Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia will hold its 2020 edition both online and in-person from Sept. 16 to 27. Organizers have delayed the festival from its usual June starting date, citing concerns over the coronavirus.

Other than that, things seem to be on track for the event, which is the largest of its kind in Asia. This year’s edition will feature more than 200 films screened at venues around Tokyo, while online seminars and talk events with filmmakers have been ongoing since June 4.

The theme of this year’s festival, “(New) Borderless” is fitting: Since its start in 1999 under the leadership of actor Tetsuya Bessho, SSFF & Asia has had a strong international component, as well as a long, close relationship with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which oversees the Academy Awards.

This year, as in years past, winners in the festival’s three main competition sections — International, Japan and Asia International — will be eligible for Oscars in the short film categories.

The 2020 lineup also features some famous names, which may surprise those who think of shorts as a medium for beginners taking their first step on the path to feature-film glory. Instead, SSFF & Asia proves that shorts allow filmmakers at all levels of the status ladder to express themselves in ways not always possible in commercial films.

One is South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or and three Academy Awards for his clash-of-social-classes drama “Parasite.” The festival will screen his four-part 1994 student short “Incoherence,” which is filled with the kind of black humor that became the filmmaker’s trademark.

Another is master of horror Sam Raimi, who directed “The Black Ghiandola” in 2017. Based on an idea submitted to the Make a Film Foundation by Anthony Conti, a teenager diagnosed with Stage IV adrenal cortical cancer, the short film stars Johnny Depp, Laura Dern and David Lynch. It tells the story of a young man (Conti) trying to save the girl he loves from a zombie apocalypse. The bizarre scene of Lynch asking Dern, playing an overwhelmed doctor, the last time she had a home-cooked meal could have been lifted straight from “Twin Peaks.”

Closer to the indie spirit of the shorts format is 2004’s “Two Cars, One Night” by “Jojo Rabbit” director Taika Waititi. Shot in black-and-white and set in Waititi’s native New Zealand, the film follows two Maori children — a boy and girl — who quarrel and bond as they wait in separate cars for their parents to emerge from a small-town pub. The spiky humor and natural performances by the young actors make this a must-watch.

Finally, Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche (“The English Patient”) stars in the CGI 3D animated short “Infraction” as a traffic warden who takes perverse pleasure in writing up tickets. She even nails an elderly gent who fails to push his walker across the street before the light turns red. She gets her comeuppance when her tickets, through the magic of CGI, transform into an ambulatory monster that gives chase to the now terrified cop. Featured in the Very Shorts section, “Infraction” is funny and eye-popping in equal measure.

True to life: Darren Teo’s 'Lian,' which shines a light on the life-or-death predicaments of migrants, will be shown in the Asian International section of SSFF & Asia.
True to life: Darren Teo’s ‘Lian,’ which shines a light on the life-or-death predicaments of migrants, will be shown in the Asian International section of SSFF & Asia.

Interesting films in the SSFF & Asia program also feature newer faces, such as Canadian filmmaker Darren Teo’s “Lian” in the Asian International section. On a docked container ship a girl named Lian (Lim Zhi Yun) goes in search of water for her sick father and younger brother. There is one problem, though: Lian and her family are stowaways. Soon she is spotted, chased and captured. Talking back to her interrogators, Lian channels the sassy, resourceful child protagonists of many a Hollywood movie, but Teo, who shot the film in Singapore, also shines a bright light on the life-or-death predicaments of real-life migrants.

In the nonfiction section at SSFF & Asia, Estonian artist-filmmaker Len Murusalu’s “Inherited Memories” is inspired by the theory, now backed by research, that the traumas of one generation can be transmitted genetically to the next. Her example is the story of her grandfather, who as a young railroad worker narrowly avoided death at the hands of Russian invaders in 1941. As we listen to the tape of an elderly man recounting this story, we see photos, alternatively from the past and present, of locations where it unfolds. Whatever you think of its science, the film illustrates its thesis with haunting power.

On the lighter side is “Docking!,” Shinya Kawakami’s sci-fi comedy about a trio of teenagers — two boys and a girl — who belong to their high school’s Robocon Research Club. As the story begins, they are working frantically, if erratically, to save the Earth of an alien invasion by building a three-part flying robot. (It helps that the girl happens to be one of the aliens, in human guise.) Despite a premise as silly as a “Transformers” installment, the film has a cheeky sense of fun and some impressive visuals when the robot finally soars into the air with the three heroes at the controls.

For more information about Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia, visit www.shortshorts.org/2020/index-en.

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