Interview with TERUOKA Sozo, Programming Director, Osaka Asian Film Festival
# Why did you choose to focus on the cinema of Vietnam this year?
I always remember that Vietnam cinema was so serious, and often very boring, until around five years ago. Since then, there has been many changes to the film industry. They now not only make serious artistic films, but also good entertaining films. I wanted to show this new trend. Unlike other festivals, which only invite artistic films, I like to focus on both great artistic films and great commercial films.
Recently I learnt that a Japanese distributor has bought two Vietnam films. That is a very rare case in Japan. Before it was only the films of Tran Anh Hung that were distributed here. The company bought "SUPER X" and "THE LADY ASSASSIN", both very commercial films. This is the first time that this kind of film will be commercially released in Japan. So I wanted to support this with a background push on Vietnam cinema.
# Why is it important to balance both art house and commercial films?
Actually, it's not my deliberate intention. My favorite films are not only artistic ones but also commercial ones. So it's just natural for me. Also, I'm conscious of wanting to be different from other festivals, which invite the same films that tour around the world. When I look at recent Japanese film history, there were always great films that were never shown internationally. I think other Asian film industries are in the same situation, so I want to be the one who helps these undiscovered films. And it just happens that they are mostly the successful commercial films in their own countries.
For example, Somai Shinji had commercial success with his early films in Japan. That income was enough for his production company; it didn't even try to show the films outside Japan. There's the same problem across Asia, especially for commercial films. Sometimes part of my negotiation when securing a film is imploring the producer to make English subtitles. For our competition title "#WALANG FOREVER", we were in a dangerous predicament because until the end of January the film had no English subtitles. It was really very last minute.
# More than 20% of this year's films are by female directors. Is that deliberate?
I do remember there were many female directors two years ago in this festival. But it wasn't my intent then, nor now. When choosing films I really don't pay attention to the gender of the directors. But I'm fine with the idea that the number of female directors is relatively high this year.
Perhaps an unconscious reason behind it is that I really hate stereotypes about gender. And not just gender, but stereotypes in general. For example, when a festival chooses a Philippines film, it's usually about poverty or terrorism. But I don't want to show the Philippines in such a stereotypical way. I prefer to show a different perspective.
Also, several film festivals in Asia only pick films from the Cinemalaya Film Festival in Manila. When it was canceled last year, the same Asian festivals invited either no films from the Philippines, or only ones from Brillante Mendoza's newly launched festival. Again, it's just the same films going around and around. But there are many other good festivals in the Philippines.
# Which genres work best with Osaka audiences?
I'm still learning. Once a month, I hold a seminar in Osaka. There are seats for only 60 audience members, and it's always full. The age ranges from 20-something to 60-something. I don't just teach them like a professor; the main purpose is for us to have communication. After the 90-minute seminar, we move to a bar and keep talking. And from them I learn what the local audience is interested in. It's very helpful to me.
And these students then make up the core audience of the festival. Most of them are on social media and because they understand the intention behind my programming decisions, they become the real P.R. army of the festival. Not only my students, but also their friends who they bring with them and introduce to the films. In Japan, this situation of a programmer connecting with an audience like this only exists in Osaka.
I do feel that in Osaka, films from smaller countries can get a bigger audience than in Tokyo. If one shows, for example, a film from Vietnam or Mongolia in Tokyo, people don't pay any attention. They don't even know that the films were screened. Osaka might have the same problem, but I can promote the films in my seminars and my students spread the word much wider. About 30% of our audience comes from outside Osaka, from across Japan including Tokyo. My students are really a powerful resource.
# Which Asian country is particularly strong this year?
Once again the Philippines. There were so many good movies this past year. In fact, there were some very good films that I couldn't get this year for the competition because foreign festivals demanding international premieres have stepped in. Of course, I'm happy that festivals outside Asia are now paying attention to a broader range of Philippines' cinema, even if it causes us some difficulties in Osaka.
I'd also like to say that there were many Hong Kong films that I wanted to show this year, from both the mainstream film industry and the independent sector such as the omnibus "TEN YEARS". I won't say that these films are perfect, but there are still many interesting movies and trends in Hong Kong cinema that I want to reflect in my programming.
# From which Asian country was it most difficult to find films this year?
Finding a good narrative feature film from Taiwan is so difficult now. This year we are showing six Taiwan films, half of which are documentaries. Especially from the latter half of last year, documentaries are the more powerful films coming out of Taiwan. Our opening film "WANSEI COMES HOME" was one of the most successful Taiwan films last year, making more box office than Tom Lin's drama ZINNIA FLOWER which opened at the same time.
At our opening ceremony, WANSEI really touched our audience. There was a standing ovation! Japanese audience are usually so silent. I think it's only possible to have a standing ovation here in Japan with an Osaka audience. There was also a standing ovation two years ago when we opened with "KANO" . It's really very unusual in Japan.
In my seminars, I also talk about the strategies of programming a film festival. I told them that the choice of opening and closing films is very important. Most festivals take a big film, or one with a big star, but I believe in taking a high-quality small film and shining a spotlight on it. We prominently advertise the opening and closing films on our poster which is displayed on the subway for two months before our festival.
Actually, the choice of WANSEI was a last-minute inspiration, which has worked out very well. Last year, we opened with an independent Japanese film, "ASLEEP" . I believe that festivals need to play a role in supporting low-budget films, documentaries and independent filmmakers. One of the best ways we can help is to highlighting them in our opening or closing slots.
# How much are you dependent on box office to break even?
In the United States, and other English-speaking countries, there is no need for festivals to produce local-language subtitles. Perhaps then the box office of the festival can be significant for their revenue. But in Japan, the subtitling costs are so high that the income from the audience is negligible in comparison. Even if a cinema is full, there is no profit for us. We cannot survive on box office alone.
# Is the Japan Foundation Asia Center support new this year?
The Japan Foundation started supporting us last year. Their support is only for Southeast Asian films. But it's significant because Osaka City does not have a large budget for film culture. We have less than 10% of the budget of the Tokyo International Film Festival, so all subsidies are important. For other festivals, the Japan Foundation is the co-organizer involved in the programming. But in Osaka, they never asked for that and place no conditions on our subsidy. So we have complete freedom in our programming.
Interview conducted by Stephen Cremin