But back to Filmex, which had a touch of the surreal to it for me this year. I help out with translation of the official catalog so I got seats in the main venue beside some of the jurors and other friends of the festival, such as Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Nishijima Hidetoshi and Tony Leung Ka Bloody Fai. Naturally being a big fan of all three I didn't have the nerve to chat them up, so instead I consoled myself with the knowledge that I could have easily put any of them in a rear naked choke. OK, maybe not Big Tony.
First of all, believe the hype about Sono Sion's special invitation film "Ai no Mukidashi" (Love Exposure). This was its big public coming out, and I don't think I've ever been to a screening that generated such palpable excitement; it truly made me feel privileged to be amongst the first in the world to see it. Not only is it a priapic hot beef inoculation against all those flaccidly soppy junai (pure love) films that have drowned multiplexes in smug crocodile tears in recent years, this is the ultimate date movie: take someone you fancy along, and if they laugh raucously and gasp in awe throughout without once pressing the bastard light button on their G-Shock, wait for the lights to go up before heading straight for your nearest marriage registry office (preferably following some appropriately hot nasty coitus). Even if you remain unimpressed by the ribald audacity of Sono's vast yet extremely personal vision, you'll still be forced to applaud his achievement in drawing such fearless and committed performances from his young leads, especially at a time when talent agencies' overly cautious management of their chattels has all but neutered and sterilised commercial cinema. This should do wonders for Sono's reputation and recognition overseas, and Variety Japan even quote him as saying he's currently gearing up for his next film which will also feature a religious cult and will be a Norwegian and U.S. co-production.
The two Japanese entries in competition were both dramatically sound and skillfully realised, but ultimately let themselves down with unsatisfying endings. Debut director Hamaguchi Ryusuke's dialogue-heavy but engrossing ensemble drama "Passion" focused on somewhat played-out subject matter for young indie filmmakers - the opaque romantic relationships of urban 20-30-year-olds - but managed to engage through the script's evolving characterisations and uniformly impressive performances from the low-wattage cast. Surprisingly attractive cinematography for a talky low-budget project too, let alone a student production (it was Hamaguchi's graduation film for Tokyo University of the Arts). "Nonko 36-sai (Kaij-tetsudai)" (Non-ko) saw Kumakiri Kazuyoshi build his film around recent muse Sakai Maki ("Green Mind, Metal Bats"), who succeeded admirably in instilling a modicum of likeability in a mostly unlikeable character. It also benefits from a great supporting cast, especially Tsurumi Shingo as Nonko's sleazy showbiz agent and ex-husband who still knows the way into her knickers, and Saiki Shigeru as her bad-tempered asshole of a father. Strange though that it seemed to crib much of its final act directly from Mike Nichols' "The Graduate," with a last scene that almost seemed tacked on as an afterthought.
With some creative scheduling I managed to catch all but one of the twelve Kurahara Koreyoshi films which offered a diverse overview of his partnership with screenwriter Yamada Nobuo, his eye-catching aesthetic and his affinity for outsiders, despite working within the restrictions of churning out star vehicles for a major studio, namely Nikkatsu. One aspect of his work that stood out in particular was his often sympathetic, three-dimensional depictions of foreign characters such as gay Korean drummer Ko and the Algerian resistance fighter in the deeply cynical socio-political drama "Warera no Jidai" (The Time of Youth). Its pessimistic forecast for the directionless youth of its era, especially its protagonist's opening narration, could easily be applied to the present and would likely be denounced as "anti-Japanese" by net-ridden right wingers were it released today. In "Kuroi Taiyo" (Black Sun), delinquent jazz aficionado Akira (Kawachi Tamio) puts on minstrel makeup (!) and daubs A.W.O.L. G.I. Gil (Chico Rowland, Japan's go-to cinematic black guy throughout the '60s and '70s) with white paint (!!) so that they can slip by M.P. blockades disguised as clowns. At Akira's favorite jazz bar, the customers are delighted to be in the presence of an authentic negro but treat Gil like a circus attraction, browbeating him into dancing for them. Returning to the dilapidated church where Akira lives just as it is being demolished, Gil is surrounded by a crowd of metal-mouthed housewives and children who cackle at him as he desperately improvises an out-of-tune melody on Akira's trumpet. Shots alternate between closeups of Gil's sad, terrified eyes and the braying, near-identical faces of the locals. It's a brief but extremely evocative moment that perfectly captures Gil's sheer terror and isolation.
Taking the social outcast character to fantastic extremes, "Kaitei kara kita Onna" (The Woman from the Sea) paired its naive Taiyo-zoku protagonist (a young Kawachi) with a vengeful shark-turned-femme fatale clad in a bikini several sizes too small played by Tsukuba Hisako, who would later put her piscine expertise to use in the United States as producer of the "Piranha" film series under the name Chako van Leeuwen. Although the supernatural element of Ishihara Shintaro's original story was rather underplayed and left you wondering what a director like Nakagawa Nobuo would have done with it, its core theme of romance between ill-fated lovers was portrayed with striking eroticism for a film made in 1959. But for me the standout film from the retro was "Gurasu no Joni: Yaju no yo ni Miete" (Glass Hearted Johnny/Glass Johnny: Looks Like a Beast), which will be familiar to readers lucky enough to experience the "No Borders: No Limits" Nikkatsu action collection that has been touring North America of late. With more endings than "Return of the King" as it relentlessly entangles the fates of its hapless characters on the way to an excruciatingly poignant conclusion, this is practically crying out for the Criterion Collection treatment. It goes without saying that Shishido Jo and Ashikawa Izumi are as perfect in their roles as you'd expect, but the real revelation was half-Filipino tough guy I. George, built like a brick shithouse and packing the concealed weapon of a sweet baritone croon. How can a filmmaker get away with suddenly turning an amoral whore wrangler into a sympathetic anti-hero troubadour? Only Kurahara knows.
Four films in the retro featured the luminescent Asaoka Ruriko in her prime, the most powerful of them being "Shuen" (The Flame of Devotion), her 100th film appearance in the space of only 10 years. Today's filmmakers should study it as masterclass in depicting how war affects personal relationships, without an ounce of cynically overplayed pathos or excessive emphasis on national victimisation. Asaoka herself was present at a talk show with festival director Hayashi Kanako following the screening of the Ishihara Yujiro-starring road movie "Nikui Anchikusho" (I Hate But Love). Nikkatsu has a summary of the event in Japanese with photos - note the reverent distance between Hayashi and Asaoka, and the overly powerful lighting trained on her which was apparently improvised at the last minute when panicked staff realised the old-school star would feel naked without it. Although it seemed to last for only ten minutes, Asaoka was in fine form recounting her difficulty performing driving scenes in "Nikui Anchikusho" due to the fact that she had only just got her license and could barely reach the pedals of her Jaguar, consequently scaring the bejesus out of the crew on several occasions including a collision with a camera that left its operator with a black eye. She also revealed that the role of her lover in "Shuen", which was eventually taken by future director Itami Juzo, was supposed to have been played by Watari Tetsuya who was a newcomer at the time and ultimately judged to be too inexperienced for the part (even though it was also Itami's first starring role).
My best of the rest was Johnnie To's exhilarating and exquisitely choreographed pickpocket caper "Sparrow," which will be a must-buy from Eureka if they release it on Blu-ray as they did with his "Mad Detective". I was also thoroughly impressed by "Treeless Mountain" which fully deserved its share of the Special Jury Prize, and it's difficult to believe that its young Korean-American female director Kim So-yong is an art school graduate who learned filmmaking from working on her husband Bradley Rust Gray's own first feature. Its documentary-rivaling realism and powerful yet almost subliminally delivered message suggested favorable comparisons with the work of Kawase Naomi and Kore-eda Hirokazu. Closing the festival on a incongruously heavy and doom-laden note was the Hungarian riverbilly sibling drama "Delta", which might best be described as Bela Tarr meets Straw Dogs with musical selections from Borat's walkman (the rest of the soundtrack is actually as moodily atmospheric as its gorgeously languorous photography).
Although it may lack the 'green carpet' glamour of the sprawling, business-like Tokyo International film fest (do you know of any other major festival in the world that assails its audience with TWELVE commercials from its sponsors before the main feature rolls?), Filmex's inclusive atmosphere and dedication to introducing new talent and supporting filmmakers has enabled it to firmly establish its own unique identity. The festival turns ten in 2009, which is an even more impressive feat when you think of all the others that have come and gone since its inception,
Filmex also helped me break the 100-film barrier for films seen in cinemas this year, which is not bad at all seeing that half were Japanese and I'm not even on any of the distributors' mailing lists for media previews. There's still plenty to consume before oshogatsu too, including "Nightmare Detective 2" (wasn't that impressed with the first one and I've never been a big fan of Tsukamoto Shinya's work, but his films always deliver one hell of a ride), "Oretachi ni Ashita wa Naissu" (another indie from the prolific and constantly improving Tanada Yuki following her major studio debut with the Aoi Yu vehicle "One Million Yen Girl" for Nikkatsu), '60s Group Sounds comedy "GS Wonderland" and Kore-eda Hirokazu's music documentary with Cocco, "Daijobu de aru yo ni - Cocco: Owaranai Tabi".