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KAKO: MY SULLEN PAST


KAKO: MY SULLEN PAST (Fukigenna Kako)


 June 13, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Shiro Maeda and star Fumi Nikaido


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                                  Nikaido and Maeda light up the room.               ©Mance Thompson

It is perhaps inevitable that FCCJ audiences do not always fit the profile of the target demographics for every film we have the privilege of sneak previewing. In the case of Kako: My Sullen Past, that target demo most likely skews young, disaffected and familiar with the work of the film’s multi-award-winning creator, Shiro Maeda, the “lo-fi playwright for Japan’s lost generation.”

As Performing Arts Network Japan so strikingly describes his style, “Using what is known in Japanese as datsuryoku-kei, or a manner of speaking that is devoid of energy, Maeda has succeeded in capturing the values and lifestyles of a generation unfettered by the burden of finding meaning in life. [Maeda’s plots are] brimming with the delusions of his main characters and the small adventures they have in order to get by in life.”

A cult stage director whose work is not seen enough outside Japan, Maeda is also an accomplished novelist, winner of the vaunted Yukio Mishima Award for his Mermen in Summer Water in 2009, and began making waves in the film world with his adaptation of his Kishida Drama Award-winning play Isn't Anyone Alive? (2007) for director Gakuryu Ishii in 2012. Several cinema projects later, including his own writing-directing debut, The Extreme Sukiyaki (2013), Maeda returns with Kako: My Sullen Past.

The story of one fraught but transcendent summer in the life of Kako, a bored 18-year-old living above her family’s small restaurant in a forgotten pocket of Kita Shinagawa, the film demonstrates once again why this young writer-director is quickly becoming Japan’s answer to Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), with a sprinkling of Charlie Kaufman (who wrote the scripts for both films).

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                                                                It's easy to imagine the fun on set.                                                 ©Mance Thompson

Despite its minimalist approach, a Maeda trademark, Kako is stuffed with oddball characters, zingy dialog, off-kilter line readings, outrageous twists and unexpected turns — a sort of lowball, screwball black comedy with scenes of haunting beauty: figures flying off rooftops in the darkness, boats gliding quietly across Tokyo Bay in the moonlight. And it features a cast of familiar faces that is sure to bring in viewers beyond Maeda’s devoted following: The legendary Kyoko Koizumi, the amazing Fumi Nikaido, the alluring Kengo Kora and many more.

Nikaido joined her director for the Q&A after the screening, and in inimitable style, greeted the crowd in English: “Hi, everyone. Thank you for coming today. I’m really happy to come back [to FCCJ] again. How do you feel about this movie?” She has been busy since her last visit, in 2014, with Koji Fukada’s Au Revoir l’Ete. Internationally acclaimed at the ripe old age of 16, when she won the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the 2011 Venice Film Festival for her role in Sion Sono’s Fukushima-themed Himizu, Nikaido has continued to stun audiences with her versatility and to work with high-profile directors on an array of acclaimed films, including Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s My Man (2014), for which she won the Japan Academy Prize for Best Actress.

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                                                                                    ©Mance Thompson       

In Maeda’s film, she is convincingly pouty, jaded and desperate for adventure. It’s summer vacation, and Kako is staring sullenly out at the canal near her house, hoping to spot a crocodile that made off with a neighbor’s baby. “I can see the future,” she sighs heavily. “Nothing beyond the realm of imagination will happen, so what’s the point in experiencing anything?” Then one day, the future drops right into Kako’s lap, in the form of her long-dead Aunt Mikiko (Koizumi) — who, it turns out, is very much alive, having hidden for nearly 20 years following a suspect house explosion. Mikiko, a wisecracking eccentric, takes up residence in Kako’s room despite her niece’s protestations, and the two must find their way to a grudging détente. Before that can happen, there will be catfights, mysteries to solve involving anti-government plots, hints of international intrigue and a homemade bomb that goes awry.

Much of it is delicious, given the strengths of the script and the acting. The natural rapport between the two leads, according to Maeda, was the result of a few weeks of rehearsals before filming, but also, the “power of the actresses.”

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                                                                                         ©Mance Thompson

Asked why she chose the role, Nikaido said, “I’d always wanted to portray a mother-daughter relationship with Kyoko Koizumi. When I read the script, there were a lot of things that were familiar to me. I thought that acting in the film would allow me to face my own past in some way. I also had the sense that the film would turn into something really interesting, and I was eager to be part of it.”

One journalist lauded Nikaido’s ability to play such a bored character without making the character herself boring, to which she responded, “I think that’s due to the director, the wonderful script and the atmosphere on the set. If the set is fun, things get rolling and I can make my character interesting. Kako is bored, yes, but she’s a teenager and I think it’s the typical kind of frustration that teenagers feel.”

Asked about the kind of compromises he had to make in his dual writing-directing roles, Maeda said, “Compromise is essential in filmmaking. The problem is where to make those compromises. As a scriptwriter, I always write what I want to see and what I think is interesting, but I use the script only as a blueprint for the film. Then I listen to my cast and crew’s suggestions, and incorporate them.”

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                                                         Maeda gets serious as he discusses the troubling subject of terrorism in his film.                  ©Koichi Mori

“There isn’t much of a story,” admitted the director. “What I wanted to convey was the atmosphere of [Kako’s] summer days — sometimes boring, sometimes exciting, and sometimes, with the presence of death. That’s what was important to me. Time is like a river, constantly flowing, and we can see our past, present and future in that way. That’s what prompted me to write this, to try to express that thematically.”

The Q&A concluded with a question about the elephant in the room: “With what happened yesterday in Orlando,” said an American academic (referring to the mass nightclub slaughter by a single gunman),“I’m not sure what to think about the terrorism in your film. Can you talk a little about that?” Maeda had clearly been thinking about the connection himself. “That’s a really difficult question,"he began. "I think we all have the impulse toward violence within ourselves. It’s no use denying that, we all have it. The issue then becomes how to control it, how to channel it into a positive force. I think terrorists [like the Orlando attacker] aren’t so different from me or from you. We tend to label all criminals as crazy and inhuman. But I think they’re human, and they feel that they’ve been put into an untenable situation in which they feel it’s necessary to take action. We can’t change the human impulse toward violence, but we can change this situation.

“In my film, we can’t change the female characters’ urge to commit violence,” he continued, “but I think it’s important for us to think about why they want to do these things, and to ask, how is it related to all of us?”

kako MT-38                           The director joined journalists and others in the bar after the event.  ©Mance Thompson

 

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      ©2016 "Kako: My Sullen Past" Film Partners

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TV Exposure

DESPERATE SUNFLOWERS


DESPERATE SUNFLOWERS (Iyana Onna)


 May 23, 2016
Q&A guest: Director Hitomi Kuroki


When a popular actress moves into the director’s chair — as did Jodie Foster and Angelina Jolie — their efforts are sure to invite close scrutiny. If their films can also be labeled “female-centric,” which is not the case with either Foster or Jolie, then that scrutiny is liable to be closer still.

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Kuroki was happy to hear the film appeals to men, too.          ©Mance Thompson

It’s to be expected, then, that the critical gaze on Hitomi Kuroki, veteran star of stage, screen and television, could not be any more intense than it is for her directorial debut, Desperate Sunflowers. An adaptation of the best-selling novel Nasty Piece of Work, by Nozomi Katsura, the film tells the story of two cousins, polar opposites, who actively (and often humorously) maintain their distaste for each other into early middle age, clashing repeatedly before reaching a détente and finally, beginning to see eye to eye.

There are male supporting characters in the film, but the focus is firmly fixed on these two women — uptight lawyer Tetsuko (Yo Yoshida) and incorrigible con artist Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura) — and their overlapping lives. Yoshida and Kimura are perfectly matched in what is admittedly a clarion call to female comradeship and empowerment, a moving drama that is cleverly punctuated by unforgettably off-kilter comic moments and inspired staging.

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During the Q&A following the screening, Kuroki was poised and polished, but after the Japanese media glare that has dogged her since the project was first announced, she was clearly relieved to hear praise not only from the sizable Japanese press contingent lining the room, but also from several foreign viewers. One of them rhapsodized, “This movie was pitched as a film for women, but I just want to tell you, as one man, I really enjoyed it. It’s about the most interesting and well-done Japanese film that I’ve been able to relate to.”

(Later, in the bar, another male viewer said, “It’s a good thing it was dark in there — I almost started crying!”)

Sunflowers KM-1Kuroki was happy to hear the film appeals to men, too.          ©Koichi Mori

The most obvious question came first: What had prompted Kuroki to make the move from in front of the camera to behind it? She explained that she first intended only to act in the film, but “in the process of working with the scriptwriter, I realized that I knew the world of the novel better than anyone else. That’s when I started thinking that I should probably direct it myself.” The process of adaptation was apparently a collaborative one. “In my discussions with [screenwriter Masafumi Nishida],” she continued, “I put a lot of myself into it. The novel makes you feel very positive, and it has numerous messages, such as the importance of life and the importance of ties with other human beings. I wanted to convey those in the film. I wanted audiences to feel the same way I did after reading the book.”

To a follow-up question, she added, “I have no regrets about not appearing on screen in the film. I was excited to be able to embark on a new journey at this age.” (Kuroki, like her two leads, is over 40; but all are blessed with enviable genes.)

She knew it would be a challenge to be driving the project, but “once you’re on set, you’re so into it, you’re so absorbed in letting the actors know how to interpret the roles. You don’t really have time to worry about how to do it — I was just there, actually doing it and trying to do my best.”

Asked whether she now felt directing suited her better than acting, Kuroki responded, “That’s a difficult question. If I said ‘yes,’ I would be negating my 35-year career. But being behind the scenes and working on things one step at a time is a process that suits me well. It was a new discovery for me.”

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Kuroiki is now a double threat, as Hollywood is fond of saying.          ©Mance Thompson

Pressed to elaborate, the director said: “The starkest difference [between acting and directing] is that, when you embark on a film as an actress, you become a certain character, you become that woman. As a director, you stay yourself.” She gave all credit to her two leads, admitting that they must have found the shoot fairly exhausting. “Ms. Yoshida is a very versatile and receptive actress,” said Kuroki. “The role of Tetsuko is a very straining one, and I had to be very tough on her on set, so I think that was trying for her. Yet she had the flexibility to overcome all the hurdles I put in her way. As for Ms. Kimura, she was really the mood-maker on the set. Of course, the role demanded that of her. But it was very impressive that, in playing this lively character, no matter how tired she was, she was able to slip right back into such a sunny state. I think she was wonderful.”

Kuroki was drawn not only by the book’s themes, but also its contrasting characters: Tetsuko is a shining law student, becomes a lawyer at a small firm, marries at 28 and has what seems the perfect life…yet underneath her always-professional demeanor, she feels empty and isolated. Natsuko, on the other hand, hasn’t changed from that childhood morning when she ripped apart Tetsuko’s matching sunflower dress with malicious glee. “I don’t wanna be like anyone else!” she wails. “I’d rather die.” In adulthood, Natsuko’s still setting her own rules, now brasher, brassier and more abrasive than ever. Yet we gradually discover that she’s been used and callously discarded, as so many women are. Eventually, the distance between the cousin’s outlooks on life narrows significantly, and they band together to save one of their own.

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Tetuko (left) and Matsuko have trouble seeing eye to eye on just about everything.
                                                          ©2016 "Desperate Sunflowers" Film Partners

Kuroki noted that she’d been especially “meticulous” in her direction of two pivotal scenes, one a raucous, rollicking cat fight between Tetsuko and Natsuko that marks a turning point in their relationship; the other a tender, introspective exchange between Tetsuko and her older-but-wiser colleague, Miyuki (a touching Eiko Nagashima).

Will she direct again? With a laugh, Kuroki mentioned that she’d had a bit of trouble readjusting to being an actress after taking 8 months off to shoot and complete Desperate Sunflowers. “When I came back on set, whenever someone called out ‘director!’ I would whip around to respond, without thinking.”

sunflowers m-56Kuroki brandishes her FCCJ honorary membership card.          ©Mance Thompson

Kuroki is not ignorant of the fact that very few women sit in the director’s chair — and even fewer do so in the midst of a successful acting career. This is not a Japanese phenomena; there is clear and consistent resistance worldwide to women of power on film sets. According to two recently reported surveys, only 21% of the directors in Europe are female, and they’re given much smaller budgets than their male counterparts (84% of financing goes to films directed by men). In the US, the facts are even more dire: female filmmakers clock in at an abysmal 9% of the industry (although they account for 28% of indie film directors).

Desperate Sunflowers marks a bold and assured directorial debut. If there’s any justice, Hitomi Kuroki will be able to make her own decision about which path she follows, or whether she wants to change it up and follow both paths.

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The newly minted director with the poster for her film.
                         ©Mance Thompson

Photos by FCCJ except where noted.

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          ©2016 "Desperate Sunflowers" Film Partners

 

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TV Exposure

 

 

GIVE ME THE SUN


GIVE ME THE SUN (Taiyo ga Hoshii)


 May 6, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Zhongyi Ban and narrator Roger Pulvers


For over 20 years, journalist-cum-filmmaker Zhongyi Ban has relentlessly documented the forgotten women who were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese army during World War II. Returning to his homeland each year from Japan, where’s he been resident since the early 1990s, Ban tracked down over 80 women, recorded their stories, viewed the scars of the atrocities inflicted on them, and even collected money from sympathetic Japanese to cover their medical and other costs.

guang-gmts045Ban is a veteran journalist focusing on Sino-Japan issues.

After several books and prior films on the issue, he has now completed Give Me the Sun, the most comprehensive and compelling portrait of Chinese comfort women yet. Presenting a specially edited version of the film, with English subtitles and narration, at FCCJ, Ban noted, “This film was made with the support of individuals in Japan. Some 730 people contributed to its production, including Roger Pulvers and John Junkerman [both present on the dais]. It took a year and a half to complete, and we’ve been screening the [longer, Japanese version] at least once a week around the country since then — in halls, not yet in theaters — due to the enthusiasm of people to show the film.” He did admit, however, that, “There are a lot of people who disagree with films like this, so it’s quite possible that, down the road, we may receive some backlash from them. So we’re vigilant.”

Pulvers, a noted author, playwright and screenwriter who narrated the film, commented, “My role in this has been very small over these past many years, but it’s been an honor to play even a small part in [Ban’s] immense contribution to history, journalism and the art of film. I think one of the old ladies in the film said something very telling when she remarked that the Chinese government doesn’t want this story to get out either. When you have the collusion — whether it’s a coincidence or not, I don’t know — of the two most powerful countries in Asia, and you have somebody with the courage of [Ban], I am just awed and impressed.”

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Junkerman (left) and Pulvers (right) have worked with Ban on his previous films.

Ban’s mission to locate and document the women began after Japan’s first conference on war reparations in 1992 revealed just how widespread the comfort station practice had been. But as late as 1996, only one Chinese comfort woman had publicly identified herself, due to their fear of what Ban terms “political harassment” and of being charged with “enemy collaboration.”

Give Me the Sun (a reference to the squalid, dark conditions in which the women were held) introduces us to a group of seven aging Chinese women whose bodies and minds were irrevocably scarred by the unspeakable brutality they suffered during World War II, when they were often gang-raped for months until their families could ransom them. Some were lured into sexual slavery by locals working for the Japanese Army, who promised them work in factories or hospitals; others were simply abducted and enslaved in the nearest comfort stations.

Chinese scholars have estimated that close to 100,000 women were forcibly taken from their homes during the war, although lack of official documentation has made it difficult for historians to reach an agreement on the exact figure.  The women in Ban’s film were among the measly one-quarter of such victims who actually survived the war. Give Me the Sun retraces the contentious history of the issue and strengthens the women’s heart-breaking accusations by including interviews with a handful of former Japanese soldiers, from an infantryman to a company commander, as well as Chinese recruiters and Japanese comfort women.

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                                                                                                                                                            ©Koichi Mori

But Ban admitted that this third film on the issue was prompted mostly by “former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s declaration, right here at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club [in May 2013], when he essentially denied the existence of comfort women, calling them prostitutes, as well as the bashing of the Asahi newspaper for their reporting on the comfort women issue. This brought the issue to the attention of the Japanese public, but most of the attention was paid to the South Korean comfort women. Far less is known about the Chinese victims of sexual violence, so I wanted to get exposure for those women. I put out a call for support to make the film, and I immediately got it from people of conscience and justice-seekers in Japan.”

South Korean comfort women have been increasingly in the headlines since December 2015, when Japan agreed to set up a fund to indirectly compensate the victims, but only if there is no further mention of the issue. The “diplomatic deceit,” as one critic termed it, has resulted in continued and widespread protests — as well as to Japan’s nonpayment until certain conditions are met.

Chinese comfort women have been largely ignored in the ongoing war reparations dialogue, primarily due, says one scholar, to China’s ongoing “censorship, dictatorship and disregard for human rights,” and the postwar government’s priority to reconcile with Japan at the expense of all else.

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Ban visited one of the shared care-homes for comfort women in South Korea, and was impressed by the level of physical, psychological and financial support they received. “In China, on the other hand, these women are living in deep poverty, without any support whatsoever from the government or from Chinese society. Of course China is not a democracy, so it’s not easy for the public to take action.”

To a question concerning the differing circumstances between the South Korean and Chinese victims, Ban noted that, since Korea had been a Japanese colony, “Korean women were seized or recruited and sent to various parts of Asia where Japanese troops were stationed. They were put into established comfort stations, where they were treated as objects and sexually violated.” Of the 80 women Ban had tracked down in China, including 20 Koreans who had been held captive on the border with Russia, “[typically], Japanese troops stationed out in the provinces would seize women from nearby and put them into rooms where they were kept as sexual slaves. Almost none of them had experience in a comfort station. So we can’t really call them ‘comfort women,’ but rather, they were sexual slaves.”

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Ban with the English poster for his film.

In 1996, lawsuits for reparations were filed in Japan by four of the women in Give Me the Sun, and in 1998, by 10 more, with the aid of Japanese lawyers. All the suits were dismissed or lost in 2000. “Why did I lose the lawsuit? Where is the truth?” wails one of the victims. “Why doesn’t the Japanese government apologize and compensate?” In the film’s closing moments, shortly before she dies, she vows to become a demon, so she can continue her fight for justice.

“Many of them have died, and others are in the last years of their lives,” Ban emphasized. “But it’s not too late to wish that they could receive better treatment during their final years… They’re desperately poor and desperately need assistance for their medical care. But if they were given a big chunk of money, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. That’s not what they’re after. They’re after a sincere, heartfelt apology.”

Ban remains hopeful that there can be “an investigation into the historical reality of the comfort women situation, and research and education on the issue.” His heroic devotion has earned many admirers, as well as detractors. “Ban has told me over the years that he has enemies on both sides,” said Pulvers, “— that the Chinese and the Japanese are against him in many ways. But I firmly believe that the day will come that he will be rewarded by both sides, given honors by both sides, for this most remarkable work.”

Photos by FCCJ except where noted.

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Human-hans/ Ban Zhongyi ©2016

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.

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©2014 Cineport

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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

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