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DIVING BELL: THE TRUTH SHALL NOT SINK WITH SEWOL


DIVING BELL: THE TRUTH SHALL NOT SINK WITH SEWOL


 April 21, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Hae-ryong Ahn and producer Hei-rim Hwang


Almost exactly 2 years after the sinking of the Sewol Ferry off the coast of Donggeochado Island, South Korea, the Film Committee screened Diving Bell: The Truth Shall not Sink with Sewol, the first documentary completed in the aftermath of the disaster. Although we generally host sneak previews of brand-new films only, showing them just before their theatrical releases, there are a number of mitigating circumstances that have kept this 2014 film at the top of the headlines.

Chief among them is the unresolved nature of the Korean tragedy: Since the overloaded ferry capsized and took down 304 passengers — mostly high school students — with it, there has been no real closure. The South Korean government has been roundly criticized for its ineffectual disaster response and attempts to downplay culpability; the media has been blamed for toeing the government line; the ferry operator, captain and crew, who abandoned ship, have been charged with criminal behavior.

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Director Hae-ryong Ahn and producer Hei-rim Hwang

But of equal newsworthiness is the position of Diving Bell in a still-unfolding battle for freedom of speech and the future of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF). When the film’s title was included in the BIFF 2014 lineup, pressure was immediately applied by the Busan City Council to withdraw it. BIFF Director Yong-kwan Lee rightly rejected the government’s interference, inviting demands for his resignation. Asian film authority Tony Rayns termed it “a textbook example of an attack on free speech and an impulse to silence opposing voices.”

Lee stood firm, the film was screened as planned in October 2014, and the national government immediately slashed its subsidies to the festival, which is considered to be Asia’s largest and most vital. The Busan City Council then stepped up pressure. Throughout 2015, thousands of supporters around the globe signed petitions and sent messages of solidarity for Lee and BIFF. Ignoring the international outrage, Busan Mayor Byung-soo Suh allowed the festival director’s contract to expire in February 2016. Korean filmmakers soon announced they would boycott BIFF 2016 if city authorities do not allow it to operate freely. Five other Korean film festivals also publicly admitted that they had also had problems with government interference.

Finally, just two days before the FCCJ screening of Diving Bell, an association of Korea’s top film bodies announced they would encourage all members to boycott BIFF 2016, reducing even further its chances of being held as normal.

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Ahn, has a long relationship with Japan, and made all his remarks in fluent Japanese.

Making the timing of FCCJ’s screening seem even more prescient, on April 19, Reporters Without Borders announced its 2016 Freedom of the Press rankings, and warned of “a new era of propaganda.” To no one’s surprise, South Korea had tumbled 10 places, down to #70. But of greater impact was this: Japan’s ranking plummeted 11 places, putting it even lower than South Korea, at #72.

Clearly, Diving Bell is now in the unenviable position of being the Korean bellwether of that most insidious journalistic trend, press “self-censorship,” as well as the issue of film festival censorship, either from within or without.

As one FCCJ member reminded the audience, just weeks ago, the Tribeca Film Festival in New York was forced to pull the film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, due to a public outcry over its “discredited” claims that MMR vaccines cause autism. Festival head Robert De Niro, the father of an autistic son, criticized the uproar that forced the film from the lineup.

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                               Hwang describes the film's reception on its limited theatrical release in Korea.    ©Koichi Mori

As for the city’s pressure to withdraw Diving Bell from the BIFF 2014 lineup, director Hae-ryong Ahn said he came to realize “It was not really the content of the film itself that was a problem. The issue was not the safety of the people of Korea but the safety of the government, and that’s what motivated the effort to quash the film.” But he also admitted feeling that “I was the cause of the problems that the festival is facing now, and I feel responsible for that.”

The BIFF controversy did have the unintended effect of boosting the film’s public profile. Producer Hei-rim Hwang explained, “The film did not get distributed in the major multiplexes, but it was shown [in limited screenings] in 25 smaller theaters and community halls, with attendance topping 50,000. Considering the limited release, this was quite good. Also there was good word-of-mouth, and we had Q&A sessions with the families of the victims. Most people came thinking they would see what they’d already seen on mainstream media, but they realized it was only one side of the story. What we were trying to do was ask ‘Why not listen to the other side of the story as well?’ We’re not saying that this is the truth, but that there is another side to the story. We wanted to open the door to a debate about what really happened.”

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The BIFF controversy brought far wider recognition to the film.   ©Koichi Mori

Diving Bell follows investigative journalist Lee Sang-ho (a charismatic, Michael Moore-style truth-seeker) as he rushes to the coast of Donggeochado on April 16, 2014, shortly after the Sewol has sunk. To his dismay, he discovers he is one of the few reporters on site, and that the rescue work by Korea’s Coast Guard has stalled. The failure to save a single passenger during the “golden time” of the first 72 hours, when it is critical to reach and rescue trapped victims, is blamed on strong currents and poor visibility. Yet when news reports begin airing, they claim that all 476 passengers have been safely rescued. Lee stays on site as the tragedy unfolds over the ensuing weeks, talking with grieving parents and witnessing the government’s failure to organize a competent search-and-rescue operation. But it is the vilification of one potential hero, Lee Jong-in, who brings a diving bell at his own expense, knowing that it could greatly hasten the discovery process, which gives the film its reverberating bite.

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                                                                                                                                                                                         ©Koichi Mori

The you-are-there immediacy of Diving Bell still feels bruising, two years after the event. Like many a story whose ending we already know, it unfolds like a nail-biting thriller, with unforeseen twists and turns that are so improbable, they can only be true. Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2015 Fukuoka Asian Film Festival, the documentary offers a dramatic eyewitness vision of the horrifically botched rescue effort, the unresolved controversies over the diving bell, and the still-ongoing media distortion that cloaked the realities of the event. In the film’s final moments, journalist Lee Sang-ho talks with a grieving father who blames himself for his son’s death aboard the Sewol. “What do you want?” he asks. “People deserve the truth,” sobs the father.

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Ahn joined audience members after the screening, and there was spirited discussion.        ©Koichi Mori

Is there renewed hope about the truth following the April 13 elections, in which South Korean President Geun-hye Park’s party was stripped of its majority in Parliament? “The election has already changed things,” said Ahn. “There was even an article in [a conservative newspaper] saying that film is entertainment, and politicians shouldn’t get involved in [censorship attempts.] It’s possible that this will allow the media to be more aggressive in their reporting about the powers that be. In Busan itself, five opposition-party members were elected, and this may cause a shift in the overall thrust of the city government.”

Other documentarians have been doing follow-up research and filming on the Sewol, and perhaps, just perhaps, BIFF 2016 will include one of the sequels in its lineup.

Photos by FCCJ except where noted.

sewol poster
©2014 Cineport

Media Coverage

TV Exposure

 

I AM A HERO


I AM A HERO


 April 11, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Shinsuke Sato and star Yo Oizumi


The Film Committee usually shies away from screening what are derisively termed “genre” films, since we worry that our audience would be put off by intense bouts of blood and gore.

But these films — running the gamut from horror, splatter and fantasy to monster, swordplay action and erotica — continue to be among Japan’s greatest strengths at the global box office, both enduringly popular and profitable.

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First reader to send us an appropriate caption for this photo
wins a free seat at our next sneak preview.
  ©Mance Thompson

While most local films do not get distributed overseas, there are always audiences for genre films — especially when they’re done as well as I Am a Hero, this country’s first major zombie flick, based on a blockbuster manga series. (If you thought zombies were passé by now, think again: a recent article on the genre estimated that it is worth over $5 billion to the US economy alone.)

Even those with walking-dead fatigue will find much to admire in the latest film by hitmaker Shinsuke Sato, and the proof is in the pudding: I Am a Hero has already swept the awards at the three most important fantastic film festivals. On its world premiere at the 2015 Sitges (Spain) Film Festival, it won the Audience Award and Best Special Effects Award; at the FantaSporto Festival in Portugal, it took home the Orient Express Special Award and another Audience Award; and finally, the very day of the FCCJ sneak preview, it snagged the Golden Crow Award (aka Grand Prix) at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival.

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Zombie fighter Yo Oizumi and his director Shinsuke Sato shared an easy rapport.    ©Mance Thompson

Asked to comment about the accolades, Sato noted, “We’d already received several Audience Awards, which I was surprised about. In a way, I feel those are the best awards you can get for an entertainment film, and I was really happy about getting them. Then I received the news about the Grand Prix, and I think this is the greatest applause we can get. I’m really thankful.”

In inimitable style, star Yo Oizumi insisted that he’d known the film could travel successfully overseas: “I expected it would win the awards in Spain, Portugal and Brussels,” he half-joked, “But I heard the news at 4 am this morning, and even though I was confident we would win, I have to admit I was a bit nervous.” He added, “As you all know, Brussels was the site of a recent tragedy, and I praise the festival’s courage in going forward with it as planned. To win an award at such a special moment in time, at such a respected festival, is very gratifying for me.”

Sato, who is known for his CG prowess and big budgets — he’s the mastermind behind recent megahit series Gantz and Library Wars, and is helming the much-anticipated Death Note 2016 — admitted that his latest film was also costly. One reason, his star couldn’t help suggesting, is that “[Sato] never compromises. He’s a perfectionist, and we had to do so many takes that we often wound up working really late hours. We all wanted to quit, but he never let us quit. To make matters worse, he was working with his usual cinematographer, who also has ideas about what he wants, so after we finished with the director’s shots, we had to do [the cinematographer’s], and it was endless.”

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                               Sato transformed Oizumi into an unwilling but thoroughly convincing action hero. ©Mance Thompson

Perhaps the overtime was worth it. Based on the blockbuster manga series of the same name by Kengo Hanazawa, I Am a Hero is that rare big-budget commodity that manages to be gruesomely frightening, darkly funny and hair-raisingly realistic. And it’s anchored by an astoundingly committed star turn from Oizumi. The everyman character he plays, Hideo Suzuki, is a lowly manga artist’s assistant at the age of 35, but he tells everyone his name is spelled with the characters for “hero,” and he nurses big dreams. Then one day, a mysterious virus, dubbed ZQN (pronounced “zokyun,” perhaps playing off the onomatopoeic expression for “goosebumps;” or perhaps echoing the 2-Channel slang dokyun, or DQN, meaning dumbass ), makes men bite dogs and turns his girlfriend into a drooling, double-jointed freak. With doomsday scenarios playing out across Japan, Hideo escapes the general carnage in a runaway taxi with schoolgirl Hiromi (Kasumi Arimura) in tow, and they start climbing Mt. Fuji in hopes the virus can’t survive that high. But it turns out Hiromi has been infected, too, yet she only partially turns. They seek refuge with other survivors on the roof of the Fuji Outlet Mall, and meet former nurse Tsugumi (Masami Nagasawa). Suzuki is soon bullied into giving up his shotgun — an amateur skeet shooter, his crack-shot skills will come in very handy later — while Hiromi’s secret threatens to be spilled, and meanwhile, there’s one zombie whose backflips are getting him dangerously close to the roof’s safe zone.

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Will there be a much-wanted sequel? Sato's keeping mum.   ©Mance Thompson (Sato)

Surprisingly, the film’s pivotal outlet mall scenes proved impossible to shoot in Japan, and the production eventually wound up staging them at an abandoned mall in Korea. “We did things that we’d never done before,” the director said. “We wanted to do things that we’d never done before. It was a challenge for me, my crew and the actors, but it was a very rewarding experience and we’re all glad we could have it.”

Both men were clearly impressed with their Korean counterparts. Sato lauded their resourcefulness and their frequent creative input: “They went out of their way to realize my vision… and the shoot in Korea was a wonderful experience for me.” For Oizumi, “The difference between Japanese and Korean crews is that the Japanese will always wait to eat if the shoot runs long. Even if they get hungry, they’ll keep on working without complaining. The Korean crew members get angry.” A beat. “I’m with the Koreans.”

hero7kmA partnership we hope to see continue.  ©Koichi Mori

 But Oizumi also fondly recalled how relaxing it was to be in a place where he and his two famous female costars went unrecognized. “There was this convenience store across from our hotel, with tables and chairs in the front where you could sit. We used to go there after shooting and buy some drinks and food, and we’d just hang out with the crew, chatting and eating. That’s unthinkable in Japan. It was a lot of fun.”

The casting of Oizumi, a ubiquitous presence in Japan on stage, screen and TV who is especially known for comical roles, was an unusual choice. Sato had worked with him previously, and explained it this way: “You could say that Mr. Oizumi is just about the opposite of the character he plays. In my mind, he’s so cool, he’s like a real hero. And the role is a guy who doesn’t seem heroic at all. But I knew he would bring all of his acting talent to the character. Also, I really felt like the combination of Mr. Oizumi and zombies would be the best match in Japan. No one else can make as many expressions as he can when he’s surprised — it’s a Guinness record-breaking number.”

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Oizumi was eager to join the project since he knew the studio, Toho, would put all their might behind it, and “I thought that if a really handsome actor took the role, people wouldn’t like Hideo or be able to relate to him. So I figured my funny face would fit the part perfectly, and add reality to the character.”

By the end of the evening, it was clear that FCCJ’s audience was not as genre-averse as imagined. It remains to be seen whether the film does as well at home as it’s doing abroad (foreign sales are coming as fast and furious as a zombie attack), but as one seasoned film critic put it during the Q&A session, “I’ve sat through a lot of big-budget Japanese movies, and been disappointed most of the time. I’ve been waiting for a film that would prove my expectations wrong. I’m very happy to say that this was that film.”

Photos by Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

IAAH poster
©2015 “I AM A HERO” Production Committee

Media Coverage

TV Exposure

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A VOICELESS CRY (Muon no Sakebi Goe)


A VOICELESS CRY


 March 30, 2016
Q&A guest: Director Masaki Haramura


The announcement for this sneak preview screening began, “You may not have heard of Michio Kimura, but after seeing A Voiceless Cry, his is a voice you will never forget.” As it transpired, no one in the audience had heard of Kimura before; but there was unanimous agreement afterward that his voice should be heard.

Admittedly, hearing his words read by the great Butoh dancer-actor Min Tanaka is one of the film’s highlights. During the Q&A session, director Masaki Haramura explained the serendipity that enabled his vocal presence: “Min Tanaka’s teacher, Tatsumi Hijikata, played the role of a farmer from the Edo period in Shunsuke Ogawa’s final film, The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches,” he said. “Mr. Tanaka is himself a farmer, who has been living for decades in Yamanashi Prefecture in the belief that the roots of dance lie in the physical gestures that came out of the agricultural lifestyle. He was eager to go to Yamagata someday, and knowing that Michio Kimura was the man who brought Mr. Ogawa to Yamagata only enhanced his desire to go. When I asked him if he wanted to be a part of this film, he was so excited that he offered to read the entire narration. But we felt that would be too much.”

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Haramura has received multiple Kinema Junpo awards for his work.    ©Koichi Mori

Haramura then offered an eloquent summation of the symbiotic relationship of land to culture: “I believe that Mr. Kimura came to the arts through agriculture,” he said, “and Mr. Tanaka came to agriculture through the arts.”

An elegy for Japan’s agrarian past, when its villages were the lifeblood of the nation, A Voiceless Cry takes us deep inside the world of Michio Kimura, a celebrated poet who is the recipient of a handful of Japan’s most prestigious prizes, but also a rice farmer, an ardent antiwar activist, a devoted family man, a cancer survivor, a patriot and a rebel. Now in his 80th year, he continues to vigorously “cry out on behalf of voiceless farmers everywhere,” demonstrating a mastery of the agrarian idiom, penning powerful free-verse poetry that decries a vision of nation that does not pursue a peaceful future.

Born in the tiny community of Magino, Yamagata Prefecture, Kimura was initially driven to write by the loss of his father during World War II. After high school, he helped form the farmer-poet collective that published the Chikasui (Groundwater) anthology, which continued until 2014. When Japan’s rapid economic growth in the 1950s began draining farming villages for the cheap labor sources they provided, Kimura joined thousands of other farmers on the crews that built Tokyo’s highways and skyscrapers. For a decade, Kimura would spend half the year in construction, half in farming. But he learned that his heart belonged on the farm in Magino.

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Michio Kimura, man of many voices  ©2015 “A Voiceless Cry” Production Committee

A participant-witness to the most important protest movements of the past century, he rallied against the rice-reduction program, the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, Narita Airport and the Agricultural Basic Act, which sought to implement Big Farming. During China’s Cultural Revolution, Kimura joined a work-study tour; in the 1970s, he went to Wake Island to recover the remains of his uncle and other Japanese soldiers who had died there of starvation. After documentarian Shinsuke Ogawa spent years filming the protest movements against Narita Airport’s construction, Kimura invited him to visit. Ogawa’s group then lived and farmed (and filmed) in Magino for the next 18 years, creating several masterpieces of village life, exploring the convergence of farming, modernization, state violence and rural resistance.

Not surprisingly, the first question asked during the Q&A following the screening of A Voiceless Cry concerned the looming passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal in the Diet. The TPP free trade agreement will impact not only Japan’s 1.5 million farmers and agri-product makers, but also its manufacturers of textiles, industrial goods and automobiles.

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©Koichi Mori

The questioner, a Todai research fellow, began with a brief recap: “The Japanese government has asked all the prefectures to estimate how much money will be lost in agricultural production, and they’re estimating ¥130 - ¥210 billion [$1 - $2 billion] every year… Obviously, this will accelerate the depopulation of the countryside. I’m curious whether people are talking about this in the countryside. What does Kimura-san say about it? How did you decide to not talk about this in your documentary?”

Said Haramura, an award-winning documentarian, “I’ve been working with farming communities for over 30 years as a filmmaker,” he began, “but I’m not a journalist or a scholar, so I don’t feel that I’m in a position to respond directly to [the TPP issue]. I can tell you that Mr. Kimura, although he does have an opinion about TPP, is not involved in social activism directed at TPP.” Explaining that he wanted only to document Kimura’s past and his present activities without injecting his own anti-TPP stance into the story, the director continued, “Of course Mr. Kimura is also against the TPP, and I would say that across the country, people working in the primary sector [agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining] are 90 percent opposed to TPP.”

But he cautioned, “Aside from talking about the importance of agriculture, I think we should be more critical of what TPP does to regional economies. The sustainability of regional economies is critical for Japan’s future.”

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The villagers of Magino protesting in the 1970s. ©2015 “A Voiceless Cry” Production Committee

Another question, from a Yamagata native who said he was struck by the “spiritual richness” of the farmers’ lives, concerned whether Yamagata is different from other prefectures. The director replied: “The area where Mr. Kimura lives is a village where, when the government started its policy in 1970 of gentan — essentially subsidizing farmers for not farming — the locals decided to have alternative means of employment, like working for the agricultural cooperative or the village office… On the surface, it may seem that there is no culture in this hamlet, and when I started the film, I didn’t know what the other villagers were doing. But after meeting and talking with about 30 of Mr. Kimura’s neighbors, gradually I discovered all the treasures of history that they’ve continued to preserve. I feel that, in every place you go in Japan, the more you talk to the locals, the more you realize how these regional communities are thriving, each in their own way.”

“Although he’s an intellectual,” Haramura said in closing, “[Michio Kimura] always says that he’s been writing poetry with his body, not his brain,” “If you read his work from the time he was a teenager until his 80s, the 60 years of history represents not just his own life experiences, but the history of postwar Japan, seen through the eyes of a villager. That was one of the strongest motivations for me to make this film. I feel that the values of Japan’s villages reflect not only our postwar past, but also our future.”

A veritable primer on rice farming, as well as a richly illustrated archival history of Japan’s destructive agrarian policies and the carving out of its villages, A Voiceless Cry is essential viewing for all those who make Japan their home, or their subject.

Photos by Koichi Mori.

VOICELESS poster
©2015 “A Voiceless Cry” Production Committee

LOWLIFE LOVE (Gesu no Ai)


LOWLIFE LOVE


 March 17, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Eiji Uchida, producer Adam Torel and star Kiyohiko Shibukawa


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The official signing ceremony for submission to the OED.  ©Mance Thompson

For over 1,000 years, the word “gesu” has represented those of the very lowest social rank in Japan, but in this single expression, the stench of scummy, slummy, vulgar, reprobate behavior is also emitted.

Like many other Japanese expressions — mono no aware, umami and omotenashi come to mind — gesu has a level of specificity that cannot easily be communicated in English. Recognizing that its English equivalent, lowlife, falls short, the filmmakers behind Lowlife Love publicly signed a submission to include the Japanese word in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary following their sneak preview event at FCCJ. A calculated publicity stunt? Sure. But why not? It’s no worse than having Sadako throwing out the first ball.

The film’s director, Eiji Uchida, British producer Adam Torel and star Kiyohiko Shibukawa tried to effect serious expressions as the press snapped their OED “signing ceremony,” but they were clearly having too much fun. Their Q&A session had just proven that, despite the lowlifes populating their film, they themselves were class acts.

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Torel, Shibukawa, Uchida  ©Mance Thompson

Uchida based his script on some of the more extreme incidents he had himself experienced and witnessed over a decade in the industry (he’d started his film career as an assistant director to Kitano "Beat" Takeshi). When he was approached by Torel, who had produced Sion Sono’s Land of Hope and Yosuke Fujita’s Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats, Uchida suggested a blackly comic exposé of Japan’s no-budget film industry, focused around the Shimokitazawa area of Tokyo, perhaps as an act of personal exorcism. The film was shot, as the producer admitted, “for a bit less than $50,000, which is why we shot in my apartment, [Uchida’s] office, the place I always drink, and had a crew of about nine… and we didn’t sleep. But we did pay everyone, so don’t worry.”

Lowlife Love, which drew SRO crowds at its international premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January, and heads to festivals in Taiwan and Italy next month, focuses on Japan’s lowest rung of filmmakers: those who work for nothing, pay nothing to their cast and crew, exploit every possible angle to get their films made (legal and otherwise), and always plead “artistic integrity” as their excuse for failure. Why do they do it? The film makes it clear that love of cinema is one driver; the other is burning ambition. When one considers that there were close to 600 Japanese films released in theaters in 2015, that ambition is perhaps not misplaced — although theatrical release does not equal sustainable incomes for the industry’s bottom-feeders. They’re forced to get other jobs or to churn out porn to survive between “real” gigs, helping sustain the shockingly misogynistic subculture that is the milieu plumbed in Lowlife Love.

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Uchida is an ex-journalist and film industry veteran, unintentionally rocking an Osamu Tezuka look.   ©Mance Thompson

Asked during the Q&A whether he was skewering or exploiting that subculture, the writer-director answered: “The portrayal of women and the perception of misogyny was something that the producer pointed out to me during filming,” said Uchida. “But the reality of the Japanese entertainment industry, and not just the film industry, is that the female talents are placed in a very weak position. The reality is much harsher than in the film.” Added Torel: “It’s a very gesu world in Japan, in the film industry and especially the independent film industry, maybe more than anywhere else. It’s slightly exaggerated in the film, but compared to the West, it’s still behind the times here.”

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Shibukawa is an indie favorite, long overdue for a big-budget, leading-man role.  ©Mance Thompson

In the film, struggling director Tetsuo (Shibukawa) still nurses dreams of success, although in the years since an early indie hit, he’s succeeded only in making himself one of the most hated guys around. (“I’m not unemployed — I’m a film director!” he protests, when his mother complains about supporting him.) His past record still attracts ambitious youngsters to his “acting” courses, and one day, he meets two new students whose talents are ripe for exploitation: Minami, a naïve wannabe actress with serious chops, and Ken, a writer with a brilliant script. Tetsuo enlists the help of an unsavory producer (played with panache by Denden), but their efforts to get a film made are undercut by the desperate, unrelenting degeneracy of their world.

Is it a world that extends beyond the no-budget scene? In a recent Japan Times article about the entertainment industry travails of SMAP and Becky, Mark Schilling called Lowlife Love “required viewing” and wrote, “[it] confirms what I have known for years: Japanese show business can be brutal to the weak or clueless. They end up used and discarded, like so many human Kleenexes.”

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Torel's producing slate is all over the stylistic map, but he and Uchida are already in preproducion on Animal Trail©Mance Thompson

During the Q&A, Uchida referenced the problems caused by Japan’s all-powerful talent agencies, which control not only the careers but also the lives of their stars. He mentioned that just that morning, he’d been admonished by a talent manager for contacting an actor directly. “So often, projects are developed here without any regard whatsoever for what’s needed,” said the director. “I really hope a time will come when Japanese actors can make their own decisions about what projects they want to be involved in.”

Indie stalwart Shibukawa, who won Best Actor awards last year for his role as an indie filmmaker in Obon Brothers (a director who is as sweet and selfless as his Lowlife character is slimy), admitted he’d been contacted directly by Uchida about the script. “He was so passionate about it,” he said, “I decided right away that I wanted to be in the film, even before reading the script.” A regular in roles for Takashi Miike, Gakuryu Ishii and Toshiaki Toyoda, Shibukawa has appeared in over 60 films, but remains woefully underrepresented in big-budget releases (he does have a brief but indelible role in Miike’s upcoming Terra Formars).


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That OED submission for gesu. Stay tuned.   ©Mance Thompson

Naturally, the trio was queried about their own lowlife experiences in the industry, but their stories were disappointingly tame, compared to those in their film. Recalled Uchida: “This happened when I just started making films. We had a wrap party, and about 30 of us piled into a room. When it was over, the producer was nowhere to be found, and I got stuck with the bill. That’s not an uncommon occurrence.” Said Torel: “There’s a producer I know, who shall remain nameless, who spends all his time looking for actresses on Facebook, and telling them that if they meet him for drinks, they have a good chance of being in a big director’s film. And he takes them out every night, to very dodgy places. He’s not a nice guy.”

Shibukawa remembered, “There was an actor on a shoot who was way more powerful than the director. His character was supposed to be killed by me, very quickly. But he just wouldn’t die. He kept insisting that he wouldn’t die that easily.” [Those who attended our January screening of The Actor will recognize this very scene from the film.]

Photos by Mance Thompson and Koichi Mori.

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Kanji Furutachi (in mask) drops by to say howdy. He plays a far more successful director
than Shibukawa in the film, and the two have an epic fistfight.  ©Koichi Mori



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©2016 Three Window Films

Media Coverage

 

WHILE THE WOMEN ARE SLEEPING (Onna ga Nemuru Toki)


WHILE THE WOMEN ARE SLEEPING


 February 24, 2016
Q&A guests: Producer Yukie Kito and stars Shioli Kutsuna,
Sayuri Oyamada, Makiko Watanabe


three FCCJ 064
The female stars had a lot to say about working with Wang on his first Japanese production.

As its title suggests, the male gaze is strong in Wayne Wang’s While the Women Are Sleeping, a moody, mysterious meditation on voyeurism, obsession and the painful act of creating. A cross between Nabokov’s Lolita and François Ozon’s Swimming Pool, it is both hypnotizing and unnerving, with an ending that invites a range of interpretations.

The Hong Kong-born American director, acclaimed for such films as Smoke, Joy Luck Club and Maid in Manhattan, marks his first-ever Japanese production with an adaptation of the eponymous short story by Spanish novelist Javier Marías. Working with producer Yukie Kito, his collaborator on two previous titles, Wang attracted a stellar cast to the project, including Hidetoshi Nishijima and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, playing his first lead role for another director in 12 years.

Just 10 days after the world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, Kito brought the three non-male stars of the film to FCCJ, and presided over a post-screening Q&A session that she dubbed While the Women Are Talking. The session was in English, allowing ample time for each of the four to respond to a range of questions.

Highlights of the session are below, but first, a brief recap of the story:

Novelist Kenji Shimizu (Nishijima) has a bad case of writer’s block. His wife, Aya (Oyamada) is a successful editor who sympathizes, but she’s also given him an ultimatum: write or get a real job. On a one-week vacation together in Izu, Kenji hangs out in their beautiful seaside hotel while Aya assists a client staying nearby. At the pool on Day 1, Kenji’s attention is drawn to a beefy older man, Sahara (Takeshi), and a comely young lass, Miki (Kutsuna), obviously intimate, but surely not father and daughter.

Kenji can’t sleep; neither can Sahara. Late the next night, they meet by chance at the pool, and Sahara admits he’s been shooting Miki as she sleeps for the past 10 years — and then, overwriting the footage. “I want to have a record of her last day,” he says. But he’s certain that she will betray him, and “I’d rather kill her than let my love die!”

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Clockwise from top left: Kutsuna, Oyamada, Kito (©Mance Thompson), Watanabe

 Growing evermore intrigued, Kenji finds himself following the couple into town, then peeping into their room and by Day 4, actually entering it. The odd owner of a rundown restaurant where they tryst (Lily Franky) hints about dark dealings in Sahara and Miki’s past, feeding Kenji’s obsession further. Then one night, Miki comes to him, and shortly after, disappears. Aya has apparently taken up with her client, or perhaps she’s succumbing to Sahara’s seductions. By Day 5, the only thing that is clear is that either Kenji is losing his mind, or the world around him has gone mad.

Question: How did the project come about? Did Wayne read the story, acquire the rights and come to you with the idea of relocating the story to Japan?

Yukie Kito: First he was thinking of doing the film as written, which is, set in Spain and written in English. But as he was developing it, he decided that he wanted to make a film in Asia. So he came to me and I said, “If there’s any Japanese element, I could be helpful. Otherwise, there’s no point in having me.” And he said he wanted to make a film with one Japanese couple. We started that way, and then he said he wanted to make it completely in Japan. So I said, “There’s only one actor we can go to: Beat Takeshi.” Knowing the chances were quite slim, we tried, it worked and here we are.

yukie makiko mance 42©Mance Thompson

Q: Great movie. What actually happened, and is that girl dead? I’d just like some clarification. We have a missing person, presumed dead. I’d like to know who it is.

Shioli Kutsuna (the missing girl): It may be disappointing, but there are no right answers to how you read this film. As Wayne was continually saying, he did not want to push people to read the film in only one way. I think how you read it depends on you.  

Q: So are you dead, or not?

Kutsuna: Personally, I don’t even think Sahara and Miki exist. At the time, I didn’t think that… but I don’t want to push my personal opinion on you.

Kito: As Wayne and Takeshi-san have been saying in interviews, there are multiple ways to interpret this film. When I was making the film, I thought she was dead. Now I don’t think so.

Sayuri Oyamada (the novelist’s wife): My personal opinion is that she’s still alive. But it’s up to the audience.

Makiko Watanabe (the novelist’s wife’s friend, who works at the seaside hotel): I want to say that it’s up to your imagination. But as a hotel employee, I cannot divulge too much about our guests.

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Kutsuna grew up in Australia, but started her career in Japan ©Mance Thompson

Q: When it’s a film made by a Hong Kong-born American director, based on a short story by a Spanish writer, set in Japan, it begs the question: Do you think there’s anything in the story that resonates as Japanese, or is this a case of plonking a story down in Japan that doesn’t really fit?

Kito: When I started working on this project, it was completely Spanish. Screenwriter Mami Sunada changed it into Japanese. While we were going back and forth, I realized Wayne has real respect for Japan, not superficially, but emotionally. I think he really respected the writer. But I can’t see it objectively, to be honest. I wonder whether the actors felt the screenplay seemed a little foreign, or if it felt Japanese when they first read it?

Kutsuna: I didn’t think it felt too foreign. I heard that Wayne included specific things to make it feel more Japanese, like the scene where Sahara shaves the hair on the back of Miki’s neck. For Western cultures, that might not be sexy, but for Japanese, due to the geisha culture, it is.

Oyamada: I think it had a Japanese feeling. The Japanese actors and actresses understood the story, and even though the original is Spanish, the script was in Japanese. Acting is always the same, coming from inside of us, from emotions.

Watanabe: I can’t compare the Japanese and Spanish scripts; I only saw the Japanese one, and I had to believe in it. The shooting location was Japan, the actors were Japanese. All those elements made it Japanese. If there are any Spanish elements, they come from human nature.

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Oyamada has worked with Japan's leading auteurs, but is now based in New York.     (right photo: ©Mance Thompson)

Q: How does a non-Japanese-speaking director get the proper line reading? Even if you hire the best actors, you can’t tell. How did it work? Tell me a little about Wayne Wang’s style.

Kutsuna: I was wondering how the communication between us would be. We were all able to do it smoothly. We all speak English, so I guess it was comfortable for him to be working with actors who understood English. Before I went to set, I asked Yukie-san what Wayne was looking for in a good take. She told me that he can sense takes that are good. He really communicates, and he pushes your creativity past your limits. He was very patient and very cooperative with the actors. Language wasn’t the most important tool for us to communicate.

Kito: Takeshi-san doesn’t speak English, but he understands it well. He’s as charming on set as you imagine, and he would say interesting things in English to make us laugh. As a producer, I had to sign off on language, while Wayne watched the emotions of the performance. If someone skipped a line, it was my job to catch that, so it was a collaboration.

Oyamada: I met Wayne for the first time in Los Angeles, and we talked about the script and my character a lot. Also, on the set, we talked about story and character. It had a really good effect on me. Because the Japanese film industry is often so rushed, that we can’t talk. I could talk a lot with him, and everyone knows he’s a great, great director, not a typical Hollywood director at all, so artistic. I really treasured this experience.

Watanabe: My scenes were short. I’m really envious that these two spent so much time with him. During the costume fitting, I was talking with him about my character. Even though my English isn’t so great, within 5 minutes, I thought, this will be fine. I’m always desperate to have this type of communication with my directors. But language isn’t as important as being able to agree on things. We had a lot of bilingual crew members, and everyone was working extra hard to bring Wayne’s vision to fruition. It was a really special set.

makiko mance 41Veteran actress Watanabe has a devoted overseas fanbase.  ©Mance Thompson

Q: Javier Marias is very knowledgeable about cinema, a famous and prominent film critic. He’s not particularly happy with previous adaptations of his work. Was he involved in the creation of the film, and did you get any feedback afterward?

Kito: He asked for a DVD, I sent it to him and it’s on the way. Actually, he wrote [the short story on which the film is based] 20 years ago, and I heard that he felt kind of detached from the material for a while. But when the film got into Berlin, he started to pay a little more attention and he asked for a DVD. So I was happy. Hopefully, he’ll like it.

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©Mance Thompson

Q: I was very impressed by the performances of all the cast members, they were great. It’s a powerful cast. How and why did you assemble them?

Kito: We were looking for new talent, and Wayne and I met so many young actresses. Then I heard that Shioli wanted to meet us, and I told him “She’s too experienced. I know she’s young, but we’re looking for new talent.” [Japanese-Australian Kutsuna has already won three newcomer awards, and appeared in many films.] But it was suggested that they meet for tea, and since she speaks English, I thought it would be good for Wayne to meet her. She came on her day off from a shoot in Wakayama, and I thought immediately, “Oh my god, she’s Miki.” And Wayne felt the same. We also met so many actresses for the part of Aya, and had a hard time. I knew Sayuri, and reached out to her in New York [where the actress has been based since 2010]. She said, “I’m going to LA next weekend,” and Wayne was going to be there, so they could meet. That’s how we cast her. I met Makiko in Hong Kong a few years ago, when she won Best Supporting Actress at the Asian Film Awards [for Capturing Dad], and I was looking for a chance to work with her. I went to her, begged her, and she said OK.

When Wayne was thinking of making the film into an Asian story with the younger couple being Japanese, I said, “I can think of only one actor for the part of Kenji: Hidetoshi Nishijima.” Wayne said, “Oh, let’s go with him!” I said, “You don’t know him! How can you just decide like that?” He said, “I know him from the film Cut.” So I introduced them and they completely hit it off. Nishijima-san even went to Hong Kong to spend some time with Wayne and they created the character of Kenji together. I started worrying about what would happen if I couldn’t raise financing. But fortunately, all the detailed conversation wasn’t wasted.

[As for Beat Takeshi], there was only one person we could think of who would make even Javier Marias happy. Takeshi-san is so respected in Europe, and Javier Marias said yes to him. So we went to Takeshi-san, thinking it wouldn’t happen. But miraculously, the timing and material were right.

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©Mance Thompson

Q: Congratulations on a great film. It’s the second time I’ve seen it, since I watched it in Berlin a few days ago. What was the biggest challenge for the actresses? Sexuality in Japanese cinema is often a taboo; was that a challenge for you?

Kutsuna: When I was having tea with Wayne, as Yukie-san mentioned, and I started thinking that I might have a chance to do the role, all I could think about was, “Wow, I need to lose weight.” [Sahara and Miki] are a very odd couple. Being Takeshi-san’s girlfriend, with our ages so far apart, I thought I had to have a good relationship with him and communicate as much as possible on set so that we appeared comfortable with each other. But Takeshi-san does not really speak much on set. The first scene we did together, which wasn’t actually in the final film, was a scene where we were trying to catch butterflies with these nets. It was a strange, unusual scene. We weren’t talking, but he was apparently catching a lot of bugs in his childhood, and he was very good at it. He caught a lot of butterflies. Afterward, I felt comfortable around him, and allowed him to take our scenes wherever they had to go. I built a relationship with Takeshi-san and felt confident, and in a way, kind of vulnerable, because Miki is at the stage where she wants her own freedom after being with this man who has locked her up in cages and taught her only his world.

Oyamada: As you know, I’m an actress, so I just do [explicit scenes] with passion. When I first met Wayne, we talked a lot about the sexuality, and he asked me whether I could get nude in front of the camera. So I said, “Okay.” But we talked a lot about those scenes. I trusted him. Also, I’ve worked with Nishijima-san [with whom she has several love scenes] for a long time, and we have mutual friends. I was so relaxed in front of him, and in front of the camera. So I just did it.

Photos by Mance Thompson and FCCJ.

wtwas poster
©2016 wtwas production committee

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