On the opening night of the 26th Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) last Thursday, Tom Hanks was greeted on stage by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Hanks flew in just in time to introduce the festival's opening film, the seaborne hostage thriller Captain Phillips, which kicked off the nine-day cinefest taking place in the bustling Roppongi district in the heart of Tokyo.
Au Revoir L’Ete , one of the Japanese films at TIFF.
The presence of the country's PM at the opening of a movie event was more than just a ribbon-cutting show _ as is often the case in Southeast Asia. Abe spoke briefly on stage, but his message was clear. Japan, a movie-making powerhouse and producer of influential cultural products, sees the film industry as both cultural export and commercial artillery. Part of the effort to revive the Japanese economy, Abe said, is to realise and support "the importance of the content industry". And the country's main film festival aims to do just that. In other words, a movie festival is integral to the country's cultural and economic policies.
Echoing the prime minister, TIFF's director-general Yasushi Shiina said that the film festival is partly supported by the "Cool Japan" project, which aims to drive the creative side of the country and acquaint global audiences with Japanese culture through film.
The US film star's appearance certainly confirmed TIFF's we-mean-business statement and elevated the festival's profile. In the geopolitics of film festivals, Tokyo's slot in mid-October is hardly ideal. Preceded by South Korea's Busan International Film Festival, regarded as Asia's premier event, TIFF admittedly has to work hard to earn its share of curatorial spotlight. The programming philosophy that tries to entertain local viewers as well as please international guests _ a mix of world movies with a focus on Asia and especially Japanese cinema _ has yielded mixed results in the past few years, though 2013 seems to be among the more impressive in terms of selection.
With Captain Phillips as the opener, the festival took off in high gear. A tense thriller, the film directed by Paul Greengrass (Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Identity) hurtles ahead at a nail-biting pace with Hanks in the title role _ a cargo ship captain who confronts a band of fatalistic Somali pirates _ and a very disturbing performance by Barkhad Abdi, playing the pirate chief. Captain Phillips is among the crowded pack of Oscar hopefuls and opens here in December.
TIFF's competition titles are a mixed bag of genre movies and slightly edgy offerings, from Iran and France and the Philippines and anywhere and everywhere in between.
After five days of the festival, the Mexican drama The Empty Hours, about a teenage boy who looks after a short-time motel for his uncle, gathered a robust word of mouth stature, as well as the lone Southeast Asian film in the section, Barber's Tales, a story of a woman who runs a barber shop in a conservative town in the 1970s. Elsewhere in the competition, the festival runs the gamut of tastes from Turkish moral-apocalypse drama The Singing Women _ set in an isolated island where horses are dying of a plague and humans by spiritual scars _ to The Double, an existential thriller from the UK starring Jesse Eisenberg.
The World Focus section sums up the extensive reach that TIFF tries to encompass. A Thai semi-experimental film Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy, a cinematic rendition of a girl's Twitter feeds, directed by Nawapol Thamrongratanarit, is showing in this category, alongside arthouse fare such as Norte, The End Of History, a four-hour Dostoyevskian saga from Filipino Lav Diaz, and the Dutch dark comedy Borgman, in which a rich family is terrorised by a group of homicidal pranksters.
And, of course, a selection of new Japanese films is one of the highlights (generating buzz are Au Revoir L'Ete by Koji Fukada, and Disregarded People by Hideo Sakaki). Japanese cinema has somewhat lost its visibility _ at least to certain Asian viewers _ to Korean movies during the past five years, and one of TIFF's aims is to restore the balance. However the race ends, the benefit belongs to we viewers, as it should be.
We'll be covering TIFF further in this Friday's edition.
Actor Tom Hanks, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and movie director Paul Greengrass.