This year’s edition of FILMeX largely followed the proven format: the competition and special screenings program to showcase new Asian films; and several retrospective programs dedicated to exposing lesser-known directors from the history of Japanese and world cinema. Comprised of ten films, the main competition focuses on exemplary works by new Asian directors. These range from modest low-budget films shot on HD, to polished commercial productions that offer unusual takes on established genres. The special screenings program includes an additional ten films by more established directors. For 2011, the festival also mounted a significant retrospective of director Shinji Somai, and a minor cycle of films by Yuzo Kawashima.
This year, Tibetan director Pema Tseden’s Old Dog took the jury’s grand prize. The film’s story begins with the seemingly simple sale of a family dog in Tibet, as the faithful old mastiff has suddenly become a prize commodity for urban Chinese in distant cities. Patiently expanding this sale through an intergenerational conflict between father and son, Old Dog paints a portrait of a rural society in untoward transition. As dodgy animal traders and dognappers prowl their land, the family must confront the creeping effects of economic development that are undermining their traditional life.
In political terms, Korea might be nearly the last remaining flash point of the global Cold War between capitalist and communist states. Of the three South Korean films in the FILMeX competition, two shared an interest in this conflict. The special jury prize went (very deservedly) to Jung-bum Park’s debut feature, The Journals of Musan, a vivid story of North Korean defectors trying to “make it” in Seoul. The promised land of freedom and opportunity proves to offer only a hardscrabble existence at the bottom of the social ladder. Painfully isolated and inept, Seung-chul seeks to befriend Sook-young, a girl who sings in his church’s choir by day and doesn’t sing in a low-end karaoke club by night. Journals is remarkable for its nuanced defamiliarization of the quotidian codes of life in the capitalist South.
Also looking at the geopolitical schism of present-day Korea, Jai-hong Juhn’s Poongsan spins a complicated tale of intrigue around a one-man underground railroad between North and South. The eponymous hero transports possessions, memories, and even people across the DMZ. Ostensibly an entertaining political thriller, it is marred by a frustrating excess of melodrama and more than a few undercooked genre conventions. Nevertheless, it offers a curious riff on the fantasy of a world in which politics and diplomacy can be transcended through mute, ass-kicking violence. Of course, the taciturn action hero is something of a cliché, but Poongsan literally never speaks a word. A more subtle and engaging depiction of political violence is given by Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s Flying Fish. Set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the story follows three young people whose lives intersect through the savage conflict that besets their families. Visually, this was one of the most compelling films in the festival, and the director’s idiosyncratic, downtempo approach to story and situation manages to be both unsettling and mesmerizing.
Of all the films in this year’s competition, Yosuke Okuda’s low-budget Tokyo Playboy Club proved to be the most perversely amusing. While it feels a bit loose, the story is filled with enough deliciously violent twists to compensate. The set-up: dogged by a long-standing anger problem, Katsutoshi flees a crime in his small town to hide out in Tokyo. He is taken in by Seikichi, an old friend who manages a bottom-rung sex club. He hopes to lay low for a while, but when the club’s doorman absconds with the till and Katsutoshi unwittingly brutalizes a local gang member, the club is plunged into uncharted danger. Although at first blush a yakuza film, Tokyo Playboy Club is more a sketch of fringe characters in the sex trade who run afoul of the underworld. Director Okuda has a knack for combining violence, foolishness, sheer bad luck, and giving it all a darkly humorous turn.
In the special screenings program, Toshiaki Toyoda’s Monsters Club stood out as the most engaged and visually satisfying of the Japanese entries. Inspired by Ted Kaczynski’s “Industrial Society and Its Future”, Toyoda transports us to the deep countryside of Japan, where the loner Ryoichi lives in a snow-covered cabin and mails off booby-trapped packages to politicians and media outlets. One day, Ryoichi encounters a strange monster that has come to haunt his solitary life in the forest. Through this contact, we begin to understand both his past and the threats looming in his future. The film offers a hard-hitting yet remarkably subtle meditation on Kaczynski’s theses in a Japanese context. While the subject matter sounds gloomy, Toyoda manages to spin it into a highly evocative and, dare I say it, even beautiful film.
Among the Japanese entires in the program, Amir Naderi’s co-production CUT seemed the most mixed in its execution. The conceit for the film is irresistible: a young Japanese director named Shuji gets into debt with the yakuza. To repay the gang for the money spent to make his films, he offers himself as a human punching bag. CUT is a kind of meta-film, a film about the life and death of Japanese cinema, and a paean to cinéphilia. From there, though, Naderi embarks in a puzzling direction. Cinema and cinéphile are made out to be both the hapless victims of a system that cares only about its pound of flesh and, at the same time, precious and self-righteous.
Overall, the festival’s offerings this year were very strong, the only weakness being an evident lack of budget for a full retrospective program. Many of the Somai films, for example, were not subtitled, and with only four films the Kawashima program was a retrospective in name only. To be fair, the fault here is not really that of the FILMeX programmers. Rather, it lies with the Japanese government’s crippling lack of an adequate policy for film heritage.
Coming up in 2012: The Journals of Musan, at Image Forum in June; Tokyo Playboy Club, Monsters Club, and RIVER at Eurospace; CUT, at Cinemart from December 17th, 2011; The Turin Horse at Image Forum; and Kotoko at Theater Shinjuku in April.
TABlog also recently interviewed FILMeX director, Shozo Ichiyama.
M. Downing Roberts
M. Downing Roberts