BIFF 2021: Oct. 11

still from The Book of Fish (c) BIFF

The Asian Contents and Film Market opened Monday. Though separate from BIFF, it’s considered an adjunct to the festival, with attendees of both overlapping and mixing freely outside of sanctioned events, mostly in watering holes and hotel meeting places. In fact, it’s hard to imagine one without the other. While BIFF’s distinctive place in the world as a major international film festival is the attention it pays to local film buffs, ACFM feels like a truly global happening, since it addresses the business side with a real sense of purpose and scale. And while BIFF this year is making a lot of noise about how far it’s rebounded from last year’s curtailed event, ACFM rightly has to face reality and hold much of its events online due to continuing international travel restrictions, though its bulletins are quick to point out that they will be holding “onsite events…for domestic participants who are able to attend physically.” They literally mean business, so the online meetings, booths, and screenings are, presumably, run proficiently enough to facilitate the transacations that make BIFF and its peripherals one of the most important film market events of the year, but one component is necessarily missing, even for those who can attend in person: the parties. Every night, there are a dozen or so wingdings associated with the festival or the market that are attended freely by participants of both, and it’s where a lot of important connections are made. As someone who merely covers the festival, I’ve set up more interviews at parties than I have through the official press office, which is how you’re supposed to do it, but usually by the time the press office makes the necessary arrangements, I’m already gone (the festival typically pays for 5-6 days of my accommodations, and I usually leave on Tuesday or Wednesday). At parties, you can meet distributors and directors who are desperate for exposure, not to mention connections who are happy to introduce you to distributors and directors desperate for exposure. BIFF has bounced back, but from what I’ve learned from people who are there, the parties haven’t. However, one correspondent, a Korean friend, posted on Facebook the intelligence that a lot of the schmoozing and business card-exchanging normally reserved for evening and late night is now being done during breakfast at the various hotels, most of which have buffet offerings. She says, in fact, that she prefers this setup to the usual shenanigans since people are more serious and have to get their business done right away. After all, they have places to be at certain times. And, of course, they aren’t drunk, but she doesn’t mention that.

BIFF is also my venue for catching up on recent mainstream Korean cinema. Many of these films, unlike the often more stimulating indie fare, will eventually be released in Japan, but I like to get to them as soon as possible and on big screens. This year’s Korean Cinema Now: Panorama section, where these films are usually slotted, didn’t have many I was already familiar with, and since I am limited by which films the press office can send me (and have to watch them on small screens), I’m at a double disadvantage. The Book of Fish, which I watched today, is by Lee Joonik, a veteran director whose work I’ve seen but don’t recall with any clear memory. The movie is slated to open in Japan in November, so I was expecting something slick and star-studded. But besides the main actor, Sul Kyung-gu, one of the most versatile leading men in Korea (Peppermint Candy, Rikidozan, and Oasis, maybe my favorite Korean movie of all time), I didn’t see any viable stars in the cast. As a historical movie, its appeal falls outside the usual sword-and-intrigue genre that Japanese fans of K-cinema like, but I can see where it could draw a certain breed of cinephile based on world-of-mouth. It’s at once a crowd-pleaser and an intellectually challenging work. 

According to the opening title card, the script is based on the “preface” to the titular marine guide, which was written by a scholar in the early part of the 19th century. The story, I’m assuming, is mostly fiction suggested by acknowledgements in the preface that the author gleaned much of his knowledge about the sea and its products from one local fisherman named Changdae (Byun John). The scholar’s name is Jeong Yak-jeon (Sul), who was one of three nobleman brothers arrested for sedition because of their familiarity with the Catholic Church and its teachings, which were illegal at the time. As it turns out, only one of the brothers was a baptized Catholic, and he is eventually executed. The other two do not present as Christians but nevertheless admire the science and political thought attendant to Western teachings that arrived with Catholicism, and they are each exiled to far-flung regions. Jeong ends up on Black Mountain Island (Heuksando), whose governor, a bumbling semi-literate bureaucrat, feels himself only slightly superior to this traitor, who is quickly installed in the home of a widow with extra room. Contrary to what he might have expected, the island is an idyll for Jeong, a place of boundless nature and beauty that stimulates his intellect. Changdae is a young fisherman who often deposits seafood at the widow’s door, and who is the illegitimate son of a nobleman who lives on the mainland. Cognizant of his potentially high birth but low circumstances, he teaches himself to read, though the only books he can get his hands on are difficult Confucian classics about the proper way to live in the world. He asks Jeong to help him understand the texts, and in turn Jeong asks Changdae to help him understand the sea, since he wants to write a “treatise,” or, more exactly, a kind of encyclopedia of the ocean’s riches. At first, each of the two men resent the other’s demands, but they eventually fall into a mentor-apprentice relationship that mutually enriches their understanding of the world.

It’s Changdae’s entreaty, “I want to be a better person,” that informs the movie’s theme. To him, “better people” are the learned nobility that he was only half born into, and when he finally achieves his goal he realizes that ambition is a two-edged sword, and reviles what ambitious men make of their privilege, since it necessarily means subjugating the lower classes of which he was member for so long. Jeong, who was born into the nobility and stripped of his place in it, has no such illusions. He is left only with his mind, which has plenty of room for both Eastern philosophy and Western worldliness. To him, the better person is the one who wants to know more. He is, to put it bluntly, the original democratic thinker. 

As befits a mainstream entertainment, the film’s intricate social fabric is shot through with hyperbolic dramatic touches that sometimes feel antithetical to Lee’s intentions, and while the pristine black-and-white cinematography is an effective antidote to the hyperbole, the score, which mixes familiar classical themes (Satie?) with Jerry Goldsmith-worthy bombast often distracts from what a scene seems to be trying to pull off. But it’s a moving historical drama, and one that does a very good job of illuminating a tricky intellectual conundrum. 

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BIFF 2021: Oct. 10

still from Fanatic (c) BIFF

The Asian Film Awards are now being presented every year in conjunction with BIFF, and the 15th set of winners was announced at the Paradise Hotel Ballroom on Friday night, though it’s not clear how many of the winners were physically present. Japan won big by capturing the Best Picture prize for Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy, which also garnered Yu Aoi the Best Actress award. The most prominent Japanese person on hand at the awards seemed to be director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who didn’t win anything, but was in town because two of his movies are being feted at the festival in the Gala Presentation section, which is set aside for high profile new releases whose makers accompany their films in order to talk at length about them in front of fans and in conversation with other filmmakers. Probably owing to the fact that still many filmmakers are unable for one reason or another to attend BIFF, the Gala section this year only has three films: Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and Leos Carax’s Annette. Consequently, Hamaguchi is responsible for two-thirds of this year’s Gala Presentation.

So far I’ve only had time today to watch one screener today, Oh Seyeon’s Fanatic, which is in the Documentary Competition section. A highly personal film, as a documentary it reminded me of last year’s When the Hen Crows, by another young woman who goes by the name of Dabin, which I also saw online through BIFF. Oh’s movie is definitely a student project, since she is still studying film at university, and I suspect Dabin’s was, as well. Besides both being mainly about their authors, the two docs ostensibly use the personal to explore a more general theme. In Dabin’s case, it was the state of feminism in South Korea through the filter of her own “coming out” as a feminist. Oh’s film explores the countours of fandom, especially the downside, and jumps off from her own adolescent crush on a K-pop singer who was eventually arrested and tried for gang rape and distributing videos of his victims. Since both are quite young—Dabin 25 when she made her movie, and Oh only 21 when she made hers—there’s an air of embarrassed amateurness in their narrative tone, though Oh, having already tasted the limelight as a fan, seems more confident of her ability to hold your attention. 

That 15 minutes of fame, when she met her idol, Jung Joon-young, in person on TV at a fan event, is the centerpiece of the film since it not only describes perfectly the depth of her devotion, but also made it possible to reach out to other fans who knew her by reputation. She interviews about a dozen young women, many Jung fans, though about half had crushes on other stars. What they all have in common is that their idols eventually disappointed them either through criminal activity or scandal. Perhaps predictably, their enmity became as fierce as their adoration was previously. “I want him to die in jail,” one hooded woman says of Jung after he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. Despite the fact that Oh herself professes to only being able to talk frankly about her crestfallen emotions after getting drunk, she’s articulate and probing about her feelings, as are almost all her interlocutors, who approach their fanaticism (seongdeok) with a lot more thoughfulness than you’d expect, which probably says more about my prejudices than it does about their states of mind. In fact, I was intrigued by the film because I regularly write about K-pop for a music industry magazine and have always been intimidated by the defensiveness of hardcore K-pop fans, who are extremely sensitive to anything that even resembles a slight to their idols. Unfortunately, Oh doesn’t go into this aspect of the issue, maybe because from her perspective it was more or less natural, but as a reformed seongdeok she certainly knows how it feels, and at one point made the connection between rabid K-pop fandom and right wing proselytizing by visiting a rally for the release of imprisoned former president Park Geun-hye, where one of the activities was writing fan letters to Park that the organizers would pay to have delivered to her. As someone who has had a lot of experience penning sweet meaningless love notes to someone she doesn’t know, Oh felt as if she were among her people, despite the fact that most were old enough to be her grandparents and she didn’t have any particular opinion about Park.

She also avoids the elephant in the room when it comes to pop stardom and fandom, especially with regard to K-pop, which is that most stars are manufactured. Consequently, their whole public being is built around attracting people like Oh and making them devotees. One of the women Oh interviews had a crush not on a K-pop star but on an indie rock artist, which would seem to contradict the kind of fandom Oh is talking about, since indie artists are, by definition, self-made, but the woman didn’t sound any less distracted in her devotion than the K-pop fans, and was equally destroyed when the artist was felled by a scandal. It also might have been interesting had Oh interviewed some men, but maybe their own brand of fandom doesn’t scan along the same lines as that of women’s. In my own experience, I once made a joke about a K-pop boy band some years ago in print and received reams of hate email, which seemed to mostly come from men. 

But what makes Fanatic special is that Oh, thankfully, doesn’t take herself seriously, even if her movie is formally meticulous. It appears that at least half her production budget was spent on taking the train from Busan, where she’s from, to Seoul to attend Jung’s trial, which, like any function related to K-pop, “sold out” in 5 minutes. It’s implied that she got into the court by paying a scalper. She also interviews her own mother about her own feelings regarding an actor she idolized who similarly screwed up and ended his career in disgrace. The parallels with her daughter’s situation are both chilling and hilarious, and when Oh asks her if she was worried about her daughter’s devotion to Jung, the mother says, “No. I thought it was good that you stuck to one thing for so long.” Let’s hope she sticks to filmmaking with the same dedication.

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BIFF 2021: Oct. 9

(c) BIFF

The 26th edition of the Busan International Film Festival started last Wednesday with the usual red carpet ceremony and opening film extravaganza, and according to the organizers the festivities this year are back up to speed after last year’s severely curtailed doings owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, I am not there because there are still restrictions regarding foreign visitors to South Korea, not to mention restrictions on Japanese residents returning home from overseas for whatever reason. So I’m stuck in my little office in Inzai trying to follow the festival (my first was in 2001). Unlike last year, I was not offered access to the online market screenings to which the non-attendant press are entitled with a special code. I informed the press office of this oversight and they were kind enough to set up a system so that I could receive screeners of whatever films I wanted to see that happened to be available, which means not all of them. I feel bad because it obviously required more work on the part of the foreign press office (NDAs, contacting each film’s distributor for permission, etc.), but so far they’ve sent me links to four films with, I hope, more to come. 

To say the least, I feel strange not being there. This time of year I’m always there, and I feel even more disappointed than I did last year, probably because I know the festival this time is almost back to full strength. Moreover, since the last time I was at the festival, Parasite won the Best Picture Oscar and Squid Game has taken over the world (there’s even a new section this year dedicated to new TV dramas). Those of us who’ve always known how special Korean cinema is have finally been vindicated, and it would have been great to share in that sense of achievement after all these years. I’ve been in touch with a few people who are also regulars of BIFF and who feel the same way, so we’re all hoping that next year things are back to “normal,” if such a thing is possible in a post-COVID world. 

Today I managed to watch the opening film, Heaven: To the Land of Happiness, a mainstream entertainment whose somewhat redundant English title sums up its eagerness to please. BIFF openers, especially if they’re Korean movies, often split the difference between somber high-mindedness and big-budget high-mindedness. This year’s offering leans so heavily toward the latter that it tilts over into genre excess, but what intrigued me was the director. Im Sang-soo is responsible for two of the most memorable Korean movies I saw at BIFF in the 2000s: A Good Lawyer’s Wife and The President’s Last Bang. He followed these acid-laced, cynical comedies with the pleasingly stylized but wholly unnecessary remake of Kim Ki-young’s classic 1960s erotic thriller The Housemaid, and then dabbled in commercial films that never displayed the kind of distinctive wit that characterized his earlier work. Heaven continues this pattern. It’s a buddy road movie whose only distinguishing feature is that the buddies are both really ill—one terminally so—and yet they get beat up so much that you wonder if they aren’t superhuman in some way. In other words, it’s a pretty conventional Korean popcorn movie, replete with the requisite melodramatic family subtext and a balance of honest and crooked members of the establishment. There are also a lot of things that don’t make sense, but that’s par for the course with this kind of movie. I would have been interested to see the reaction at the opening night screening since Korean audiences tend to be quite demonstrative while watching if you know what to look (and listen) for. It wasn’t the most auspicious opener, despite the high-caliber cast: Choi Min-sik playing to his strengths as a middle aged loser, and Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung in a small, delectable role as a dying mob boss. 

As is usually the case with the opening film, Heaven was a world premiere, though the opening title card indicates it was slated to be shown at Cannes in 2020. Last year, BIFF had a special section devoted to films that were supposed to play at famous international film festivals but didn’t owing to the pandemic, and in a sense this year’s edition continues to clean up the mess that COVID has made of the film industry’s schedule for the past 18 months. A casual perusal of this year’s program (more movies than last year, but still fewer than normal) shows a higher percentage of world and international premieres, so obviously BIFF is doing its part to help the world heal. Let’s hope it’s completely better again by next October. 

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Review: Pity

The second feature by Greek director Babis Makridis has been compared to the work of his more famous countryman, Yorgos Lanthimos, which could be considered unfair given that Makridis’s first feature was released in 2012 and was thus co-extant with Lanthimos’s early work. For sure, both filmmakers trade in a Beckettian absurdity that often froths over into mild horror–not due to conventional scare tactics (which they mimic more or less ironically), but rather because their stories depend on an extremely bleak understanding of human frailty to put across their dramatic intentions. Besides, both directors co-wrote their scripts with the same partner, Efthymis Filippou, so the comparison isn’t entirely unwarranted.

But the 8 or so years separating Makridis’s debut from his sophomore film, Pity, only seems to intensify the comparison, seeing how much work Lanthimos has done during that time—not to mention how much progress he’s enjoyed as an artist and professional. If anything, Pity seems almost regressive in its embrace of the pointlessness of existence and the nihilism at the core of its humor. Yannis Drakopouls plays a mousy, affectless, nameless lawyer whose wife lingers in a coma after an accident that happens off screen. What at first looks like depression over the state of a loved one reveals itself as a kind of sick contentment. The lawyer actually revels in the sympathy he receives from colleagues and acquaintances, and, in Makridis’s telling, becomes “addicted” to being pitied. For a good portion of the film, however, this mindset is played for laughs, as the lawyer manipulates his surroundings and situation to gain as much pity as possible. The laughs, however, become more uncomfortable as the lawyer’s voiceover conveys not only his self-delusion, but his almost evil regard for the people who actually think he’s suffering. He resents them at the same time he desires their attention.

Eventually, this need becomes insatiable, and when the unexpected happens, the proverbial rug is pulled out from under our protagonist, at which point things really do get weird and scary. Makridis’s deadpan style, reminiscent of those Scandinavian directors who work in monochrome and fixed camera placements to highlight the comic dreariness of being, successfully contrasts the lawyer’s narcissism with the more conventional socialized behavior of everybody else. If the movie isn’t quite as horrifying as it should be, it may be due to the fact that the effect of all this lack of affect is that the main character just isn’t that engaging. When he does truly horrible things you just shrug it off. 

In Greek. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).

Pity home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2018 Neda Film, Madants, Faliro House

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Review: Mainstream

Though Gia Coppola’s Mainstream presumes to address the way online culture has highjacked culture in general, its flashy, colorful style and pretensions to quick wit reveal an eagerness to appeal to the same kind of jaded sensibilities that the movie lampoons. Coppola’s proxy is Frankie (Maya Hawke), a struggling video artist who can barely attract 100 people to view her work on the internet, and thus makes a living as a bartender in the kind of place that uses her videos as wallpaper. Frankie’s life is presented as a cautionary tale, a means of sending up media trends as fashion trends as lifestyle trends ad nauseum. The idea that there’s no substance to Frankie’s life can be taken to mean that there’s no substance to Coppola’s movie, but then Link shows up.

Link (Andrew Garfield) is first seen wearing a stuffed animal costume outside a Los Angeles mall that Frankie is incorporating into one of her videos. Link has the chutzpah in selling his sorry ass that Frankie can’t muster to sell her art, and a kind of bond is formed. Link’s shtick is to reject “all that,” meaning the phone, the internet, all the trappings of our “connected society.” The viewer immediately pegs him as a  crank, but Frankie sees a “project.” Link becomes the star of a new series of videos that Frankie produces with her partner, Jake (Nat Wolff), called “No One Special,” which encourages people to do as Link does and unplug.

What follows is entertaining enough despite its utter predictability as a rise-and-fall tale of celebrity. Just because Coppola is using the formula to explore the work of influencers doesn’t make it necessarily fresh, though it does offer Garfield a chance to act out in some amazing ways. Since I am not an avid YouTube watcher, many of the jokes that accompany the improvement in production values of Link’s videos likely flew over my head, but I got the point: content is overrated for the terminally engaged. “I don’t get people’s tastes any more,” someone says about, seemingly, everything. It’s too general a complaint to base an entire movie on. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

Mainstream home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Eat Art LLC

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Review: Stardust

As rock star biopics go, this somewhat fictionalized account of David Bowie’s first trip to the U.S., before he broke big even in the UK, is encouragingly circumscribed, since it addresses only that formative period before the drugs and money did their worst (and best, for that matter). And in some ways, it feels important in the sense that Bowie at the time had yet to create any of the professional personae that made him unique in the realm of popular music. However, writer-director Gabriel Range is sorely limited by not only his budget but his lack of access to Bowie’s catalogue, and while he does get a lot of mileage out of the period production design, his portrayal of the man who would soon become Ziggy Stardust feels pale and compromised by caution.

It’s difficult to remember a time in his professional life when Bowie was insignificant, but as Range conceives it in 1971 the singer-songwriter born David Jones (Johnny Flynn) barely knew what he was as an artist. He had one solid hit in England, “Space Oddity,” but it was such a strange song that even his own record company thought of it as a one-off. Nevertheless, his management decides to send him to the states for a solo tour to see if he can get a record contract. It isn’t until he arrives that he learns he should have gotten a work visa beforehand. The local publicist who meets him at the airport, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), tells him that means he can’t play legally for money, and so Oberman books him into private parties where, it is hoped, the right industry people will show up. Performance-wise, Bowie at this point thought of himself as a mod-era Anthony Newley, a showman with a cold, arty image, but he had yet to translate this idea into something that made sense to an audience. Though he had started to explore the androgynous style that eventually defined his initial star power, musically he couldn’t put across the real appeal of his unusual songs with just his voice and an acoustic guitar, and the “shows” he played in the U.S. were mostly ignored by people who attended them. 

Had Range stuck to this concept of Bowie figuring out his image under extreme duress, all the while learning about America from the voluble, earthy Oberman (the best scene is when Bowie crashes for the night at Oberman’s mother’s house), the movie could have at least been a valuable curiosity, but Range wants to psychoanalyze Bowie as well, throwing in long, involved passages related to his half-brother Terry (Derek Moran), who suffered from a mental illness that Bowie was afraid would befall him as well. Having studied theater and mime—Bowie’s show biz ambitions were, if anything, hilariously conventional—the future star cuts a flamboyant figure but without the trappings of confidence that are necessary to put it across to the average pop fan. He would leave the U.S. broken and disappointed but with a better idea of what he needed to do to break through. These are all interesting ideas to explore, but Stardust is dull, simply because it’s incomplete. Flynn is a good singer but his performance is attenuated by the fact that he can’t use any of Bowie’s songs. How can we believe he’s a genius with this kind of material? Moreover, Range tries to pump up the drama by making his wife, Angie (Jena Malone), into a harridan, a woman who only thinks about money and fame. It’s a cheap cliche, even in big budget rock biopics.

Opens Oct. 8 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).

Stardust home page in Japanese

photo (c) Copyright 2019 Salon Bowie Limited, Wild Wonderland Films LLC

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Media Mix, Oct. 2, 2021

Scene from D.P.

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about bullying and abuse in the South Korean military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. As pointed out in the column, all militaries throughout the world have this problem, and though it isn’t necessarily covered up in Japan, the severity of the problem may be. The reason I mentioned the Netflix drama D.P. is that it shows how popular culture in South Korea addresses the problem in a very direct and accessible way. The same is true in the U.S. (think of movies like Jarhead). I can’t imagine a Japanese TV drama or even movie doing the same thing with regard to the SDF, though part of the reason has mainly to do with what I see as complacency. The Japanese public doesn’t seem to be that interested in the SDF or what happens within its ranks. South Koreans do simply because of the draft and the threat of North Korea, but their movie and TV industries are also more developed and thriving than Japan’s, and they confront social problems as a matter of course. The worldwide popularity of Squid Game isn’t just due to the violence and gore inherent in its bizarre premise. Though it’s total fantasy, the show gets at the heart of the wealth gap in South Korea and how it has twisted society, and this theme, I believe, resonates in other countries even if the specific plot points that deliver the theme are peculiar to South Korea. D.P. does something similar and, in my mind, is a better series, not so much because, as Miran Tanaka says in the article I cite, it’s realistic. Actually, it doesn’t seem that realistic since its entertainment requirements call for lots of thrills and complex detective work. What makes it relevant is the idea that military culture brings out whatever cruelties are latent in male personalities, and that it isn’t an unfortunate side effect. It’s on purpose, because the goal of military service is to prepare men to kill if necessary. At one point in D.P., the lead character says as much, except he’s not talking about killing a theoretical enemy, but rather a flesh-and-blood comrade who has become a monster under such circumstances. The genius of D.P. is the way it shows how this attitude ripples out into the larger society with dire consequences. These kinds of themes are very common in South Korean movies and TV shows, and while certain directors deal with them directly, most incoporate them into works that are ostensibly entertainments. As I said near the end of the column, D.P. is filled with exciting chases and fight scenes. In that regard, Squid Game and even Parasite are not exceptions. They’re representative of what South Korean narrative art regularly delivers because, we have to assume, it’s what South Korean audiences demand. 

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Review: Kanarta

Akimi Ota, a doctoral candidate at Manchester University in ethnology, made this intimate film when he lived in the Ecuadorean rain forest with the Shuar, a group of native people with their own unique language whose indigenous territory covers a large land mass that extends over most of the Amazon countries. Ota lived in one village and recorded the footage himself, since he had no crew. The result is highly professional to the point where it not only transcends its ostensible purpose of documenting the daily lives of its subjects, but realizes a cinematic narrative structure and aesthetic that conveys its own sensibility apart from that of its subject. Strictly speaking, I’m not sure if that’s what ethnologists are supposed to do, but it also may explain why the movie has been shown at several international film festivals and is receiving a theatrical release in Japan. 

In any case, Ota tried to stay out of the picture as much as possible, and though you hear his voice once or twice, there is no narration. The main subject is the Tsamarain family, whose patriarch, Sebastian, takes up most of the screen time, acting as a guide to the forest and a kind of professorial lecturer on Shuar culture. Though much of what he says will probably go over the viewer’s head, Sebastian is often a riveting presence: funny, articulate if not always coherent, and genuinely photogenic. The reason he seems out of reach most of the time is that he is a shaman, and while Ota, owing to his long-term contact with the village, seems to understand the spiritual world Sebastian expounds upon, I, for one, became fidgety with all the metaphors and vague descriptions that came with the lectures. The main focus is his use of two psychotropic plants that have a wide range of purposes in the village, though it’s not clear from the exposition if anyone on screen has partaken of the drug during filming. There’s also a lot of imbibing of something called “chicha,” a fermented drink that seems to accompany almost every activity, including those partaken for survival, such as building huts and searching for food. In fact, halfway through, I came to the conclusion that much of footage depicts people who are constantly stoned, which is a pointless observation, of course, since if they are always stoned then that is their “normal” state of being, which means I may never really be able to appreciate the mindset that seems essential to understanding Sebastian’s discursions about the universe. 

Still, it isn’t all exotic ephemera. The family buys clothing from the outside world and there’s even a TV. At one point Sebastian’s wife (at least, I think she’s his wife) talks about running for office, so it’s not as if the people being observed are completely off the grid, so to speak, and in that regard, I wish Ota has pointed his camera farther afield to capture how the Shuar fit into the larger scheme of Amazon society, but that’s perhaps asking too much of an anthropologist. Nevertheless, I wonder what his doctoral advisor thought of the movie. 

In Shuar. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Kanarta home page in English

photo (c) Akimi Ota

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Review: Collective

In the past decade-plus, a handful of Romanian directors (Christian Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, etc.) have created a body of dramatic work that is perhaps unmatched in its ability to come to grips with the way official actions (i.e., bureaucratic behavior) undermine the institutions that are supposed to support a workable society. From abortion to educational opportunity, the topics these films tackle have a universal relevance even if the particular horrors exposed are specific to Romania. Collective, a documentary by Alexander Nanau, provides insight into the kind of obstacles truth-seekers are up against in Romania because it addresses a real-life tragedy by following the players whose aim is to expose the corruption that not only led to that tragedy, but exacerbated it afterwards. 

At the center of the story is a fire that broke out at the titular Bucharest nightclub in 2015 at a heavy metal concert that killed 27 on the spot and injured 180. The club had no fire exits, and while such a lapse in public safety protocols is enough to warrant its own hardline investigation, the movie’s real target becomes something larger and more insidious. In hospital, many of the survivors ended up dying anyway, but not because of the burns they suffered in the fire. They died of bacterial infections they contracted while in intensive care. The government as represented by the health ministry puts up what looks like the usual PR stonewall to hide the fact that the company that imported the disinfectants diluted them to one-tenth their normal strength in order to increase profits, and a small group of journalists (mostly working for a sports tabloid), activists, and victims advocates refuse to allow the coverup to proceed without pushback. Nanau covers it all in real time, keeping his cameras in the thick of the fight rather than summing up the story through retrospective interviews with principal players, the way most documentaries would handle it. Consequently, the movie is not only relentlessly compelling as drama, it’s edifying in the way it treats each element of the tale as its own unique factoid. When a health official uses language to obfuscate some deeper truth, we see the statement given and then the immediate reaction from a journalist who tells the camera that it’s all bullshit. As the authorities try to play down the ensuing disinfectant scandal, we see the key reporters doggedly keeping it in the public sphere even while the mainstream media, especially TV, paint their journalism as mere scaremongering to sell more papers. 

Though Nanau also reserves sufficient time to spotlight the victims and their suffering, the gist of the movie is its slow, methodical revelation of the rot that permeates the entire health infrastructure. And while the viewer may find it heartening that the reporting on display brings down much of this infrastructure (one official commits suicide), thus paving the way for a new health minister who was once a victims’ advocate himself, the idea of “resistance” is so prevalent on every side that it’s easy to wonder what kind of effect the new man will have on a system in which doctors cannot be expected to get ahead in their profession without taking bribes to make sure the “old ways” stay the way they are. Nanau is blessed with almost unbelievable access, not only to the people fighting the system but to those defending it, and yet his movie doesn’t feel like a happy accident of being in the right place at the right time. It’s a fully engaged work of truth-telling, deliberate and fiercely intelligent. 

In Romanian. Opening Oct. 2 in Tokyo at Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).

Collective home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Alexander Nanau Production, HBO Europe, Samsa Film 2019

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Media Mix, Sept. 25, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about Sanae Takaichi’s candidacy for the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party and, by extension, the prime minister’s office. Since I wrote the column, her chances of achieving that post have increased greatly. Though she is still way behind Taro Kono in polls of LDP members–the only people who get to vote (and not all of them)–she’s now neck-and-neck with Fumio Kishida, meaning she could be the contender if there is a runoff. So the possibility that Takaichi could be Japan’s first female prime minister is very real, and, as pointed out at the end of the column, something that many women may find disappointing due to Takaichi’s conservative bent. Still, some women have said that although they don’t agree with Takaichi’s policies they still hope she wins because they think that having a woman in such a powerful position is enough to change the environment for the better. (Strangely, these women don’t bring up the fact that Takaichi once did an internship in Washington for representative Patricia Schroeder, a famous liberal Democrat, though it’s obvious why other LDP members don’t mention it.) The things that bother feminists, such as Takaichi’s opposition to elective surnames for married couples, are not uppermost in the electorate’s list of interests, and while she has not made any distinct comments about addressing the wealth gap, an issue that does interest the electorate, she would have to say something about it if she became LDP president and had to lead the party in the upcoming lower house election. Given the usual disarray among the opposition, the LDP will likely hold on to its majority in the lower house and thus continue to control the government, so, in a sense, it may not matter what she says about the wealth gap, an issue that was also sidelined by her mentor, Shinzo Abe, when he was prime minister. It says much about Japanese politics that the perception among the public is that there is a huge difference in policy outlook between Kono and Takaichi, who both belong to the same party. Kono is seen as someone who, despite the compromises he has made since announcing his candidacy, stands for change, while Takaichi is considered an LDP hardliner, meaning she won’t veer too far off the path that Abe and Suga have trod. Real life has a way of mixing things up, especially in politics, but whether Takaichi’s being a woman will make any difference is anyone’s guess. Still, it would be a shame if it didn’t. 

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