The Tokyo International Film Festival commenced on October 31 under the most unusual of circumstances, in the backdrop of a deadly pandemic that upended 2020’s festival calendar and forced movie theatres to go dark globally – while the most consequential US presidential election in generations unfolded some ten thousands kilometres away from the Japanese capital.

For a city still reeling from the unprecedented postponement of the Summer Olympics, it was something of a coup to be able to put together a ten-day physical edition at all, albeit one taking place under social distancing guidelines that included mask-wearing requirements and ubiquitous temperature checks at the door.

For this edition, Japan’s biggest film festival was compelled to make tweaks to the format by eschewing its international competition in favour of an ad hoc main section called Tokyo Premiere 2020. It was not out of public health concerns that organisers were prompted to scale back the proceedings, as happened with Toronto, for example. But that inviting a contingent of industry VIPs from abroad to serve as jurors became logistically unfeasible in light of the pandemic-induced entry restrictions imposed on foreign travellers.

Absent the fanfare of a showpiece competition, the 33rd Tokyo Film Festival, the first under new chairman Hiroyasu Ando, was decidedly an intimate affair, as befits the year that saw international air travel decimated and the notion of national borders reasserted.

Still, these obstacles did not stand in the way of a brave few overseas visitors from making in-person appearances. The most prominent guest was the Malaysian filmmaker Edmund Yeo, whose daunting itinerary included undergoing a mandatory 14-day quarantine so that he could present his Tokyo Premiere 2020 entry, Malu, in front of a live Japanese audience. (Yeo’s commitment notwithstanding, his latest, a cryptic melodrama centred around a pair of long-estranged sisters adrift in Malaysia and Japan, largely failed to make an impression, owing to its untethered pan-Asian exoticism devoid of authentic regional colour.)


With major festivals either opting to hold virtual editions or calling off their events altogether, the coronavirus pandemic has caused disruptions to the status quo in terms of the festival pecking order – which remains, let’s not forget, disproportionately Eurocentric.

In this new normal, however, a few fests fortunate enough to stage physical iterations suddenly woke up to discover their standings elevated. So much so that the likes of Tokyo (which is long accustomed to playing second fiddle to the so-called “Big Three” of Cannes, Venice and Berlin) was able to invite the calibre of art films that, in any given year, would have been denoted to be out of its league.

One such title already affixed with the prestige of the Cannes 2020 Label – bestowed on films originally selected to premiere at the now-cancelled French festival – was Kamen Kalev’s February, the standout of the Tokyo Premiere 2020 section. With February, the Bulgarian director radically reinterprets the well-worn three-act structure in order to chronicle the life of a rural shepherd, Petar, in three key chapters that define his existence: his boyhood spent roaming his grandfather’s ranch; as a young man serving in the Bulgarian Navy; and his solitary twilight days surrounded by the harsh wintry environs of Razdel, his ancestral homeland in eastern Bulgaria.

Save for the film’s idyllic centrepiece on a Black Sea naval outpost where a young Petar serves as a dry land sailor, February, shot exquisitely on 16mm, is firmly nestled in the timeless agrarian universe, which lends an earthy backbone to Kalev’s fourth feature. In this sense, Kalev’s rustic portrait of a humble shepherd belongs to a world far away from the visceral existentialist angst of Eastern Plays (2009), Kalev’s memorable debut that depicted an aimless bohemian artist wrestling with his demons in the post-communist urban purgatory of contemporary Sofia.


Though February’s anachronistic conceit may not be to everyone’s liking, Kalev’s latest nonetheless set the tone for the rest of the festival in terms of its unwavering faithfulness to a “sense of place”: admittedly a loose concept rarely invoked in film studies, but one that nevertheless remains paramount when evaluating world cinema. Or any film for that matter.1

Indeed, if there was an overarching theme to the Tokyo festival, it was to be found in undertakings that told stories of perseverance from far-flung corners of the world, about lives that are inextricably intertwined with their native lands: those on the margins of society resiliently standing their ground in the face of adversities, all the while refusing to be reduced or cowered into the role of victimhood. These undertakings, unified by strong geopolitical concerns, were exemplified by a trio of Venice imports programmed in the World Focus section, which presents some of the best crops from international cinema.

In the Filipino auteur Lav Diaz’s Lahi, Hayop Genus Pan, for example, a threesome of ragtag migrant miners trudge across their “cursed” island long exploited by a succession of colonial powers, on a long-winded Homeric odyssey back to their native village. Along the way, the trekkers become consumed in bitterness and infighting following months of toiling away on low wages. The trio gradually finds themselves bogged down by hallucinatory visions pertaining to the centuries-long legacy of colonialism their island has endured, as spectacularly symbolised by a mythical black horse suddenly materialising out of thin air – an ominous relic from the accursed past that may portend yet another cataclysm to pass their way. Genus Pan is another incisive addition to Diaz’s lifelong probe into his nation’s volatile history, following a brief foray into a dystopian near-future via 2019’s The Halt.

The Wasteland

Meanwhile, Iran’s Ahmad Bahrami upped the ante with his own take on class struggle and precarity, Dashte Khamoush (The Wasteland), the recipient of the top prize in Venice’s Orizzonti section. In a series of monochrome sequence shots, Bahrami’s slow-burning sophomore feature lays bare appalling working conditions at a weather-beaten brickworks situated on the dusty desert hinterland seemingly cut off from the rest of civilisation. Told with precision in Rashomon-style shifting perspectives, Bahrami uses this intentionally delimiting single location as a pretext to sketch out the factory’s motley crew of brick-makers, who comprise a kind of a cross-section of the lower strata of Iranian society (a single mother, Kurdish and Azeri minorities, underaged laborers, etc.). Wielding power over the workers is the deceitful and autocratic industrialist simply known as the “boss”: a figure of consternation who could be interpreted as a thinly veiled stand-in for the authoritarian Iranian regime.

And nowhere was the “sense of place” more acutely discerned than in Notturno, the latest documentary from Gianfranco Rosi. Where his previous film, Fire at Sea (2016), dissected how the plight of desperate refugees reaching the shores of Lampedusa affects the collective psyche of the local Sicilian population, Rosi vastly broadens his canvas this time by creating a sweeping elegiac fresco of a Middle East ravaged and torn apart as a result of protracted sectarian conflict. Shot over a few years during the waning days of the ISIS era, the Italian documentarian patiently surveys what remains of the jihadist group’s vanquished caliphate, across vast swathes of land that stretch from the highlands of Syria to the marshlands of southern Iraq, whilst taking in the scenes of everyday citizens caught in the crossfire.


Opening with a wailing Syrian mother as she traces the bloodstained walls of an abandoned torture chamber where her son was brutally beaten to death, Notturno discloses a world obliterated in the wake of the Islamic State’s unrelenting reign of terror that swept across these regions, in a scope arguably unparalleled in contemporary cinema – perhaps not since D’Est (1993), Akerman’s monolithic monument to the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ultimately, what stems Notturno from devolving into a voyeuristic parade of atrocity exhibition is the dignified and steadfast manner with which Rosi renders his subjects, who never at once resorts to blackmailing his viewers into sympathy. Nor does he succumb to sensationalism typical of Western news reporting coming out of this part of the Near East. In this regard, the most illustrative of Rosi’s uncompromising stance as a nonfiction filmmaker may be the film’s recurring tableau of an all-female Peshmerga unit manning the rugged terrain of what appears to be the contest northern Syria, stoically staving off remnants of ISIS militants with an undaunted, battle-hardened poise.

Given that most, if not all, established festivals have now joined forces to commit to the 5050×2020 Pledge – an initiative calling for gender parity kick-started in response to the #MeToo movement – it was something of a disappointment that films directed by women accounted for just 16.7% of all 138 films assembled for this edition of the Tokyo festival. (As it stands, Takeo Hisamatsu, the TIFF director, has yet to express his enthusiasm for signing up to the pledge.) This dismal female representation was all the more disheartening – and quite frankly, tone-deaf – once viewed in the wider context of the COVID-19 crisis that so glaringly exposed existing societal issues from systemic racism to gender inequality.

What this festival urgently needs more of are films in the ilk of Sin señas particulares (Identifying Features): the first feature from Fernanda Valadez that screened out of the Latin Beat sidebar. Valadez’s soberly austere drama – which has since earned the best feature prize at Thessaloniki in November – takes as its subject the growing exodus of unaccompanied minors illegally crossing into the United States from Mexico. The Mexican filmmaker wisely approaches this timely (and highly politicised) topic through the eyes of Magdalena: a mother who leaves her home in Guanajuato on a quest to locate Jesús, her teenage son who has gone missing while embarking on an arduous journey north in search of better opportunities.

Identifying Features

As Magdalena retraces her son’s footsteps, the film veers ever deeper into northern Mexico’s lawless border towns in the firm grip of a criminal cartel spearheaded by a notorious gang leader known as “El Diablo”.

It is true that, despite the flashes of brilliance, Valadez’s debut is hardly immune from occasional unevenness that is typical of a first-time director. Whatever its shortcomings, however, one thing about Identifying Features is beyond reproach: Valadez confronts the politically-loaded imagery of the US-Mexico border in order to make visible the North-South wealth divide – a geopolitical situation in miniature – while not turning blind eye to her country’s entrenched culture of violence. In so doing, Valadez fashions, in her own reticent and restrained way, a powerful rebuke to the Trump administration’s xenophobic, anti-immigration policies vis-à-vis Latin America. And to the building of the wall – any walls.

Tokyo International Film Festival
31 October – 9 November 2020
Festival website: https://2020.tiff-jp.net/en/


  1. In fact, it is often highly localised situations that, as a matter of course, give shape to the contour of an individual film’s form. Its foremost example may be the famed Bay Area setting of Vertigo (1958) that adds a topological depth to Hitchcock’s psychological thriller: a film where San Francisco’s architecture, landmarks, and even its steep hills are integrated as essential components of the narrative. More often than not, a geo-specific situation is what dictates the vernacular of a given film – whether it be, say, Glasgow’s nighttime city streets that provide an alienating ambiance to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) or the lethargic provinciality of northeastern Thailand that enshrouds Apichatpong’s Cemetery of Splendour (2015).