Full of sex, blood and lots of snow, Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival is truly one of the most unique movie festivals in the world.
Located in the small resort town of Yubari, it first opened in 1990 as a way of revitalizing the economy after the last coal mine in the area had closed. In 1993, Quentin Tarantino made a guest appearance and allegedly wrote part of his screenplay for Pulp Fiction while in his hotel room. He later payed homage to the town via his character Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) in Kill Bill: Volume 1.
Other notable invitees in the 1990s included Jon Voight, his daughter Angelina Jolie, Dennis Hopper, Steve Martin and Alicia Silverstone. Because of budgeting issues – the town went bankrupt in 2007 – the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival is no longer able to attract major Hollywood stars, but there were many talented directors, actors and film crew in attendance at this month’s event. The most high-profile names on the guest list were Takumi Saitoh (Shin Godzilla, 13 Assassins) and Jun Kunimura (Kill Bill, Black Rain).
One of the main goals of the festival is to promote up-and-coming filmmakers through the main competition, which is only for independent movies shot on relatively small budgets, and all the directors should be relatively inexperienced. Each year the films involved tend to include lots of sex and violence – and the 2017 version was no exception. While there was some praise and encouragement at the award ceremony, not everyone was so impressed with the seven nominees. Hotaru, an actress and judge at the event, criticized the movies involved for the way they depicted women. Fellow judge Kurando Mitsutake, meanwhile, admitted that “this year’s line-up wasn’t exactly fantastic.”
The main Grand Prix award and the ¥2,000,000 ($17,414) that came with it was won by Tadashi Nagayama’s road movie Journey of the Tortoise. The film will subsequently premiere at next year’s festival. Beethoven Medley by Lim Choel Min, a Korean comedy about a man who draws inspiration from a woman’s sexual screaming in the hotel room next to him, received the Special Jury Award, while Yasushi Koshizaka’s Strangedays – basically a porn film with a message – surprisingly took home the Cinegar Prize.
The Hokkaido Governor’s Award went to Shoichi Yokoyama’s bizarre, but entertaining film Road to Love. Kazuya Murayama’s Ochiru – a 30-minute story about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a young pop idol – was given an honorable mention. The other two movies in the competition were Sha La La by Yuto Tsuge and Cho Jinseok’s controversial, yet thought-provoking debut Colonel Panics. In the International Short Film section the Grand Prix prize went to M. Boy by Korean director Kim Hyo-jeong.
Away from the competition there were a wide range of domestic and international movies being screened. Animated film Ancien and the Magic Tablet kicked things off in style, though it was the Hollywood blockbuster Jackie that arguably stole the show. This moving tale by Chilean director Pablo Larraín depicts the life of Jacqueline Kennedy around the time of the assassination of her husband John F. Kennedy, and was nominated for three Academy Awards including a nod to Natalie Portman in the Best Actress category for her realistic portrayal of the First Lady. The miraculous story Lion, which garnered six Oscar nominations, and Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart, were among the other big budget movies that featured at the festival.
Heartthrob Takumi Saitoh was in town to promote Blank 13 – he stars in the film, and it’s also his feature-length directorial debut. Legendary actor Jun Kunimura appeared in two movies showing in Yubari: Na Hong Jin’s The Wailing and the Japanese-French production Kokoro. One of the most popular screenings at the event and the winner of the special audience award was Tetsudon: The Kaiju Dream Match; a collection of 28 crazy and often vulgar three-and-a-half minute films about kaiju monsters filmed by various directors. Another crowd-pleaser was the gory, action thriller Karate Kill by Kurando Mitsutake.
A Unique Atmosphere
Of course, movies are a big attraction of the festival, but it’s about much more than that. This is an event that clearly means so much to the local people. When we were leaving, there were crowds out in the streets waving yellow handkerchiefs (The Yellow Handkerchief starring Ken Takakura was filmed in Yubari in 1977). They also prepared a barbecue in the snow on one of the evenings and though it was absolutely freezing, it was a highly enjoyable occasion with some great food all for just a small donation.
With no real segregation, it was a fun few days. Late in the evening it felt like almost everyone made their way to the local izakaya where actors, filmmakers, producers and journalists all mingled. Saitoh calls Yubari his “favorite festival because of this homely atmosphere.”
The economic downturn has threatened to put an end to this magical event in the past, but it continues to soldier on. The will of the organizers, regular attendees, and people of Yubari is just too strong to let it die. At the closing ceremony, we were told the festival would definitely be going ahead next year. So, what can we expect? Probably a lot more sex, blood and snow.