Following the previous year’s abbreviated edition – when the global pandemic forced organisers to scale back the event and forgo its main competition – the Tokyo International Film Festival returned in full force in 2021. What is more, the festival added glitz and glamour to the proceedings in the form of the one and only Isabelle Huppert, who, as the head of the jury, breezed into the opening ceremony in style in her head-turning Balenciaga garb.

True, strict antivirus measures remained in place from last year, complete with the face-covering requirement, infrared temperature checks, and hand sanitisers stationed at the door. And despite the lull in daily Covid-19 cases recorded in the country after a summer surge that followed the Tokyo Olympics, pandemic-induced border controls meant that, once again, the festival was deprived of its nominal international dimension. Only a smattering of overseas guests – including half a dozen directors – made it to the ten-day event in person, which kicked off on 30 October, but without the presence of foreign journalists reporting back their discoveries to the wider world.

Which was a shame, given that, in many ways, 2021 was the year that Japan’s premier film fest – long derided in certain quarters as bland and lacking in identity – finally made good on its promise that befits the host city’s status as the largest and most populous metropolis in the world.

Indeed, the 34th edition marked the first step toward a much-needed makeover as part of chairman Hiroyasu Ando’s ambitious quest to put Tokyo on the map as a major player on the festival circuit, who took the reign three years ago with an express objective of transforming the festival into “an event worthy of comparison to Cannes, Berlin and Venice”, as he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2020.1

For now, it is open to debate whether the chairman’s lofty vision for Tokyo would eventually pay dividends. But for starters, the 2021 edition, the third under the aegis of Ando, made a clean break from the previous iterations by relocating its main venue from the confines of a multiplex located in the nouveau riche district of Roppongi to a handful of arthouse cinemas dotting around the Ginza – historically the capital’s most refined and upmarket entertainment district.

But Ando, a former high-flying career diplomat, did not stop there. He headhunted Shozo Ichiyama away from Tokyo Filmex – the TIFF’s upstart competitor specialised in showcasing Asia’s cutting-edge cinema – to oversee the programming. Bringing into the fold a programmer of Ichiyama’s calibre – who first established his reputation as the producer of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhang-ke’s masterpieces before founding Filmex from the scratch – was something of a masterstroke on the part of Ando. Thanks to his long-cultivated ties across Asia’s independent film scene, Ichiyama’s appointment instantly gave an identity and respectability to Tokyo. And in many ways, this year’s competition line-up was a statement of intent from the newly installed chief programmer, who immediately implemented his personal touch by “pivoting to Asia” and assembling some of the region’s big-name auteurs to headline the showcase competition, including Darezhan Omirbayev (Kazakhstan), Brillante Ma Mendoza (Philippines), Bahman Ghobadi (Iran), Hilal Baydarov (Azerbaijan), to name but a few. 

The Class of 1981

Going into the revamped festival, there were positive signs of progress in other areas, not least in the context of gender equity. Under Ichiyama’s predecessor Takeo Hisamatsu, Tokyo came under scrutiny for doing very little in the way of remedying gender imbalance in its programming, with films by female directors accounting for paltry 16.7 percent, or only one in every four, of nearly 140 titles screened at the previous edition. Having seemingly heeded the criticisms and become the latest major festival to sign up to the “5050×2020” gender parity pledge, out of 126 films that were selected for Tokyo 2021, female representation jumped up encouragingly by nearly 10 percentage points to 26.2 percent. That included five features either directed or co-directed by women being represented among the 15-title competition line-up.

While that proportionality still remains inadequate, this more level playing field set the stage for Huppert-led jury members to bestow the top two prizes to a pair of emerging female talents both born in 1981: Kosovar director Kaltrina Krasniqi’s sombre family portrait, Vera Dreams of the Sea, and La Civil, a gritty Mexico-set drama from Teodora Ana Mihai of Romania. Two promising debuts that – each in their own way – chart the plight of an ordinary middle-aged woman forced to confront the toxic culture of masculinity that dictates the tradition of the land.

In the latter’s La Civil, the recipient of the second-place Special Jury Prize, the well-travelled Belgium-based filmmaker dramatises the real-life story of Cielo (Arcelia Ramírez), a working-class mother in the northern region of Mexico whose teenage daughter, Laura (Denisse Azpilcueta), is abducted by a vicious criminal cartel running a kidnapping and extortion ring. Resolved to locate her missing daughter in the face of the inaction of the local authorities, Cielo soon finds herself pitched between two competing powers trying to wrestle control of this lawless town: the hardened thugs led by El Puma (Juan Daniel García Treviño) who terrorise the local community with impunity, and the newly arrived squad of Mexican military commanded by Lt. Lamarque (Jorge A. Jiménez) who are tasked to root out criminal elements and restore order by any means necessary.

La Civil

With La Civil, Mihai invokes the basic premise of the Western genre, and inverts it inside out, where it is not the lone gunslinger, but a single mother who takes on her country’s deep-seated culture of machismo. Lensed by cinematographer Marius Panduru – whose previous credits include Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (2009), one of the key works of the Romanian New Wave – Mihai here transposes Romanian school of restrained but hard-hitting social realism to Latin America’s barren swathes of gangland strewn with unmarked mass graves. And while this amalgamation of disparate stylistic elements makes for a varying degree of success, Mihai nonetheless paints an effective and unsettling picture of bloody gangland warfare and the grim toll inflicted on women and girls caught up in the carnage.

Meanwhile, Krasniqi’s Grand Prix winner, Vera Dreams of the Sea, opens on an ominous note with the suicide of a well-to-do retired judge, Fatmir (Xhevat Qorraj), who happens to be one of Kosovo’s most renowned public servants. In the wake of the sudden passing of the patriarch, the burden of preserving his legacy and managing his estate falls on the shoulders of his now-widow, Vera (Teuta Ajdini Jegeni), a 60-something sign language interpreter who looks every bit the picture of a demure Balkan woman. The story takes a decidedly more sinister turn when it is revealed that, unbeknownst to his wife, Fatmir had wagered away his ownership of a house in his ancestral village during a night of high-stakes gambling – a property that is about to be sold for a substantial sum of money to make way for a brand new highway that would connect Kosovo to neighbouring North Macedonia.

Vera Dreams of the Sea

 Determined to lay claim to this prized asset to ensure a brighter future for her daughter Sara (Alketa Sylaj), a struggling theatre actress and single mother of one, Vera must now defend herself from baleful threats of debt collectors with ties to Pristina’s criminal underworld, while also fending off chauvinistic village elders who object to a “city lady” inheriting a piece of their ancestral land.

Set against the backdrop of a rapidly transforming Kosovar society – Europe’s newest independent state undergoing a post-war boom in construction, yet still obstinately abiding by its clan-based patriarchal values – Krasniqi’s slow-burning tale is a film about inheritance as much as it is about the generational conflict that arises from a fraught mother-daughter dynamic. While Sara pursues a career in Pristina’s experimental theatre scene as a way of repudiating her old man, Vera, now alone and middle-aged, must come to terms with her half-lived life devoted in service of her late husband, whose reputation now lies irrecoverably shattered by the gambling scandal.


As accomplished as Krasniqi’s debut may be, Vera Dreams of the Sea was hardly the only impactful title by a first-time director to come out of the competition. In fact, the distinction of being the discovery of Tokyo 2021 belonged to Tadashi Nohara’s first outing as a director, Third Time Lucky, which unfortunately came away empty-handed.

Third Time Lucky

To say that Nohara is an unknown quantity would probably be a bit of a stretch given the 39-year-old’s long and fruitful association with the rising Japanese auteur, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, for whom he has served as a trusted screenwriting partner, most notably on the latter’s five-hour-plus magnum opus, Happy Hour (2015). 

And as in Hamaguchi, serendipitous chance encounters figure prominently as a narrative device in Third Time Lucky, a meticulously constructed cartography of solitary souls that, like Happy Hour, unfolds in gradual fashion in the port city of Kobe, albeit in a more manageable two-hour running time.

Set to an incidental jazz score by Yasuro Sato and interspersed with cityscape interludes, Nohara’s episodic and intimate multi-character study revolves around Naruto (Tomo Kawamura), a mysterious amnesiac boy with a hazy past whom Haru (Rira Kawamura), a 40-something nurse and twice-divorcee, discovers one evening in a disoriented state in a local park. Haru proceeds to adopt him as her surrogate son, partially as a way to fill the void left by her teen stepdaughter who has recently departed for Canada for studies. Then there is another strand to the narrative concerning Haru’s younger brother Takeshi (Katsuyuki Kobayashi), a talentless aspiring rapper married to Mikako (Hiromi Demura) whose tough-guy persona is betrayed by the fact that it is his wife who actually pens the lyrics that he performs as his own.

While it is not entirely inaccurate to suggest Third Time Lucky as a spinoff film riffing on some of the same motifs previously explored in Happy Hour – several of the same nonprofessional actors from that film also crop up – Nohara’s take distinguishes itself as the more socially conscious of the two. In that, more so than Hamaguchi, Nohara does not shy away from tackling many of Japan’s contentious societal problems that tend to be brushed under the carpet, including matters relating to its notorious overworking culture, entrenched gender roles, sexual abuse of minors, etc. That the film is never subsumed or weighted down by any of the tough topics that it raises is a testament to an infinite reservoir of empathy that Nohara reserves for his characters, all of whom exhibit all-too-human shortcomings.

The Asian pivot 

As for Tokyo 2021’s “Asian pivot,” the result was a mixed bag as far as the newest works by the region’s marquee auteurs were concerned. 

Take, for example, Payback, the latest from the Philippines’ Brillante Ma Mendoza. A flashy and fast-paced crime saga set to the ferocious beats of Tagalog-language gangsta rap, with this Manila-set thriller, Mendoza gives a sweeping panorama of the machination of corruption in the Philippine capital. Shot on the fly on the mean streets of a dingy slum known as District 128, Mendoza serves up an ultraviolent account of Issac (Vince Rillon), a small-time bike thief on the payroll of Jepoy Martinez (Albie Casino), a nefarious political scion brazenly operating a motorcycle stealing racket out of his campaign headquarters.


The Filipino auteur – who, over the span of just half a decade, has gone from making an anti-drug-war film, Ma’ Rosa (2016), to becoming an unapologetic ally of the Duterte regime – here trouts out a dystopian vision of urban Philippines as a crime-infested cesspool, one that is populated by one-dimensional lowlifes and beset by rampant corruption, squalor, and thievery. It is a relentlessly dismal vision that, in effect, feeds into the malign narrative promoted by Duterte to justify his hardline “war on drugs” that disproportionately targets the poor, often to deadly consequences.

Mendoza had not only one but two films represented at the festival, the other being his Gala section entry, GenSan Punch: a generic underdog boxing biopic inspired by the true-life story of Naozumi Tsuchiyama (Shogen Itokazu), an Okinawan boxer with a prosthetic leg who defies the odds by becoming a professional prize-fighter on the Philippine island of Mindanao. 


If there was a single film that encapsulated the state of the world – as well as that of contemporary cinema – it was Kazakh master Darezhan Omirbayev’s first feature in nearly a decade, Poet, which stood head and shoulders above the rest and deservingly won the Best Director award. 


Arguably the most anticipated premiere of Tokyo 2021, Omirbayev’s tragicomic portrait of the artist as a Kazakh poet chronicles one wintry chapter in the life of Didar (Yerdos Kanayev). As he struggles to carry on as a bohemian poet amid Kazakhstan’s fast gentrifying commercial capital of Almaty – a city of growing economic inequalities fuelled by post-Soviet kleptocracy – Didar faces the stark choice of whether to continue to toil in relative obscurity or to compromise his integrity by accepting a lucrative commission to ghost-write a memoir of an odious oligarch, Baizhan (Serik Salkinbayev).

Omirbayev presents this dilemma as though it were a matter of life and death for his titular hero, who begins to see himself as carrying the torch of Makhambet Otemisuly, a revolutionary 19th-century nomadic poet who led the peasants’ rebellion against the khan. 

By offering the figure of an unheralded poet who finds himself increasingly pushed to the periphery of cultural relevance in his own country by the onslaught of Western-style capitalism as much as by the dominance of the English language, Omirbayev’s long-awaited follow-up to Student (2012) questions the very role of an artist in contemporary society, and by extension, that of cinema as well. Indeed, Omirbayev’s latest was perhaps the only film at Tokyo cognisant enough to ask what role, if any, a “minor” art film like his can still be said to occupy in today’s cultural industry ruled by the attention economy, in which films are consumed as no more than just another “content” – a drop in the vast ocean of the visual.


  1. Patrick Brzeski, “Tokyo Festival Chairman Hiroyasu Ando: ‘Actions, Not Words’ Will Make Event World Class”, The Hollywood Reporter, 3 November 2020. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/tokyo-festival-chairman-hiroyasu-ando-actions-not-words-will-make-event-world-class-4087352/

About The Author

Kohei Usuda is a Tokyo-based critic who has contributed to publications including Artforum, Frieze, Cinema Scope, Screen Daily and Midnight Eye.

Related Posts