Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Okinawa Film Festival 2011

The Okinawa Film Festival is less a film festival, and more a multi-media extravaganza. Run by the Japanese talent agency Yoshimoto, it features films, of course, but also live music, comedy, dance, and basically a little bit of everything. It is held on the main island of Okinawa on the outskirts of Naha city in the convention center. The center-piece is the beach stage, where visitors are entertained by famous comedians, live musicians and local dance troupes on a nearly permanent rotation. This year the weather wasn't perfect, to say the least, and was overcast for the duration. But, it didn't dampen spirits or distract the crowds too much.

In the wake of the recent tragedy in the Tohoku region of Japan it was touch and go as to whether the event would even be held at all. Yoshimoto decided that it would go ahead but turned the festival into a giant fundraiser which drew in a massive 10,949,189 yen in donations for the Japanese Red Cross. All around the event celebrities were shaking donation boxes, and selling charity T-shirts. The incredibly popular girl group AKB48 flew in to perform there latest song and then gave fans the chance to meet them and donate some money. It had queues of desperate fans lining up round the block and was the most attended event of the festival with around 30,000 onlookers. The President of Yoshimoto Mr Osaki, remembering the Kobe earthquake in the '90s explained, "Fifteen years ago in Osaka the Yoshimoto company experienced the earthquake and we struggled to cope. This time I wanted to do everything I could to push forward. I feel every employee, every performer wanted to push forward too."

The festival's original theme, "Laugh and Peace" expanded this year to become, "Yell, Laugh, and Peace". In the hope that the festival can serve as a shout-out of support and sympathy from the Okinawan community, and everyone involved in the film festival. Message boards that allowed people the chance to show their support to the people of Tohoku were a massive success with over 40,000 people putting pen to paper. These, along with personal messages and videos from Japanese entertainers will be sent to the devastated region.

Yoshimoto themselves who will be celebrating their centenary year soon, are the undeniable champion of Japanese comedy. They have a lion's share of around ninety percent of Japanese comics on their roster, and have begun expanding beyond into sports, music, and the arts. They debuted the festival in 2009 and it has really grown in size and scope in a mere three years. Originally just a four day event, it has now been expanded to ten days of films, comedy, and music. In the selected films there is a strong Japanese presence alongside a varied international intake from America, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand, India, Sweden, the UK, and Russia. Festival attendance was slightly lower than expected, attributed to the crisis in Tohoku and bad weather, but it was undeniably a successful year.

Awards wise the big winner of the festival was Hankyu Densha, a pleasant if not ground-breaking story of passengers on a train. It took home the peace category prize and the Golden Cesar Award. The Laugh category was won by the Thai film Crazy Little Thing Called Love, that gave an honest shot at emulating the Hollywood teen rom-com. In that category one of the most anticipated films was Omu Raisu, produced by Yoshimito itself, which has a rafter of Japanese comedians in it. Speaking personally, Japanese comedy can be a little hard to get sometimes, but this film with its visual gags is far more accessible to foreign audiences and has a nice sense of surreality to it. The excellent Swedish film Simple Simon about a boy with Aspergers syndrome and his brother struggling to live is a snappy film and reminiscent in spirit to Germany'sGoodbye Lenin in a sort of Euro-blockbuster way. One of the films that was generating the most buzz however, was The Mask of Moonlight a pretty bleak, and pretentious flop, that seemed completely detached from reality.

In the Peace section British writer Tony Hawks brought his amiable film Round Ireland With a Fridge, the slightly fictionalized version of his trip around the country with a small refrigerator. The Taiwanese mega-blockbuster Night Market Hero with Blue Lan and Alice Ko in the lead roles was a light-hearted romp that won over audiences..The festival also ran a series of tributes to the films of Tony Curtis and Leslie Nielsen, the first two Naked Gun's, which have got to be a must-see, and Paris When it Sizzles, and The Bad News Bear Goes to Japan (probably in the for location rather than merit) were screened. In the Naked Gun II and a 1/2 screening I went to though, the celebrity presenters didn't mention the great Nielsen once, and the audience left in droves once they had gone. Not the most fitting tribute.

A new arrival for 2011 was the Local Origination Project, a selection of films made across Japan on a local level, and was one of the most exciting parts of the line-up.The project screened films from all over Japan, Okinawa all the way up to Niigata. The films were selected on the basis that they are made by people from the localities, and offer some display of lifestyles, traditions, and feel of the region. President Osaki's logic behind this is that, " Local films have their own local legends and tales. The locals and our talents can introduce local specialties, local celebrities. Through communication we can make a film. A film that may not be for the big screen, but one to be watched in Japan or Asia, perhaps in a coffee house or a city hall. The goal is to make a network where there wasnt one before. It wont fit in with Hollywood releases, but it should show local traditions and feelings."

The finale of the festival was a fantastic event. It featured a barn-stomping performance, among many, from the famous Okinawan group BEGIN. It had the capacity crowd going wild and really captured the good spirited nature of the festival. The festival went out fittingly with a bang as an elaborate firework display sent the audience home with smiles on their faces. As a film festival it could have done with a stronger line-up of movies but as the multi-faceted crowd-pleaser it is, that didn't seem to matter to the people who turned out. It is quite remarkable to think that a talent agency can put on an event of this size on their own. In the words of President Osaki, "There can't be any other company quite like ours."

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