The 2010 edition of Tokyo’s Image Forum Festival once again coincided with the series of Japanese national holidays collectively known as “Golden Week” that fall between late April and early May. While many workers are enjoying a rare few days of respite, much of the country’s avant-garde film community congregates at the festival for a week of screenings devoted to formally adventurous cinema from Japan and abroad. Like always, this year’s program featured narrative, documentary and animated work alongside the kinds of experimental films and videos with which Image Forum is most closely associated. While the stylistic range at this year’s festival was consistent with past installments, there were some noticeable shifts both quantitative and qualitative that would distinguish this year’s program from those of the previous years.

The most obvious changes occurred in the international half of the festival where many of the most prominent films of recent years have been meta-cinema productions by filmmakers such as Harun Farocki (Respite), Sophie Fiennes (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema) and Johan Grimonprez (Double Take). Indeed, the 2009 festival included a sidebar program entitled “The 20th Century Hasn’t Ended” that was dominated by highly reflexive, discursive films and videos that critically engaged with cinema history and the production and consumption of moving images. Somewhat disappointingly, this year’s international component eschewed the conceptual organisation of the previous year in favour of a program largely dominated by animated films and videos. Most of this work was presented in an auxiliary program devoted to hand drawn animation, which included collections of recent short work from Europe and Canada along with retrospectives of Robert Breer and Don Hertzfeldt. The most provocative animated piece in the festival was Barry Doupé’s Pony Tail, which was presented separately from the rest of the animated programs. Doupé’s feature-length video was differentiated from the other animated work by its low-res computer graphics and application of video game aesthetics. Pony Tail’s affectless characters speak a coded language of aphoristic non-sequiturs, and the video features them in discrete scenes of sexual desire and physical dissolution. Largely indifferent to plot and most other narrative devices, Pony Tail is instead propelled by the impulses of its characters-cum-avatars, and the video proceeds spatially­, rather than teleologically, through the underlying architecture of its gnomic world. While the work in this year’s festival at times felt a tad staid, Pony Tail’s commitment to the irrational and depraved provided a welcome contrast.

Zuo Jing of the Chinese Independent Film Archive organised a program of recent experimental videos from China for the festival. Included amongst this collection were two animated shorts, Republic Scenery by Qiu Anxiong and Coal Spell by Sun Xun, both of which were distinguished from the other animated work by their emphasis on landscape and historical underpinnings. Republic Scenery (elsewhere titled Minguo Landscape) reflects on the convulsions felt throughout Chinese society during the Minguo period, which began in 1911 with the end of the Qing Dynasty and ended with the founding of the PRC in 1949. Like the other Chinese artists in the program, Qui comes to filmmaking from a background in fine arts, and in Republic Scenery he mimics the brushstrokes and black ink of traditional Chinese ink and wash painting to create the video’s stark monochromatic imagery. Republic Scenery focuses on the rapidly changing countryside as cities rise only to later be burned and destroyed by invading armies. The video alternates its scenes of strife and destruction with images of rural isolation to craft an elegy for the period in which China began its transition to modernity. Coal Spell is similarly fixated on devastation in its study of coal production in Xun’s hometown in northeast China. Like Republic Scenery, Coal Spell relies on a greyscale palette, however here it is occasionally offset by flashes of bright colours. The video begins with an image of the coal industry taken from an old five-yuan note, a depiction that suggests the optimism once associated with China’s rapid industrialisation. This image serves as both a point of departure and a counterpoint to the video’s toxic landscape of power plants spewing red clouds and massive cranes extracting coal. While Coal Spell is unquestionably a portrait of environmental desolation, it is also a critique of the industrialisation policies that followed China’s Great Leap Forward and ends rather pointedly with an image of Mao.

This year’s festival also presented Double Tide, the latest production by photographer-filmmaker Sharon Lockhart. Like much of Lockhart’s previous work, Double Tide relies on duration and fixed-frame composition to create a sense of perceptual acuity. The video is divided into two parts, both of which consist of identically-framed, fifty-minute shots of a female clam digger working in the mudflats of coastal Maine during low tide. Set at dawn and dusk, Double Tide is both a portrait of the transforming landscape and a document of the woman’s toil. The video begins at sunrise when the location is blanketed in a thick milky-white mist that conceals the colours and contours of the scenery, and imbues the scene with an element of mystery. As the woman slowly works her way toward the distant shoreline pulling clams out of the muck, the surrounding mist increasingly envelops her until she appears as little more than a faint silhouette in the distance. Absent the morning fog, the evening segment instead draws attention to the fading sunlight, the shifting colours of the sky, and the pools of reflected light scattered along the shore. Both sequences highlight the tactile qualities of the physically demanding work, however by evening her fatigue becomes evident and the scene takes on an added sense of urgency as she struggles to complete her task before darkness falls and exhaustion sets in. Double Tide’s emphasis on temporality makes this weariness palpable, a rarity in cinematic representations of labour and perhaps the video’s most significant achievement.

Landscape was also a primary concern in several of the stronger domestic entries in this year’s festival. Kano Shiho’s Shinonome Omogo Ishizuchi was inspired by filmmaker Itami Mansaku (father of Tampopo director Itami Juzo) and features images of the natural scenery found in Itami’s home prefecture of Ehime on the southern island of Shikoku. The video is primarily constructed of slow dissolves between soft-focus images of verdant landscapes. By rendering the images indistinct, Kano emphasises the subtle contrasts in colour, light and texture to create a languorous portrait of the region. In graphite, Mizuno Katsunori uses high-contrast black and white images in his depiction of a series of natural landscapes. Shown in silence and devoid of camera movement, graphite’s images of open fields, waterfalls, mountains, densely wooded forests and the seaside are reminiscent of still photographs and Mizuno’s precise framing captures the grandeur of each. Filmmaking duo Dairiki Takuya and Miura Takashi returned to the festival with Koroishi after winning the grand prize the previous year with the stylistically similar Nikotoko Island. Like its predecessor, Koroishi is set in an isolated landscape that acts as both a site of exploration and stage for the antics of its small cast playedgency as she struggles to compleisolated, n as both h   with h pects oflls, mountanous nse of urgency as she struggles to comple by the filmmakers and frequent collaborator Matsuda Keisuke. Leisurely paced and beautifully photographed, Koroishi is a road movie of sorts, and like the best examples of the genre, the destination is beside the point. The video follows the trio as they wander about the rocky setting and engage in acts of buffoonery. Shot in black and white high-definition video, Koroishi is primarily made of long takes that feature the actors laterally crossing the frame. Shown from a distance, the actors are dwarfed by the imposing landscapes, however the filmmakers create a sense of intimacy by recording the dialogue in voiceover à la Jean Rouch, which in turn heightens the theatricality of the piece. Koroishi is decidedly playful and, like Nikotoko Island before it, demonstrates the filmmakers’ affinity for minimalism and their light comic touch.

In the past few years the narrative selections in the domestic programs have been one of the weaker aspects of the festival, however this year Koroishi and a handful of other narrative productions were among the more noteworthy entries. Ito Takashi, best known for his avant-garde masterpiece Spacy, presented his new video entitled Sweet Life. This latest work is an intertwining narrative featuring two women who may or may not be figments of each other’s imagination. Heavy on atmospherics and filled with ellipses, Sweet Life plays out like a fever dream as the two bewigged heroines stalk each other through an urban landscape. While the Lynchian tropes overwhelm the video at times, Ito’s visual flair and skillful crosscutting ultimately win out. The festival’s most audacious narrative entry was Wada Takehito’s Alternative Dragon. The video is ostensibly about a hooker and her driver trying to dispose of a gaijin (foreign) client’s body after she brains him with a vibrator, but Alternative Dragon’s primary concern is artifice and fabrication. The editing emphasises discontinuity by alternating between diegetic locations and sound stage facsimiles, and the narrative is frequently disrupted by post-production zooms into the image, split screens and freeze frames. Alternative Dragon builds to a climactic sequence where the narrative reality and production process collide on a sound stage filled with chroma key screens projecting images of the performers. While the characters are heard in voiceover discussing the existence of different dimensions, time and space collapse in the densely layered images that made for one of the more visually astonishing moments in the festival.

Lastly, a few additional films that deserve to be mentioned are The Remainder Images by Okuyama Jun’ichi and A Child Goes Burying Dead Insects by Hayama Rei. Both of the films stood out from the other contemporary work simply by being amongst the very few entries to have originated on celluloid. However, their appeal was not limited to nostalgia alone; they also happened to be some of the most aesthetically daring of this year’s selections. Okuyama, a festival mainstay and veteran of Tokyo’s experimental film community, returned this year with The Remainder Images, his latest investigation into the material qualities of cinema. According to the filmmaker, the camera-less film was created “using only emulsion shading on unexposed film.” While I must admit that the specifics of his production process escape me, they nevertheless yielded visually impressive results. The Remainder Images opens with high-contrast black and white images of horizontal lines, which are accompanied by the distorted sounds of the image bleeding into the optical track. As the lines flicker and pulse with bursts of light, the film creates the illusion of movement that is visually similar to watching a speeding train pass while standing on a station platform. The Remainder Images builds in intensity as the lines rotate on their axis until they dissolve into an exploding sea of black and white froth. Rei’s A Child Goes Burying Dead Insects is similarly interested in the unique properties of celluloid, but its exuberant tone separates it from other like-minded work. The film repeats a strip of 8mm film featuring a girl running through a wooded area towards the camera and burying the titular dead insects in the ground. With each repetition, the sequence decelerates and the images become increasingly distressed and desaturated. Eventually, the footage becomes unmoored and freely shifts in the frame revealing sprocket holes and frame lines. Abetted by a buoyant musical soundtrack, A Child Goes Burying transforms the original film material into a malleable surface for cinematic play and an ebullient allegory on death and rebirth. Who knew dead bugs could be so life affirming?

Image Forum Festival
28 April – 19 July 2010
Tokyo, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Nagoya, Yokohama
Festival website: http://www.imageforum.co.jp/festival/

About The Author

Brian Coffey is a writer and filmmaker currently living in the Tohoku region of northern Japan.

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