If an argument can be made that film festivals reflect some of the unique traits of their host cities, the sprawling format of the Tokyo International Film Festival certainly bears out this hypothesis. 

Although it is true that Tokyo lacks the prestige and glamour of Cannes, Venice, or Berlin – Europe’s vaunted Big Three – Japan’s premier film fest nonetheless compensates with? its sheer size and breadth, which is fully in keeping with the Japanese capital’s status as the largest metropolis in the world.

For the 2022 edition, the festival mounted a retrospective of Malaysian-Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang as well as a survey paying tribute to the late Japanese auteur Shinji Aoyama (who unexpectedly passed away aged 57 in March), in addition to screening all eight episodes of Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep miniseries in its entirety (which alone accounts for some seven hours in total). All this is before going into detail on the myriad of eclectic sections that this big-tent festival has to offer.

The 35th edition encompassed 169 titles in all, encouraging moviegoers of all ages and stripes to get lost in the “labyrinth of cinema” for the duration of ten days, which commenced on 24 October – exactly two weeks after Japan belatedly reopened its borders for the first time since the onset of the Covid pandemic.

For discerning cinephiles, there is the World Focus section, which brings together the crème de la crème of arthouse titles by big-name auteurs already premiered elsewhere (including highlights from Cannes and Venice such as Albert Serra’s Pacification and Lav Diaz’s latest three-hour-plus opus When the Waves Are Gone), while the more commercially inclined Gala section packages audience-friendly fares from Hollywood to Hong Kong and beyond (David O. Russell’s Amsterdam, Wai Ka-fai’s Detective vs. Sleuths, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, among others). There is even a youth program that emulates Berlinale’s Generation in targeting a high-school-aged audience, with titles like Nezouh, Soudade Kaadan’s magic realist coming-of-ager set in a decimated Damascus neighbourhood against the backdrop of the Syrian conflict (which, for its intended viewers, offers a rather sanitized version of the atrocious civil war).

For those with a more adventurous taste with cravings for discovery, there is the Asian Future sidebar, which rounds up cutting-edge titles by up-and-comers from this vast eponymous region. Young Turkish talents were represented strongly in this year’s stellar line-up by a pair of sophomores exhibiting bountiful promises. In Suddenly, Melisa Önel’s sensuous Istanbul city sinfonietta, a Turkish-German former ice-skating prodigy originally from this historic hub hopscotches from the gentrified parts of the city to the old in a quest to reclaim her lost adolescence. By contrast, in Cloves & Carnations, Bekir Bülbül’s sublimely barebones road movie that calls to mind midcareer Kiarostami, a haggard elderly refugee from Syria and his tongue-tied granddaughter trudge across Anatolia’s wind-swept plains with a flimsy coffin in tow, on an arduous spiritual journey towards their war-torn homeland to bury the remains of the old man’s wife.

Small, Slow But Steady

Meanwhile, Nippon Cinema Now showcases a best-of selection from Japan’s independent film scene, where, for example, Shô Miyake’s Keiko me wo sumasete (Small, Slow But Steady) made its bow for the domestic audience after touring extensively on the festival circuit: a knockout underdog boxing drama set in the winter of 2020-21 amid Japan’s pandemic-induced state of emergency, Miyake portrays a hearing-impaired female boxer stoically grappling with numerous challenges on and off the ring in preparation for her next big bout. Miyake sensitively renders her solitary struggle, which is further compounded by the mask-wearing mandate that prevents her from communicating with others by lipreading.

Still, it is the showpiece main competition – the heartbeat of any fest – where one can take the proper pulse of any given film festival. And under new programming director Shozo Ichiyama – who has a well-respected track record as a long-time producer on the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhangke – Tokyo pressed ahead with implementing its “pivot to Asia” that was impelled by his appointment. For this year’s edition, the second under the tenure of Ichiyama, a more cohesive overall picture of his curatorial vision for Tokyo began to emerge. Ichiyama has long cultivated ties with many of Asia’s independent filmmakers. As many as 10 out of 15 competition slots hailed from the region, stretching from the Far to the Near East, with a particular predilection for films exhibiting directors’ individual stylistic stamps. Filmmakers representing underexposed pockets of Asia also came into the picture, including some names familiar to arthouse audiences such as Kyrgyzstan’s Aktan Arym Kubat with This Is What I Remember, Emir Baigazin from Kazakhstan with Zhizn (Life), and Bui Thac Chuyen from Vietnam with Glorious Ashes, to name but a few.

On the other hand, female representation in the competition line-up saw a decrease, with only a trio of entries making the cut compared with four from the previous year. Overall, the number of titles by female directors comprised a meagre 14.8 percent across all sections, which contributes to the optics that suggest Tokyo organizers are backtracking on the “5050×2020” gender parity pledge that they symbolically signed up to last year on International Women’s Day. (Ichiyama did imply a pipeline issue, saying that he picked quality over quota.) 

Chile ’76

The festival’s reversal on their commitment was, to some degree, alleviated by the inclusion of Manuela Martelli’s 1976 (Chile ’76) – which was, by some distance, the competition’s most outstanding directorial debut.

Martelli’s assured first feature, which is set during the first decade of General Pinochet’s authoritarian rule over Chile, provides a much-needed re-examination of the darkest chapter in the country’s modern history, at the time when the Latin American nation embarks on redrafting its dictatorship-era Constitution. 

The film centres around Carmen (Aline Küppenheim), an affluent and apolitical housewife of a certain age who leads a life of comfort in the relative seclusion of a beachside villa. Martelli’s rigorously conceived narrative begins as a naturalistic depiction of the country’s ruling class who are largely insulated from Pinochet’s reign of terror, before seamlessly transitioning into a tense Hitchcockian political thriller. Martelli jolts the viewer by introducing a jarring, off-kilter electronic score (courtesy of Mariá Portugal), just as Carmen becomes unwittingly embroiled in clandestine anti-junta activities when an ageing local priest sympathetic to their cause turns to her for help in sheltering an idealistic underground activist wounded in a raid by Pinochet’s notorious secret police, the Dirección de Intelligencia Nacional (DINA).

Martelli’s audacious high-wire act in 1976 is to relegate all visible symbols of the dictatorship to the offscreen space, and instead to sustain a highly-charged suspenseful narrative by merely hinting at the long arm of Pinochet’s fearsome surveillance apparatus (an intimidating glance cast by a passing stranger who may or may not be a member of the DINA, an unmarked grey sedan ominously trailing Carmen’s car, whispers of the military carrying out “cleaning up” operations in the cities, etc.). Here, Martelli displays an acute understanding of the machinations of a society of control, where the state exercises its power not necessarily by being visible, but by perpetuating a climate of fear through omnipresent surveillance.

As if to remedy the gender imbalance as much as to placate for the conspicuous lack of Anglo-American titles in the competition, Tokyo organizers appointed a female head of jury in Julie Taymor, a theatre director of The Lion King fame who is perhaps better known in the world of cinema for her flashy Frida Kahlo biopic from 2002. By appointing Taymor – an American – Ichiyama and co may have intended to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. However, their calculations ultimately backfired, with the Taymor-led five-member jury contentiously awarding As bestas (The Beasts) – Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s underwhelming new thriller – the triple crown of the Grand Prix, Best Director and Best Actor prizes. It was, to put it bluntly, a questionable verdict, one that inexplicably overlooked two clearcut standouts to emerge from Tokyo 2022: Aktan Arym Kubat’s This Is What I Remember (the Kyrgyz master’s best film in decades) and Takeshi Fukunaga’s stunning retelling of a Japanese folktale, Mountain Woman.

The Beasts

With that said, to be fair to Sorogoyen, it was not that The Beasts was entirely lacking in quality, although it can hardly be claimed that his latest matches the propulsive, high-octane virtuosity of his Fincher-esque police procedural, May God Save Us (2016). Swapping that earlier film’s sweltering Madrid summer for Galicia’s harsh, agrarian climate, The Beasts finds Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Olga (Marina Foïs) – an erudite middle-aged French couple hoping to carve out a new life as organic farmers – resettle in this sparsely populated corner of “España vaciada,” only to be met by thinly-veiled hostilities from locals resentful of their foreignness and urbanite bearings.

Styling itself as a socially-conscious neo-western, The Beasts is another of Sorogoyen’s fiery inquiry into the realm of toxic masculinity. The film adopts a back-to-the-wall siege mentality once Antoine is forced into defending his farmland in confrontation with Xan (Luis Zahera), a bigoted and brutish horse tamer living next door who develops simmering nativist grievances against him. The latter engages the Frenchman in an ever-escalating cycle of violent feud, and the two “beasts” thus squaring off each other forms the backbone of the film’s faux western plot.

And while The Beasts is ultimately hampered by its languid pace, that runs well in excess of two hours, it is nonetheless hard to dispute the film’s potent social commentary, and how Sorogoyen scrutinizes the sinister undercurrents of xenophobia and identity politics that lurk in the heart of rural Spain. (This is especially so in the context of the recent string of alarming victories for far-right, anti-immigration parities at the ballot box, in Italy, Sweden, and elsewhere in Europe.)

In fact, stories of conflicts and strife within isolated remote communities abounded, and comprised a sizable portion of competition offerings at Tokyo. It was a running theme that, taken as a whole, could be interpreted as a multifaceted response to the vicissitudes of the yearslong global pandemic (social distancing, lockdowns, border closures, etc.), which precipitated, particularly in its early stages, a pervading sense of isolation among many individuals, often at the cost to the fabric of society.

This Is What I Remember

And no film treated this motif with more finesse and mastery of the craft than Aktan Arym Kubat’s deeply affecting This Is What I Remember, a pastoral ensemble drama set during the height of the Covid pandemic in a sleepy Kyrgyz village situated somewhere in the backwater of this former Soviet republic.

Kubat’s first feature in five years opens as the word spreads among village elders that their erstwhile favourite son, Zarlyk, who has gone missing in Russia having left his family and home in search of work more than 20 years ago, has finally been found and returned home safely – albeit in a greying and dishevelled state, and without his mental facilities intact.

In this masterfully understated multicharacter study, Kubat uses Zarlyk’s homecoming – who, his now grown-up son claims, has had an unspecified “terrible accident” which left him mute and without memory – as a narrative device to gain admission into the lives and passions of an arcadian Central Asian community, a world unto itself whose denizens still abide by their time-honoured nomadic customs and conservative Islamic values. 

Throughout the film, Kubat’s unhurried Steadicam shots waft and float in space, from one colourful village personage to another, as though a virus in search of a new host, connecting the dots and strands to gradually sketch out a microcosm of Kyrgyz society. And while much of the drama that unfolds revolves around Zarlyk (played by the director himself with tragicomic panache), he remains a shell of his former self and blissfully unaware of uproars that his sudden reappearance instigates among the townsfolk. Not least of which concerns Umsunai (Taalaikan Abazova), Zarlyk’s devoted and pious former wife who, having presumed him dead, remarried a powerful local moneylender, and now leads a sequestered life in his walled-off compound. But upon learning of Zarlyk’s unhoped-for return, she has a change of heart, and attempts to flee from the grasp of her wealthy but abusive second husband, to be reunited with him again. 

And all the while, Zarlyk, who remembers neither his ex-wife nor his caring son, wanders off compulsively to collect rubbish around the village’s dusty roads. This bizarre behaviour suggests he had most likely pegged away as a waste collector or street sweeper back in Russia, like so many of his fellow countrymen and women who are said to toil in thankless backbreaking jobs across Russian cities.

As already indicated in the title, there is a certain Proustian quality to This Is What I Remember, hinted at by the exquisite tracking shots through the idyllic grove that memorably bookends the film: a grove of poplar trees where Zarlyk and Umsunai were said to be fond of strolling “on hot dates” as a pair of smitten sweethearts in their youth. The recurring tracking shots become the film’s haunting leitmotif, an invitation for a trip down memory lane in search of a marital love all but consigned to the recesses of Zarlyk’s memory, extirpated in the course of 20-odd years of an enforced separation.

Mountain Woman

If Kubat’s pastorale was the solo competition title to properly acknowledge the existence of the pandemic in any meaningful way, Takeshi Fukunaga addressed it implicitly in his historical parable, Mountain Woman. The film was inspired, Fukunaga said in an interview, by issues that came to the surface as a result of the Covid pandemic as much as by The Legends of Tono, Kunio Yanagita’s collection of folkloric tales from 1910 that the film takes as its source material.

For his first period piece, Mountain Woman, Fukunaga turns his attention to an impoverished community of rice farmers leading a hand-to-mouth existence in the foothills of Mount Hayachine, a sacred mountain in Japan’s north-eastern Tohoku region, which the God-fearing peasants venerate and worship. 

The setting is premodern Japan, sometime in the late 18th century during the Sakoku era, or the “closed country” policy of strict diplomatic isolationism. It is the second year of severe famine brought on by the perpetually overcast skies that have enveloped the region; a mysterious, foreboding curse which the village’s shamanic elderly prophetess attributes to the wrath of an irate “Weather God”, displeased at their pitiful offerings. The sunlessness, and the resultant catastrophic famine, cause the village’s newborns to succumb to malnutrition one by one, and it falls on the film’s humble and strong-willed heroine, Rin (Anna Yamada), whose misfortune was to be born into a family of hereditary outcasts, to perform the grim task of burying the lifeless bodies of infants by casting them off to the river. When her rough-mannered father, Ihei, is caught stealing the village’s meagre stockpile of rice crops, Rin, the good daughter that she is, takes the blame for her father’s thievery, and banishes herself into the sacred grounds of the Hayachine, where it is believed Gods and monsters dwell.  

Nowadays, jidaigeki, or period dramas, are perceived to be such a tired and tried genre, its golden age long considered to be confined to the heyday of Japan’s Old Masters (Mizoguchi, Yamanaka, Kurosawa…). With Mountain Woman, Fukunaga tosses such a notion aside in one fell swoop. In collaboration with his DP, Daniel Satinoff, Fukunaga conjures an extraordinarily disciplined visual schema for his new take on jidaigeki, in imagining a godforsaken village perpetually cast in shadows, under the thick blanket of muddy clouds as though inside Plato’s Cave, a world of indistinct and ill-defined outlines where impoverished farmers cloaked in filthy kimonos are condemned to dredge for meagre crops.

So far, Fukunaga’s first two features have been met by a conspicuously muted domestic response. This is perhaps owing to how the 40-year-old Hokkaido-native tends to be pigeonholed as more a product of the New York indie scene than a proper homegrown talent, having successfully launched his directorial career Stateside with his 2015 feature debut Out of My Hand, a quietly engrossing nocturnal portrait of an undocumented Liberian cab driver in New York’s Staten Island borough.

Mountain Woman, his third feature and most fully realized effort yet, should dispel such a misperception. Easily one of the highlights of Tokyo 2022, Mountain Woman concludes with a climatic divine intervention at the burning stake that brings to mind the stately period pieces of Carl Theodor Dreyer, where the heavens literally open up. It is a bewitching, tour de force depiction of an etheric, miraculous event so rare in contemporary cinema. Indeed, so exceedingly rare that it will likely restore our faith in cinema all over again.

Tokyo International Film Festival
24 October – 2 November 2022
Festival Website: https://2021.tiff-jp.net/