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Copyright 2004




Tokyo 2001: Facets of life

THE recent Tokyo International Film Festival(October 2001) was, in one important respect, much like its Indian counterpart. Both have been hurtling downhill, and although the Tokyo Festival's Director General, Michiyasu Kawauchi, promised the works this time, I was sorely disappointed.

First, the radiant atmosphere which one sees even in India despite the Festival's lack of direction and an awful lot of confusion was just not there in Tokyo. Even Shibuya, the Festival locality, seemed oblivious to what was happening round the corner.

Second, Kawauchi's attempts at attracting Hollywood glamour and maintaining Tokyo's position as one of the only two competitive A grade events in Asia failed. Let alone, American celebrities, there were hardly any Japanese movie directors or actors around, quite like the Indian scene.

The 14 competing entries, overseen by a jury headed by Norman Jewison (remember his "The Cincinnati Kid", "In the Heat of the Night" and "Fiddler on the Roof"?) did not create any flutter even of the kind that "Lenin" did in the just concluded Calcutta Film Festival.

It was clear that the Tokyo Festival was struggling, and rather unsuccessfully, to emerge from the shadow of the smaller, younger and yet far more impressive Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea. This was one area where the Koreans ruled, and the Japanese had to follow.

But to conclude that there was no good cinema at all in Tokyo will be unfair. There were some works that move viewers. Jewison had said at the beginning of the programme that he would like to see something that appealed to his intelligence, something that showed him a completely different world of life.

"Slogans" from the Albanian auteur, Gjergi Xhuvani, was compelling enough to fulfil this desire. It won Tokyo's top prize of five-million-yean Grand Prix.

Set in the late 1970s, during the oppressive Marxist-Leninist regime, the movie narrates a true incident: schoolchildren and their teachers forced to write propaganda slogans on mountain slopes with the help of white rocks, which have to be painstakingly piled to form letters of the alphabet.

When goat dislodges a slogan or when a child mis-narrates one in class, the party bureaucrats read devious meanings into it. Xhuvani weaves a touching love tale into this sordid drama, love between two teachers who are ultimately fated to the cruelty of being separated on grounds of morality (sounds like the Taliban). With vivid images of haunting simplicity, "Slogans" captures the sheer essence and magic of cinema, something that ought to have appealed to Catherine Dussart, the French producer on the jury, who had wanted to feel the "magnetism" of the medium.

Reza Mir-Karimi's Iranian work "Under the Moonlight" paints the distressing dilemma of a youth about to become a clergyman. Picture postcards of his tryst with a bewildering variety of characters including his guru, who strips his robes to sport Western wear after school take us closer to society's have-nots. The poet who does not know how to write, the blind musician, the young thief and others who live under the moonlight give our hero lessons that no religion can, and Mir-Karimi's twist at the end provides enough fodder for the cinematic cerebral.

Other subjects appeared alluring too firmly convincing that Asian cinema had great many stories to tell, great many plots to uncover, great many themes to analyse. (Unfortunately, Indian films are an exception, probably because of their dependence on Western read American fare.)

Take the Korean entry, "One Fine Spring Day" by Hur Jin-ho, where two engineers are assigned to capture Nature's melodious sounds, threatened with extinction. The music of the wind as it breezes through a bamboo grove or that of the gently falling snow is recorded, and as the tape enslaves these pleasing "noises", the two engineers fall in love with each other.

But the woman's fear that human affection can only be as fleeting as the vanishing sounds creates a barrier impossible to cross. Jin-ho got the well deserved prize for the Best Artistic Contribution.

In "Twixt Calm and Passion", Japan's Isamu Nakae uses Milan and Florence (and Tokyo too) to give yet another romance though not just between a man and a woman (which seemed suspiciously similar to the American work, where Cary Grant keeps a date with his beloved atop the Empire State building), but also with Italian stone and art. Nakae paints a splendid canvas of a man's passion to preserve history and a relationship.

Japan's "Kewaishi" (Make-up Artist) by Mitsutoshi Tanaka is about another kind of rejuvenation; he takes us to the Tokyo of the 1920s, when women came out of the shadows. Tanaka gives an artistic hue to the tale of Kosanba, whose makeup technique touches the very souls of the women he applies his brush to.

Whether it is the geisha or the mistress of a rich kimono shop owner or the young daughter of a tempura (a kind of Japanese food) bar tender, each one feels a unique transformation taking place as the kewaishi's gentle fingers caress their faces Tanaka's message is clear: it is a call for women to free themselves from age-old rigid, manipulative shackles.

Other social issues lighted up the Tokyo Festival screen: teenage violence in the U.S. was filmed in Tim Blake Nelson's "O", where an Othello-like play of love and jealousy is shown.

Akihiko Shiota's "Harmful Insect" follows the travails of a 13-year-old girl all frozen in some remarkable close-ups as she goes through puberty in a broken home, with society's dubious characters for company and solace.

Finally, Japan's obsession with the Red Army, made up of 20-something men and women who killed one another in the 1970s in one of the country's darkest chapters of postwar history.

Banmei Takahashi gets into the psyche of those people in "Rain of Light", which was one of the last frames before the curtains came down.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated December 30 2001)

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