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Sunday, July 20, 2008

[30th PIA Film Festival] SEMIGAO and TENGU LEAF

I first heard about the PIA Film Festival (English site here) from my friend Maiko (who is supposed to produce my next Japanese-language short film). It's an important film festival that launched many careers of young Japanese filmmakers, normally when winning an award at the Tokyo PFF, their films end up touring around the nation, and some, of course, get invited to important foreign film fests. There were some winners at the Berlin Film Festival too. Naomi Kawase was a Pia winner, I heard Kiyoshi Kurosawa was one too.

Today was the opening of the 30th Pia Film Festival, so I decided to go there and check out two of the films in competition. It's only 1200 yen (300 yen cheaper than a normal film), and I get to watch 2 films, so it's a good deal.

The festival is held in a cinema at Shibuya Crosstower, the place was filled with young people, probably university students too. Unsurprising, since the filmmakers are those around my age as well. The cinema was packed, and I started wondering if a similar event was held in Malaysia, whether it would be just as successful. It's not a bad start though. A film festival for student films held in a cinema, of course, the tickets have to be cheaper as well.

In the little-seen (and UNDERRATED) Antonio Banderas film, THE 13TH WARRIOR, his character managed to learn Norse miraculously in a night by sitting with the crowd of vikings he was traveling with, and listening closely to their conversations. Sometimes, I feel as if I'm doing the same when i go to the cinema to watch a Japanese film without subtitles. Often I don't understand most of the dialogue, but I find myself 'understanding' the plot.

Both films I saw, SEMIGAO 蝉顔 and TENGU LEAF 天狗の葉 seem to revolve around the same themes. The disaffected young people in contemporary Japan, whose relationships with their family members are friendly but somewhat distant, and they are those who are left behind by the rapidly moving society. However, both use vastly different methods to tell their stories.

The first film, SEMIGAO 蝉顔, feels somewhat schizophrenic, with its hodgepodge of flashy stylistic devices, it seems to be different in tone and style in each scene. But I'm not surprised, considering that the film's by a directing duo, Noda Kenichi and Tsunoda Hiroaki, one's my age, the other is two years older. They dared to experiment a lot with the film. The protagonist is an unattractive manga artist who suddenly became homeless, and I think he's probably trying to find his place in society, finish up his manga, and also win the heart of this cute florist he's too shy and antisocial to speak to.

So there are lots of fantasy sequences, and some quick animated shots to illustrate the protag's mental world. So there are scenes where as he draws, the characters in the manga panels begin to speak, and he also has some sort of a double/split personality/ conscience/ imaginary friend or something who is dressed in drag and talks to him (a device I recently saw in Coppola's YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH few weeks ago), and even stop-motion animation is used at certain sequences. It's uniquely Japanese with its quirky and off-beat humour, and there are parts of the film that worked. And it managed to draw numerous laughter from the audiences (and myself) too.

Unfortunately, I'm not a fan of the film's off-kilter shot compositions. Somehow, in an attempt to make the film seem more eccentric, the film ends up feeling somewhat amateurish. It's quite jarring for me. And I can't really say that all the visual gimmicks employed within the film have worked either. It's like going for something too advanced before perfecting the basics. I end up feeling tempted to say "so what? I want to be drawn closer to the character, without having the barrage of film making tricks to distract me". The film SEMIGAO is most similar to might be FUNUKE SHOW SOME LOVE YOU LOSERS (my review here) But the latter was able to make a good balance between its visual gimmicks and keeping the film grounded. A The pathos intended for the ending is undercut because the film doesn't feel genuine anymore. But perhaps that it intended by the filmmakers to soften their blows as a social satire.

Surprisingly, I managed to catch a glimpse of two actresses from the film during the brief break between films. I saw the actress playing the love interest (she's cute) standing outside when I walked out of the toilet, being congratulated by many for her acting. Then, I saw the actress playing the protag's younger sister (she's pretty, looks like a young Namori Izumi) walking past my seat to the cinema exit, guess she wasn't going to stay around for the next film.

The next film, TENGU LEAF 天狗の葉, by Saito Takashi, is the exact opposite of SEMIGAO. It's a languidly-paced film that aims more for realism. It's the same sort of film that I've seen among the Malaysian New Wave filmmakers with its sparse dialogue and background music. It's that sort of formula that Japan Times had once described that's derived from the works of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Bresson, Tarkovsky etc. Yeah, it's arthouse stuff that will cause coma among most viewers who are more used to the conventional Hollywood style (a few audience members in front of me DID fall asleep).

Normally, I thought I would be bored as well, but somehow I didn't feel like that at all. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I was watching Tsai Ming-Liang films in the past few days (saw WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? and GOODBYE DRAGON INN, and the second half of WAYWARD CLOUD in the past week), thus preparing my mood for a film like this. I was enthralled because this film has really good cinematography, atmospheric and moody. It's about the mundane, two 12 year old kids, a boy and a girl, and their daily misadventures. We see them do everyday stuff, like the little girl sitting alone in a bus, going home, or buying food from a convenience store at night, but somehow, images like that stuck with me.

The duo hangs out at an abandoned shophouse, either playing football, or him listening to her essay (I think), and they also try to decorate the place themselves. (A lesser director would've tried to make this young couple too cute, and force it to become more of a 'preteen romance' film. Good thing it never happened.) At home, the girl seems to have a distant relationship with her mom, and we never get to see her other parent. As for the boy, his parents were never seen. It's always as if they were alone at home. And sometimes, when they hang out, it's as if they're the only people in the world. It reminds me a little of Seng Tat's FLOWER IN THE POCKET (my review here), but the adults are even more absent here. Both of the child performers are really good. But ultimately, I think he is aspiring to be more like the Dardenne brothers (as I read in the Pia book after the show ended, but I was speed reading, so I could be wrong)

My initial thoughts then was that the filmmaker Saito Takahashi (a year older than I am) seems to be able to control the mood and pacing of his film very well, and has a very good awareness of mise-en-scene and eye for visuals. While I don't want to openly compare films, I find myself liking TENGU LEAF more even though it's the kind of film I expected least to enjoy. I'm interested to know what others think of his films. An interesting new voice? Or just another transcendentalist deep in the foothills, trying to climb the pinnacle where Ozu and company are at?

But then, due to the fact that TENGU LEAF has much less dialogue than SEMIGAO, I might have missed something vital about the film.

I'm definitely going back to fest next week right after I return from Nasu (more on that later) to catch two other competition films.