Mad World (Courtesy of OAFF)
Mad World (Courtesy of OAFF)

Japan, like many nations, is rife with film festivals. A rough count puts the global number at 3,000 each year, with Japan hosting as many as 100, depending on how “festival” is defined.

Some of these events are organized purely for commercial gain, but the Osaka Asian Film Festival (OAFF), which celebrated its 12th anniversary in early March, has always eschewed glitz and glamour, remaining true to its initial mission to promote cinematic exchange between Japan and the rest of Asia.

Held in Japan’s No. 2 city  — also known as the nation’s capital of commerce and its lifestyle trendsetting hotspot — OAFF’s stature as an international heavyweight continues to expand, despite its relatively compact size and shoestring budget.

Osaka has long been considered Japan’s gateway to Asia for the historical importance of its port, and as such, its film festival plays a not-insignificant role in Japan’s soft-power diplomacy throughout the region.

Just as importantly, it provides local filmgoers with what may be their only opportunity to see certain titles, as arthouse theaters disappear, distributors of foreign films dwindle, and the Big 3 studios (Toho, Toei, Shochiku) dominate marquees.

The run down

Running from March 3 – 12, during which it screened 58 features and shorts from 19 Asian nations/territories (including, for the first time, Bhutan and Macao), OAFF hosted a record 16 world premieres and four international premieres and its Competition strand featured a festival-first 16 films.

Along with its Indie Forum section of new Japanese work and special screenings of buzzed-about titles from other festivals, OAFF 2017 presented 10 films under the moniker New Action! Southeast Asia.

Also added was an intriguing six-film sidebar dubbed In and Out of Work: Looking at Asia through the Prism of Employment. It included a rare showing of Yoshitaro Nomura’s 1955 The Refugee, with Keiji Sada and Keiko Kishi as a Chinese and Japanese who fall in love during wartime.

The festival’s enhanced profile has made it increasingly easier to attract higher-caliber work.

“[For the 2016 edition], we had a lot of submissions, but we still did a lot of our own outreach with big production companies and directors,” Programming Director Sozo Teruoka said in an interview.

“This year, good films came to us without extra outreach. And we had a lot of directors returning with new work [six in the Competition alone], many of whom have become well known,” he said. “We hadn’t intended to select so much of the lineup from submissions, but the fact is, a lot of famous directors submitted to OAFF with films we wanted, so about 50% of the lineup came to us this way. We were very happy about that.”

OAFF Programming Director Sozo Teruoka ©Koichi Mori
OAFF Programming Director Sozo Teruoka ©Koichi Mori

Teruoka hastened to add that OAFF has no plans to significantly expand its lineup: “Festivals like Berlin, Busan and Toronto [which screen hundreds of films] are now being criticized for being too big.

“I’d like to keep the number of films we show to around 50, and to focus on providing a meaningful venue for both filmmakers and audiences, as well as on helping the films find their ways into Japanese and Asian theaters.”

Superb work

With nine titles from the Philippines and eight from Hong Kong (including coproductions) Teruoka explained that an exceptionally large number of “superb” works had been submitted from the two, making it difficult to cull.

“The Hong Kong International Film Festival opens shortly after OAFF, but many filmmakers hope to premiere at our festival instead. So we have five Hong Kong films and three from the Philippines in our Competition,” he added.

“Unlike other festivals, we don’t try to balance the number of films we present from each country, since we feel it’s more important to give our audiences an accurate picture of the current state of Asian cinema.”

The picture that emerges from OAFF is one of impressive diversity, even within national cinemas, with many films directed by women and/or featuring female protagonists, and a prevalence of parallel-yet-separate storylines following multiple characters on journeys that often, but not always, converge.

There were films of punishing brutality, like Malaysian director’s Shanjhey Kumar Perumal’s Jagat (the very title means “brutal”) and Borgy Torre’s Tisay, from the Philippines.

Added to the mix were Glossy melodramas, like Tracy Choi’s Sisterhood (Macau-Hong Kong) and Simon Hung’s 10,000 Miles (Taiwan).

Genre straddlers

Several straddled genres in indefinable ways, like Dain Iskandar Said’s darkly magical Interchange (Malaysia-Indonesia) and the gothic psycho-chiller Bliss, from the Philippines’ Jerrold Tarog (which would pick up the OAFF Yakushi Pearl Award for Iza Calzado’s gutsy performance as an actress going, or being driven, insane).

Bliss director Jerrold Tarog and star Iza Calzado, winner of the festival’s award for best performance. ©Koichi Mori
Bliss director Jerrold Tarog and star Iza Calzado, winner of the festival’s award for best performance. ©Koichi Mori

There were even two films set in or featuring lengthy interludes in Hokkaido: Sigrid Andrea P. Bernardo’s romantic dramedy Kita Kita (I See You) from the Philippines and superstar Thai director Banjong Pisanthanakun’s melancholy rom-com One Day.

The Hong Kong film Mad World took home the festival’s top prize, the Grand Prix for Best Picture.

The debut feature from Wong Chun, only 28 years young and already the winner of Taiwan’s Golden Horse for Best New Director for this work, it tackles poverty, aging, born-again Christianity and mental illness with an unwavering but compassionate gaze.

During the Awards Ceremony, the jury lauded “its unflinching and sympathetic view of a neglected reality. It is harsh but tender, tragic but hopeful. The film is an act of love.”

Mad World (Courtesy of OAFF)
Mad World (Courtesy of OAFF)

Beautifully crafted and movingly acted, Mad World tells the story of a truck-driver father (the great Eric Tsang) who assumes custody of his estranged son (Shawn Yue), a former high roller who suffers from bipolar disorder, and may have been complicit in his mother’s death.

In increasingly disturbing flashbacks, we see the son attempting to care for his abusive, bedridden mother (the legendary Elaine Jin, who received a Golden Horse for the role); and we see him in the present, battling his illness, attempting to reconcile both with his father and his past.

The Hong Kong-China production Soul Mate, director Derek Tsang’s adaptation of a popular Chinese web novel, took home OAFF’s ABC Award, which comes with 1 million yen for the Asahi television broadcasting rights.

Soul Mate © 2016  JOYCORE Pictures (Shanghai) Co., J.Q. Pictures Limited, Alibaba Pictures Group Limited, We Pictures Ltd. All rights reserved.
Soul Mate © 2016  JOYCORE Pictures (Shanghai) Co., J.Q. Pictures Limited, Alibaba Pictures Group Limited, We Pictures Ltd. All rights reserved.

The film, about best friends whose relationship takes many twists and turns over the years, has drawn comparisons to work by Japan’s Shunji Iwai, and has already won twin trophies for leads Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun, who shared the Golden Horse for Best Actress.

The Audience Award-winning film, 29+1, is also from Hong Kong, where it began in 2003 as a stage play starring its writer-director, Kearen Pang, and became such a hit that she remounted it repeatedly over the next decade.

Like Soul Mate, it is the story of female protagonists grappling with adulthood, as they face down the terrifying prospect of turning 30. During a Q&A session following the SRO screening at OAFF on March 9, Pang said that she’d “promised a friend that I will make 59+1 when the time arrives,” an announcement greeted by copious applause.

29+1 ©2017
29+1 ©2017

A Special Mention went to Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong for her enigmatic sophomore feature By the Time It Gets Dark (Dao Khanong). It begins as a story about a film director researching the 1976 massacre of student activists at Thamassat University and gradually transforms into an exploration of Thailand’s collective memory.

As with Suwichakornpong’s previous feature, Mundane History, this one is being favorably compared to the work of international arthouse stalwart Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

By The Time It Gets Dark. (Courtesy of OAFF)
By The Time It Gets Dark. (Courtesy of OAFF)

While OAFF has become a prominent platform for Asian filmmakers, it has not yet achieved the same status among its Japanese compatriots.

Bigger in Japan

According to Programming Director Sozo Teruoka, only 20% to 30% of the festival’s submissions come from within the country, and none are from the big studios or the big-name directors.

This is now set to change, with OAFF’s newly minted support from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s J-LOP fund, part of the Cool Japan Initiative that is fueling projects in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The support will allow the festival to more vigorously promote domestic titles, providing a gateway to Asia and beyond for Japanese filmmakers.

OAFF had already signaled a move in this direction in 2016, when New York City’s venerable Japan Society began bestowing the Japan Cuts Award on a film in the Indie Forum, along with an invitation to screen the work at the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York in July.

Of the 12 films by emerging Japanese talent this year, the Japan Cuts Award went to Shingo Matsumura’s gentle rom-com, Love and Goodbye and Hawaii.

Love And Goodbye And Hawaii ©2017 Ippo
Love And Goodbye And Hawaii ©2017 Ippo

The director’s sophomore effort, it features pitch-perfect performances by Aya Ayano and Kentaro Tamura as ex-lovers who continue to be roommates, until one of them falls for someone else.

But after Matsumura’s award-winning Striking Out in Love (2013), about two women on a road trip around Japan’s “power spots” to pray for luck in love, his new work feels blandly imagined and a little too tame. (For those readers in Tokyo: Love and Goodbye and Hawaii will run from April 15 – 21 at Cinemart Shinjuku.)

Also of note in the Indie Forum were Ronan Girre’s I Want to Be Loved, a J-horror-French amour fou-hybrid set on a secluded beach in Hiroshima, and Toshimitsu Iizuka’s Poetry Angel, perhaps the world’s first serio-comedy about the sport of poetry boxing.

Girre’s film, about a schoolgirl ghost who floats beneath the waves, awaiting the return of her one true love, stars up-and-comer Ren Kiriyama as the boy who done the ghost-girl wrong, and features director-actress-producer Kiki Sugino, whose own vengeful-spirit story, Snow Woman, is currently playing in Japanese cinemas.

I Want To Be Loved / Courtesy of OAFF
I Want To Be Loved / Courtesy of OAFF

Iizuka’s film considers the dilemma of young Tsutomu, who must choose between writing (and competitively “boxing”) poetry and the family umeboshi plum farm.

It doesn’t take a genius to predict the ending, but the journey through various “boxing” competitions and the empowering impact on the participants, is mostly worth our while. (Poetry Angel opens at Theatre Shinjuku in Tokyo and other venues on May 20.)

But the true Indie Forum crowd pleaser was Kohei Taniguchi’s Dynamite Wolf, which had the home-team advantage of its Osaka roots and its support from the local Dotonbori Pro Wrestling organization.

A coming-of-age story about three misfit boys and their newfound enthusiasm for pro wrestling, it touches on such social issues as bullying, pederasty and blue-collar unemployment.

Dynamite Wolf / Courtesy of OAFF
Dynamite Wolf / Courtesy of OAFF

But what really gets viewers in a happy headlock is the energy of the filmmaking and Taniguchi’s ability to portray the essential humanity of all his characters, particularly the title’s namesake wrestler, played with hangdog brio by Yota Kawase.

The OAFF Closing Film, Parks, marked Natsuki Seta’s (A Liar and a Broken Girl) long-awaited return to feature filmmaking. Seta hails from Osaka and the event attracted a standing room only audience.

An inventive celebration of the 100th anniversary of Inokashira Park in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, the film stars Ai Hashimoto, Mei Nagano and Shota Sometani as newfound friends who become obsessed with trying to recreate the missing portions of a love song they hear on an old reel-to-reel tape recording. Parks opens at Theatre Shinjuku on April 22, and expands from there.