Film

The bold, the bracingly alive and the barely coherent: The Tokyo International Film Festival wraps up for another year

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

For once, the best film won. Though the jury at Tokyo International Film Festival has erred in the past, there could be few complaints about this year’s choices. Mikhael Hers’ “Amanda” was a worthy recipient of the Tokyo Grand Prix: An emotionally devastating portrait of ordinary people coping with a very contemporary tragedy, it left me shaken for days.

The Special Jury Prize winner, Michael Noer’s “Before the Frost,” was the kind of grim morality tale that Rainer Werner Fassbinder might have appreciated. Set in 19th century Denmark, it charted the efforts of an aging cattle farmer to stop his family from slipping deeper into poverty, sacrificing his integrity in the process. It was a familiar story, but brilliantly told, and Jesper Christensen picked up a well-deserved best actor award for his performance.

It was also gratifying to see “The Vice of Hope” scoop prizes for actress Pina Turco and director Edoardo De Angelis. While the film itself was far from perfect, its depiction of prostitutes working in a trash-strewn corner of southern Italy felt bracingly alive.

Like many of the movies in this year’s competition, it wasn’t afraid to make a mess. That was certainly true of Marcelino Islas Hernandez’s “History Lessons,” a magical-realist tale about an aging teacher having a sexual reawakening via her unlikely friendship with the student who got her fired; Gabriela Amaral Almeida’s “The Father’s Shadow,” a sly inversion of horror movie tropes; and Gyorgy Palfi’s “His Master’s Voice,” an overreaching, barely coherent and weirdly engrossing Stanislaw Lem adaptation that practically created its own visual language.

Perhaps the boldest artistic statement came from “The River,” which was directed, produced, written, shot and edited by one person, Emir Baigazin. The story — about a quintet of siblings raised in isolation by their authoritarian father — was oblique as hell, and framed in static shots that often left out as much as they revealed.

Even Ralph Fiennes’ Rudolf Nureyev biopic, “The White Crow,” managed to take a few risks of its own, by casting real-life ballet dancers in the lead roles and doing most of the dialogue in Russian, including the director’s own scenes as Nureyev’s mentor, Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin.

Sometimes, it was tempting to imagine a more fruitful path that a film might have taken. The first hour of Ramin Matin’s “Siren’s Call” was wickedly satirical fun, but it floundered as soon as its hero managed to extract himself from the “concrete dump” of contemporary Istanbul. Junji Sakamoto’s “Another World” was a solidly crafted drama that made the mistake of focusing on its least interesting character.

And I might have enjoyed Veit Helmer’s “The Bra” more if it had convinced me that its premise — an old man inveigling himself into women’s homes in an attempt to reunite the titular undergarment with its rightful owner — was cute rather than creepy.

There were modest pleasures to be derived from some of the other competition entries. “Tel Aviv on Fire” was essentially “Bullets Over Broadway” relocated to the West Bank, and managed to extract some unexpected laughs from the Israel-Palestine situation, past and present. Rikiya Imaizumi’s “Just Only Love” depicted the vague boundaries of 20-something romance with admirable frankness, even if its final act was a bit of a drag.

The only outright stinker this year seemed to be Fruit Chan’s “Three Husbands,” but I couldn’t say for sure — in a stroke of luck, it was the one film I missed.