Okinawa International Movie Festival 2013: A Celebration of Laughter & Peace (Part 1)

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Running from 23-30 March, the 5th Okinawa International Movie Festival is now in full swing. Celebrities and filmmakers from around the world took to the beach-side red carpet on Saturday night, to the delight of adoring fans and inquisitive filmgoers alike. Promoting the dual themes of "Laugh & Peace", the festival is organised by Japanese comedy behemoth Yoshimoto Kogyo, and is a celebration of Cinema but also of local Okinawan culture. 

The festival boasts a rich programme of shorts and features, as well as daily performances from traditional dance and drumming troops, to entertain guests as they feast on delicious local delicacies. Locally-backed projects debut alongside mainstream and international premieres from new and established filmmakers, and all screenings throughout the 8-day festival are free of charge to the general public. 

This is the first year Twitch has covered the OIMF, and my first time visiting the island, but despite the changeable weather, the welcome has been warm and the festival's eclectic and diverse programme has already offered up a healthy dose of laughter and surprises. The competition comprises of 20 feature films, divided into two categories: Laugh & Peace. Audience awards will single out one from from each category, while the festival's celebrity jury, this year headed by director Joel Schmuchaer will award the "Golden Shisha Award" to the best film across both categories. Mamoi Kaori, Demon Kakka and Claude Gagnon complete the jury.

Opening the festival on Saturday night was an outdoor screening on the beach of Bryan Singer's Jack the Giant Slayer, which played on a huge 26x14m screen, on loan from the Locarno Film Festival. I had already seen (and liked) the film last month, and used the fact it was playing in a Japanese dubbed version as the perfect excuse to mingle with other visiting journalists and filmmakers, while sampling a few pours of locally brewed Orion lager.

The first morning began with an introduction to the festival's Okinawa Contents Bazaar, a marketplace forum where content creators from around the region can meet and network with other segments of the industry. 

Proceedings kicked off with a panel discussion on pitching non-fiction series to broadcast and cable television networks in the US. Moderated by Yoshimoto Entertainment USA CEO Aki Yorihiro, the panel comprised of Pierre Brogan of CAA, producer Jeff Hasler and actor-writer Masi Oka (best known from Heroes). They took us through the pitching process blow-by-blow, emphasising the importance of preparation, a clear vision, and an increasing demand for visual aids. Executives might hear 8000 pitches in a year, of which perhaps 4% will go into development. 

Creators must not only convey their idea clearly, but convince the executive that their idea is one he can go sell to his superiors.There is increasing pressure for creators to produce actual footage: sizzle reels, character profiles, even committed stars at this preliminary stage. It proved an intriguing glimpse into the process, highlighting the vastly different approaches taken by producers in the East and West.

Then it was on to the movies...

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The Complex

The festival kicked off in earnest with the Asian premiere of Nakata Hideo's latest dose of J-Horror, The Complex. The film stars former AKB48 member Maeda Atsuko as Asuka, a young trainee nurse who moves into a new apartment complex with her family. On hearing strange noises from next door she investigates, only to discover the corpse of an elderly man trying to claw its way through the wall. Even after the body is taken away the disturbances continue, and at that moment the rest of her family mysteriously disappears. 

Nakata is revered as one of the pillars of the J-horror movement, thanks to seminal entries like Ring (1998) and Dark Water (2002). However, in recent years he has struggled to recapture that same eerie atmosphere of those earlier efforts, and unfortunately The Complex continues this trend. The film shows some early promise, undermining Asuka as an innocent heroine with a promising revelation, introducing spooky ghost-like characters inhabiting the complex itself, while adding new characters like Narimiya Hiroki's love interest and even a female exorcist. Sadly, Nakata struggles to create much of an atmosphere or generate any genuine scares. The narrative quickly unravels, leading to a messy, incoherent conclusion, while Maeda proves herself incapable of carrying the film with a flat performance lacking in nuance or charisma.


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El Shuriken Vs. Evil Intention

"Deru-cine" is a special filmmaking project helmed by writer Goto Hirohito, which discards the traditional notion of audiences watching films ("miru cinema"), in favour of appearing in the film themselves ("deru cinema"). Goto and his crew grab members of the public on the day of the screening and use them as extras (zombie hordes etc), which are then inserted into the main narrative. The process is repeated each day the film is screened, meaning the film itself evolves each time, depending on the audience that has assembled to watch it. 

The plot of El Shuriken vs. Evil Intention follows the eponymous masked luchador as he teams up with a sexy gun-toting agent (Inagaki Saki) to avenge the death of her boss and stop a deranged scientist from taking over the world. It's all incredibly ridiculous, and filmed on a micro-budget, but for most of its 40-minute running time, Goto keeps things exciting and fun, while engaging his audience in a way rarely experienced. By its very nature, this isn't a film likely to travel much, but it embraces the festival spirit enthusiastically, while highlighting a new take on audience participation.

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7 Days Report

The audience was buzzing at the world premiere of Kondo Masahiro's sci-fi high school flick, 7 Days Report, for the most part due to the presence of its studly cast. Shirahama Aran made headlines earlier this year after bedding AKB48 poppette Minegishi Manami. When their relationship was exposed and she was unceremoniously kicked out of the band, Minegishi brutally shaved her own head in a misguided act of contrition, before taking to YouTube to offer a tearful apology to all her fans. Regardless of how you may feel about that incident, the crowd at last night's world premiere certainly weren't holding any grudges. The main theatre at the Okinawa Convention Center erupted in a cacophony of pubescent adulation when Shirahama took to the stage, accompanied by fellow cast members Namioka Kazuki and Karate Robo-Zaborgar star Itao Itsuji.

High schooler Ryota (Shirahama) is a week from graduating when he discovers that he is really a clone. In fact his entire school is part of an experiment designed by Itao's scientist, and all the teachers are really his lab technicians. Ryota manages to escape, but soon finds himself at an identical, real school building, where he comes face to face with the real him! Horrified to discover that his genuine doppelgänger is a timid, victimised kid, Ryota seizes the chance to focus his own insecurities on helping his new friend gain the confidence to stand up to his enemies and profess his love for the gorgeous Mizuki (Yamashita Rio).

As a teen melodrama, 7 Days Report is mostly successful, and proves a fine debut for Shirahama, but the film rarely capitalises on the existential possibilities of its science fiction set-up. Rather than examining themes of identity and individualism at an age when teenagers are struggling to define themselves, 7 Days Report instead preaches about not squandering youth and making the most of our short lives. These are perfectly valid themes (just look at Blade Runner), but there was plenty of opportunity between the numerous shots of Shirahama strutting around in his underwear or standing awkwardly in front of his dream girl, to have made fuller use of the film's intriguing premise.

Stay tuned - plenty more to come!
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