Change was afoot at the 34th edition of Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF). After years of rattling around in the increasingly depressing Roppongi Hills complex, the event moved to the Ginza-Hibiya district, where attendees could pop off for a stroll around the grounds of the Imperial Palace between screenings.

This year marked the debut of newly appointed programming director Shozo Ichiyama, co-founder of the more auteur-focused Tokyo Filmex festival. Though he lacks the charisma of his predecessor, Yoshi Yatabe, Ichiyama is an astute curator. His competition selections weren’t always great, but they were certainly never dull.

Earlier this year, the festival signed a gender parity pledge, which aims for greater equality and transparency in the way films are selected. As if to herald the dawn of a new era, the competition jury was headed by one of the grandes dames of arthouse cinema, Isabelle Huppert. Granted, only four of the 15 movies in contention were directed or co-directed by women, but there was a noticeable emphasis on female perspectives.

That was certainly true of the Tokyo Grand Prix winner, Kaltrina Krasniqi’s “Vera Dreams of the Sea,” in which Teuta Ajdini Jegeni plays a middle-aged sign language interpreter who quietly rebels against the submissive role that she’s been allotted. It’s a hushed but brilliantly effective film, which uses the format of a suspense drama to deliver a damning indictment of Kosovo’s patriarchal society.

The Special Jury prize went to another story of assertiveness: Romanian director Teodora Ana Mihai’s “La Civil,” in which a mother turns vigilante after her daughter is kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel. Mikhail Red’s “Arisaka” served up a pulpier brand of female empowerment, with Maja Salvador playing a lone police officer who turns the tables on the assassins of a witness she was supposed to protect.

One director who really shouldn’t have gone home empty-handed was Shin Su-won, who helmed “Hommage,” in which an unsuccessful female director (Lee Jung-eun) delves into the history of an earlier generation of South Korean women filmmakers. It’s a gentle but deeply felt film, which poses some serious questions not only about sexism, but about the legacy of cinema itself.

Darezhan Omirbaev’s “Poet” was another meditation on cultural heritage and obsolescence, centering on an obscure verse-writer in Kazakhstan (played by Yerdos Kanayev). Moving fluidly between past and present, dream and reality, this droll, ascetic film felt like the work of a singular vision, and deservedly earned Omirbaev the best director award.

Other highlights included Alessandro Cassigoli and Casey Kauffman’s “Californie,” which chronicles the growing pains of a Moroccan immigrant girl living in southern Italy over the course of five years. At just 81 minutes, the film’s tempo is a bit breathless, but also engrossing, like Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” spliced with the realism of the Dardenne brothers.

A welcome change this year was the resurrection of the TIFF Times, a daily print bulletin featuring interviews with filmmakers and scorecards for the competition entries. The latter generated something that the festival has often lacked — conversation — and offered a reminder that even the most abstruse offerings can count on a warm reception from certain critics.

Hilal Baydarov’s “Crane Lantern” was one such movie: 100 minutes of characters striking poses in evocative landscapes, while spouting philosophical and mystical abstractions. It was the kind of offering that people who’ve never been to a film festival before probably imagine gets screened there all the time. Apparently the jury was impressed, too: Baydarov walked off with the prize for best artistic contribution, which I fear will only encourage him to make more of this stuff.

It was harder to grumble about the recipient of this year’s Audience Award. Daigo Matsui’s “Just Remembering” is a bittersweet romantic drama told in reverse: sharply written and with charismatic performances by its two leads, Sosuke Ikematsu and Sairi Ito.

The festival’s decision to jettison its Japanese Cinema Splash section — long the weakest part of the program — felt like a sensible move, though it left little space for the kind of low-budget gems that have occasionally popped up in the past. One exception was Takeshi Kogahara’s debut feature, “Nagisa,” a fractured, enigmatic story of trauma and forbidden lust that suggests big things to come from its director.

While Filmex used to take place a few weeks after TIFF, since last year the events have been happening at the same time. Now that they’re based in the same neighborhood, too, it was easy to flit between them, though harder than ever to catch everything you wanted to see.

Attendance at some of the weekday Filmex screenings was noticeably sparse, though that wasn’t a problem on the opening night, when Ryusuke Hamaguchi appeared with the cast of his delightful anthology film, “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.” Hamaguchi’s debut feature, “Passion,” screened in competition at the festival back in 2008, and it felt like a homecoming of sorts for the increasingly in-demand director.

There was also a full house on the final day, for a special screening of “Revolution of Our Times,” Kiwi Chow’s chronicle of the 2019 protests in Hong Kong. Running to 152 minutes, it’s an emotionally draining documentary that doesn’t make any pretence at impartiality, but offers a riveting first-hand account of how a peaceful movement devolved into urban warfare.

The rest of the Filmex lineup didn’t skimp on delights. I managed to miss the grand prize winner, Alexandre Koberidze’s “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?,” but was bowled over by Kavich Neang’s ravishing “White Building” and Panah Panahi’s “Hit the Road,” which struck a deft balance between comedy, heartache and Persian pop singalongs.

Screening outside competition, “Ahed’s Knee,” by Israeli iconoclast Nadav Lapid, was the best thing I saw all week: a stylistically audacious jeremiad that rages against state interference in the arts, while acknowledging the absurdity of its position. It was the kind of movie that starts arguments, which is what festivals should be all about.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.