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Since its start in 1999, Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia (SSFF & Asia) has become the largest festival of its kind in Asia. This year, it is presenting a hybrid edition, with online venues showing films beginning on April 27 and the festival proper held June 11-21 at venues across Tokyo.

In addition to the core competition sections — International (films from outside Japan and Asia), Asia International and Japan — the festival will present shorts of a variety of genres on a range of platforms, including CG animation, nonfiction and smartphone films, as well as sections of shorts themed on Tokyo; made by directors aged 25 and under; and shot in a vertical format (think a standard rectangular cinema screen turned upright).

There will also be 11 special programs grouped according to theme (diversity, sports and kids among them), an online seminar on film soundtracks and other events. Physical screening attendees in Tokyo can also enjoy post-screening talks with filmmakers.

All in all, around 250 films will be screened, with the winners in the main three competitive sections and the nonfiction section eligible for consideration in the short film category at the Academy Awards. Also, one of the three main competition winners will be selected for the festival’s top prize, the George Lucas Award.

The opening ceremony, which took place June 11, and the closing ceremony on June 21 will stream globally. Also, much of the program is available to overseas viewers. And all screenings, both physical and online, are free.

So where to begin? If you think of short films as zero-budget productions made by amateurs and students, SSFF & Asia’s selection will quickly disabuse you. More than a few films feature big names, Hollywood stars included, as directors and actors — which may not always guarantee quality, but does show that shorts serve as more than industry calling cards for newcomers. For one thing, they allow filmmakers more creative freedom than commercial cinema, with its market-imposed restraints on themes and content.

One example is “in-side-out,” a brilliantly unhinged short directed by Mirai Moriyama, an actor and dancer whose starring turn in the two-part boxing drama “Underdog” won him a best actor prize at this year’s Mainichi Film Awards.

Eita Nagayama, another A-list talent, stars as a slacker living alone and too much inside his head. At first, the protagonist does little more than look anxious as his inner voice narrates obsessive observations about his immediate environment in a rapid clip. But then he finds himself switching back and forth between what seem to be two dimensions — one human-made and messy (his room), the other natural and somehow sinister (a forest clearing). The result is a comic meditation on the dangers of self-isolation (a pandemic theme if there ever was one), accompanied by the hero’s agonized writhing, with dance-like precision, as his world descends into chaos. The film is utterly original — and impossible to imagine as anything but a short.

Hikari Mitsushima stars as a sparkly new bride who is more than she seems in 'The Woman Who Acts,' a short directed by Toshiyuki Teruya. | COURTESY OF SHORT SHORTS FILM FESTIVAL & ASIA
Hikari Mitsushima stars as a sparkly new bride who is more than she seems in ‘The Woman Who Acts,’ a short directed by Toshiyuki Teruya. | COURTESY OF SHORT SHORTS FILM FESTIVAL & ASIA

Also unmissable is “The Woman Who Acts,” a short directed by Toshiyuki Teruya, whose stage name as an actor and comedian is Gori. Hikari Mitsushima stars as the sparkly new bride of a frail old man who is besotted with her, while his family looks on with disapproval and dismay. But as the story unfolds, we see that the bride, Yoshiko, is not the superficial gold digger she seems. Set in Okinawa, Teruya and Mitsushima’s home island, the film expresses a magic and heart rooted in the local culture and people, but still exudes a universal appeal.

The opening film for online selections is “Stardust Children” by Eiji Uchida, whose hit LGBTQ drama “Midnight Swan” won best film honors at this year’s Japan Academy Film Prize ceremony, as well as the best actor award for its lead, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi. Based on the song “Kirakira ni Hikaru” by pop group Ikimonogakari, and filmed by Uchida entirely on a smartphone, “Stardust Children” is a sci-fi fantasy about a scarred outcast with a musical gift who wanders into a strange village. The inhabitants hate him on sight, but he is befriended by “stardust children,” youths clothed in white, glowing with purity — and set apart from the others for reasons he doesn’t understand. The denouement is on the predictable side, but the film, with its parable-like simplicity, effectively maximizes its minimal means.

Compelling in a different way is “A Night at the Garden,” Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated documentary about a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden held in February 1939, six months before the start of World War II. Comprised of edited footage shot at the rally and presented without narration, the film chillingly illuminates a forgotten moment in history that could have come from author Philip K. Dick’s dystopian fiction. A scene of uniformed security attacking a Jewish protestor who rushes the stage offers not only a disturbing parallel to Nazi brutality then unfolding in Germany, but also a glimpse into the darker corners of the American psyche.

Korean filmmaker Sungbin Byun’s 'God’s Daughter Dances,' which centers on a transgender dancer who is called in for her draft physical, is a declaration against stereotyping and prejudice. | COURTESY OF SHORT SHORTS FILM FESTIVAL & ASIA
Korean filmmaker Sungbin Byun’s ‘God’s Daughter Dances,’ which centers on a transgender dancer who is called in for her draft physical, is a declaration against stereotyping and prejudice. | COURTESY OF SHORT SHORTS FILM FESTIVAL & ASIA

A more heartening look back is “Portrait Werner Herzog,” Werner Herzog’s 1986 autobiographical documentary. Talking to the camera about his own beginnings and accomplishments, Herzog is already the far-ranging, stubbornly independent filmmaker popularly known today as a quirky cult figure. The film shows his more human side, as he discusses his youthful passions for ski jumping and hiking (he once walked from Munich to Paris to visit critic Lotte Eisner), as well as his frank views on his early films, including the collaborations with actor Klaus Kinski that enhanced his international reputation. And no other Herzog documentary, I imagine, shows its subject joyfully clinking mugs at the Munich Oktoberfest with his mates.

Beyond these festival headliners are many shorts by up-and-coming talents worth watching. One standout is Korean filmmaker Sungbin Byun’s “God’s Daughter Dances,” a short about a transgender dancer who is called in for her draft physical. The film supplies some laughs about the protagonist’s awkward situation, but mostly it is a clarion cry against stereotyping and prejudice, exemplified by the heroine’s defiant, high-energy voguing at the induction center that causes jaws to drop and, just maybe, minds to change.

For more information on the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia program, visit shortshorts.org/index-en.

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