Tales from the Land of Gold: Zipangu 2012

Clare Dean experiences Japanarchy in the UK.

Somi – The Taekwon-do Woman

It’s Friday evening and I find myself eating Sushi in an old Lambeth workhouse.  Not something Charlie Chaplin would’ve done but then he never got the chance to go to the Zipangu Film Festival.  This was the third annual festival and the first one held at the Cinema Museum in Kennington (and former workhouse home of Chaplin when he was a small boy).

Zipangu is a different kind of festival. You might not see the latest Japanese big budget, sword fighting epic or an in-depth Ozu retrospective, but you will see something unusual or little-seen and it’s not always the traditional representation of Japan that you might expect.

The festival title comes from Marco Polo’s illusory name for Japan in the thirteenth century, ‘Zipangu, the land of gold’.  And as such, the festival doesn’t claim to represent the real Japan, but presents work by some interesting and innovative Japanese creatives.  And like Marco Polo, the festival is very much about exploration and discovery.

This year’s programme included 2 silent films, one from 1928 and one from 1986, a selection of experimental films, an anime strand, documentaries and features focussing on immigration and a rare screening of a Japanese / North Korean co-production from 1997.

The underlying theme of the festival was the battle between film and digital and the subject of a panel discussion on Sunday.  Fitting, as all screenings took place at The Cinema Museum, a venue full to bursting with memorabilia from the last 100 years, and timely, as FujiFilm Japan had announced their withdrawal from motion picture film stock production only 24 hours previously.  But more on that later.

First of all, the opening night and the much anticipated Somi – The Taekwon-do Woman, preceded by some recent short films.

Fukushima 8: A Letter From Our Past
Dir. Takashi Motoki, 2012

The first short was a documentary short made up of 8mm home movies donated by families from the Fukushima area before the 2011 earthquake and nuclear power plant disaster.

Shot in colour and black and white and dating as far back as the 1930s, silent, but with an amusing Benshi-like voiceover.  Some of the films recall those awkward family posed portraits.  Inevitably there are lots of children, some happy smiling faces while others are a little camera shy.

The movies from the 1930s are particularly rare, as few people had access to a home movie camera at that time.  Later footage included busy street scenes and an odd clip of some workers climbing a mountain, although it isn’t clear why and the narrator doesn’t know either.  My favourite has to be the dancing grannies: two very elderly ladies hunched over and performing a traditional Japanese dance.  At first they have to be coaxed, but then they really get going.

Importantly, there is not a single shot of the region post earthquake.  Instead, the focus is on the life and vitality of the people who have lived there.  A positive and upbeat film and an endearing tribute.

The Great Rabbit

The Great Rabbit
Dir. Atsushi Wada, 2012

“If you believe in the Rabbit, you’ll believe in anything.  If you don’t believe in the Rabbit, it means that you wouldn’t believe anything.”

A minimalist animated short and winner of the Silver Bear (Jury Prize) at the Berlinale 2012.  The film was preceded by a charming introduction from the director who apologized for flying home to Japan a week earlier after spending the last year in London.  He said that when he showed the film to his producer, she said “it’s good, but what’s your point?”.  Meaning that if you don’t understand the film, it’s OK, because the producer didn’t understand either.

It starts with a chubby little boy with a beach ball stuffed under his t-shirt.  There’s some strange chanting in the background.  A cat rubs up against his legs, then a bird steals his t-shirt.  Somewhere else, an enormous rabbit mumbles to itself.  I was hooked!  Unfortunately, at that point the film froze and couldn’t be restarted.  I was intrigued enough to seek out information on the filmmaker when I got home.  I have a feeling I might believe in the Rabbit.

The first technical problem of the festival and it was digital. Fuel for the film vs digital panel discussion on Sunday.

And on to the feature presentation …

Somi – The Taekwon-do Woman
Dir.Chang Yong Bok, 1997

Festival Director, Jasper Sharp, first heard about this film from a colleague who had just written a book on North Korean cinema.  It was made in 1997 with Japanese financing, but shot in North Korea, with a North Korean cast and crew.  The film only screened once in each country, although a subtitled 35mm print was produced, intended for international sales.  Jasper tracked down that print …

The story follows Somi, a young girl in Koryo dynasty Korea (918-1392), who witnesses the brutal murder of her peasant parents by government overlords.  She manages to escape and is taken in by a kindly old man along with another orphan called Ung Gom.  Although she has been rendered mute by her experience, she grows up under his care and tutelage, as the kindly old man is also a master in Taekwon-do.  Somi and Ung Gom train relentlessly, waiting for their chance for revenge.

The film is beautifully shot, with bright, vibrant colours.  One fight scene in particular stands out as the camera peers out between tall green rushes, while the actors thrash and fall in a misty swamp.

Snappy editing in the first act moves action along quickly over several years.  In a single static shot the children turn into adults while they practice taekwon-do. The middle section sees the arrival of a love rival (he’s handsome, he paints and he’s kind to animals – how can she resist!) and the pace flags a little while the men fight it out.  But things pick up once the focus is on Somi’s revenge.

And speaking of which, Ri Mi Yang is great as Somi.  A ridiculed weakling, repeatedly tossed aside like a doll, she convincingly turns into a formidable heroine.  Apparently, it was her first and only film.  The programme notes state: ‘According to the film’s producer, Masao Kobayashi, the actress playing Somi, Ri Mi Yang, was an amateur who was chosen by the North Koreans “because they thought that the Japanese might like her face”’.

A very enjoyable martial arts revenge movie with impressive fight scenes, this is much more than just an ‘oddity’.  It’s well-made, although strangely reminiscent of a 1970s Shaw Brothers’ film.  It’s clear why the North Koreans wanted to make the film, given the historical political subplot. Rare, but recommended… if you ever get chance to see it.

To Sleep as to Dream

To Sleep as to Dream
Dir. Kaizo Hayashi, 1986

A silent film made in the 1980s.  On reading the synopsis in the programme, a similar cinematic homage springs to mind, although this pre-dates The Artist by 25 years.

Detective Uotsuka and his assistant, Kobayashi, are hired by an aging silent film actress to track down her missing daughter, Bellflower.  Strange clues lead the duo through a surreal 1950s Tokyo, but Bellflower’s fate remains a mystery and the ransom demands from the shadowy M. Pathe Company keep rising.  Reality and fantasy blur after Uotsuka has a vivid dream in which he meets Bellflower only to discover that she is trapped within a 1915 silent ninja film.  A film that apparently has no ending.

An imaginative tribute to silent cinema and Japanese film history, featuring cameos from well-known Benshi (Japanese performers who provided live narration to silent films).  Shot in crisp black and white but with some scenes deliberately made to look like vintage 1915 and silent, except for a few clever sound effects. The detective mystery also adds a 1950s film noir feel.

Surreal and dream-like, this is unlike anything else I can think of that was released in the mid 1980s.


Dir. Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1928

A lesser known film from Teinosuke Kinugasa, famous for Japan’s first avant-garde feature film, A Page of Madness. It became the first Japanese film to screen widely outside of Japan, including London in 1930.

Poor, foolhardy Rikiya is desperately in love with ‘painted beauty’ O-Ume.  He steals a kimono made by his sister, Okiku as a gift, but his rival, a rich, older man, snatches the kimono and rips it up in front of him.  They fight and Rikiya is temporary blinded by hot ash.  He lashes out with his sword and believing he has killed the older man, he flees.  Long suffering Okiku hides him and treats his wounds, but she has problems of her own.  She desperately needs money and a lecherous local policeman has taken a keen interest in her plight.

Heavily influenced by German Expressionism, with lots of shadows and distorted, angular sets, uncomfortable close-ups of bad teeth and creepy aerial shots of the villain.  The sets wonderfully contrast the absolute poverty suffered by Okiku and Rikiya with the extravagant, ostentatious casino scenes featuring O-Ume and the party crowd.

The film is full of inventive techniques – superimposed shots of spinning lanterns, flashbacks, jump cuts as Rikiya wakes up and focuses his eyes, brother and sister running in the rain, the camera in front of them, then behind, then in front again.  Sometimes the actors look directly at the camera – Rikiya makes a pitiful, bedraggled walk looking straight into the lens

The live score from regular silent film accompanists, Minima, added to the experience significantly.  Some sounds evoked laughter or rain.  Others made me think of John Carpenter.

The film print was very high quality and crystal clear.  At times the actor’s breath was visible, and steam could be seen rising from their bodies.  Given that Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1953 film, Gate of Hell is to be released on DVD in December, perhaps this will allow further releases, as Crossways is definitely worthy of a special edition.

On Sunday afternoon, I took a break from watching films and attended a panel discussion on the benefits of film compared with digital, asking ‘is film and cinema the same?’

The panel was made up of festival director, Jasper Sharp, Takashi Iitsuka, director of Encounters and Katsuya Tomita, director of the closing night film, Saudade. Notably, almost all the feature length titles at the festival screened on 16 or 35mm.

While not revealing any startling new information, the discussion did bring up some interesting points and made me question my own reasons for seeking out film prints.

As in many countries, small cinemas in Japan are closing, 35mm projectors are disappearing and projectionists are losing their jobs.  Jasper mentioned that programmers can pay £500 to ship a 30kg print.

While digital production and distribution is certainly cheaper, there are downsides.  Digital makes piracy easier, the equipment is expensive and the savings on print shipping costs are potentially lost.  Technology is moving so fast that some digital formats could be obsolete in 10 years and more new equipment will be needed (whereas film has been used for the last 100 years).

From a creative perspective, film as a physical medium costs money, so a filmmaker will think harder about what they film, what they keep in.  It effects creative decisions.

Some filmmakers actively seek to recreate the look of film using cheaper digital production methods.  A recent example was given of an animated digital short containing excessive lens flare.

But younger people take digital for granted, so is film nostalgia purely generational?  Am I a film fetishist?

As I was leaving the museum and heading back to Kennington tube station, I came across a box of old VHS tapes dumped by the side of the road.  Covered with leaves and strewn across the pavement, someone had obviously decided to have a clear out and replace the old with the new.  Sensing a good photo opportunity, I posted an image on Twitter and I was immediately swamped with replies.  “Is there anything good?”, “That’s a really rare cover, pick it up”, “What a waste!”.  VHS fetishists, maybe?

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