In an early scene from the opening night film of FILMeX 2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a dying man is visited by his estranged son who appears in non-human form. It’s a shocking moment not least because of the naivety of the illusion: Weerasethakul eschews digital technology and instead presents us with a plain old actor in a monkey suit. It’s the kind of technique that audiences haven’t been asked to take seriously since 2001: A Space Odyssey so the moment could not help but elicit giggles from members of the audience. But the very crudity of the illusion is the point, a reference to the old Thai television shows from Weerasethakul’s youth. In this moment, we are not just watching a dialogue between an old man and figures of his memory. We are also watching a dialogue between new cinema and old cinema. And further still, Weerasethakul is not merely “referencing” old cinema but transforming it into a transfixing new form that poetically talks about the violent persecution of communists in Northern Thailand. This is the heart of Weerasethakul’s work; taking old forms that have been suppressed or forgotten (as in the animist folk tales of Thailand) and re-forming them into narratives that speak with renewed urgency to the contemporary cultural climate. This spirit of creating a dialogue between old cinema and contemporary filmmaking practice permeated through the festival as it progressed over its nine days.

Almost half of FILMeX’s program was dedicated to retrospective screenings. The most prominent retrospective program was the collection of Japanese films from the late-forties to early-sixties, focusing specifically on the works of three major directors from the Shochiku movie studio: Yasujiro Ozu, Minoru Shibuya and Keisuke Kinoshita. Ozu is, of course, recognised pretty much universally as a master and the films chosen for this retrospective were among his most well-known works, the “Noriko trilogy” of Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953). The chance to encounter the works of the less well-known Shibuya and Kinoshita was perhaps more exciting. Both these directors differed greatly from Ozu in the sheer stylistic diversity of their film careers as opposed to Ozu’s minimalist constancy. Shibuya moved from the noir-like Modern People (1952) to the bright screwball comedy of A Good Man, A Good Day (1961) to the tragic family drama of The Shrikes (1961). Kinoshita employed an excellent use of wide long shots for his comedy Carmen Comes Home (1951) then for its sequel Carmen’s Innocent Love (1952) made extensive use of claustrophobic canted angles.

What remains a persistent theme throughout these diverse works though is the drive to chronicle the discontents of a rapidly modernising society. In Modern People, for example, Shibuya opens with a montage of urban Tokyo with a hard-boiled voice-over describing the degradation of Japanese society before exploring the relationship between a corrupt bribe-collecting land ministry bureaucrat and his young ambitious colleague. By the time we hear a judge moralistically lay the blame for society’s ills on the youth of the post-war period, Shibuya has already made us acutely aware through the characters’ web of complex interactions that the corruption depicted is of a much more systemic nature. The central characters of The Shrikes are a mother and daughter who share a turbulent relationship after being reunited as adults. Shibuya tracks their moments of tenderness and petty squabbles with an expert sense of staging that recalls Douglas Sirk or Vincente Minnelli. At the film’s emotional climax, Shibuya doesn’t close in on a face but on a large wad of cash that provokes us to question the relevance of capital to this family unit’s dysfunctions. In Carmen Comes Home, Kinoshita stages a hilariously ironic clash between tradition and modernity with its stripper whose return to her rural hometown causes all kinds of mayhem. Kinoshita uses the wide shot in this film because he is concerned with filming the relations between people rather than framing people merely as individuals and the portrait he creates of a small town develops in a way that the film never becomes the celebration of pastoral nostalgia it threatens to. Rather, Kinoshita takes a more distanced position, allowing us to see the facets of each character. Carmen’s father is both an over-the-top prude and a man of principle. Carmen charms us with her free spirit but her insistence on the artistic merit of her profession is gently poked fun at.

While we might be happy with the mere fact of being able to see some good films, one of the great achievements of FILMeX’s programming of the retrospective was how these old films were made to feel relevant in the context of the wider program. One could sense that the 1950s Japanese directors’ concern with tracking capitalism’s transformation of a society has shifted in contemporary times to China. Unfortunately, in this respect the state of Chinese cinema as represented in the festival program did not come off so well. Zhu Wen’s Thomas Mao is for the most part a terribly contrived odd couple comedy pairing a Western traveller with an uncouth Chinese farmer at whose place the traveller is lodging. The comedy is built on confirming the worst stereotypes we have of culturally insensitive westerners and uncultured hicks. White man eating food from a shrine? Check. Chinese man holding a foreigner at gunpoint for making a minor faux pas? Check. Then in the last section the film abruptly transforms into something more intriguing. The same actors appear but as different versions of themselves one or both of whom have been dreaming the sequence of events we’ve been watching until this point. The farmer is now the real life Mao Yan, a Chinese painter, and the Western traveller is now Thomas Rohdewald, diplomat and director of the Luxembourg pavilion at Expo 2010, and both share a wonderful bilingual friendship discussing important cultural events in an ultra-modern warehouse studio. This strange ending hints that the terribleness of most of the movie is an elaborate stunt, poking fun at the clichés of Chinese backwardness and American bullishness. But if this is the case, it’s clear that Wen has merely replaced these clichés with newer clichés – China’s modern internationalism; its position as a leader of the arts world. There was a clear dissonance between this utopian view of China’s economic development and those of the more critical Japanese films.

Jia Zhang-ke’s I Wish I Knew was similarly disappointing, a documentary about the turbulent history of Shanghai that is remarkably ahistoric. The film consists of interviews with a motley group of people, some with traumatic experiences of China’s social upheavals, some who are just cool film-related acquaintances of Jia. (Hou Hsiao-Hsien pops into the film to talk about the making of Flowers of Shanghai.) The interviews are presented without any historical context and in no apparent order with the result that while we are indeed hearing about history, the film is structured to inhibit any broader understanding of Chinese history, an anti-narrative where perhaps a clearer narrative was necessary. The interviews are interspersed with beautiful vistas of modern Shanghai (demolition and construction is a strong theme in these sections) through which a Beautiful Woman dressed in white wanders pensively. With no attempt to mould any kind of critique of modern Chinese society, Jia’s film is really quite boring – the main highlight of the screening was the purely visceral pleasure of seeing Jia’s white T-shirt-wearing Beautiful Woman (“played” by Jia regular Zhao Tao) get caught in the rain. The best of the Chinese films on the theme of modernisation was Hao Jie’s Single Man, a comic evocation of the lives of four aging bachelors who live in a village 150 kilometres from Beijing. The film’s humour is structured by the juxtaposition of the romantic rural setting and the vulgarities of the people who populate it. The village’s status of being on the fringes of a rapidly modernising country is felt most keenly in the jarring moments when hilariously terrible local pop music drifts onto the soundtrack.

The only non-Chinese film explicitly about the modernisation of society was Roses on Credit (Roses à credit) by Amos Gitai, an Israeli director working in France. The film deals with the wave of consumerism that took over French society in the aftermath of World War II, focusing on a young woman whose marriage falls apart due to her shopping addiction. The film teases out some interesting ideas on the relationship between war and lifestyles. The protagonist Marjoline (Léa Seydoux) often interrupts serious conversations to ask people’s opinions on the range of furniture in a catalogue, a suggestion by Gitai that the embrace of consumerism in the early 1950s was a response to the trauma of war, a desire to be free of ideology. As a commentary on today’s society though, the film is less convincing for we are not now living in a society where people want to be free of ideology, free from politics. Everywhere you look there is evidence of people’s desires for political action from Facebook groups to Starbucks menus to the dozens of charity albums that get released each year. We live in the age of activist consumerism, where political radicalism is itself co-opted by capitalist forces. If Mad Men represents a fixation on the horrors of the past that reinforces a complacent attitude towards the contemporary moment, Roses on Credit is also fixated on the horrors of the past but the stakes are so low as to call attention to the much more advanced horrors of today!

Gitai was also the focus of the second major retrospective at FILMeX. He started his film career as a documentary maker for Israeli television in the 1970s but left for Paris after the authorities banned his film on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Field Diaries (1982). The retrospective at FILMeX covered the first three films Gitai made from France, his “Exile Trilogy” of Esther (1985), Berlin-Jerusalem (1989) and Golem, the Spirit of Exile (1991). The trilogy is concerned with Israel, its symbolic power, its role in the Jewish imagination. Certainly a leftist director, Gitai approaches the subject with a very critical eye towards Israel’s relations with her neighbours in the region. More important though is the formal creativity of the films – the intermingling of the supernatural, the mythical and the political (drawing a parallel with Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee); the use of the long shot; and various distantiation techniques. Esther provides a good example. In this film Gitai stages a retelling of the Book of Esther, the basis for the Jewish celebration of Purim. The Queen Esther learns of a conspiracy to annihilate the Jewish people and intervenes to stop the plan from going through. The Jews enact a bloody retribution killing tens of thousands of Persians. The story is presented very theatrically with each scene consisting of a single shot. The production values (fancy costumes and dressed-up ruins) give the film the air of a particularly lavish community theatre production. What little investment we have in the reality of the narrative is swept away by the narrator who pops into scenes at unlikely moments to address the camera and, crucially, moments that hint at the social-political climate in which the film was made. At one point, a noisy jet engine interjects into the soundtrack. At another, the camera pans over to capture a busy road. In the moving final sequence, each actor takes turns walking by the camera, each telling the audience of their stake in making this film, generally tied to the conflict between Palestine and Israel. Yes, the film is a parable for how the persecuted become the persecutors (an obvious but effective allegory for Israel) but it is even more powerful as a film about the soul of the artist.

The festival showcased many notable films by established directors of the festival circuit including Poetry, Lee Chang-dong’s excellent portrait of an elderly woman’s desire to create art; The Ditch, Wang Bing’s gruelling film about the re-education camps of China’s anti-rightist movement; Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami’s tricky film of romantic dysfunction; and Cold Fish, Sion Sono’s provocatively violent crime film about a modest fish shop owner whose family becomes embroiled in the life of an ostentatious serial killer. The highlight for me was the premiere of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film The Days After (Nochi no Hi). The film was created as part of a project produced by Japan’s national broadcaster NHK which involved inviting renowned Japanese directors to adapt short stories by canonical Japanese authors that fall within the genre of “kaidan”, which refers to ghost or horror stories recalling the spirit of those from Edo period folktales. Kore-eda’s contribution, an adaptation of short stories by Saisei Muro, depicts a young couple who are visited by the ghost of their son who died as an infant. What elevates this film above what could have been a merely polite evocation of loss is Kore-eda’s trademark attention to the micro-processes of living – cooking, working, talking, playing – and their surprising connection to the grander themes. Kore-eda’s treatment of character is consistently impressive and because he’s a keen observer not of who people are but of who they are in relation to things. His cinema always addresses question like: What is a person when they are doing kitchen chores? What is a person in a certain space? Never melodramatic, Kore-eda evinces an almost journalistic detailing of human behaviour even as he operates outside the bounds of realism, as he did in 1998’s After Life and 2009’s Air Doll.

The festival programmers devoted the competition section of the festival to presenting emerging talent so this part of the festival was necessarily inconsistent. The best films of the competition were Single Man (mentioned above); Kazuhiro Soda’s documentary on Japanese care-workers, Peace; and the very violent revenge film Bedevilled from Korean director Jang Cheol-soo. Tan Chui Mui’s Year Without a Summer and Nobuteru Uchida’s Love Addiction (Fuyu no Kemono) were also intriguing while I only saw one truly terrible film – the amateurish and self-consciously subversive Anti Gas Skin from Kim Gok and Kim Sun. But all the films in this section – indeed all the films in the festival – shared one thing in common. They reflected a cinema of ideas, even if those ideas were sometimes not very good. In a cultural climate where ideas are increasingly not important, where independent film in its distribution and production is progressively downgraded to a marketing category, this is indeed a precious thing. If not for anything else, 2010’s Tokyo FILMeX was a success because of something that sounds quite modest: it reminded me that cinema still matters. The organisers of FILMeX certainly seem to believe it. The cover of the festival’s official catalogue was adorned with a tagline that moved me with its simply stated optimism: “Eiga no mirai e” (“For the bright future of cinema”).

Tokyo FILMeX

20-28 November 2010

Festival website: http://filmex.net/2010/en/

About The Author

Brad Nguyen is the founder and co-editor of Screen Machine.

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