With Friday night’s closing ceremony (time difference being what it is, Friday night in Tokyo works out as sometime in August 2017 in the U.S.) the inaugural Playlist-goes-to-Japan visit to the Tokyo International Film Festival also came to a close. But while our stay in the Asian megalopolis ended, on a personal level, with clawmarks on the carpeting at Narita airport as we were dragged against our will onto our departing plane, the Festival came to a more dignified close, with a longish speech-heavy ceremony surrounding the announcement of the 2014 awards. With one exception, we largely agreed with the selections, and the pick for the Grand Prix happened to be our favorite film from the festival’s competition line up, Josh and Benny Safdie’s addiction drama “Heaven Knows What.” We have interviews with the directors, and with the stars of that film — newcomer Arielle Holmes and Caleb Landry Jones — to come, but for now, here are a few words about each of the night’s winners and a few impressions overall.
So the Grand Prix went, as mentioned, to the only U.S. film in the competition lineup, “Heaven Knows What.” Our full review outlines a more comprehensive impression of the film which actually played Venice and NYFF prior to coming to Tokyo but which we’d managed to miss at both despite marking it out as one to watch. Jury President James Gunn, representing the judging panel of Australian/Hollywood Director Robert Luketic, Korean Director John H Lee, Singapore’s Eric Khoo, Japan’s Hiroshi Shinagawa and UK Casting Director Debbie McWilliams, justified the choice with the following speech:
“This film bursts with life, but is about people living on the brink of death. It’s about people who are desperate to become something more, and in the process of attempting to do so, become something less. The performances seem raw, natural and real, and it belies the craftsmanship of those performances beneath that. The direction is exciting, it turns tragedy into humor, and the music, in all the best ways, is disruptive and shameless.”
Unsurprisingly, given that level of praise the picture also picked up the Best Director Award for the Safdie brothers, with Benny Safdie remarking that receiving the award in Tokyo of all cities meant a great deal: “It’s a true honor to receive a prize in city of movement and speed, which is also what we want in our movies.” Brother Josh backed him up, saying “The fanaticism for life is amazing here. People believe in the extremes of life, in extremism, which is all I’m interested in.” And of course the film makes stellar (“disruptive and shameless,” according to Gunn) use of the music of Japanese electronica composer Isao Tomita, so there is also some shared spirit there.
Elsewhere the Best Actor prize went to Robert Więckiewicz’s performance in Polish alcoholism drama “The Mighty Angel,” one of the films we unfortunately did not catch up with, but presenting Jury member Robert Luketic said of the actor: “[he is] so committed to humanity that at times you could almost feel it and smell it. This actor takes the audience through the agony and dehumanization of full-blown alcoholism. There is unrelenting and convincing pursuit of truth in performance.” And Best Actress was won by Japanese star of stage and screen Rie Miyazawa for Japan’s sole competition entry “Pale Moon.” As we detailed in our review, it’s one of the films with which we felt most out of step with the popular reaction, and here too it seems we were on the other side of the fence; the jury decision to award Miyazawa was unanimous. Her performance was described as “… profound, so sensitive, yet fragile.”
We ourselves would probably have given the prize to Margita Gosheva, the remarkable star of the Bulgarian “The Lesson” (review here) which picked up the Special Jury Prize, having also earned the distinction of being the first film to get a North American distribution deal in Toronto. Awarding it in Tokyo, presenter Hiroshi Shinagawa also called out Gosheva’s remarkably steely, un-self-pitying turn, saying “This film had us on the edge of our seats — stressed out in a good sense. The performance of [Gosheva] was great and had to be because her presence was often the only thing on the screen.”
Outside of those main awards, the Audience Award went to “Pale Moon,” while Russian Alexander Kott’s “Test” gathered more buzz and silverware (actually what looks like perspexware in Tokyo) after playing to acclaim in Abu Dhabi by scooping both the inaugural WOWOW Viewer’s Choice award (judged by a panel of viewers) and the award for Best Artistic Contribution. And the two main sidebars of the Official Selection also announced their winners, with the Japanese Cinema Splash top prize, for emerging Japanese talent, going to “100 Yen Love” with a special mention for the intriguingly titled “Ecotherapy Holiday Getaway.”
And the Asian Future section, which promotes filmmaking from across the region, gave two prizes — The Spirit of Asia award went to “The Last Reel,” a remarkable Cambodian film that we’ll be reviewing presently, but which details the country’s troubled recent history with real personal emotion, while the Best Asian Future Film Award went to Iranian director Amirhossein Asgari’s debut film “Borderless.” Presenting the award, Toronto Film Festival Artistic Director Cameron Bailey said “Our jury was impressed by a film that tells its story of survival during war with the purest of its cinematic elements; image, gesture and time. The lead actor is a young boy, and he does all that without one word of dialogue.”
Finally, two honorary Samurai Awards were given out, celebrating filmmakers Takeshi Kitano and Tim Burton. Burton, who had just that day (appropriately Halloween) opened the Tokyo edition of the World of Tim Burton exhibition, gave a brief but heartfelt speech, saying “Japan is one of my favorite countries, so it’s an honor to be here with all of you, with the great Takeshi Kitano, and with the Japanese monsters that I love.”
But it was Kitano who made decidedly the best, and most idiosyncratic speech of the night, even poking fun a little at the awards that otherwise were extremely respectful. He said “I think I was in the first Tokyo Film Festival, when it was still a small festival. They didn’t even have a Red Carpet — it was a Green Carpet that made us all feel like grasshoppers… I understand there’s no prize money [pointed pause] but a trophy that looks like it’s made up of left over material from other, nicer trophies? Actually, I didn’t want to receive the prize but when I heard that Tim Burton was coming, I felt proud to come. I’ve been making TV and comedy shows but I haven’t been satisfied, and now I finally feel like I’m casting off my skin… like a cicada turning into a dragonfly, and I hope this award will be a part of that change.”
We’ll have more interviews and reviews to come from the Tokyo Film Festival but here’s a link to our coverage to date, including a report on John Lasseter’s “Cool Japan” talk, and a batshit interview with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. In the meantime, however, farewell to the amazing Tokyo and thanks to the wonderful staff of the Tokyo Film Festival for gently guiding jetlagged and culture-shocked foreign journalists through a fascinating week of film.