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The Osaka Asian Film Festival: Beacon in the West

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East and West, two directions on a compass which have often taken on much more significance than their navigational meanings. On a macro-scale, the differences between the two play out on an entirely different stage, becoming equally representative of global ideologies. On a micro level, the terms can be more innocuous. Take for example, Los Angeles and New York; representative cities of the east and west coasts of the United States. One could travel from one city to the other in a few hours, but the cultural distance between the two is likely far wider. New York’s high-rise, hustle-and-bustle metropolis is a far cry from the laid back, urban expanse stitched together by miles of congested freeways that is Los Angeles. New York is the capital of theatre. Los Angeles is the home of Hollywood. New York is a melting pot of ethnicities, while it could be argued Los Angeles is more a fusion of cultures.

The rivalry and differences between Japan’s Kanto (East) region and Kansai (West) regions, particularly between the cities of Osaka and Tokyo, is similar. The comfort food of Osaka’s culinary culture contrasts with Tokyo’s ambitions to spearhead international haute cuisine. Osaka is home to and wellspring of the nation’s comedians while Tokyo is the living heart of centuries-old kabuki traditions. Cinematically, a difference exists as well. Tokyo, where many of the major studios are based, is home to the Tokyo International Film Festival which is put on with all the glamour and glitz of western counterparts, and boasting famous guests from around the world. The Osaka Asian Film Festival [hereafter OAFF], on the other hand, is one of a very few film festivals in Japan focusing specifically on screening movies from countries around the Asian region. Staged with far less fanfare, OAFF has retained a “grassroots” character, concerning itself more with introducing yet unseen cinematic fare to local audiences and nurturing local talent than wrapping itself in the trappings of “international celebrity.” However, the purposeful invitation of more foreign press to the 2017 edition could be the first indication of OAFF’s desire to emerge on to the world stage as a legitimate alternative to its Kanto counterpart. Indievisual was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to attend OAFF and experience what it does and hopes to do differently from Tokyo, particularly with regard to Japanese independent movies.

OAFF

OAFF first stirred to life in 2005 as the Korean Entertainment Film Festival to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Japanese-Korean relations before officially becoming the Osaka Asian Film Festival the following year. Held as a “main event” over a weekend in November with related “co-events” throughout the entire month, the DNA of its first iteration was evident in its lineup. Offering a selection of mostly Korean and Hong Kong movies with additional events focusing on “Fabulous Asian Movie Stars” (mostly “hanryu” or Korean Wave actors), OAFF 2006 functioned more as a local exhibition of Asian and Japanese movies than a “film festival” as one might imagine such an event. There was not even a competition section at this time. 2007 followed a similar format, but began adding more variety with movies from Thailand and Malaysia joining an increased number of Japanese titles in its “main event” along with a special focus on Yasmid Ahamad and the Malaysian New Wave as one of its “co-events.” After a hiatus in 2008, OAFF moved its dates to March in 2009 and renamed the “main event” to Premiere Screenings in which all the movies in the lineup were either Japan or Kansai premieres. Clearly the organizers were gaining greater confidence and forming a firmer vision of the types of movies they wished to share with the community. With the addition of the Osaka Cinema Festival event, focusing on works with “strong ties to Osaka,” one could also see a burgeoning desire in touting movies either set, made, or about Osaka as a point of pride and encourgament for the local film industry.

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Filmmakers and Osaka Asia Star Award winner Kara Wai at the 2017 OAFF Opening Ceremony. ©OAFF

“One of the characteristics of this year’s programming is to highlight the drastic changes and new developments in some parts of Asia. I put more importance on choosing the films which show those dynamic movements rather than taking a balance or variety of countries/regions.”–Teruoka Sozo

Then in 2011, OAFF would evolve to take on the trappings of a traditional film festival. Instead of a set of organized events, OAFF 2011 became one, two week long event of screenings in defined categories including Special Screenings of movies which made waves with audiences in their respective countries as well as Japanese titles praised at foreign film festivals. It also offered a focus on Cannes award-winning director, Fukada Koji’s early works. Most importantly, 2011 was the inaugural year for its Competition section, nominating 10 movies out of 200 entries to compete for the Grand Prix (Best Picture Award), Most Promising Talent Award, ABC Award (most entertaining movie), and the Audience Award. While the competition section of the 2011 Tokyo International Film Festival included celebrated names such as Rodrigo Garcia, Cédric Kahn, Michael Winterbottom, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, and Oxide Pang among others, the OAFF 2011 competition consisted of up-and-coming Asian directors selected for representing the rich diversity of Asia; many works being co-productions between countries while others, such as Love You Ten Thousand Years–a Taiwanese movie directed by Japanese filmmaker Kitamura Toyoharu–showcased the close-knit quality of the Asian region. This “diversity in Asia” mindset would continue to drive the festival and its selections over the years. In 2017, however, something remarkable had to be both acknowledged and exhibited. The quality of the movies from Asia was increasing. In his welcome statement published in the festival catalog, Programming Director, Teruoka Sozo states: “One of the characteristics of this year’s programming is to highlight the drastic changes and new developments in some parts of Asia. I put more importance on choosing the films which show those dynamic movements rather than taking a balance or variety of countries/regions.” Indeed, the program reflected a shift from balanced diversity to reflecting the increasingly competitive caliber of Asian movies, particularly from the Philippines and Hong Kong. Mr. Teruoka elaborated further in an interview with Film Business Asia’s Stephen Cremin: “You can see that there are five Hong Kong films in competition. That is another significant thing for us. Generally speaking, as a programmer, we think that we should have variation with different countries more evenly represented, but this year I found so many new Hong Kong movies, so I had to show this movement.” Seemingly as a reflection of this, four of the six major awards given out went to Hong Kong or Hong Kong co-produced movies. Director Wong Chun’s Mad World took home the Grand Prix; Sisterhood actress, Fish Liew, won the Most Promising Talent Award; the ABC Award was given to Derek Tsang’s Soul Mate; and festival-goers honored Kearen Pang’s 29+1 with the Audience Award.

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Wall of posters featuring lineup movies hung in the press center. ©Indievisual

Regarding the Philippines, Mr. Teruoka had this to say: “The Filipino industry has been so fruitful in recent years. Also maybe because, three years ago, Cinema One Originals’ film SHIFT [OAFF 2014] won our grand prize and helped our festival become better known in the Philippines. So there were many submissions this year. One of the most difficult things was to reduce the number of Filipino films! If we judged just on quality, we’d have had to invite around 20!…So, it’s difficult, and we invited only nine this year.” From Mikhail Red’s increasingly celebrated drama Birdshot to Mihk Vergara’s genre-esque children’s tale, Patintero: The Legend Of Meng The Loser, and from Avid Liongoren’s fusion of live-action and animation, Saving Sally to Jerrold Tarog’s psychological-thriller Bliss, which netted star, Iza Calzado, the Yakushi Pearl Award, the Philippine contingent demonstrated an adroitness for tackling different subject matters in a variety of styles. The effect SHIFT winning the grand prize had on OAFF’s standing with the Filipino film industry also bears repeating. The increase in entries from Filipino filmmakers was an acknowledgement of OAFF’s growing importance in generating attention for movies which might otherwise go unseen, at least in the sense of a commercial release–an objective the organizers have long held. No where is this more important than in OAFF’s dedication to exposing independent movies from Japan through its Indie Forum section which is of particular interest for Indievisual and the central reason for attending OAFF 2017.

Indie Forum

Just how important is the existence of the The Indie Forum section? First of all, there is the name. Ever since it was added to OAFF’s program in 2012, it has never shied away from the declaring itself as a showcase of independent fare. Of the many film festivals in Japan, even those primarily screening independent movies, very few utilize the word “independent” in its title; the Fukuoka Independent Film Festival being one rare example. In contrast, the Tokyo International Film Festival’s section specifically featuring Japanese independent movies has been named “Japanese Eyes,” and from 2013, “Japanese Cinema Splash.” Can a festival truly promote independent movies if it’s afraid of even the word? [perceptions about the word “independent” in Japan would make for an interesting blog post — editor] OAFF brandishes the word “indie” like a defiant flag waved high under which both viewers and filmmakers alike can assemble.

In contrast, the Tokyo International Film Festival’s section specifically featuring Japanese independent movies has been named “Japanese Eyes,” and from 2013, “Japanese Cinema Splash.” Can a festival truly promote independent movies if it’s afraid of even the word?

Second, there is its mission. The foreword introducing the new section stated its intent was to establish new networks linking young filmmakers throughout Asian cities and its inaugral lineup was a mix of three foreign movies and the world premieres of three works from Cineastes Organization Osaka’s (CO2) grant program [more on this later]. Year by year, however, the section has become a spotlight soley on Japanese independent movies, perhaps as the festival’s organizers began to acknowledge a need to showcase the continuing development of the local indie scene, as well as Japanese independent cinema overall. “Japanese independent cinema,” incidentally has become a sort of genre itself over the years. Rather than movies dealing in stories through recognizable genres (horror, action, thriller, comedy, etc.) the big-buget studios can not or will not tell, “Japanese independent cinema” has, arguably, come to be defined by low-key, somber dramas aimed at the domestic market; a style rooted in what filmmakers can do on their limited budgets. The Indie Forum, however, has typically embraced challenging, original, yet entertaining, works across a spectrum of genres which belie their budgets, and the 2017 lineup certainly reflected this. From heart-warming comedies and ghostly tales, to a science-fiction love triangle, Indie Forum 2017 showcased a rich diversity of movies dealing with a range themes.

OAFF-Special-Report-BAMYBamy could be easily mislabeled a “horror” movie. Certainly, in telling the story of two people brought together by a strange turn of fate then pulled apart by even stranger circumstances, director Tanaka Jun employs a mastery of horror tropes to create a sense of unease. Silouhetted shapes, movement in shadows, uncomfortably framed shots, and placement of dread inducing music all establish a horrific impression. However, the movie is more of a fever dream; a metaphoric assertion of our inability to escape supernatural forces, be they miracles or tragedies. Is there even a difference? How well viewers perceive this worldview will depend on whether their expectations for a horror movie at the outset will reconcile with its delusionary finale.

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©Aerial Films

Her Mother is the gripping tale of a murder. But instead of focusing on the whys and wherefores in either a police procedural or courtroom drama, director Sato Yoshinori focuses upon the victim’s mother who is left with only one lingering obsession to assuage her grief, why did it happen? Sadly rooted in Japan’s both civic and social disregard for victims, Her Mother plays out as an emotionally charged search for closure which turns out to be more than the mother bargained for. Sato’s background in documentaries give the movie a palpable immediacy made all the more real by each actors’ performances, especially star Nishiyama Ryo.

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©Wa Entertainment

At its core, the story of I Want to be Loved deals with teenage, unrequited love. The twist French director, Ronan Girre, puts on it is the teen in question, Miyuki, happens to have taken her own life a decade ago, but is still very much in love with her classmate, Takuma, and will not let anyone stand as obstacles to her titular yearning. What might have been an otherwise ordinary love letter to J-horror by a foreign director is instead taken to a refreshing direction by Girre’s exploration of where alternative meanings of the word “haunt” overlap. The result is an effective spin on the kaidan–a Japanese ghost story–reminding viewers of the “ghosts” in their own lives.

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©Ippo, inc.

Winner of the Indie Forum section’s Japan Cuts Award, Matsumura Shingo’s Love and Goodbye and Hawaii, as in his previous movie, once again taps disquietingly relatable humor to tell its story about a couple who have broken up, but continue living together as a matter of convenience. Though the arrangement does not strike either as particularly strange, when the girl begins to examine her options she realizes she may still be in love. An endearing movie recalling John Hughes’ works minus the angst, the story, buoyed by Ayano Aya’s charming portrayal of the heroine (incredibly her debut leading role), tenders a snapshot of life as offering no easy answers despite obvious or ideal choices.

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©Deep End Pictures

One of two short movies in the section, Ping Pang by Tanaka Yoichi is an economical movie relying only seldomly on dialogue to tell its story about a young woman turning to ping pong as a means of venting her daily frustation at being subjected to sexual harassment at work. Well paced and edited, the story’s throughline is given weight by Yanagi Elisa’s (Capturing Dad) precise performance [she happens to also be truly good at ping pong] particularly in the final scene when an errant smile reveals her character experiencing enjoyment rather anger in ping pong hearkening to Nakamura Shido’s character in Sori Fumiko’s movie.

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Taking the theme of pent-up feelings into deliciously darker territory is Tamayura Mariko in which the titular character’s outward pleasantries are immediately betrayed by inner monologues that are at first humorous, but slowly reveal something more sinister. When Mariko’s dark thoughts ultimately bubble over, the display is both oddly entertaining but also “horrific.” Were it not for Segawa Koji’s smart screenplay and direction, this may have fallen into horror-thriller territory. Instead, he employs those conventions to deliver a movie both satirizing and subverting our deepest, darkest desires realized through stage actress Ushio Chise, in her first screen role, who chews up every scene as Mariko.

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©Hizume Film Partners

Of all the Indie Forum movies, Kimura Asagi’s Hizume is far and away the most “independent,” as in being the most unconventional. More a visual soliloquy than straight narrative, the movie does feature a tale of wanting and obtaining something elusive–a man who wants to love a woman who does not accept him; a researcher looking for a rare type of moth. How these two threads are related is not immediately clear, but as we observe Asagi’s impeccably composed vignettes of movement and sound (the actors and their dialogue included), the threads do intertwine. Whether the audience perceives this is truly up to each individual, but Asagi must be applauded for attempting this decidedly art-house fantasy, for lack of a better term.

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©Hanazono Cinema

In Taniguchi Kohei’s Dynamite Wolf, a young schoolboy, mesmerized by his first viewing of a professional wrestling match featuring local star Dynamite Wolf, discovers while “learning the ropes” from his idol that adulthood can be full of “untruths,” but also “make-believe” is still essential for child and adult alike. The well-written script by Hashimoto Natsu and Taniguchi’s direction of the child actors as well as the presence of Rolling’s Kawase Yota have resulted in a thoroughly enjoyable tale any parent could take their child to see. Particularly impressive was the wrestling match which was filmed with the cooperation of the local pro-wrestling league.

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©Akiko Igarashi

Igarashi Akiko’s Visualized Hearts is something of a rarity in Japan, low-fi sci-fi: a high concept premise told with low-tech means. Its story about a machine intended to project a person’s true emotions leaving its inventor in a coma after an accident is essentially a “six-sided” love triangle delving into our inability to be honest with ourselves. A fan of the genre herself, Igarashi never allows the “science” to supercede the “fiction” while employing convincing production value along with effective camera trickery and editing, no CGI, to pull off a solid feature film debut heralding perhaps a new voice in Japanese sci-fi.
[editor’s note: Due to scheduling, Shimizu Shunpei’s Breathless Lovers, Matsuno Izumi’s Good-Bye, and Iizuka Toshimitsu’s Poetry Angel had been screened for the final time before arriving at the festival. There will, hopefully, be an opportunity to view them in the near future.]

Dynamite Wolf, Hizume, and Visualized Hearts are products of a grant program from the Cineastes Organization Osaka (CO2) which supports the creation of independent works. There are certainly many of these organizations and workshops throughout Japan, all providing the impetus for producing independent movies, but it is perhaps CO2’s unique association with OAFF which sets it apart.

CO2

Cineastes Osaka Organization was established in 2004 as a means of conducting talent discovery. It accomplished this, as with other such talent cultivation programs, by soliciting movie treatments or project outlines from filmmakers throughout Japan, then providing support either through the form of grants and/or collaboration toward their completion. Additionally, CO2 has made exhibition an equally important phase of the filmmaking process. From its inception, CO2 organized the Film Exhibition Osaka, an event held every year to present the latest CO2 grant-recepient works and hand its own awards to those completed movies. The aim was to generate the initial (local) awareness of them in the hopes the event would be the first stepping stone toward wider recognition. Its association with the Osaka Asian Film Festival could be perhaps considered the second step. During OAFF’s inaugral year in 2006, movies by the 2nd CO2 grant recipients were screened as part of a sub-event called the Asian Meeting Osaka. However, CO2 grant-recipient works would not be seen again in association with OAFF until 2011 when the Asian Meeting Osaka section featured the grand prize-winning movie from the 7th Film Exhibition Osaka (its final year held), Oe Takamasa’s Nice to Meet You. Only after the addition of the Indie Forum section in 2012 did the world premieres of CO2 grant-recipient movies become a fixture of the festival. This integration between the two organizations has given CO2 works an even larger potential to generate wider recognition, not just locally, but globally as OAFF begins attracting more participants from overseas.

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CO2 Secretary General Tomioka Kunihiko (center) surrounded by 13th CO2 filmmakers ©OAFF

This is due in no small part to CO2 Secretary General, Tomioka Kunihiko. A former screenwriter for Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Tomioka has also served as a programmer for a large number of film festivals at home and abroad as well as being the head of Planet+1, an Osaka-based screening room. Even though CO2 works were not featured in those early years of OAFF, Tomioka was a major presence for the Asian Meeting Osaka, serving as host at talk events and symposiums while still remaining engaged in the Film Exhibition Osaka. Having his feet in both the creative and exhibition ends of the filmmaking process has certainly been the shaping force for CO2. While the grant program steadily became its prominent activity, Tomioka has also been diligently working toward the cultivation of not just young directors, but filmmakers as well, adding workshops to CO2’s activities in 2011. Currently, CO2 conducts workshops in screenwriting and acting as well as special hands-on seminars and guest courses for filmmakers and the general public. All workshop participants are given the opportunity to participate in the production of grant-recipient works. Furthermore, the acting workshop, added in 2015, selects five actors every year to take part in a grant-recipient movie, with one cast in a leading role. The Visualized Hearts main cast are all acting scholarship students with director Igarashi Akiko refining the script as she observed them in workshops. This system of teaching, training, and granting real-world experience is the key to developing Osaka’s pool of production staff capable of realizing projects shot in the Kansai region which has become an increasingly integral objective of CO2.

CO2, however, has maintained the conviction that filmmakers retaining the rights to their work–though completed through CO2 support–allows for the widest exploitation possibilities, from theatrical release to foreign or domestic film festival screenings.

If you find yourself asking, “if they’ve been supporting independent movies for years, why haven’t I really heard of them?” the answer lies in CO2’s unique policy allowing the filmmakers to maintain the rights to their works. This would seem like a matter of course, but some prominent festivals and/or support programs retain the rights to the works they assist in producing thus becoming the licensing entity. CO2, however, has maintained the conviction that filmmakers retaining the rights to their work–though completed through CO2 support–allows for the widest exploitation possibilities, from theatrical release to foreign or domestic film festival screenings. More importantly, the individual filmmaker becomes the point of contact for the movie, allowing them to be the identifiable entity when negotiating screenings or distribution. Perhaps this is why CO2’s own brand awareness may not be as prominent as it could (or should) even though they have supported over the years such movies as Ishii Yuya’s Girl Sparks, Yokohama Satoko’s German+Rain, Ishihara Takahiro’s Violence PM, Yasukawa Yuka’s Dressing Up, Kusano Natsuka’s Antonym, and Hasegawa Yokna’s Dual City among others. This may mean perhaps more headaches, but managing one’s movie after its creation is a fundamental lesson every independent filmmaker must learn.

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Children and adults at the Dynamite Wolf Q&A session. ©Indievisual

Tomioka once wrote in a foreword that digital cinema was increasing the number of independent productions, while the line between a professional and an amateur were being blurred. However, the movies being made were becoming more “introverted visual expression,” twisting the distinction between movies the director wants to make and the audience wants to see. With someone already conscious of this spearheading the activities of CO2, and with its deep connection to OAFF, it might safe to say independent filmmaking in Osaka already possesses the momentum to go as far as it dares.

Final Thoughts

East and West, two directions on a compass, but also two different ideologies, at least in the case of film exhibition. In Tokyo, there is always great excitement and much fanfare in holding events which attract participants from all-around the globe. The philosophy is to draw more people into Tokyo as a hub for “inbound” investment and prestige. In Osaka, however, there was a tangible feeling of a city who desired to share what it can do with the world; an “outbound” pride in providing unique experiences and a desire to be an alternative epicenter of culture and creativity.
The Osaka Asian Film Festival, exhibiting an intimacy and friendliness which often becomes lost the larger and more popular a festival becomes, stands to become the driving force for Kansai’s cinema culture. Though in its 12th year, I was reminded of the days I worked at the San Diego Asian Film Festival during its third through fifth years; OAFF still exudes the kind of spirited energy one finds in something or someone eager to prove itself. It is not afraid to take risks, yet is increasingly maturing in its awareness of its mission, and may well position itself as a distinctively local event possessing far-reaching influence.
Prior to attending OAFF, and indeed long before, I was already sensing something different about independent movies coming from the Kansai region. Now, having personally experienced the Indie Forum section, what I had been sensing has become more clear. OAFF, in conjunction with CO2, share an enthusiasm for treating cinema as entertainment, not “property” or “products” to be sold and traded at market. They also treat movies not only as an expression of one’s own culture, but an opportunity to interact with other cultures, cognizant a movie’s accomplishments does not lie in the number of awards it gathers, but the number of people who have seen it.
As my first time to attend the Osaka Asian Film Festival, I don’t think I could have asked for a better experience. I am intrigued more than ever to see how this festival and Cineastes Organization Osaka will mature and develop, while continuing to influence independent filmmaking in the Kansai region, and perhaps, someday, Japan. I certainly hope there will be opportunities in the future to return and experience its growth in the years to come.