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New Focus at Tokyo Film Festival Sees Hollywood Out of the Picture

Signs that Hollywood and the local film industry have fallen out of love were clearly evident at the Tokyo International Film Festival, with the US now romancing China and Japan, and looking to carry on with several Southeast Asian consorts.

Photo: Respeto: Philippine film in focus in Crosscut Asia.
Respeto: Philippine film in focus in Crosscut Asia.
Photo: Respeto: Philippine film in focus in Crosscut Asia.
Respeto: Philippine film in focus in Crosscut Asia.

Although this year's Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) opened with a Hollywood movie – Warner Bros' A Star Is Born – it's an event that is becoming ever more focused on the wider Asia-Pacific region and, in particular, on mainland China and Southeast Asia. This shift reflects the geo-political realities of the region, notably warmer relations between the Japanese and Chinese governments and, conversely, Japan's strategy of fostering relations with Southeast Asia as a way of countering China's rise.

It also reflects the realities of the international film business. Japan used to be the biggest box office in Asia, ensuring Hollywood stars would regularly drop in to Tokyo as part of global promotional tours. China, however, overtook Japan six years ago and its box office is now worth four times as much, establishing Beijing as the most popular destination for Hollywood's Asia-bound press junkets. While the Oscar-tipped A Star Is Born, starring Bradley Cooper with Lady Gaga, was a smart choice for the TIFF opener, it was notable that none of its stars turned up in Tokyo to support the film.

That aside, the mainland's rapidly growing film industry is becoming increasingly important to Japan on several levels. Each year, about 10 Japanese films secure a theatrical release in China, with 2018's successes including Hirokazu Kore-eda's Cannes Palme d'Or winner Shoplifters, and the latest instalment in the Doraemon franchise.

At the same time, Chinese producers have been snapping up the rights to Japan's treasure trove of intellectual properties, including manga, anime and novels. Particularly in demand have been the works of one popular author – Keigo Higashino – whose novels have provided the source material for several Chinese-language films.

Despite the notoriously insular nature of the Japanese film industry, co-production activity between Japan and China is also on the increase. Indeed, in May 2018, the governments of the two countries signed a film co-production agreement, making it far easier for producers on each side to access each other's markets.

The first fruits of the agreement are already starting to emerge. During TIFFCOM, TIFF's associated film and TV market, a group of major Chinese and Japanese studios – including the Beijing-based Bona Film Group and Japan's Toei Animation – announced plans to co-produce The Monkey Prince, a US$30 million animated feature.

The potential for Japan to co-produce with China, as well as with other regions including Europe, was also the subject of one of TIFFCOM's most well-attended seminars. Participating in the panel, Japanese producer Toshiaki Nakazawa, who co-produced Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins with the UK's Jeremy Thomas, said: "As Japan's population of 130 million is in decline and the world's population is around 7 billion, we should be reaching out to that global market and expanding our audience."

Bona Film Group Executive Vice-president Jeffrey Chan, a fellow participant, noted that as the Chinese box office overtook the US, there would be many opportunities for Japan and China to work together, despite rising production costs on the mainland.

Highlighting particular areas for collaboration, he said: "Japanese manga is very popular in China and the adaptation rights of Japanese novels are being sold at very high prices. The cost of production is getting very high – it's not cheap to shoot in China any more and many films were released in the first half of 2018 but didn't make a profit."

China's high level of inflation and possibilities for Sino-Japan collaboration were also discussed at a TIFFCOM's master class conducted by Andre Morgan, the veteran US-born, China-based producer. Referring to the Chinese government's recent attempts to clean up tax evasion and other anomalies associated with the local film industry, he said: "I think 2019 will be a bloodbath, because it will be a year of reckoning. A lot of money will also have to be written off, because there were so many movies made that made no economic sense."

Photo: One Cut Of The Dead: Low-budget zombie action.
One Cut Of The Dead: Low-budget zombie action.
Photo: One Cut Of The Dead: Low-budget zombie action.
One Cut Of The Dead: Low-budget zombie action.
Photo: Shoplifters: Palme d’Or-winning Japanese cinema.
Shoplifters: Palme d'Or-winning Japanese cinema.
Photo: Shoplifters: Palme d’Or-winning Japanese cinema.
Shoplifters: Palme d'Or-winning Japanese cinema.

Morgan, whose credits include Oscar-winning drama Million Dollar Baby and Peter Ho-sun Chan's Perhaps Love, also talked up the potential for Sino-Japanese collaboration, saying: "Culturally, you have a lot in common with the Chinese and with the way that the Chinese film industry is structured. Obviously, there are areas of political history you have to stay away from – but certainly the anti-Japanese rhetoric in China has been toned down tremendously over the past year.

"It's also worth keeping an eye on young Chinese consumers. They are more and more looking to Japan and South Korea to take a lead in fashion and style and less and less to America and Europe."

Meanwhile, TIFF's outreach to Southeast Asia is mostly being conducted through its collaborations with the Asia Centre of the Japan Foundation, with the two organisations now co-hosting TIFF's Crosscut Asia section, which focuses on Southeast Asian cinema. It also co-produces the Asian Three-Fold Mirror omnibus films, a series of shorts combining talent from Japan and other Asian filmmaking nations, the second edition of which premiered at this year's TIFF.

For 2018, Crosscut Asia focused on music-themed films from Southeast Asia, most of which also had a political message, notably Treb Monteras' Respeto, which uses rap to cast new light on the Philippines' martial-law era and its current war on drugs. Explaining the thinking behind his submission, Monteras said: "The film is really about the unending cycle of violence in the Philippines, from the martial law of the 1970s to the thousands killed since 2016. These, though, are difficult messages to sell to the audience, so we marketed the film as if it were 8 Mile or Straight Outta Compton."

Now in its fifth edition, Crosscut Asia is contributing to a growing awareness of Southeast Asian cinema among audiences in Japan. Outlining its progress to date, TIFF's Asian Future Programming Director, Kenji Ishizaka, said: "Over the past few years we've seen quite a few Southeast Asian films released in Japanese cinemas, including The Last Reel from Cambodia, Tatsumi and Pop Aye from Singapore and Ma' Rosa from the Philippines. Many of these films were released after their screenings at TIFF."

TIFF's main remit, thought, continues to be its mission to promote and support Japanese cinema. This year, thankfully, it had a lot to crow about. Apart from the fact that one Japanese film – Shoplifters – won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Japan has this year produced a bona fide low-budget miracle with the zombie comedy One Cut Of The Dead. Made for just $25,000, it has so far grossed more than $25 million in Japan alone. Shot in eight days by indie filmmaker Shinichiro Ueda as part of a workshop at a Tokyo film school, the movie has also been released in several international territories, including Hong Kong.

It was also screened as part of TIFF's Japan Now section and was one of the films featured in a new programme designed to familiarise the international film industry with Japanese talent. Explaining the thinking behind this latest initiative, TIFFCOM's Chief Executive Yasushi Shiina said: "Rather than just introduce Japanese content to overseas buyers, we also aim to introduce the producers and creators behind that content, including the directors, actors and writers. We feel this will help Japanese talent make the first step into the international market."

According to Shiina, TIFFCOM is working on several new initiatives intended to attract more buyers. These are mostly being conducted in collaboration with the Ikebukuro government, which is developing the district as an international cultural hub in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

In line with this, from next year, TIFFCOM will start holding screenings in two new cinemas – the 12-screen Grand Cinema Sunshine and the 10-screen Toho Cinemas site within the Hareza Ikebukuro complex. The trade show side of TIFFCOM, however, will remain at Sunshine City for at least the next two editions, with the festival proper unlikely to move from its current location in Roppongi.

Photo: Banging the drum for Japan: The TIFF 2018 opening ceremony.
Banging the drum for Japan: The TIFF 2018 opening ceremony.
Photo: Banging the drum for Japan: The TIFF 2018 opening ceremony.
Banging the drum for Japan: The TIFF 2018 opening ceremony.

The 2018 Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) took place from 25 October-3 November at a number of venues in the Japanese capital.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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