Film

Is Asian cinema caught in a festival feeding frenzy?

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

On March 5, tickets went on sale for Joe Hisaishi’s concert at a 1,200-seat theater in Udine, Italy — and they were sold out in less than a week. In Japan, where Hisaishi is well known as a composer for his soundtracks to films by Hayao Miyazaki, Takeshi Kitano and many others, this rush for tickets would be expected. But for a town in Italy’s northeast with a population of 100,000 it’s completely out of the ordinary.

Scheduled for April 23, the concert will be a splashy opener for the 17th edition of the Udine Far East Film Festival — and would have been unthinkable when the festival held its first edition in 1999 with a program of Hong Kong films. In those days, Hisaishi in particular and Asian films in general were largely terra incognita to Italy’s film fans and media.

I became a program adviser for the Udine festival from its second edition in 2000, when it was held in a dilapidated theater (since torn down) and invited its first two Japanese guests, director Yojiro Takita and producer Yasuhiro Mase, to present their 1999 film “Himitsu” (“Secret”). Its story of a young woman (Ryoko Hirosue) whose mother’s spirit takes over her body after a fatal traffic accident has its comic moments, such as when the father (Kaoru Kobayashi) nearly jumps out of his skin at his daughter-turned-wife’s proposal of sex, but it concludes with a big emotional climax that had the Udine audience in tears.

A positive review by a visiting British critic inspired French producer/director Luc Besson to remake “Himitsu” in 2007 as a thriller, “Si j’etais toi” (“The Secret”), starring David Duchovny. Mase was grateful, and later helped us acquire another of his productions directed by Takita: the 1998 film “Okuribito” (“Departures”), which Hisaishi provided the score to. Winner of an Oscar for best foreign-language film, “Departures” also topped the Far East Film Festival’s audience poll and was successfully released in Italy by Tucker Film, a distribution company run by the Udine festival’s director, Sabrina Baracetti, and her team.

At the turn of the millennium, Asian films being shown at international festivals were mostly arty dramas made more for the festival circuit than home audiences, and so-called cult films in the horror, sci-fi or fantasy genres. Comedies, melodramas and other genres appealing to mass audiences, which comprised the bulk of production in the region, were largely ignored.

That is no longer true. Japanese directors who used to be considered cult extremists (Takashi Miike) or popular entertainers (Yoji Yamada) are now found on the programs of the “Big Three” European festivals — Cannes, Venice and Berlin — as well as at Toronto, Busan, Hawaii and other international festivals.

Festivals specializing in Asian films are now spread across Europe, including Nippon Connection in Frankfurt; Camera Japan Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands; Helsinki Cine Asia in Helsinki, Finland; and the Japan-Square Film Festival in Ghent, Belgium. Meanwhile, the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Society join forces every June to present Japan Cuts, North America’s largest festival of contemporary Japanese films.

For those running smaller festivals, however, this growth and expansion has its downside: More festivals programming Asian films means more competition for the relatively few “hot” titles — a situation that sales companies have been quick to exploit.

In the early days, we could secure films for the Udine festival — even entries in the popular horror franchises “Ring” or “Juon” (“The Grudge”) — with little more than a phone call. Today negotiations can stretch out for weeks or months as sellers mull their options or haggle over everything from screening fees to the size of a star’s entourage.

Also, since Udine is held just before the Cannes festival in May, we often find that a film we would like to screen has already been submitted to Cannes and is thus off the table. Given that there were nearly 1,800 submissions for the 49 slots in the Official Selection at Cannes last year, the odds are steep to begin with and, for Japanese directors whose surnames aren’t Kitano, Miike, Kawase, Koreeda or Sono, they range from slim to nil.

Despite this, producers submit comedies or romantic dramas made by internationally obscure directors — a reflection of the unrealistic, ego-driven status-seeking that pervades the entire industry.

An international sales agent for a certain major distributor once told me his boss had a rule: Letters from Cannes, Venice or Berlin were to be read, and those from other festivals, round-filed. The only exceptions were those with a large check in the envelope. This attitude has survived the advent of email — and not only at this one company.

Smaller festivals understand that the major film events will always and forever have priority, while trying to make the case for not being round-filed (or today, deleted). But we still believe festivals such as Udine can often offer companies a better launching pad for their films than a market screening — one of hundreds — at Cannes. And sometimes, thankfully, they listen.

The struggles for Udine and other festivals with a Japanese or Asian focus are never-ending. Subsidies and sponsors come and go, and sometimes the burden of keeping everything going becomes too much for the tiny core group or the individual running the show — usually for little or no compensation. Japanese film companies negotiating from a corporate manual and focusing only on the bottom line don’t make this burden any lighter.

But smaller festivals also have more options than they did in the late ’90s. Far more of the films being released in Japan — there were nearly 600 in 2014 — are now subtitled in English and other languages. Also, organizations such as TIFFCOM, which holds a large three-day film market every year in conjunction with the Tokyo International Film Festival, and UniJapan, an industry body that sponsors sales booths at major international markets, have eased the task of meeting companies, seeing films and gathering those all-important screeners (and increasingly, streaming links).

In the end, fortunately, Japanese companies want to show all those subtitled films somewhere. Deals are done, line-ups are filled (if not always ideally) and films are shipped around the globe. In 2013, according to UniJapan, 157 festivals worldwide screened Japanese films, including 85 in Europe. And the guy tossing all those unread letters has long since retired.