Tokyo International Film Festival: Some hidden gems, but short on quality overall

Tetsuichiro Tsuta's The Tale of Iya was the highlight of the festival

Autumn is the season of the supersized film festival. Toronto, London and Busan don't so much programme films as suck them in like a black hole. Who needs to care about curating when you can show 300 films?

So it's nice to land at the Tokyo International Film Festival, where the number of films selected seems inversely proportional to the size of the population. The five main sections of the program house only 77 films. Sadly, it doesn't follow that the lack of quantity ensures a concentration on quality.

The competition selection is made up of 17 films, but it's hard to take the line-up seriously when Drinking Buddies – a likeable but lightweight American comedy – is in the running. As with the London festival's competition, it's made up of several films that have already aired elsewhere. The UK entrant, Richard Ayoade's The Double, based on Dostoevsky's classic novel, has already shown at Toronto and London. That being said, the Japanese poster for the film is marvellous, as was the official festival poster - a heart manipulated to look like a movie camera.

The winning film was Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best, a charming tale about a group of schoolgirls who start a punk band in Sweden in the early 1980s. But like a postman, it's done the rounds.

The joy of the Tokyo festival came in searching out local films from unheralded directors. There were two Japanese films in competition, both character studies in which protagonists visit seaside towns and touch upon the seedier side of life. Yet that is where the similarities ended.

One, Au revoir l’ete, stars a likeable protagonist, Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido), an 18-year-old girl who spends the summer studying for her university in a small seaside town and discovers romance, and a group of locals who wouldn't look out of place in Twin Peaks. My favourite was Ukichi (Kanji Furutachi), who runs an unofficial "love hotel". His straightforward questioning nature seems to always end with his subject staring some moral failing straight in the eye. Also intriguing is Takashi (Taiga), a refugee from Fukushima. Director Koji Fukada delights in equating the nuclear meltdown with the meltdown of the nuclear family. The title is French, and the only reason for it seems to be because the film has the sensibility of Eric Rohmer.

The other Japanese competition film, Disregarded People, has a protagonist who commits two rapes and gets into complicated relationships with both women - a young lady with a birthmark across her face whom he marries, and her aunt with whom he has a ten-year affair. Like some of the Japanese deserts on offer in local restaurants, this can best be described as not for Western palates, well, not since the 1970s New Hollywood Cinema anyway. Director Hideo Sakaki may be one of Japan's best-known actors (he starred in The Grudge), but he's unlikely to add to his fan club with this adaptation of the manga comic by Inochi (aka George) Akiyama. The film starts bleak and just gets bleaker.

Strangely, the film that would have lit up the competition - the stunning Japanese discovery of the festival, Tetsuichiro Tsuta's The Tale of Iya - was tucked away in the Asian Future section. The wordless opening scene in which a man finds a baby in the snow by a freezing lake in the mountains of Tokushima is mesmerising. When the action jumps to the present day, the baby has grown into caring woman Haruna (Rina Takeda), who is now looking after the elderly gentleman (Min Tanaka) who discovered her. It maintains a glacial high standard throughout the near three-hour runtime.

The story looks at the changing face of modern Japan. The town can no longer rely on agriculture to sustain the community and as a result many of the local population have left for the big city. They've been replaced by a group of construction workers building a tunnel through Iya and a group of foreigners protesting the defacing of the Japanese countryside. Then there is an amazing turn of events that audiences should discover for themselves. Mark 29-year-old director Tetsuichiro Tsuta on your movie dance card. 

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