Art Editor’s Note: The Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) was established in 1985. It’s been running biannually from 1985 to 1991 and became an annual event after that. It remains one of Asia’s most well known and competitive film festivals. Held over a few weeks in the Roppongi Hills area of Tokyo, the festival screens new films with appearances by actors as well as seminars and symposiums. The Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix is their top award given out to the best film of the festival. Misa Shikuma is from Seattle and was in Tokyo to cover the festival for us.
Alan Chong Lau, IE Arts Editor
Less coming of age or coming out story as it is a stark portrait of isolation in the cold and indifferent metropolis of Tokyo, Takashi Nishihara’s microbudget Starting Over follows nineteen year-old Nana (Mika Akizuki) in her struggle to survive in a society that has stacked the odds against her. Precariously balancing the care of her fragile single mother with a call-girl agency job that pays well but leaves her emotionally bankrupt, Nana’s sole comfort is her best friend and first love Marin (Nina Endo). But the joy of realizing that the borders of their feelings for one another transcend friendship is fleeting—one night after Nana falls asleep, Marin reads online that, in their native Japan, gay marriage and domestic partnership remain unrecognized by the law. Can they stay together in a world that treats their love as illegitimate? Director Nishihara and cinematographer Daisuke Yamamoto create an intimate and arresting narrative bolstered by Akizuki and Endo’s strong performances, but the slow and at times aimless pacing may disappoint some viewers looking for answers.
Garm Wars: The Last Druid
From director Mamoru Oshii, the man behind Ghost in the Shell and countless other landmark anime works, comes the disappointing sci-fi epic Garm Wars: The Last Druid. Enticing at first with its sleek CG battle sequences, an exhaustive voiceover narrative (god creates eight tribes; god disappears; tribes fight until three remain) gives way to underwhelming live action scenes so tragically drenched in sepia tone that much of the film appears more low-budget than a Hyperlapse video. (According to the film festival website, this method is known as “hybrid animation.”) But visuals aside, Garm Wars is a collection of mismatched parts; an operatic score that would be better suited to an RPG; a bassett hound that the humanoid characters revere as some sort of demi-god; dialogue so poorly written the actors seem to be falling asleep as they utter their lines. Oshii attempts to make a character-driven story by following a trio of individuals from different tribes, but the lack of depth makes it difficult to view the film as an unintentional parody of itself.
Big Hero 6
Loosely inspired by an obscure series of Marvel comics, Disney’s Big Hero 6 weaves together a compelling futuristic adventure comedy with surprising deftness. Set in the cosmopolitan mash-up San Fransokyo, it follows fourteen-year-old high school graduate Hiro (Ryan Potter) who, initially, squanders his smarts building robots and entering them in illegal fights. When his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney), a student in the prestigious robotics program at the local university, dies in a suspicious accident, Hiro must overcome his grief in order to uncover the truth. Teaming up with Tadashi’s classmates and robotics project, a healthcare robot named Baymax, the titular six heroes come together. With the Bay Area-influenced setting, replete with Edwardian townhouses and cable cars, and technology theme, it’s hard not to read into the story as part Silicon Valley parable. Hiro begins as an arrogant know-it-all whose intelligence has, thus far, been entirely self-serving, while the robotics students represent a more mature outlook, looking for ways that their work can benefit others. Details like these add more depth than typical films of this genre and provide a rich experience for viewers of all ages.
The Last Reel
Female director Kulikar Sotho’s debut features the vibrant story of an unlikely first-time director, the rebellious Sophoun (Ma Rynet), who flees her unstable home in Pnom Penh and impending arranged marriage, and takes refuge in a decrepit movie theater where she stumbles upon a lost film from the pre-Khmer Rouge era. Spurred by the knowledge that the lead actress is her mother—glamorous back then but in fragile health now, Sophoun sets about trying to recreate the film’s final reel. However, reopening the past has unknown consequences, as it forces her mother, father, and cinema owner to confront the secrets that they’ve kept since the war. For Sotho, who was born in 1973 and lived through the Khmer Rouge’s rise and fall, The Last Reel is a highly personal story. So although melodramatic and predictable at times (young girl goes out on the town in skimpy clothes and falls for a bad boy who, despite waving a gun around at inopportune moments, is actually quite caring), the intertextuality of the film elevates it to something enjoyable and thought-provoking in the way that it addresses the relationship between subjectivity and history, and how society struggles to deal with the ghosts of its past.
The Days Come
The Days Come, a quirky blend of documentary footage, fiction and mid-life crisis, is a fitting way to introduce Romain Goupil (reknowned filmmaker, vocal political activist, and child of ’68 in his native France) to new audiences. The film begins with Goupil (playing a fictionalized version of himself) in a creative rut while dealing with the wrinkles of everyday lifesorting out his unemployment benefits, rescuing the tenants’ administration of the building he and his family reside in from imploding, etc. Interspersed with contemporary scenes is footage (implied to have been taken by Goupil) from Sarajevo during a period of civil unrest, suggesting an internal struggle to reconcile his activist past with his middle-aged present. There is a certain level of voyeuristic pleasure in watching someone else’s life begin to unravel, as Goupil’s appears to do towards the end of the film in reaction to an increasing awareness of his own mortality. How does one stay relevant when the march of time and the progress of history don’t pause to acknowledge you? Making a movie is certainly one way to do it.
Not to be confused with the 1971 classic starring Gene Hackman, director Cedric Jimenez’s The Connection essentially tells the European side of events of the infamous drug operation, through which morphine base from Turkey was processed into dangerously pure heroin in France and smuggled to New York City, causing widespread corruption on both sides of the Atlantic in the ’60s and ’70s. Academy Award-winner Jean Dujardin leads a strong cast as Pierre Michel, a magistrate stationed in Marseille, determined to cut off the supply chain but unaware of just how many men in his office are dirty cops. A stylish film shot in true disco glory (the hair! the suits! the soundtrack!), The Connection looks and acts like a taut action thriller but, in the end, has little to say. Dujardin and Gilles Lellouche, who stars opposite him as the mob boss, are powerful forces on screen, but as the film continues it relies less on the actors themselves to deliver than on decisions made in the editing room.
Oscar Ruiz Navia’s Los Hongos is like a love letter to his hometown, Santiago de Cali, whose barrios buzz with optimism for an upcoming election and a desire to express unity with the rest of the world. Following two friends from very different backgrounds, Ras (Jovan Alexis Marquinez), who shares a tiny studio with his single mother, and Calvin (Calvin Buenaventura Tascón), the son of a once prominent singer, the film provides a snapshot of present-day Colombia, exploring issues of religion, love, art and class through the eyes of the young protagonists. Inspired by a Youtube video from the Arab Spring, showing Muslim women broadcasting their refusal to stay silent, Ras and Calvin decide to join up with other artists for an ambitious street art project set to take over a vast wall near a busy thoroughfare. The authorities, however, are less than understanding of the cause. In its exploration of the underground art scene, Los Hongos raises a lot of questions but does so without cynicism or an agenda, conveying a vivid movement in Cali’s youth culture without dipping into poverty porn territory.
What do a fussy producer, a hypochondriac cooking show host, a camera operator with directorial aspirations and a hog that swallowed a video tape have in common? Do they occupy the same dream? The same reality? Director Quentin Dupieux, also known as electronic musician Mr. Oizo, spins a delightfully twisted and quirky tale of the pursuit of one’s dreams in Hollywood, where nothing is ever as it seems. After pitching a movie idea, Jason (Alain Chabat) is given 48 hours to find the perfect scream which, according to producer Bob Marshal (Jonathan Lambert), will be the key to the film. With the prospect of his life’s ambition so close to being fulfilled, Jason becomes consumed by anxiety and paranoia over what initially seemed like an easy task. Constantly riffing on cliches and stereotypes regarding the film industry, Reality never ceases to find humor in each situation. Dealing with dreams in the existential sense, not the sci-fi iteration featured in Inception, Dupieux’s film strongly echoes the work of surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Reality merits multiple viewings that, even so, may never fully make sense of the tangled plot lines.
Heaven Knows What
Based on the as-yet unpublished memoirs of lead actress Arielle Holmes, who plays a fictionalized version of herself, Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What dives headlong into the world of New York City’s homeless and heroin addicts with a veracity rarely seen on film. Rather than show the exalted state of being high or condemn the temptations of substance abuse, the film is an intimate and powerful portrait of the cyclical nature of a lifestyle that most of society tries to overlook. Chronicling a period of Harley’s (Holmes) life that includes a suicide attempt, a tumultuous relationship with on and off again boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) and the day-to-day struggle of hustling enough money to pay for the next high, Heaven Knows What is honest, dark and unrelenting. Although there are many flaws that could make Harley seem unsympathetic; her short fuse and parasitic relationship to the men in her life, Holmes’ performance is deeply compelling. Incorporating the actress’ real-life acquaintances (she was still living on the streets and a functioning addict during the shoot) into the film, the Safdie brothers generate a dyamic energy that keeps the film going at a fast pace despite the grim subject matter.
Kiki Sugino’s directorial debut Kyoto Elegy, based on the popular novel Manganiku to boku by Shiki Asaka, chronicles eight years in the life of timid Watabe (Takahiro Miura) and the women who shape his life. As a university student, Watabe meets Kumahori (Sugino), an unpopular and unpleasant girl who camps out at his studio for an extended period of time because he’s too nonconfrontational to kick her out. She begins to develop feelings for him, but Watabe is infatuated with his cute co-worker Nako (Chisun), who as time passes becomes increasingly clingy and demanding. Kumahori later vanishes without a trace, but Watabe is too preoccupied with the explosive end to his relationship with Nako. Watabe later learns more about Kumahori’s past, and wonders whether they will ever reconnect. A generous reading of the film might laud the strong female characters in Watabe’s life, but instead it’s frustration towards the male protagonist that becomes dominant. Ever dopey and passive, Watabe manages to skate by in life by being good-looking enough to attract women that are, for some inexplicable reason, willing to do things for him. Yet the women are portrayed in a superficial manner; Watabe is unattracted to Kumahori at university when she is overweight, but later when she’s slim he makes a pass at her. In terms of representation, one would expect more depth from a female director.
The Golden Era
The Golden Era, from director Ann Hui, is an ambitious three-hour epic covering the tragic life of author Xiao Hong (Tang Wei), a key figure in modern Chinese literature. Born in 1911, she lived through some of China’s most tumultuous years, mostly in poverty, until succumbing to tuberculosis at age 31. Melding historical drama with documentary-like reenactment, Hui essentially gives a blow-by-blow account of all of the known events in the author’s life. The individuals who helped shape the author’s life are introduced on-screen like reality show characters, with subtitles providing their name and profession, breaking the fourth wall and giving their insight straight to the camera. While the subtitles are helpful because there are so many characters to keep track of, these little confessional segments are disruptive to the overarching narrative. But, questionable stylistic choices aside, The Golden Era is quite beautiful as a period piece. Wei and the rest of the cast give solid performances, but after watching the film it feels like the story would have worked better in a different form—either focusing on one aspect of the author’s life, say her complicated relationship with husband Xiao Jun (Feng Shaofeng), or drawn out as a miniseries with multiple segments. As is, it’s difficult to digest.