Sunday, November 19, 2006

Notes on the 19th Tokyo International Film Festival

On the first day of Hari Raya, while most Muslims were busy celebrating, five people were frantically packing their clothes into suitcases. They were my editor Fendi, my young actors Mohd Syafie and Sharifah Aryana, my husband and I.

There was a slight hitch.

Even though Aryana’s family would have no problem sending her to the airport the next morning, Syafie comes from a family of meagre income. The taxi fare to the airport was far more than they could afford.

The best solution was for him to spend the night at our apartment, so we could all go in one car the next morning.

At 6pm that evening, I went to fetch him.

It was to be the first time Syafie was going abroad, and it was both funny and sad to see the tearful parting between his mother and him. "He’s only going for five days, yang," I said to his mum as I hugged her.

I turned to smile at Syafie and saw his nose getting redder, and his big, round eyes welling up with tears. That night, we made sure Syafie went to bed early.

After I had woken up and performed my dawn prayers, I stepped out of our bedroom and found Syafie sitting on his suitcase trying desperately to close it, being careful not to crush the brand new black pinstriped suit we had bought for him specially for the festival award ceremony.

By the time we had boarded the flight to Tokyo, all traces of sadness had left Syafie’s face.

We made sure the kids sat next to each other, and by the window. Syafie, true to character, sacrificed the window seat for his heroine.

They chatted and giggled excitedly almost throughout the seven-hour journey, except for a brief spell of fatigue when I caught them napping peacefully.

Aryana had fallen asleep with her head on Syafie’s shoulder, and Syafie was resting his head on hers. "Bless their sweet souls," I whispered to Fendi.

Those were the last moments of peace we enjoyed for the next five days.

Right from the word go on our first morning in Tokyo, while my husband went off on his own to explore the city, Fendi, the kids and I were ushered (actually, rushed!) from one question-and-answer session to another.

We had forgotten that they were playing all four of our films - "Rabun", "Sepet", "Gubra" and "Mukhsin" - in a "Yasmin Ahmad Retrospective" that spread across the five days.

The organisers told us that "Sepet", which won the Best Asian Film award there last year, was already holding the festival record for the most booked-up screenings in the 19 years of its history.

Each of our films was given about three screenings, and each screening required us to sit in front of the audience to answer their questions.

That’s 12 Q&A sessions altogether, not including the one for "Rain Dogs", which I attended with director Ho Yuhang, and another special Malaysian film symposium where Pete Teo, Yuhang, Lorna Tee of Focus Films, the kids, Fendi and I had to attend.

malaysians on parade (enhanced)
Throw in the incessant flow of Press and TV interviews in between, and you can imagine how hectic our schedule was.

I have to say the Japanese audience, which comprised regular film enthusiasts as well as film critics, was a clever lot.

They asked far bigger questions concerning aspects of humanity in our films; a sharp contrast to the petty, accusatory ones I often get bombarded with at forums in KL. Is it any wonder their film industry is light years ahead of ours?

At the very first world premiere screening of "Mukhsin", an elderly film historian who sat right at the back of the huge auditorium made what was probably the most vindicating statement for me.

"Miss Ahmad, these days in Japan, child abuse, child rape, and cases of teenagers murdering their own parents are sharply on the rise. There is a palpable strain in the relationship between fathers, mothers and their children here. Your film showed us a world where family love and unity are not just possible, but alive and well.

"If I had to describe your film in one word, I think the word I would choose would be ‘healthy’."

I was gob-smacked.

Syafie and Aryana, of course, received more than their fair share of attention. We left them to themselves for 15 minutes at the cineplex foyer one afternoon, and before long, they were swarmed by Japanese fans screaming "Kawaiiiiiii!", taking pictures and signing autographs.

As the day of the award ceremony drew closer, some of us got around to reading the festival programme and discovered that Patrick Tam’s film was in competition with ours.

(For those not yet familiar with the name, Patrick Tam Kar Ming is a 58-year-old genius who has been making films in Hong Kong for the last 26 years. Apart from directing his own films, he also edited Wong Karwai’s "Days of Being Wild" and "Ashes of Time", and also Johnnie To’s "Election").

Not expecting to win anything in the presence of such a giant talent in cinema, many filmmakers decided to attend Pete Teo’s concert instead, somewhere in Tokyo, that same afternoon the award ceremony was held.

I, on the other hand, was keen to let the children enjoy their first taste of pomp and circumstance.

Syafie was over the moon about his first-ever suit, and Aryana couldn’t wait to wear her stunning new red kebaya. And neither of them could get over the fact that their very first film "Mukhsin" had been nominated for the Best Asian Film award.

As it turned out, we had made the right decision. Yoji Yamada was on stage to present the Akira Kurosawa Award to two recipients, both of whom were my heroes.

They were Kon Ichikawa, who made the amazing "The Burmese Harp", and Milos Forman, who made a whole host of cinematic gems like "One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest" and "Amadeus".

Forman’s acceptance speech alone made our decision to attend the ceremony worthwhile.

"When I was a young student at college, someone brought in a Japanese film for our viewing. I knew next to nothing about Japan, let alone Japanese films. For us Czechs back then, Japan was so distant and so mysterious. The film our friend had brought in was Akira Kurosawa’s 'Ikiru'. There were 12 of us in that cinema hall.

"The story of 'Ikiru' was about a civil servant who was informed at the beginning of the film that he was dying of cancer.

"There was no fighting, no explosions in the film, but at the end of it, the 12 of us did not move from our seats, long after the end credits were over. Some of us were crying.

"That’s when it dawned on me. We were moved from the bottom of our hearts, because Mr Kurosawa had made the film from the bottom of his heart.

"Kurosawa's 'Ikiru' made me realise that although the world was made up of many peoples with many languages, cultures and traditions, at the bottom of our hearts, we were the same."

And with that, he accepted his award, expressing his life-long admiration for Japanese cinema, and his profound respect for the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Much to our surprise, when Milos Forman came down from the stage, he walked down the aisle and planted himself on the seat right in front of ours.

(Later, I shook his hand, told him that his "Loves Of A Blonde" was the best first film of any director that I had ever seen, and took a photo with him.)

milos forman and i
As was to be expected, Patrick Tam won the Best Asian Film award this year for his "After This Our Exile".

And as further testimony to the director’s cinematic prowess, the film went on to win yet another award for the Best Artistic Contribution.

Later that night, just before hitting the sack, I got a call from the hotel lobby. Yuhang was hanging out with the Indonesian filmmakers — Christine Hakim, Garin Nugroho, Nia Dinata and Agung Sentausa — and they had all asked if I would join them.

Needless to say, I, a fan of their work, rushed downstairs to indulge in a bit of fawning.

Garin, three-time Cannes award nominee, was teasing the other Indonesians that Malaysian independent cinema had surreptitiously taken over from them.

Yuhang and I dismissed it as being Garin’s characteristically wicked way of telling his compatriots to try even harder.

As we sat around joking and laughing, I remember quietly observing them and thinking, "Wouldn’t it be nice if the Malaysian film fraternity were as close and as affectionate as the Indonesians were, instead of the unnecessarily hostile rift that exists between the mainstream and the indies back home?"

my indon film idols and me
Early next morning, Yuhang, the kids, Fendi, my husband and I headed for the airport. Everyone, except for my husband and I, were going home.

We, on the other hand, were Hong Kong bound. (I had been selected to judge an advertising award show for Hong Kong and China.)

Before waving goodbye to each other at Narita airport, I gave Syafie and Aryana each a big bear hug. They really did me proud.

Holding Syafie’s face in my hands, I recalled one "Mukhsin" screening at the festival where one Japanese lady sitting next to him was sobbing convulsively.

Kissing Aryana’s cheek brought to mind an interview I had with a journalist from Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo’s biggest newspaper, where the much-feared film critic Junko Fukatsu remarked that she particularly loved the women in my films as they were always strong characters you wouldn’t mess with.

And feisty Sharifah Aryana, whom my husband once described as "a 25-year-old woman trapped in an 11-year-old girl’s body", will almost certainly grow up to be a force to be reckoned with.

It took a while for the adrenaline to simmer down.

I missed the kids terribly, and for days in Hong Kong, you would catch me staring listlessly ahead, thinking about all that happened at the 19th Tokyo International Film Festival.

But something happened one evening that had my heart pumping again. We were having dinner with Stanley Wong, a Hong Kong commercials director who was friends with Wong Karwai.

"Did your film win again?" he asked me.

"Heck no!" I replied. "The award went to your compatriot Patrick Tam. He’s Wong Karwai’s editor, isn’t he?"

"Not just editor," replied Stanley casually, "Patrick Tam is widely acknowledged by Hong Kong film critics as Wong Karwai’s guru."

I have a long way to go.