Tokyo Fest Attempts to Overcome China-Japan Tensions


Simmering political and economic tension between China and Japan threw up a potential obstacle to the smooth presentation of eight Chinese films set to screen this week in a special section of the 23rd Tokyo International Film Festival.

On the heels of recent high-level disagreements between Tokyo and Beijing over things ranging from the trade of rare earths to the right to claim a group of oil-rich islands that lie in the waters between the two countries, an official government film delegation from Beijing cancelled a press conference set for tonight at the Grand Hyatt Roppongi Hills.

"Please note that the conference has been cancelled by the organizers," an e-mail from TIFF organizers sent to THR said. One TIFF organizer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the head of the Chinese delegation, an official from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television in Beijing, whose name she declined to confirm, was concerned about exposure to potentially embarrassing questions from Japanese journalists about the current state of Sino-Japanese relations.

"There was also some talk about the recent demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in Tokyo, but I don't think anyone is too worried about that," the source said. "Basically all the companies are here to do business as usual, and a big Chinese media presence too."

The eight films set to begin screening Sunday, including the series opener, the hit Hong Kong-China co-production "Bodyguards and Assassins," were approved by SARFT and were set to be welcomed to Japan by the China Japan Friendship Film Festival -- a co-organizer of a similar slate of Japanese films shown during the Shanghai Expo in June in conjunction with the Shanghai International Film Festival.

The Chinese film series in Tokyo, which also includes "Disney High School Musical China," a co-production with Huayi Brothers Media, was set to open nonetheless at the TOHO Cinemas on Sunday, without official representation from the Film Bureau at SARFT.

Sino-Japanese tensions are easily exacerbated and it appeared that several Chinese companies might have balked at attending Tokyo for reasons more commercial than political. One Huayi representative said that the Tokyo market has not proven good for business in recent years and that Huayi will instead focus its sales efforts on the American Film Market in Los Angeles, which opens Nov. 3.

Zhou Tiedong, the president of Film Promotion International, the sales arm of the state-run China Film Group, said he would not attend Tokyo for similar reasons. "The market is small for us," Zhou said over the phone from Beijing.

Other Chinese, with roots in Hong Kong -- where relations with Japan are less tense -- were set to attend, including Teddy Chen, director of the series' opening film "Bodyguards and Assassins," from producer Peter Chan's We Pictures and Poly Bona Film Distribution of Beijing.

Jeffrey Chan, head of Bona International Pictures, touched down in Tokyo on Saturday ready to celebrate "Bodyguard's" recent sale to Japanese independent distribution powerhouse GAGA Corp, which is set to release it in the second quarter of 2011. The film has grossed more than $50 million elsewhere in Asia since its December 2009 release.

One TIFF organizer said that two non-government Chinese exhibitors had pulled their registration to the festival's adjacent market, TIFFCOM, but added that their cancellation had little to do with politics: "It wasn't clear whether they were really coming or not from the start."

Sources from one of the other Beijing-based production and distribution companies with a film in the series said that the head of the SARFT delegation, whose surname they said was Yan, was under pressure from the central government in Beijing not to attend.

If Beijing did pressure Tokyo guests to cancel, it wouldn't be the first time that China interfered in overseas film events. In July 2009, several Chinese filmmakers pulled out of and then openly criticized the Melbourne International Film Festival for showing a documentary film about a Uighur Muslim activist from western China who Beijing labels a terrorist.

Others who were reportedly boycotting Tokyo were Gao Jun, the assistant manager of the Beijing Xinyinglian Cinema Circuit. Gao could not be reached immediately by phone.

The films in the series also include box office hit "Go Lala Go," from director Xu Jinglei, and "Confucius," from Dadi Media in Beijing.

Separate from the Chinese film series, two independently made Chinese films are competing in the festival this week for the Grand Sakura Prize of $50,000 -- "Buddha Mountain" from director Lu Yu and controversial producer Fang Li (who previously has been censured by the Film Bureau), and "The Piano in a Factory" by Zhang Meng.

Gavin Blair contributed to this report.