Thursday, July 19, 2018

Japan Cuts 2018 Preview

Japan Society's always immaculately curated film series, Japan Cuts, to me, over the years has been regarded as a smaller, quieter sister to massive and crazy and unruly New York Asian Film Festival. And I don't mean this as a bad thing. I think what happened was, when it comes to choosing films to cover from the full line up of Japan Cuts, after extravagance of NYAFF, my attention shifted toward Lo-fi, indie films. This year I specifically chose women directors' works. Many of them unknowns and first timers who need more exposure. And I was richly rewarded for it. Japan Cuts runs 7/19 through 7/29 at Japan Society.

Here are four films I was able to sample:

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Matsuoka Mayu makes a star making debut playing Yoshika, an introverted twenty-something accountant, in Tremble All You Want. Stuck in her uneventful, lonely life, Yoshika the virgin resorts to a fantasy world where she converses with strangers at a coffeeshop, buses and streets. She is still carrying the torch for Ichi, a princely classmate from Middle school days. But her life takes a turn when Kirishima, a goofy co-worker, confesses his crush on her. In her mind, Ichi will always be number one (ichi) and however nice of a guy Kirishima is, will always remain number two (ni).

Yoshika organizes school reunion under a false name in order to see Ichi again but gets heartbroken when her doesn't remember her name. Going steady with Kirishima seems to be OK at first, that it feels good and natural. But it gets thwarted by her crushing insecurity. Sooner or later, she has to choose between the fantasy and real life.

Tremble All You Want's strength is in its incongruous details - Yoshika's daily rituals, her quirky mannerisms and her eccentric neighbor are all intimately observed. The film rides on the charm of Matsuoka as she breaks out in to a song or does something equally irrational at a moment's notice. A bit overlong for its foregone conclusion, yet with beautifully written characters and and winsome cast, the film is a constantly watchable rom-com.

AMIKO - Yoko Yamanaka
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20 year old Yamanaka Yoko's no budget debut Amiko, played drolly by Sunohara Aira provides a window to the low-fi angst of a high school girl leading a boring suburban existence. Mostly in close-ups, Amiko, our bowl cut haired, Radiohead listening heroine, leads an uneventful life in Nagano. Her ideal fantasy world comes in the form of Aomi (Oshita Hiroro), a nihilistic boy obviously too cool for school. He is in the school soccer club just because. And when things get boring at a practice, he'd fake leg cramps. They bond over their hatred of sports and Radiohead one day. Then it's the waiting game for Amiko. Time passes and nothing happens. She deliberately passes by him in the stores. Nothing. Then she hears that he ran away to Tokyo to live with a former student who was pretty and popular, the kind of shallow girl Amiko thought they both loathed. The life gives you lemons, you better suck them in the bathtub.

So Amiko embarks on a journey to Tokyo, to confront Aomi. There she finds that her ideal world is not what it's cracked up to be. That everyone realizes growing up and facing the reality suck donkeys. Completely devoid of adult presence, you can detect the sweet stench of youth emanating from every frame of Amiko. Peppered with French New Wave spirit - especially the "If you two are truly in love, dance with me!" impromptu dancing scene in the subway, the film packs a rebellious, playful punch.

DEAR ETRANGER - Yukiko Mishima
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Salaryman Tanaka (Asano Tadanobu) has an adoring daughter from a previous marriage. With the company he's been working for downsizing, lately he is having second thoughts about having another baby with his current wife who also has two girls (Eri and Kaoru) from her previous relationship. Good natured Tanaka is a good dad to all three, trying to do right by everyone. But Kaoru, the older sullen tween daughter with an abandonment issue, rebels against Tanaka, saying deeply hurtful things - that he will abandon Eri and her as soon as he gets a new baby with their mom.

Even though gentle, the situation pushes Tanaka to a breaking point. He lashes out to his wife and Kaoru. Boy, ain't the mid-life a bitch to wade through? Dear Etranger is as real as it gets. But it's also a downer, just because it's all too real. Asano shows a great range here as a everyday salaryman.

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'Searching' is the main theme of Oda Kaori's deeply personal documentary, Toward a Common Tenderness. Oda, a young Japanese filmmaker, forever uncertain, is searching for her identity, both as a person and as a filmmaker. Her debut short Thus a Noise Speaks, she used the camera as a weapon, to confront her family who rejected her coming out as gay. She jumped at a chance to attend film.factory, founded by Bela Tarr, in Sarajevo. There, she was searching for the purpose of filmmaking. She discovers that she likes to film people - her hosts in a small village and Romani family who acted as guides. Their soulful, sad faces spoke volumes more than their limited verbal communication with her. Her project in the coal mines there resulted in the film Aragane.

The film is a compendium of Oda's work so far. It beautifully conveys her loneliness and isolation and longing. This time, Oda uses camera as a direct and intimate communication device. The film is a lyrical, poetic gesture of reaching out from Oda to herself, to her subjects and to the viewers.