The Tokyo International Film Festival has always struggled to distinguish itself from other big film events. It doesn’t have the cultural cachet of Venice, Cannes or Toronto, and even within Asia it falls behind Busan and Hong Kong in terms of the caliber of works it sometimes attracts. But it always manages to bring major stars, if only because Tokyo is a world capital deserving of attention.
The 30th edition, however, was distinguished by something it’s always strived for — namely, social relevance. For years, the usual red carpet has been supplanted by a “green carpet” that highlighted an environmental position. This year that approach was extended to the program itself. Films in both the Competition and the various Asia-related sections highlighted potent social issues, which the festival also recognized with its awards.
The closing ceremony seemed to point to something else in the beginning. Mirroring the opening ceremony’s focus on four young Japanese actresses — the festival’s “muses” — the closer introduced the new Tokyo Gemstone Award for another four young actresses — two Japanese, one Malaysian, one French — for accomplishments that weren’t clearly specified, though the two honorees who happened to be in the Ex Theater Roppongi where the ceremony took place were definitely photogenic.
The winning Japanese films were presented early on. Hikaru Toda accepted the Japanese Cinema Splash Best Picture Award for her movie “Of Love and Law,” a documentary about two Japanese men who are lovers and run their own law firm. This spirit of enlightenment applied also to Akio Fujimoto’s “Passage of Life,” a narrative film about a family of Myanmarese refugees living in Tokyo, which won both the Spirit of Asia Award and the Best Asian Future Film Award. Fujimoto openly wept and said he accepted the second award for the family he depicted, who stood beside him on the stage.
Akiko Ooku won the Audience Award for her romantic comedy “Tremble All You Want,” which screened in the Competition section.
The screenplay prize went to “Euthanizer,” a typically wry Finnish movie about the mercy killing of pets that nevertheless had a social component built in. The film’s producer, Jani Poso, accepted the award for the absent writer-director, Teemu Nikki, lamenting the fact that the two usually collaborated on scripts, “but this time he wrote it alone and, of course, this time we win.”
From there things got really emotional. China’s Dong Yue accepted the award for Best Artistic Contribution — essentially third prize in the Competition — for his tense noir “The Looming Storm,” and then his lead, Duan Yihong, a big star on the mainland, secured the best actor award and proceeded to break down on stage. “I feel like I’m dreaming,” he said, wiping away tears. “I mean, the character I played was dreaming, too, but he was also covered in blood.”
However, the prize for most moving acceptance speech went to Edmund Yeo, who won the best director prize for “Aqerat,” a film about the trafficking of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. Yeo didn’t mention that he studied in Tokyo, but did say he found it resonant that he was being honored “in a city that feels like home to me” and admitted that while he “doesn’t have the answers” to the questions posed by his movie, “I think it helps point the way to a measure of peace.”
The second place Jury Prize went to Italy’s “Crater” — a movie, like “Passage of Life,” about an impoverished family playing itself. But the social component of this year’s TIFF was confirmed by the Grand Prize winner, “Grain,” a futuristic Turkish film that attempts to address all the problems of our modern existence through the issue of food security. Jury President Tommy Lee Jones said his team’s decision was unanimous, adding that they were “impressed by this movie’s idea of a common understanding among all people through a shared mythic experience.”
Jones’ main task for the event was to introduce the special guest, who, as it happened, was once his college roommate. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore was on hand to present his latest climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” as the closing film of the festival.
“We’ve only been friends for 53 years,” Jones said. “Like me he’s a filmmaker, and like all filmmakers he’s made a sequel.”
Gore shared the stage with Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who boosted Tokyo as an environmentally friendly city, stressing that it will have a “cap and trade” system in order to make the 2020 Olympics a “carbon-free event.” Gore approved.
After everyone finished taking pictures, the jury held its post-ceremony news conference, where everyone admired one another in an atmosphere of fraternal goodwill, released from the pressure of deciding winners. Jones said he was happy to make new friends, though admitted that he probably would never see these people again, “except at another film festival.”
Jury member and actor Masatoshi Nagase elaborated on this idea. “I’m the only one on the jury who’s not a director,” he said. “So I hope you all think of hiring me for a future project.”