Monday, March 14, 2011

2011 Yubari Fantastic Film Festival Round Up

There is no place quite like Yubari. Tucked away in the mountains an hour away from Chitose airport the festival has a local charm that is miles away from the more commercial elements of most major festivals. It feels like literally everyone in the town chips in to make the whole thing work, as the sleepy little village is swamped with visitors who would unlikely ever pass through otherwise. It is a place where smaller independent films can come and find an audience, and get a chance to promote their work on a larger scale.

The first night there, having planned to hit a couple of screenings we were whisked away within moments of arrival to a pole-dancing event in a small room on the 3rd floor of the town community center. It was the hot ticket that night and without wanting to tread out that cliche, it really was one of those "only in Japan" moments. Film makers Yoshihiro Nishimura and Noboru Iguchi were presenting for the night, naked apart from a sumo style cloth wrapped round their nether region. It opened with a bizarre short film with a mish-mash of old TV footage and what can only be described as a very horny platypus paper-mache doll that whilst entertaining, I'm sure was flying miles over my head in the upper reaches of the Japanese humour stratosphere. This was followed by two girls bouncing on stage to do some energetic pole-dancing, and teaching the audience how to do a dance, akin to something you might see in a maid-cafe in Akihabara. What was most surprising was the reaction from an audience with some assorted dignitaries, and elderly Japanese women absolutely loving it.

Spread over three main venues with the central hub being the towns Adele Building. There is a remarkably intimate atmosphere as it seems that the percentage of film-makers, film-lovers, and curious locals are in roughly the same proportions. Everything is within walking distance and you soon begin to bump into familiar faces on the main strip. The chilly temperature is combated with staff handing out Yubari brand ear mufflers and gloves. Local eateries have people cooking food outside beckoning you over for a try.

Film-wise there were some gems in the schedule; Pink Subaru by Kazuya Ogawa was a warm, engaging film set on the Israel/Palestine border, Ashamed a Korean film about a failed romance between two girls, Shinda Gaijin (dead foreigner) a cracking short that was perfectly gauged and superbly shot by a very bright young director, Kong Pahurak from Waseda university. Of the bigger films on show there were I Saw The Devil, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Of Gods and Men, and the Japanese premiere of Tangled. Some of the post-screening Q and A sessions were a bit flat. The questions fielded generally weren't coming from the audience, but a presenter on stage and were by and large pretty benign. One in particular with three Korean actresses that should have been a vivid lively discussion descended into tedious flattery without any insight on film. Still, this is a small aside in a largely successful event.

By far one of the best attended screenings was for Nishimura's Hell-Driver who has a sizable cult following both in Yubari, and abroad. It's a zombie film with a Japanese school-girl for a heroine, naturally. Not what I usually go for, but it was hard to not be impressed by the sheer imagination Nishimura presented; zombies with knifes and forks coming out of their face, sawed off hands attacking people, and a zombie car. The zombies have a little melon stalk popping out of their heads as a symbol for Yubari (the town is renown for its melon, probably even more so than for the festival). Nishimura really is the face of Yubari he seemed to be involved in almost everything, popping up everywhere.

The stove parties held every night outside the Adele building as the snow falls typify what Yubari is all about. Six or so furiously burning stoves warm up the revelers as people mix and mingle. Some really top notch Hokkaido food and drink is in ample supply, and free of charge. Flitting between the hubs of the stoves you can find yourself talking to some very interesting people. The openness is really refreshing, the notion of VIP status would seem like an alien concept here.

On the Sunday the closing film A Honeymoon in Hell: Mr and Mrs Oki's Fabulous Trip was unfortunately pretty awful. An interminably long, muddled mess about a trip to hell, where a pair of newly-weds smooth out some of their relationship problems. There were a few nice touches but it was unremarkable, and certainly undeserving of its climactic position on the schedule. The audience on the other hand did not seem to share my opinion on the whole, and the packed Adele auditorium did reverberate with laughter sporadically, usually coinciding with a Japanese TV celebrity cameo. However, the elder members of the screening did doze off and proceed to snore quite loudly. This was made all the more embarrassing by the fact that just a handful of seats away from the director one man's nasal passage was particularly audible.

The awards followed shortly after, and were appropriately distributed. Kazuya Ogawa's Pink Subaru deservedly took home two, the Shinega and Jury prize, both being rewarded with the sponsor Epsom's cinema projector. Violence PM received a cash prize with the Hokkaido governor award. The Gran Prix this year went to Invasion of the Alien Bikini, an inventive ambitious Korean film with a b-movie vibe, it probably won't get the biggest release but is an excellent film and I implore you to search it out. As with any Japanese ceremony it doesn't end without at least a few speeches. Unlike other notable film awards the speakers were safe in the knowledge that their addresses would not be cut short by a time-keeping orchestra, and many took full advantage of this. The festival ends in an absolutely fitting way though, as with tradition all those involved in the festival, film-makers, guests, staff, the jury and so on take to the stage for the curtain call. They are armed with an array of multi-coloured plastic balls, which they have jotted down some messages on, and after a count-down toss them into the eagerly awaiting outstretched arms of the audience.

Yubari is a strikingly unique film festival. It has a genuinely inviting and friendly atmosphere, pushing film-lovers and film-makers together. The small town, with movie posters everywhere, has masses of charm and is well worth the visit. The films are almost secondary to the sense of camaraderie it fosters in the short few days it runs. Make the trip, and bring your ski stuff as the towns Mt Racey resort has a few nice runs, and plenty of the powder that makes Hokkaido such a draw for snow-lovers.

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