TOKYO FILMeX 2017 and the Independent Cinema Guild

スクリーンショット 2017-12-30 午前10.35.55

Fall is the main film festival season in Japan (see my reports on this year's YIDFF and TIFF editions here, here, and here), but not all festivals are the same. Yamagata, of course, focuses on documentary (though the definition of documentary is flexible enough to allow for a wide variety of films), and the Tokyo Film Festival aims at being the Japanese edition of Cannes.

TIFF doesn’t succeed at that, which is why festivals such as Tokyo Filmex have stepped in to fill some of the gaps. Filmex is much smaller in comparison to TIFF, but it purposely avoids the big commercial films that TIFF is happy to show, concentrating instead on mostly independent films. Asia is largely the focus, and only a choice few Japanese films get shown. One exception has been the retrospective section. If the Tokyo Film Festival has largely abandoned the role a major festival has in celebrating the history of cinema, by eliminating or stripping down its retrospective sidebar, Filmex took it over and did wonderful series on lesser known masters such as Uchida Tomu, Okamoto Kihachi, and Kawashima Yuzo (I penned a piece on Kawashima for their catalog). In recent years, it has even started Tokyo Talents, which aims to help young Asian filmmakers develop their projects; the International Critics Forum, a workshop for budding film critics; as well as seminars in translation and other aspects of film. 

This was the first Filmex for me in eight years. I was disappointed there was no Japanese film retrospective this year, but it was still a pleasure to attend. I ended up only seeing a few films, but did manage to catch a couple of the related symposia.

In terms of films, I only saw three. The first was The Night I Swam, a Japan-France co-production directed by Igarashi Kōhei and Damien Manviel. It is the kind of film Filmex is meant to show: essentially a 79-minute film with no narrative other than a boy setting out in the snow to show his father a drawing he made, it has no dialogue to speak of. It is a precious film—and won an award—but I couldn’t get over its fundamental contradiction: while its camera work and use of nonprofessional actors aim for realism, the lack of dialogue just ends up seeming contrived. Filmex also showed the theatrical edit of Sono Shion’s Tokyo Vampire Hotel, a miniseries made for Amazon (Sono said it’s unclear when this version will ever hit the theaters). I frankly have a love/hate relationship with Sono, some of whose films I find excellent, and others hard to bear. This was closer to the latter. Although one could discern here a critique of violence that is based in ideology and ignores love, the film revels so much in blood it can only seem a contradiction. It left me tired in the end. As the closing film, Filmex showed Abbas Kiarostami’s last work, 24 Frames, a film very much about cinema and perception. If it involves animating still photos Kiarostami took, many of the “frames” feature windows and apertures (another meaning of frame) as well as contrasts of motion and stillness, and thus of life and death. It is a test of perception and of the viewer, who takes these short episodes, most involving animals, and attempts to construct slim narratives or discern patterns or meanings. It is thus a fundamental exploration of moving pictures, one powerfully culminating in “The End,” which marks perhaps the death of cinema and of Kiarostami.

Arguably just as interesting at Filmex were the two accompanying symposia I attended. One was a sort of pre-event (taking place the afternoon before the opening film at Filmex) and was co-sponsored with the Independent Cinema Guild (Dokuritsu Eiga Nabe), an organization of indie filmmakers formed in 2012 that has aimed to organize methods of independent production funding, set up workshops and symposia, and serve as an information clearinghouse. I attended the party they held when they first formed, but had since maintained some distance. So I was interested in what they had been doing. The event was titled “What Are Independent Films?” and was hosted by the two heads of the ICG: Tsuchiya Yutaka (the filmmaker I once interviewed for Documentary Box), and Fukada Kōji (the director of such films as Harmonium and Sayonara). Divided into three panels, the symposium featured several Japanese indie directors—Uchida Nobuteru, Niwatsukino Norihiro, and Igarashi Kōhei (of the above The Night I Swam)—as well as the producer/programmer Ellen Kim and Filmex’s Ichiyama Shōzō. Much of the discussion centered around interesting personal experiences in producing indie films in Japan, but I was most interested in what answers there would be for the titular question. Uchida defined independent films as “jishu eiga,” or films that are largely self-funded; Niwatsukino also defined it in terms of forms of funding, but focused on issues of size and of art versus commodity; Igarashi then defined it in terms of “film that cannot be separated from one’s actual life.” Igarashi admitted this might define it through a theory of sprit (“seishinron”), but the statement caught on and dominated the final discussion. I could understand the attraction of defining a mode, style, or even philosophy of filmmaking through that, but I did not think it worked as a definition of “independent film.” “Independent” means to not be dependent upon something, and even the Japanese “dokuritsu” means standing apart from someone. In other words, “independent” implies an other from which one becomes independent—and a reason for becoming independent—and cannot be defined simply though self-reference. Previous independent cinema in Japan was well aware of that. While there was much discussion about the lack of government support and envy expressed towards the situation in Korea (explained by Ellen Kim)—and while previous workshops might have broached the question—there was insufficient pursuit here of what might be called the politics of independent film. Still, it was a thought-provoking session and I look forward to following the activities of the Independent Cinema Guild.

The next day there was the International Critics Forum, which featured a talk by Jean-Michel Frodon and a panel discussion featuring Frodon and the film critics Clarence Tsui, Chris Fujiwara, and Saito Atsuko. Frodon was surprisingly optimistic about the current state of film criticism, especially in France. He focused on defining film criticism by what it is not: 1) it is not advertisement (even if one wants to support a film or filmmaker); 2) it is not a consumer guide (ratings, he argued, stop us from reading); 3) it is not journalism (films are not to be supported because of their social issues); and 4) it is not academic study (because academics kill the film in order to dissect it). Film criticism, he concluded, treats films as art, which by definition regards them to be open, not closed objects; criticism itself must maintain that mystery. While this might seem to confine criticism to the rarified field of art cinema and high-class journals, Frodon stressed this criticism makes no distinction between high and low cinema, and he ended by brightly declaring that real criticism is flourishing on the internet. His fellow panels were more skeptical about the state of film criticism. Tsui and Fujiwara questioned him on the division between criticism and journalism, implying that relating films to their times is an important role for critics, especially in critiquing cinema in China, for instance, or a worldwide shift towards a cinema of false sensation. Saito pointed to the elephant in the room and explained how film criticism is dying in Japan as a paying profession. This was the issue the concerned the mostly Japanese audience most, but it is hard to say any of the panelists had a solution to this pressing problem. As an academic who has written a lot of film criticism, I could sympathize with Frodon’s definition of criticism, which aligns well with a kind of “cinema of discovery” my colleague (and teacher) Dudley Andrew forwarded in What Cinema Is. But as I told Frodon afterwards, there are other definitions of what art or cinema art are, each of which may necessitate different forms of criticism. To me, the survival of criticism in part depends on its ability to adapt to and politically strategize these different definitions. As I wrote in my history of film criticism in Japan, it is in part such myopia that has possibly led Japanese film criticism into a dead end.

While Tokyo Filmex is small in comparison to the Tokyo Film Festival, it can still be big in the issues and ideas it broaches.

You can view the ICG symposium in two parts on the ICG YouTube channel:

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