Festival Roundup: From Busan to Tokyo

The Busan International Film Festival, which took place at the beginning of October, finally solved the problems caused by the Busan City politicians’ involvement in the festival’s programming policies. BIFF was hit hard by the passing away of head of programming Kim Jiseok at the Cannes Film Festival. Festival founder Kim Dong-ho has now officially resigned and Lee Yong-kwan and Jay Jeon have finally been reinstated as, respectively, executive director and festival director after their politics-infused hiatus. Filmmaker organizations raised their boycott on the festival, and everything was back to business as usual.

BIFF continued to concentrate on screening current Asian cinema, which makes the festival a good place to see what is going on. With regards to Korean cinema, the annual retrospective of a classic Korean filmmaker celebrated the 1980s realist pioneer Lee Chang-ho. As ever, the festival also offered a wide selection of contemporary Korean cinema in two “Korean Cinema Today” programs – Panorama and Vision. Panorama included mainstream and genre cinema, including Lee Hae-young’s Believer, a remake of Johnnie’s To’s Drug War (2013). The film is well made and exciting, not to mention extremely violent. Lee Chang-dong’s Cannes premiered Burning, an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story was well received, although it does not reach the heights of Peppermint Candy (1999) or Oasis (2002). The Spy Gone North by Yoon Jong-bin had some new ideas about the North-South divide. It finds a spy tasked with infiltrating a North Korean nuclear development site, and on his way to get there, giving up all his previous life.

Vision program tends to have more independent and/or young director focus. A common theme of several films was the difficulty of youth in contemporary Korean society. For example, in Sub-Zero Wind by Kim Yuri, a 12-year old girl of divorced parents moves from living with her mother to her father. Body seems to be a constant theme in today’s Koran cinema by female filmmakers, as well as in the works of Korean female novelists, notably The Vegetarian by Kang Han. One example of a similar theme in film was Our Body by Han Ka-ram, in which a 30-year old woman halfway through the civil service exam changes her mind and, inspired by a beautiful runner in the park, takes up running.

The recipient of this year’s Korean Cinema Award was Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinemas, whose representatives Martine and Jean-Marc Thérouanne received the honor during the opening ceremony for a decades-long screening of Korean cinema and Vesoul. Asian Filmmkaer of the Year award went to Ryuichi Sakamoto.

The festival, currently the most important gathering place for professionals involved in Asian cinema, has numerous get-togethers and parties for mingling. The only nuisance is caused by two central theater venues, CGV and Lotte Cinema, which are both housed on the top floors of two department stores. This means that getting to the theater from street level might take a good 10 minutes with the department store customers dropping off at all levels from 2 to 8. It makes one wonder why the huge DDR architecture inspired space at the Cinema Center is not used to house more screens for festival needs. Although the festival runs smoothly, the festival staff is as non-responsive (in English) to emails prior to the festival as always.

Tokyo International Film Festival boasts of being the only A-list festival in Asia, meaning it has an official FIAPF-accredited international competition. The competition has always been vary unbalanced, as has been the whole programming of the festival, with too many interested parties trying to get their share of the red carpet glitter. This entails that most years a very mediocre, sometimes even a very bad, Toho-produced film gets the closing film position. Opening film is always reserved for an international premiere, which this year suitably was A Star Is Born – but with no director/male lead Bradley Cooper or female lead Lady Gaga anywhere in sight. This must have been the first time when an A-list film festival did not have any filmmaker guests for the opening gala screening.

The main competition came under discussion at the end of the festival. Jury head Brillante Ma Mendoza told to the Japanese press after the official award press event that the festival programmers had told him that the program has to be at the same time of high artistic level but with potential for theatrical distribution and wider commercial appeal. “How is this possible?”, wondered Mendoza. The whole Mendoza affair ended up taking half of the discussion at a later festival, Tokyo FilmEx, where the film critic panel discussed the programming policies of TIFF.

TIFF’s Japanese Splash program has, for a number of years, been devoted to younger filmmakers and new kinds of filmmaking. This year the program was somewhat bland, with a few exceptions. The Gun by Take Masaharu, with its minimalist black-and-white photography and film noir aesthetics is not so far away from such ‘B’-movie classics as Detour (1945). Another interesting film was Nojiri Katsumi’s Lying to Mom, with the premise of a hikikomori son committing suicide, followed by a suicide attempt by mother, and her waking up in hospital with no memory of what happened. The family builds up a web of lies to cover the son’s death from mom. Shintaro Hihara criticizes education politics in I’m Not Here in which a film school teacher is forced to cut all the fun and inventive parts out of his course due to funding cuts. Melancholic by Tanaka Seiji has the premise of a bathhouse cleaner realizing that the establishment is used for executions by the local mob. The biggest disappointment was 20th Century Girl, a compilation film by young female filmmakers, of which only a couple of shorts were somewhat interesting.

Tokyo has cut out its former Kabuki-za program of combining a restored classic with a live kabuki performance, as well as some other events. Weirdly for an Asian festival, TIFF’s Asian Winds section does not screen that many remarkable Asian films. The anime director focus concentrated this year on Masaaki Yuusa’s mind-bending anime aesthetics. Now that the festival has introduced most auteur status anime directors, one wonders what is going to happen next year. Perhaps a focus on female anime director such as Mari Okada would be a good choice during these times? For anime, the festival very rightly remembered the late Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata with the screening and discussion of his Toei Doga period feature The Little Norse Prince (1968) and beautiful final feature Princess Kaguya. Actor in Focus program’s star was Koji Yakusho with screenings of his films from the intense psychological thriller Cure (1997) to this year’s The Blood of Wolves.

Tokyo FilmEx took home the honor of featuring the best competition program of this fall’s three festivals. The competition was filled with excellent Asiana and Middle-Eastern from Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Grand Prix winner Ayka to Yeo Siew Hua’s immigrant film noir A Land Imagined to Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still. It was absolutely the strongest competition program in FilmEx’s 19-year history. Programming was rounded out with some interesting premieres, such as Toshiyuki Toyoda’s artist/nature documentary Planetist, which was shot on the magnificent Ogasawara Islands. The jury gave special mention to Nanako Hirose for her film His Lost Name, an interesting exploration of the friendship or father/son relationship between an old man who picks up a younger man who has lost his memory. “With this award for a female director we want to look for the bright future of Japanese cinema,” was the statement of jury, borrowing from FilmEx’s motto, “for the bright future of cinema”. The jury was, without a doubt, consciously giving a statement about the still insufficient support for female filmmakers in Japan.

FilmEx, like Busan, has had its share of turmoil lately. Due to Takeshi Kitano quitting his talent agency Office Kitano, which has been backing FilmEx from its start, the festival was under great threat. The savior was Kinoshita Group. Festival director Kanako Hayashi resigned and former artistic director Shozo Ichiyama is now the festival director and in charge of programming as well. One wonders if the strength of the program is due to it being now in the hands of one person. Many were waiting some structural changes to the festival, which as one film distributor put it, feels somewhat outdated. One wonders why the festival does not have any networking events or a common hanging out place for accredited industry professionals. Perhaps with the hassle of pulling this year’s festival together at all, FilmEx relied on doing everything the way it had been done during the past 18 years, but with the changes in the festival administration, one might hope for some fresh ideas in the near future.