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OUT OF MY HAND


OUT OF MY HAND (Liberia no Shiroi Chi)


July 27, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Takeshi Fukunaga


Jul 27 Movie Out of My Hand Liberia no shiroi chi by Ayabe030Award-winning writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga   ©FCCJ

It is rare for Japanese feature-film directors to have international aspirations, and rarer still for them to seek opportunities directing overseas. The Film Committee is proud that several of our frequent guests do, in fact, fall into the latter category. With our screening of the beautiful, soulful film Out of My Hand, we have just welcomed another member of this tiny group of international adventurers: Takeshi Fukunaga. Not only is the Hokkaido native based in New York City, but his award-winning first feature was shot partially in Liberia.

The West African country is not on too many Japanese filmmakers’ radars, but Fukunaga found his subject while working on a documentary. Speaking in English during the Q&A following the screening, he explained, “The documentary was about the lives of rubber plantation workers. I was really struck, first, at seeing the severe living and working conditions behind this daily product that we use, rubber; and also at seeing the strength and dignity of these workers, despite their severe situation.

“That really stuck with me for quite some time. Then when I was trying to come up with an idea for my first feature, I knew I always wanted to tell an immigrant’s story — being an immigrant myself in New York for the past 12 years. I thought by connecting those two worlds [Liberia and New York] into one film, I could make something meaningful.”

Asked how much of the film was drawn from his own, or others’, real-life experiences, Fukunaga replied, “I did a lot of library and online research about Liberian life in the U.S. I also did a lot of interviews with Liberians in New York, and the story definitely has parts that were inspired by real events or stories. But the connecting dots are fictional.”

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Bishop Blay as Cisco, in an astonishing film debut.  ©2017 nikonikofilm

After he’d spent about a year writing the script with American writer Donari Braxton, he returned to Africa in 2012 and worked with local writers on the nuances of dialogue, “to make it closer to reality.” Fukunaga and his brother-in-law, Ryo Murakami, a cinematographer, also worked with a local shoot coordinator and the government-supported Liberia Movie Union, to create just the second narrative feature ever shot in the country by a foreign crew.

Out of My Hand is directed by Fukunaga with remarkable restraint — and an admirable absence of melodrama or predictability. There is poetry in the film’s evocation of the daily life of the downtrodden, as well as in its luminous images, particularly in the documentary-style Liberian scenes shot by Murakami, who tragically died from malaria shortly after returning to New York.

The film begins in the predawn African darkness, with a light bobbing through the distant trees. Gradually, we make out the figure of Cisco (Bishop Blay, in a raw, commanding film debut), a rubber plantation worker who is tapping trees and then carrying the gooey stuff in buckets to the central depot. The labor is arduous, but Cisco has a loving wife, two small children and a group of friends who stick up for each other. Still, the work barely pays the bills. When his union calls a strike that soon proves disastrous, Cisco refuses to follow others back to the plantation. “What should we do?” he erupts in righteous anger. “Beg them to break our backs?” Beg them to treat us like dogs?”

Jul 27 Movie Out of My Hand Liberia no shiroi chi by Ayabe020

At church one Sunday, the preacher exhorts his flock to “wake up and go!” Cisco heeds the call to leave, knowing it’s probably his last chance to escape the vicious cycle and provide a better life for his family. Following his cousin Marvin (Rodney Rogers-Beckley) to New York City, he eventually finds a job as a taxi driver, a close-knit community of fellow Liberians, and a life that’s not so different from back home.

But then a ghost from the past rises up to haunt him: Jacob (David Roberts), a wheeler-dealer with a burning rage. Suddenly, everything we thought we knew about Cisco is called into question. Although details are slender, the two were fellow soldiers during the Second Liberian civil war (1999-2003), during which as many as 300,000 died, and both bear deep scars of atrocities committed. When Jacob sets Cisco up to take a fall, he may be the one person in New York who can unleash Cisco’s own demons.

Upon its completion in 2015, Out of My Hand was immediately heralded for its powerful and timely narrative. The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, won the Best U.S. Fiction Award at the LA Film Festival and was nominated for the prestigious John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award. It was also picked up for worldwide release by Ava DuVernay’s distribution company (she’s the director of Oscar-nominated films Selma and 13th, and she’s committed to finding wider audiences for minority-driven stories).

And yet, it would be two more years before Fukunaga was able to release the film in Japan. This is unusual, considering that he is Japanese and the film has a stellar, award-winning reputation. But while the cross-border flow of people around the world has been an increasing focus of global politics, it remains of marginal interest here. (Japan is notoriously backward-looking when it comes to the subject of immigration, with the government insisting that its 1 million-plus unskilled foreign laborers are “guest workers,” not immigrants, and keeping their doors to permanent residency closed. It also admits only a handful of refugees into the country each year.)

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©2017 nikonikofilm

Also seemingly of little interest to many Japanese is the American Dream, or the fact that over the past 6 months, America’s reputation as the land of milk and honey has been profoundly shaken. Nevertheless, Fukunaga hopes that Out of My Handis a way for people to relate to immigrants and to know more about these particular stories.”

He reminded the audience, “Distribution of any arthouse film is difficult, and if it’s about minorities and has no-name actors, it’s even more difficult. So I’m very grateful to Mr. Tsuda and Nikoniko Film for picking up the movie. If I thought only of the box office, then I wouldn’t have made a film about Liberian rubber plantation workers.”

An audience member asked why more Japanese directors aren’t making films about the immigrant experience. “There are many Japanese immigrants to the US, Central America and South America,” he said, “but I’ve never seen films about them. Why doesn’t it attract the interest of Japanese film companies or individuals? There’s many success stories and failure stories. I think they would be very interesting and educational.”

Jul 27 Movie Out of My Hand Liberia no shiroi chi by Ayabe007

After saying that he knew of several such films, including Vancouver Asahi, which we screened at FCCJ in 2014, Fukunaga replied, “I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, I would say that Japanese can be narrow[-minded]. If it’s a story about a Japanese person, they’re always living in Japan. People’s interests are not quite there; it doesn’t connect to the box office.”

Not surprisingly, Fukunaga’s Out of My Hand cast came in for high praise from the audience. David Roberts, who plays Jacob with a convincing Liberian lilt (his mother is from Sierra Leone), is a familiar face to fans of Orange Is the New Black. But Bishop Blay was a complete unknown. “All the actors in the Liberian section are nonprofessionals,” the director explained. “We did an open call for people with some acting experience or no acting experience. We saw hundreds of people and we found these amazing talents — as I believe you can recognize. Some of them were playing people like themselves, such as the pastor in the church scene. All his lines were his own words.”

Fukunaga did not mention that the real-life pastor is former warlord Joshua Milton Blahyi, better known by his nom de guerre, General Butt Naked. Infamous for his barbarity and ruthlessness — and for wearing nothing into battle but his shoes and guns during the First Liberian Civil War in the early 1990s — he is now a Christian minister preaching redemption and forgiveness.

liberia sub2Cisco waits for a fare in New York City.     ©2017 nikonikofilm

Another audience member wanted to know whether Jacob’s death in what seems to be a hit-and-run accident was meant as punishment for his past sins. Responded Fukunaga, “That was a creative decision that came after a long discussion with my cowriter. I didn’t mean it as a punishment for something he’d done in the past, but rather, I hinted that it might have been done on purpose. Or it could have been an unfortunate accident. But we wanted to push Cisco into a very difficult decision, so he would make some moral decisions.”

What those decisions are remain open to interpretation. “It might be ambiguous,” admitted Fukunaga, “but I tried to express the strength and dignity of this character, and that, at the end of the day, he has to do labor to move forward. I started the film that way, and the film ends that way.”

Jul 27 Movie Out of My Hand Liberia no shiroi chi by Ayabe035

Fukunaga recently spent nearly 5 months in Paris as part of the Cannes Film Festival Cinéfondation residency, where he worked on developing his second feature film, a present-day story of Japan's indigenous Ainu people called Iomante. It’s set to go into production next summer in Hokkaido. An audience member wanted to know if he thought the Japanese would be interested, given their past record. “I’m making this because I think it’s important,” responded Fukunaga. “I think I can put all I have into making it happen. I just have to find the right partners and get into a film festival [to make the film more marketable].”

If the FCCJ audience is any indication, Iomante is already hotly anticipated.

chirashi-visual omote
©2017 nikonikofilm

Photos: ©FCCJ unless indicated.

Selected Press Coverage

LOVE AND OTHER CULTS


LOVE AND OTHER CULTS (Kemono Michi)


July 3, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Eiji Uchida, producer Adam Torel and stars Sairi Ito and Kenta Suga


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Kenta Suga gets guidance from his costar, Sairi Ito, before introducing himself in English, echoing, word for word, her earlier introduction:
“Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for coming over today. I’m very happy to be here.”      ©Mance Thompson

Fans of Japanese television and commercial cinema will be familiar with Kenta Suga and Sairi Ito, two young performers who began their careers in early childhood and have been accruing credits at an impressive pace.

By the age of 13, Suga had received a Rookie of the Year Award at the Japan Academy Prizes for the hit Always: Sunset on Third Street, and would go on to star in the enduringly popular series Kamen Rider in his late teens. Ito made waves on several popular TV shows before making her film debut in Takashi Miike’s big-ticket Lesson of Evil, helping her land roles in two box office smashes earlier this year, The Last Cop: The Movie and One Week Friends.

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Under the watchful eye of producer Adam Torel (left) and director Eiji Uchida.   ©Koichi Mori

But nothing will have prepared fans for their audacious performances in Love and Other Cults, playing their first dark, adult characters with remarkable energy and authenticity. Required to be both angelic and demonic, Suga and Ito demonstrate just how much emotional depth they can bring to their roles, allowing them not only to demonstrate their surprising range, but to effectively announce their coming of age in the industry.

Were they not just a little bit worried about trading in their “good-kid” reputations for something much more twisted?

Appearing at the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview, Ito enthused, “When I first read the script, I thought it was a very good, very interesting story. And it was really realistic. The role was something I thought I could pour myself into. So I said yes right away.”

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©Mance Thompson (left); ©Koichi Mori (right)

Agreed Suga, “I thought the script was super interesting, too. When I saw [the director’s 2016 film] Lowlife Life, I thought I’d like to work with Mr. Uchida, so I immediately said yes. This was the type of role that I’d not done before, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to grow as an actor, to stretch and maybe discover a new side of myself.

 “Meeting Mr. Uchida and Adam,” he admitted, “I was quite relieved to see they were more normal than I had envisioned [cue audience titters]. When I saw Lowlife Love, I was a little concerned about what kind of director Mr. Uchida would be. But he turned out to be a really charming man. I felt very safe going into the project.”

Ito added, “I had met Mr. Uchida and Adam before, and I didn’t have any qualms about working with them. And Adam, being the humorous, comedic character that he is, has helped me time and again.”

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©Mance Thompson (left); ©FCCJ (right)

The collaborators behind last year’s breakout hit Lowlife Love, writer-director Eiji Uchida and British producer Adam Torel, have returned to familiar territory with Love and Other Cults. But the films couldn’t be more different in style. A scabrous satire about the reprobates populating Japan’s indie film and straight-to-video porn scene, Lowlife Love looks as low-budget as its low-rent milieu; and its characters — most of whom are past their use-by dates and know it — move with fittingly enervated desperation.

Although it also concerns the lives of the marginalized and the frequently felonious, and is peppered with scenes of sudden violence and look-away debauchery, Love and Other Cults takes a far more candy-colored, zippily-edited approach to its many characters and subplots. It also boasts grade-A production values, along with the world-class turns of its talented leads, and is sure to reach a far wider audience.

Surprisingly, a “wider audience” is not always the target of Japanese filmmakers, most of whom are sadly content with hometown distribution and wouldn’t dream of working with a foreign producer. Never mind that Torel is also the founding CEO of Third Window Films, the UK's leading purveyor of Asian contemporary cinema, and has distributed nearly 90 titles by today’s leading Japanese directors; nor that he’s also produced films by Sion Sono (The Land of Hope) and Yosuke Fujita (Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats).

Even Uchida calls his films “domestic;” but his past festival record — and current filmmaking activities in the US — suggest otherwise.

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All ©Mance Thompson except top right, ©Koichi Mori

“In all honesty, I want to continue making domestic films like these,” he said, in response to a question about expanding his base. “But the more films I make in Japan, the poorer I become. There’s more money in the US. Being raised abroad myself [he spent his first 10 years in Brazil], it would be nice to be able to work in the US or Europe or China. That’s something I would like to do.”

Uchida’s characters, as Japan-specific as they may be, are plagued by the same needs and desires we all have: the restless search for identity, for a place to call home, for someone to love us just the way we are.

In Love and Other Cults, he focuses on deadbeat teens in a deadend town where “every day, someone breaks down… and someone is saved.” Suga plays Ryota, a delinquent who’s desperate to escape to Tokyo before it’s too late. Ito plays Ai (whose name means love), sent off at age 7 by her religious-nut mom to a cult at the base of Mt. Fuji, where she is worshipped as a goddess until the leader (TV talento Matthew Chozick) is arrested. Now a teen, Ai enrolls in Ryota’s school, and he falls for her instantly.

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Ai (center) prays with cult leader Lavi (TV star Matthew Chozick). What is in that pipe?   ©third window films

But thanks to the film’s frantically scrambled chronology, their stories diverge and we don’t learn until much later what happens to their initial rapport.

Jumping back and forth between the protagonists, we follow Ryota as he commits petty crimes with his wannabe-gangster pal Yuji (Kaito Yoshimura, en route to stardom) and the man-giant Kenta (Anthony, in a striking film debut), under the tutelage of local yakuza boss Kida (Denden). But as level-headed Ryota saves up for his getaway, Yuji grows increasingly unhinged and Kenta begins a sweet relationship with dive-photographer Reika (Hanae Kan). Soon, there must be blood — and it will arrive amid colorfully choreographed mayhem.

Meanwhile, Ai drops out of school and starts living with a loose-knit family of misfits and druggies, racing around town with a bosozoku bike gang, rocking a bleached-bonde ’do and an oversized purple tokkofuku (custom-appliquéd “special-attack uniform”), becoming the perfect yankii troublemaker. She’s then offered a new life with a “normal” family; but her chameleon-like need to fit in destroys her chances. Over the next several years, Ai dons and sheds multiple looks and personas, but eventually, her troubled journey takes her on dangerous detours… until college-student Ryota returns from Tokyo.

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Misfits, outcasts, poseurs, wannabes in Love and Other Cults. ©third window films

Wildly imaginative as it is, the film’s marketing materials trumpet that it’s “based on a true story.” Asked about this, Uchida said, “Yes, it’s based on a true story, about a girl who also appears [in a different role] in the film. Her story was far harsher than in my script, and more telling about the rural landscape, so I softened it up a little.”

He continued, “In fact, the script originally had two stories, one about a nikkei-Brazilian boy, and one about this girl. But we decided to merge them together. When I came to Kyushu from Brazil in junior high, about 80% of the classroom were delinquents. So I based the role of Ryota on one of my classmates, who ultimately joined the yakuza.”

It turns out the director wasn’t the only one who grew up surrounded by wannabe gangsters: both Ito and Suga also hail from Nowheres-ville towns, and completely identified with their characters’ plights.

“My hometown has a lot of the same essence as the one in the film,” said Ito. “That’s why I felt there was so much reality in the script. The delinquents in my school talked the same way, too, always asking each other, ‘Which high school do you go to? Do you know such-and-such a senior?’ It really resonated with me.”

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©FCCJ

“Yeah, there were people like that in my class, too,” laughed Suga. “I also came from a rough area, and there were these guys who would have this presence about them, but also this certain freedom about them. Ryota is kind of an amalgam of these types of characters I knew.”

What about the marketing claim that there are actual delinquents playing themselves onscreen?

Uchida explained, “We did have actual delinquents in the film: the bosozoku riders. Sometimes, we’d get calls from the police asking us to stop the shoot, since they were worried about them appearing on screen. So it might be fun for viewers to try to spot who are the actual delinquents and who are actors.”

Added Torel, “We were shooting in Yamanashi, and to use the bikes wasn’t that easy. So a lot of the people in the film were real bikers, including the two who appear in the main marketing images. They own the bikes, and they’re now becoming quite famous since the photos have appeared everywhere.”

Impressed by their standout performances, a journalist asked the young stars about their biggest acting challenges. Responded Suga, “Ryota is a poker-face character, so one of the most difficult things was figuring out where to draw the line, how emotional to be, how much of his interior journey I should depict.”

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©Koichi Mori (left); ©Mance Thompson (right)

Commenting that Ai’s true emotions are also hidden, Ito added, “It was more difficult playing the scenes in which she’s enjoying herself, in contrast to the darker scenes. It was hard to express her purity, and it was hard to play this duality that she has.”

In both her angelic and her demonic personas, Ai essays an unforgettable body-swaying, hand-waving dance, something we understand to be akin to meditation and perhaps, forgiveness. An audience member suggested that Ai actually saves many of those she comes in contact with, even the male fans who follow her when she becomes an AV star. “Yes, I agree that she is a kind of savior,” said Uchida. “When I’ve shown my films in international festivals, I often get questions about the religious aspects, and whether I’m religious. [He’s not.] But I do think people need a belief structure. Being a kid in Brazil, which was a really Catholic society, there were a lot of pious believers there. I had real culture shock when I came to Japan, which doesn’t follow any religion. That may have had some influence on my depiction of Ai.”

CultsMance Thompson-37©Mance Thompson

Love and Other Cults world premiered at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, and will make its North American premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival, before moving on to the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. If it follows a similar trajectory as Uchida and Torel’s last collaboration — and there’s no reason it shouldn’t — it will soon be seen in dozens of territories, and later this year, be released on DVD by Third Window Films. Watch for it.

CultsMance Thompson-38Misfits, outsiders, poseurs... just kidding! The crowd in the bar, following the screening event.  ©Mance Thompson

kemono
©third window films

Selected Press Coverage

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