December 12, 2013 12:00 am JST

Tokyo Filmex highlights dynamic new directors

SHIGEKI KOGA, Nikkei senior staff writer

A scene from "In Bloom," by directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross.

TOKYO -- The 14th annual Tokyo Filmex film festival, which was created as a way to discover and foster talent in Asian film, opened Dec. 1 with a strong lineup of films by new directors.

     "We have found talented filmmakers who can carry the Asian film industry into the future. We were looking for style and new ways of telling stories, rather than technique," said Iranian film director and head judge Mohsen Makhmalbaf, explaining the selection process. Seven out of the 10 winning entries were debut films.

     The grand prize went to "In Bloom," a collaboration between Georgian filmmaker Nana Ekvtimishvili and Germany's Simon Gross. This was Ekvtimishvili's first feature-length film and Gross's second. The story takes place in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, right after the Soviet Union disbanded in the early 1990s. The protagonists are 14-year-old girls who would have been contemporaries of Ekvtimishvili, who was born in 1978.

     The film tells the story of a conventional community gripped by fear, food shortages and economic chaos brought on by a civil war, through the clear and unflinching eyes of two teenage girls. The story is told dispassionately, and yet its depiction of Tbilisi -- from the streets to soldiers to blades of grass -- is rich with expression, and the girls are full of life. The film is a masterpiece in which style coexists with the traditional richness of movies.

     Harmony Lessons, Kazakh filmmaker Emir Baigazin's first feature-length film, won the Special Jury Prize with a story about a school that becomes a system of violence through the eyes of a young boy who has been bullied. The film tells in fable-like fashion the tale of a fastidious boy and how his daily life becomes consumed by a school bully. The film stoically explores the essence of violence in a minimalist style. "This is a story with a universal theme," said the director. "It could take place in the plazas of Mexico or the slums of Brazil." The film was peerless in its style and consistency.

Details of Asian life

Singaporean director Anthony Chen's film "Ilo Ilo," which won the Camera d'Or award at Cannes this year, took home the Audience Award. The film takes place in Singapore during the Asian currency crisis of the 1990s and tells the tale of a working couple, their only son and a Filipina maid, who was hired to take care of the boy. The film is full of rich detail, but the story is told in a straightforward manner. A solid film, "Ilo Ilo" is poetic and delicate, reminiscent of a Hirokazu Koreeda film.

From "Ilo Ilo," by director Anthony Chen.

     In 2010, Chen submitted "Ilo Ilo" to Filmex's Next Masters project (currently known as Talent Campus Tokyo), where the film was tightened up under the instruction of Hou Hsiao-hsien and ended up winning the project award.

     Chen's starting point was Filmex. He procured funding from Singapore, with no Japanese involvement, but it was in Japan that "I met some of the key people to materialize this movie," said Chen.

     Director Emilie Georges, the managing director of Memento Films International of France, who served as lecturer, handled world sales, and Hou gave Chen a book about foreign laborers in Taiwan. Chen got casting help from his Philippine director friends who also participated in the Filmex project and a Malaysian director filled in as assistant director. "Unlike Cannes or Berlin, this festival is small, but I've had magical encounters here," said Chen.

     Pornmanus Rattanavich, producer of the film "Karaoke Girl," which got Special Mention, and Hannah Espia, Philippine director of the film "Transit," which won the Student Jury Prize, are both graduates of the Next Masters program.

     Since the year 2001, international film festivals, including Berlin, began incorporating programs and incentives for up-and-coming filmmakers. Films can no longer be sustained by the market of one country alone; film festivals are increasingly stepping into the role of new talent exploration and giving filmmakers access to industry connections. Filmex has done just that and with strong results. That is only because Filmex has steadfastly stuck to the essence of the film festival's mission of being "a place where people of film meet."