Tokyo International Film Festival 2017 and the Asahi “Katte ni Grand Prix” Award

02TOFF2017

As with YIDFF 2017, this was my first Tokyo International Film Festival in eight years. I have never been that much of a fan of the TIFF, and often criticized it back when I was writing for the Daily Yomiuri (even my report in 2009 was largely critical). The TIFF was too close to the industry to have a truly independent selection, was becoming more of a contents market, and has largely abandoned its Japanese retro section, even though that should be a major role of supposedly the largest film event in Japan. Its insistence on being in the same category as Cannes and Venice means its competition will only show world premieres, even though most of the major films have been taken by more famous festivals. Still, its Asian section is well done (programmed by Ishizaka Kenji, who was on the Nihon eiga wa ikite iru editorial board with me), and the Japan Splash sidebar can occasionally introduce a good, unknown new Japanese film.

The TIFF 2017, which was its 30th edition, ended up being an opportunity to see the festival in a new light. It didn’t start off well when the festival rejected my press application, even though I applied on the same conditions as the last time (the TIFF does not accredit film academics, like the YIDFF or FILMeX do). But at the last minute, Ishitobi Noriki of the Asahi Shinbun contacted me about participating in their ratings panel. The “hoshitorihyo" is something they started last year: a panel of five experts watches all the films in the TIFF Competition, rates them, and writes short reviews, which appear on the online version of the Asahi (you can see them here; click on the film to see the reviews). The new results are uploaded every day during the festival. This year the panel was Hata Sahoko (a film critic and the person who bought Godard’s Breathless for Japan—and thought up its great Japanese title: Katte ni shiyagare), Sugino Kiki (a film director and actress), Koga Futoshi (a film programmer and professor at Nihon University), Ishitobi, and myself. 

It was not easy doing this, but it was quite interesting. We had to see all fifteen Competition films, and while some were shown in preview screenings before the festival, most had to be seen during the festival run. Given that I also wanted to catch a few Japanese films, I also had a few long days where I didn’t get back home until midnight—but even then sometimes still had to write two reviews by the next morning. I’ve written a lot of articles in Japanese, but in addition to have gotten a bit rusty in writing Japanese, I had a hard time mastering the art of stuffing all you want to say into a very short review. I struggled—and so did my wife, who had to check my Japanese. But it was a great chance to see a wide variety of films in a short time. I don’t always have time to see a lot of non-Japanese or non-East Asian films, so this was an interesting opportunity. I found out that the Competition at the TIFF was not as bad as I thought it was (or as it once was). Given that the best and more prominent films go to Cannes, Venice, or Berlin, TIFF gets what could be called the left-overs, but that means quite a number of good films by newer directors or directors from lesser-known countries can appear at the TIFF that have been overlooked by major venues. It was also a pleasure watching all these films with my four colleagues, who made up a fascinating group with quite different opinions (we were quite divided on a number of films). When we had dinner together halfway through the festival, the congenial debates over the films continued for several hours.

We enjoyed what we were doing enough that we decided to give out some awards. Heck, if we’re watching all the films, and take pride in our knowledge of cinema, then why not honor the films we liked? Perhaps we can celebrate a few films the official jury missed. So we got together after the last screenings to decide the “Katte ni Grand Prix” (“Katte ni” refers not only to the fact we did this “on our own”—which is what “katte ni” means—but also to Hata-san’s fame in naming Breathless). We decided to focus our discussion on the two films we gave the highest average ratings to: Zhanna Issabayeva’s Sveta (Kazakhstan) and Dong Yue’s The Looming Storm (China). The former overturns the convention of rendering the physically handicapped (here deaf mutes) as “good victims,” by focusing on a heroine who will do almost anything to protect her home and family. It’s a very compelling but also difficult film to watch, as the merciless long takes bind us to this morally problematic woman. The latter adopts noir stylistics to narrate a mystery surrounding a series of past murders of young women (shades of Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder), but here our “detective” is less than perfect—with tragic results. It was a powerful first film, though I had questions about the ending (as I did with Sveta’s conclusion). After some considered deliberations, we decided to give our prize to The Looming Storm. We didn’t want to ignore Sveta, so we gave it an acting award, particularly considering the performance of Laura Koroleva in the eponymous lead. (We decided not to give actor/actress awards, but just honor acting.) Not to forget other performances, we gave another acting award to Teemu Nikki’s Euthanizer (Finland), especially for the performance of Matti Onnismaa. That was a genre film that I liked, which threatened to become a horror film (about a pet euthanizer), but ended up being a powerful moral tale. You can read an Asahi article about our deliberations here

Our awards ended up being quite different from those of the official jury, at least in the major awards. The top prize there went to Semih Kaplanoğlu’s Grain (Turkey), which our panel was divided on, but which I gave only one star to as pretentious, vacuous, and propagandistic, and a cheap copy of Tarkovsky to boot. The Special Jury Prize went to Silvia Luzi and Luca Bellino’s Crater, which I found to be an ultimately confused attempt to carry on Italian Neorealism. Best director went to Edmund Yeo for his Aqérat (We, The Dead) (Malaysia), a film that to me was artistically one of the most ambitious films of the Competition, but ultimately didn’t pull itself together. The Looming Storm and Euthanizer did win some lesser awards, but Sveta won nothing. The only Japanese film to earn an award was Tremble All You Want (Katte ni furuetero, dir. Ooku Akiko), which received the Audience Award. I will talk about it and the other Japanese films I saw at TIFF in my next post.

So while I wasn’t technically on a film festival jury, I ended up doing essentially the same thing. Or perhaps more, since most juries don’t have to publish reviews of every film they see!

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