Oscar Upset


Winner Proves To Be Departure From Usual Japanese Fare

In the biggest upset of the 2009 Academy Awards, the Japanese entry “Departures” won Best Foreign Language Film, beating out the heavy favorites, Israel’s “Waltz with Bashir” and France’s “The Class.” The latter two had already been released in the United States, gathered widely favorable press attention, and won many international awards. Although Regent Releasing had already picked up “Departures,” it had yet to be released in the U.S. and was little known. Audiences were eager to get an early look at “Departures” at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, where director Yôjirô Takita and actor Masahiro Motoki made time in their schedule to talk to The Washington Diplomat.

“In Japan, for a long time, there has been a sense that death — and the people who have to deal with death — that there is definitely a stigma,” Takita explained. “Death is considered impure or tainted, and so we have long denied death. And that kind of prejudice certainly existed within the wife, which initially drove her far away. But what I was trying to portray in the film was not the prejudice itself, but her ability to articulate it as being the first step toward reconciliation for them. So I really see her role as being someone who is still immature, and the film’s story is the story of maturation.

Given its subject matter, the director was surprised that the film found such an audience, both in Japan and the United States. “In terms of the impact of the Academy Award, it had a very sizable Japanese audience before the Academy Award. But the box office has more than doubled [to over million] after the Academy Award, and there’s a part of me that wishes it wouldn’t take an Academy Award for it to get that big,” mused Takita.

Motoki added: “The other phenomenon is that in Japan, the DVD release date had already been set in anticipation of a certain kind of theatrical run. But because of the Academy Award, the theaters continued to remain packed even though the DVD was already out, so that’s very unusual. And also we’re starting to see people, especially older people, who haven’t been to a movie theater in 30, 40 years. So we’re really finding a fresh, new audience.”

Motoki made his own unique discoveries in preparing for the role. “While I was training for the film, I met many different encoffiners, and I was surprised to discover how many young people there were, as well as women, who were choosing this as a profession. By the way, because this movie is such a hit in Japan, job applications for encoffining are now up three times — or so they say!”

‘Rudo y Cursi’ Heartthrob Reunion The new Mexican film “Rudo y Cursi” reunites on screen Gael García Bernal (“Amores Perros,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Bad Education”) and Diego Luna (“Frida,” “The Terminal,” “Milk”), who last starred together in 2001’s “Y Tu Mamá También.” That international sensation was co-written by Carlos Cuarón, who wrote and directed “Rudo y Cursi,” his feature directorial debut. At the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, The Washington Diplomat engaged in an easy going conversation with Luna and García Bernal, plus another with Cuarón.

“It was very nice to work together again … as actors,” García Bernal reflected on collaborating with Luna, a childhood friend. “Before the film, we had been working together, but we’ve been putting up our production company called Canana. We’ve been helping films get made [like “Sin Nombre”]. And also, we have a documentary film festival. It’s called Ambulante, and it’s a film festival that travels around several cities in Mexico.”

They both have also taken turns behind the camera as directors. “It was nice to be actors again, just actors,” Luna added. “It was nice just to be thinking about our characters, about the scenes and the relationship of the characters — and not to think about money, or what was going to happen or what was not going to happen. When you’re an actor, they protect you, almost from every bad news, as much as they can.”

The behind-the-scenes job fell on Carlos Cuarón, who co-wrote 2001’s “Y Tu Mamá También,” which was directed by his brother, Alfonso Cuarón.

“Carlos, in ‘Y Tu Mamá También,’ was the writer. In rehearsals, he was sitting with us, writing all the new stuff that was coming out. As soon as the shooting started, Carlos was just back there, looking, hearing, talking to Alfonso, and that was it. This time, Carlos was in our sight, complaining about the producers, and saying terrible stuff about them and how much pressure they were putting on us,” Luna recalled, laughing. “It was fun to be back creating these kinds of relationships that started on ‘Y Tu Mama También.’”

This time, Carlos took the helm of “Rudo y Cursi,” the story of two Mexican provincial brothers who get noticed by a drug lord and become popular soccer stars, though their popularity comes with a price.

“Rudo means something close to tough … to ruthless,” Carlos explained. “That is easy. Cursi is more difficult because it means many things. But in general terms, I would say it’s corny, but at the same time cheesy, and at the same time mellow, overtly romantic. It’s different in Mexico than in Argentina than in Spain. In Argentina and in Spain, it has a connotation more like a tacky thing. The important part of the Mexico meaning is more the romantic side of it; it’s so romantic that it has bad taste.”

Cuarón said it was important to include the character of a drug lord because of the pervasiveness of the problem in Mexico. “That’s because Mexican society is giving very few opportunities to young people,” the director lamented. “Yeah, you can become a soccer player, a professional. But…it’s not easy to make it to the big leagues. Another [thing] is you can become a singer, an idol. What is more usual right now is the drug thing, recruiting youngsters as either dealers or just killers. [The drug lords] provide to their communities. They build roads, they make churches, they build schools. There’s huge corruption operating; they control through weapons, money and power. The drug lord, at the end, becomes the real surrogate father, the one who provides for everyone. We’ve gone so far that these Mexican dreams become a nightmare when they are touched by these guys.”

He added: “Part of my intentions with the film was to create a social portrait of my country in the present time — not only all the class issues, or the country and city contrast, and all of that. It was also important … that the drug lords pervade everything. They have become … probably the most solid institution in Mexico, and it’s terrible.”

‘Fear Me Not’ At the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, noted Danish writer-director Kristian Levring (“The King Is Alive,” “The Intended”) and writer Anders Thomas Jensen (“The King Is Alive,” “Mifune’s Last Song,” “Brothers,” “The Duchess) presented their latest film, “Fear Me Not.” Starting June 10, it will be available via IFC Festival Direct video on demand. (Each month, IFC Festival Direct offers six new films that have premiered at leading festivals.) The Washington Diplomat caught up with Levring (accompanied by Jensen) at the DIRECTTV Tribeca Press Center.

“‘Fear Me Not’ is about a seemingly caring family man who cracks,” Levring said of the lead character, Mikael, who signs up for a test trial of a new anti-depressant as a way to change his life. When the trial is called off, he continues taking the medication with violent results.

“Mikael feels trapped by the conformities of his life, and in an effort to escape that feeling, he is gradually overcome by his own passions and compulsions,” the director explained. “Having said that, I was adamant about not having just one explanation for his actions — as most people would have many explanations embedded in their personalities. Mikael is also occasionally hesitant about his deeds, which place the audience in an uncomfortable dilemma. We want him to continue because we want to experience the consequences, and we share this duality with Mikael.

I’m fascinated by the idea that it is possible to live with someone for years and never really know them,” added Levring. “In a way, [Mikael’s] house is also ambiguous. It speaks volumes about who these people are, but at the same time, its transparency and openness is a contrast to the way they hide their cards and keep quiet about how they really feel.”

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.