Comedies and cult personalities highlighted the fourth festival of 'Laugh and Peace'.
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3 Apr 2012 - 12:48 PM  UPDATED 3 Apr 2012 - 12:48 PM

An old New Yorker cartoon has two men at the bottom of a winding path leading up to a clifftop castle. One says to the other: “What this place needs is a film festival”. The joke is half true. The fact is that it is beaches – not castles – that drive the establishment of most film festivals.

The template was set of course by Cannes, but the idea for the Okinawa International Movie Festival was inspired by Cannes in an unusual fashion. “We weren't really looking to hold a film festival,” explains the laid-back CEO of the Yoshimoto Company, Osaki Hiroshi. “We were enjoying ourselves in Cannes for the premiere of Dai Nipponjin (aka Big Man Japan) and we realised that if we were to make a Hitoshi Matsumoto film every year, we'd go broke. A film festival, however, was more affordable.”

Such a blithe attitude to money would make many film festival directors green with envy, but Osaki knew they were novices when it came to launching a film festival. The Yoshimoto Company drew on advice from Busan (former fest director Kim Dong-ho is a patron), and Okinawa is staffed by some Tokyo Film Festival team members. Not interested in competing with “serious” film festivals, Osaki saw Okinawa as an opportunity to promote the 100-year-old entertainment business of the Yoshimoto Company who represent scores of Japanese comedians, by providing a comedy showcase. The latest Matsumoto film, Scabbard Samurai, played, but there were also appearances from many other Japanese favourites including a Japanese-speaking (and man can he speak it fast!) Australian comedian, Chad Mullane, and the Nipponese answer to Magda Szubanski, Naomi Watanabe, who comically mimed to a Beyonce song.

The films themselves fall into two categories. It is a 'Laugh and Peace' festival. Ozaki says that he felt it necessary to incorporate a second theme because the Yoshimoto's Company's forte aside, the history of Okinawa has not always been a laughing matter. Annexed by the Japanese as late at 1872, the Okinawans got the rough end of the pineapple again when land volunteered for Japan's WWII war effort was later commandeered by the conquering United States – without recompense or apology.

The festival highlight was the film that walked off with both the audience's Peace prize and the Golden Shisa, Ann Hui's A Simple Life (just announced for the Sydney Film Festival). A master director, Hui is often overlooked because of the deceptive simplicity of her work. The film features Andy Lau as Roger, a movie producer who slowly realises that Ah Tao, the maid (a flawless performance by Deanie Ip) that has raised him since birth, is no longer physically capable of looking after herself, let alone him. This sometimes grim tale, which follows the maid into her residency in a decaying urban old folks' home, works because of the heartfelt and clearly autobiographical script by Roger Lee. The film has moments of warmth and loving laughter, but be prepared to get your tissues ready, because this cuts to the heart of everyday life and death.

Just because a film wasn't built for laughs, didn't prevent its inclusion at Okinawa. The alien invasion film Attack the Block is not exactly a laugh riot. So imagine director Joe Cornish's bemusement as he found that he had to co-introduce his film alongside a couple of comedians from the Yoshimoto stable. The round robin of translation was bizarre enough, but guests unwilling to roll with the unusual circumstances looked as uncomfortable as serious-minded sporting heroes being interviewed by Roy and H.G.

The director of SuckSeed (pictured), Chayanop Boonprakob, and his actors looked puzzled, but true to the Thai sense of fun, they soon joined in. This film, about a group of high school wannabe rock'n' roll stars, was an enjoyable teen picture spiced with multiple cameos from Thailand's pop music hall of fame. It struck a nerve with the local audience as it scored the audience Laugh prize, outdistancing Bridesmaids.

The popularity of Suckseed showed that Okinawan audiences were not parochial in their tastes, despite the temptation of a number of Japanese films. One called Ah Minister was a rare beast, a comedy set within a Japanese government cabinet meeting. Not only was the prime minister, irreverently depicted as a doddering man with bowel problems, but the plot centred on a push to ban ladies underwear to inhibit a corrupt cross-dressing minister. Not as funny as one would hope, this – the first inherently political Japanese satire in two decades – was odd enough to warrant attention.

One of the most popular Japanese films was Graffreeter Toki featuring Kitahara Rie, one of the members of the famed – actually omnipresent – Japanese girl group AKB48. The group is such a phenomenon – they are goodwill ambassadors to Washington – that a pre-film public appearance by Kitahara had the locals cramming the theatre. But as the lights went down, the audience went up and out! It is the personalities that dominate in Okinawa, not the films. Audiences displayed little commitment to the films themselves (but in true politeness, if they stayed, they stayed until the Dolby Digital credit rolled).

Why see a film, when you could see more comedians or musicians on the sunny beach and eat some yakisoba?

Yoshimoto CEO Osaki explained that the reason for this wide spread of events is “because Okinawa is truly a film/music/comedy/trade fair festival. But, really, that's too long to put on a marquee. Film festival is much shorter.”

And one might add, works better. This beach-centric comedy film festival has so far outlasted most other attempts to mount a similar feature-focussed event.