstar: At 57, Jackie Chan (star of “1911”) was bursting with youthful vitality.

Religious taboo buster: “When Pigs Have Wings (Le Cochon de Gaza)” by Israel’s Sylvain Estibal.

Greek film “JACE”: Trouble on the Caspian Sea (and not because of the economy!).

Loathed it

Party poopers: PM Yoshihiko Noda and METI’s Yukio Edano on the Green Carpet. Who was minding parliament?

No show: Brad Pitt (star of “Moneyball”) was due to come, but didn’t make it.

Cars, again: TIFF sponsor Toyota had no ideas beyond showing hybrid cars.

Penny pinchers: The babysitting service cost ¥1,000 per half-hour, per kid.

Festie flop: An adaptation of best-selling Keigo Higashino novel “The Wings of the Kirin” — not quite up to festival par. (Kaori Shoiji)