As this year's edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival (The 35th TIFF) came along, most of the world was deciding to put COVID-19 aside. (One exception, which is facing the consequent political nightmares of its coercive zero-COVID policies as of this writing, is China.) Japan is too slowly moving on, loosening up the mask restrictions and trying to revitalize its economy. After two relatively uneventful editions of the festival during the pandemic, this post-COVID TIFF managed to recapture the liveliness of the physical world. The opening ceremony, held outdoors, featured a substantial number of international guests walking the red carpet. It was followed by a series of post-screening (premiere) talks and offline discussions at TIFF Lounge (formerly known as Asia Lounge).
A prevalent theme throughout this year's film selections was the idea of "returning home." This theme, although somewhat outdated or even clichéd, seemed to be a manifestation of a psychological symptom brought about by the COVID-19 era: the longing for a return to a semblance of normalcy. Many people had been yearning for a return to what they remembered as "normal," even though the definition of normalcy had significantly evolved in the wake of the pandemic. The desire to go back to where we came from persisted, even though it was clear that returning to that place or time was not a straightforward journey. Furthermore, that place and time, however idealized in our memories, had its own share of problems. In truth, it continued to drift further away from who we had become, despite our yearning to hold onto it. In parallel to this societal sentiment, the films exploring this common motif delved into unexpected adventures, shattered illusions, and emotional farewells, alongside heartwarming reunions.
For the young, affluent couple in "Kaymak" (dir. Milcho Manchevski, 2022), their hometown may be a place of chaos, but it remains a resource they can tap into. They view their actions as a form of salvation rather than exploitation, believing that they are providing more help than taking. Meanwhile, their own home exudes an air of opulence and sturdiness, but in reality, it teeters on the brink of fragility. To this couple, their distant relative in the hometown not only offers a healthy surrogate, but her mental instability and impoverished circumstances also render her family incapable of providing her with the care she needs. This vulnerability makes her easy to manipulate, which, in turn, conveniently facilitates the surrogacy transaction. Unquestionably, she becomes the effortless straw that upholds their seemingly flawless marriage. However, this meticulously planned transaction with their hometown ultimately concludes in failure. It's not so much due to the fact that the seemingly simple and naive hometown turned out to be cunning and shrewd beyond the expectations of the well-to-do city dwellers. Instead, it's the city dwellers themselves who construct their lives on a foundation of deception and hypocrisy, unwittingly undermining their own stability until it all collapses. This stands in stark contrast to the triangular relationship in the humble dwelling below them, where individuals confront their true selves and their sexualities with honesty, thereby injecting vibrancy into their otherwise monotonous daily lives.
The film "1976" (dir. Manuela Martelli, 2022) introduces a weighty historical context to the theme of "disruption of middle-class life due to a countryside journey." The protagonist Carmen, a contented housewife, retreats to the summer house with her well-respected doctor's family, seeking what might have been a tranquil vacation. The year is 1976, three years after Augusto Pinochet's coup brought about a military dictatorship in Chile. Unexpectedly, the local priest, who has been close to the entire family, abruptly entrusts Carmen with the care of a wounded young man. Carmen, possessing some medical knowledge though not practicing as a physician, accepts this responsibility. She soon discovers that the young man is a casualty of the resistance movement, hiding from the authorities. Before she can refuse, she finds herself assuming additional tasks, including the delivery of messages for the resistance group. Throughout this unexpected adventure, Carmen begins to recognize her own role and potential as an individual in this politically charged environment.
The homecoming journey of "The Fabulous Ones" (dir. Roberta Torre, 2022) is replete with laughter, tears, disputes, and rekindled memories. This assembly of aged transgender women reunites at the residence where they once reveled in their youthful and fabulous lives two decades ago, following the passing of their member, Antonia. Through a blend of reenacted real-life events and fantasies, this documentary is a vibrant and boisterous portrayal, tinged with an undercurrent of grief. This grief isn't just rooted in the fact that their late friend was buried as a man by her biological family, but it also stems from the ever-present risks, dangers, and looming threat of death that have shadowed their existence at every turn. However, under the direction of Roberta Torre, the film isn't merely intended as a eulogy for Antonia or a reflection on days gone by. Simultaneously, it stands as a celebration of all the joy, conflict, and sorrow they've individually and collectively experienced, presenting a kaleidoscopic view of the extraordinary lives of these transgender individuals.
In contrast, "The Cord of Life" (dir. Qiao Sixue, 2022) is deeply entrenched within the traditional heterosexual family-centered norm. Alus, a young man in pursuit of electronic music in the bustling metropolis, returns home to care for his mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Together, they embark on a journey into the grasslands, leaving the town behind in search of their roots. The vast grasslands provide the Mongolian people with a broader perspective and a more open-minded outlook. However, the challenging state of his mother's health and the lack of basic infrastructure in the grasslands present numerous obstacles for Alus to find his way to connect with nature and its spirit. He has no other choice but to seek the assistance of a local, independent, and resourceful girl to overcome these challenges, which encounter later brews into a deeper bonding. Young immigrants striving for survival in the city find it difficult to forsake the allure of modernity, with the captivating dreams it promises and the material abundance and convenience it provides. Yet, they also yearn for an escape from weariness and a return to their homeland, searching for a utopian paradise, as what David Wang describes as "imaginary nostalgia." This struggle between modernity and tradition, between the industrial urban and the tranquil yet backward countryside has already been an issue for Chinese youth during the May Fourth Movement, and comes to its variation in the post-Socialist, neo-liberal era. On a different note, this film is a rare instance of a fully Mongolian-language production funded by China. This is significant in China's predominantly Mandarin-focused cultural industry, especially after the 2020 protests in Inner Mongolia following the Ministry of Education's decision to replace Mongolian language instruction in Language and Literature and Morality and Rule of Law from first grade and History from seventh grade with Mandarin. If the hometown has to change, we should hope at least the home tongue lives with us.
Milcho Manchevski, 106min, 2022, Macedonian, North Macedonia/Denmark/The Netherlands/Croatia
Manuela Martelli, 97min, 2022, Spanish, Chile/Argentina/Qatar
The Fabulous Ones
Roberta Torre, 74min, 2022, Italian, Italy
The Cord of Life
Qiao Sixue, 96min, 2022, Mongolian, China