The Asian Film Presence at DFF 38


by Jason Suzuki

This year's Starz Denver Film Festival has come and gone, and while there were definitely some great films, for a festival with such a strong focus on global cinema, there is one region of the world that seems to be getting overlooked each year. Including India there were 7 feature films from East-Asia at this year's Denver Film Festival:
-Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) - Thailand
-Dearest (Peter Chan) - China
-Ludo (Nikon/Q) - India
-Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke) - China
-Rise of the Legend (Roy Chow Hin Yeung) - Hong Kong
-Sea Fog (Shim Sung-bo) - South Korea
-The World of Kanako (Tetsuya Nakashima) - Japan

As a side note, on the festival's website I was only able to go back to 2009 to see the programs for festivals past. The above set of 7 films here feel typical and not as adventurous as the festival's focus on other parts of the world. For Cemetery of SplendourLudo, and Mountains May Depart their inclusion might be in relation to previous films from their respective directors playing at a past festival: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesGanduA Touch of Sin respectively. I was not able to see what other films from Weerasethakul and Jia may have been programmed earlier in their careers so cannot gauge how long these filmmakers have been on the DFF's radar. Q's film in between Gandu and LudoTasher Desh does not seem to have been programmed. It did not receive as much festival attention as his other films so this is just a case of following suit. As for the other films their inclusions seem to be related to genres they belong in, distribution companies, and previous festival exposure.

Dearest is handled by Versatile, was a mainstream success in China, and played initially at Venice and Toronto. Sea Fog debuted last August which was probably too late to be included in DFF 37's program but since it has played at every other film festival since then,  its inclusion seems a little late to the party. In a piece for the Japan Times on the current state of Asian film at festivals, Mark Schilling proposes that genre films from Japan have consistently been able to find a place overseas. The World of Kanako speaks to this observation, and since it's being distributed by Drafthouse Films, its regular release will occur the following month in December. So the uniqueness of its screenings is diminished to solely giving people the chance to see it a month before its general release. Something that the festival is okay with hence month early screenings of films like CarolBrooklynAnomalisa, and Hitchcock/Truffaut to name a few. Nakashima's previous film Confessions would have been a great opportunity to deliver a dark late-night film as well as Japan's Oscar submission for that year (the last one programmed at DFF was Shindo's Postcard).

Back in February of 2013 there was a ten film program "Focus on Japanese Cinema" highlighting the work of Shohei Imamura and featuring films from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shion Sono, Naomi Kawase, and Kaneto Shindo. In other words, all established filmmakers and a little boring. Since then the Japanese presence at the festival has ranged from disappointing to non-existent. It's not like there are no quality films to be found from the country. With its Oscar submissions Japan itself has been doing a better job at championing smaller filmmakers than the non-Asian-centric festivals around the world (hopefully your family name is Koreeda, Miike, Sono, Kawase, or Kurosawa if you want any exposure). And for a country so low on the gender gap ranking, two submissions from the past five years have been from women filmmakers: 2012's Our Homeland (Yong-hi Yang) and last year's The Light Shines Only There (Mipo Oh). Even this year's submission 100 Yen Love features a strong and fantastic performance from Sakura Ando. All of these would make for great additions to DFF's Women + Film program and has the Oscar-buzz connection, something that probably helped Haemoo land a spot on people's radars (the film's connection to Bong Joon-ho must have helped). A festival like the Palm Springs International Film Festival has consistently programmed Foreign Language submissions, and while this is another problem of focusing only on Oscar buzz (which I call award humping), they have gone against their general audience's taste with films like Pieta and have secured in-person appearances from filmmakers like Yong-hi Yang herself. Along with regular screenings of films like Miike's Yakuza Apocalypse and multiple showings of both parts of the live action Attack on Titan adaptation at the Sie FilmCenter, not a very full representation of contemporary Japanese cinema is being painted in the Denver area.

More often than not short films are used to cover the Asian grounds. Last year any fans of Korean or Japanese cinema had one short each. At least this year it was one feature each. And the blame is not entirely with the programmers who have to consider audience and commercial viability of titles, Japanese companies are not the best to work with for instance. When only familiar names are getting regularly programmed, no matter how good those films are, it's disappointing when not even all the festival regulars are included. Koreeda's Our Little Sister, Kurosawa's Journey to the Sea, and Hong Sang Soo's two latest films (The Day He Arrives played at DFF 34) are missing. So Asian talent, regardless of being new or established, has been pushed aside, reflecting the widespread overlooking of contemporary Asian film that's been happening at large festivals and Western awards like the Oscars.

And a few side notes: On the last day of the festival, all three Chinese films were playing at the exact time. Sure there were other opportunities to see the films on other days, but that's assuming no other conflicts arose. Also Cemetery of Splendour got screwed over in the schedule. Three days in a row, all weekdays, at the same venue (not many films received screenings at both Pavilions and the Sie), and only one showing was after 5pm. So for those people who have regular 9-5 jobs, of which there could be a large portion interested in the film, had only one showtime to see it, and even then it was at 6:15.

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.