Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: October 2006, 07

Saturday, October 7, 2006

10:16:59 pm , 1388 words, 1961 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie, Live-action

VIFF & Crossing Borders

Kazushi "Visitor Q" Watanabe at the premiere of Cain's ChildrenWith only a week remaining, among the best films I've seen so far at the Vancouver International Film Festival was the new film by Hirokazu Kore-eda: Hana (Hana yori mo nao). I knew it would be good, but it was totally different from what I was expecting. Koreeda was one of my favorites of that wave of minimalist filmmaking that swept Japan in the late 90s, of which his brooding Maboroshi no Hikari seemed to be the harbinger, but here he sets out to show that minimalist mood isn't all there is to his palette with a rollicking period comedy that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and trenchantly revisionist. If anything, it felt like I was watching a soft-edged Shohei Imamura. I never imagined he had it in him, and was expecting something closer to 2004's Nobody Knows. The humor was always dead on, as if it had been written by someone who'd been writing comedy films professionally for all his life, so I assumed panderingly that there was no way he could have written the film, and he was finally resorting to falling back directing other people's films, but I was impressed to see that it was written, directed and produced by himself. A real genius. The film is a long-needed re-interpretation of the cliched story of the "47 loyal retainers", recasting it into what it really was - a gruesome, anachronistic fiasco that gave the lie to the whole notion of bushido and signalled the end of a barbaric era.

The other hilight so far was the Taiwanese Cheng Yu-Chieh's amazingly accomplished debut feature Do Over. It was kind of like Magnolia, but without the schmaltz. Cinematography, sound design and directing were sophisticated and flawless. The very ambitious interlocking structure seemed to be teetering on the brink of spinning out of control at every moment, but he managed to retain control over every moment, creating a thrilling, stimulating, ever-evolving interlocking web of significance. A tremendous debut. The Moroccan Heaven's Doors was a similarly ambitious debut by a young brother directing team weaving together various narratives, but here there was less a feeling of control, with shaky acting, excessive length and inflection a bit too Hollywood. Climates by Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan also felt like a step down from his Distant, which I had greatly appreciated while noting a twinge of stylstic stretching thin. Here it felt like we were seeing more of the bad parts of of Distant, with long takes that didn't seem to hold up and a feeling of dreariness for dreariness's sake. There were a few years when Abbas Kiarostami's influence seemed to have injected a fresh vein of simplicity into filmmaking around the world, resulting in some excellent, sparely styled films in the early 2000s, but it's starting to feel like it's time to be moving on. Like Kanada's animation and the league of imitators, only the master can do it right. The Indonesian Love for Share was an unexpectedly delightful comedy of polygamist manners. Oku Shutaro's indie Cain's Children may have read well in the script, but it was a disappointment on the screen. In another disappointment, there were no guest appearances at the Alternative Anime screening, but as if by way of compensation, our patience was rewarded by a Q&A with the one redeeming feature of Cain's Children - its lead actor, Kazushi Watanabe - Visitor Q in the flesh! He's a great actor, and it was painful to see him saddled with the mediocre cast of this indie film. I hope he has a chance to act in some better films in the coming days.

This year's Alternative Anime felt very different from the last. Probably this was largely because most of the films this time around came from a different country. What was perhaps most interesting was to see the contrast in tendencies between student animation in Japan and Korea - if you can even identify a 'tendency'. Japanese student films seems generally more esoteric and inward-turned and abstract, Korean (from what I've seen here) more narrative-focused and linear and emotive. Because most of the films were student films, there was a sort of youthful 'haze' there, a feeling of still groping to figure out how to express oneself. The films had the freshness and lack of stale polish that I appreciate in student films, but also the lack of direction and purpose that can either be an asset or a liability in student films, and I can't say that many of them grabbed me except for possibly Act 1, Chapter 2, a bizarre retelling of the creation that worked on some visceral level but felt like it strove too much for shock effect. Notably, the music was excellent throughout. The schools must have been involved in the music somehow. One film stood apart from the rest in a league of its own - Space Paradise by Lee Myung-Ha. I actually dismissed the film while watching it because I thought it was not fair to compare the creation of students to the creation of a professional animation studio. I was shocked on seeing the credits to realize Lee had animated the entire film himself. I don't know if he's still a student or not, but what a difference genius makes! His film simply blew away everything else in the selection. I can definitely see Lee Myung-Ha going places. Lee's film was perfectly balanced entertainment, showing a level of technical refinement and narrative assuredness that I thought only a team of professionals could have achieved. A question that remains with me is how on earth he animated the film. Did he map the movement of the robot from CG? If he did, the results are wonderful and don't feel like CG; if he didn't, he's an amazing prodigy of an animator.

The entries from Japan were in the minority this time around, but had a better batting average. The experimental CG short Suzie No-Name was way, way too bizarre for its own good, but otherwise Yoshinao Sato's Desktop took a simple enough idea - how would you animate the desktop? - and did a convincing job of discovering a method of animation that stays true to the nature of the material, unleashing the hidden potential movement in the familiar play of windows splayed across all of our desktops by moving them around in an ingenious and mesmerizing dance of resizing, scrolling, and zooming. The third and last of the Japanese entries and of the selection was the one that struck me at the deepest level, Mitsuo Toyama's Trot. Toyama is a name I discovered on Digital Stadium, a peculiar and intriguing figure who is possibly even more interesting as a person than the animation he creates, which is saying a lot. I mentioned that the lack of polish of student films can be either an asset or a liability, and Toyama is one of the rare cases where it is an asset. In fact, it seems to be intrinsically tied to what makes his films great - that evanescent, delicate awkwardness of youth that will disappear with time. Toyama seems to be a true visionary - a poet whose poem is his life. I don't know what he is doing with his life now, but when his first film hit Digital Stadium in 2005 - You and I, and the Wind - he was working in a factory assembling cell phones by night and reading poetry to his own musical accompaniment like a Tokyo troubadour in city parks by day. His animation is an extension of that spirit of living in the now, steeped in a language and a mood entirely his own - the language of the cold wind striking your face on a walk in the dark of the night. Whereas most animation is as if squeezed out because the creators don't have anything to say, Toyama isn't squeezing. He's channelling. His films feel like a stethoscope to the soul. Watching his films you find yourself floating along on his mystical wavelength without even needing to understand what is going on. There are different ways an animated film can 'work', and his work fantastically well on the level of mood. I see now that Toyama came back to Digital Stadium with another film just last month - Celestial Observations.