Singapore International Film Festival

Japanese film-maker considers film to be a time travel

The Singapore International Film Festival is running a retrospective of film-maker Naomi Kawase's (above) work, including An (2015, top), starring actress Kirin Kiki.
The Singapore International Film Festival is running a retrospective of film-maker Naomi Kawase's work, including An (2015, above), starring actress Kirin Kiki.PHOTOS: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
The Singapore International Film Festival is running a retrospective of film-maker Naomi Kawase's (above) work, including An (2015, top), starring actress Kirin Kiki.
The Singapore International Film Festival is running a retrospective of film-maker Naomi Kawase's (above) work, including An (2015), starring actress Kirin Kiki.PHOTOS: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Acclaimed Japanese director Naomi Kawase chooses to work in relative isolation outside of Tokyo and away from movie industry titans

While the name Naomi Kawase is probably still an unfamiliar one to all but hardcore film buffs, the film-maker has quietly established herself over the last two decades as one of Japan's most preeminent artists.

One reason for the relative obscurity, as the 47-year-old tells The Straits Times, might be that she has chosen to work outside of the mainstream and also opts to live and work in Nara, a city in central Japan, instead of in Tokyo.

She has stayed away from the handful of powerful companies that run the studios and cinema chains, saying that it is a "conservative system".

"Keeping away doesn't help me get distribution and into movie theatres, and it's getting harder and harder to get cinemas to screen my work," she says through a translator.

She is in Singapore at the invitation of the Singapore International Film Festival, which is running a retrospective of her work, including Suzaku, the 1997 film which first gained her international attention.

A portrait of a strife-torn family set in her hometown of Nara, it won the Cannes Film Festival's Camera d'Or, awarded to first-time feature film-makers.

Her choice of subjects - families and rural communities in transition and the slow rhythms of nature - are not exactly what the profit-driven big labels are looking for, either.

Her latest film An (2015) is the story of a pancake maker and his relationship with an eccentric elderly woman. It is also screening at the festival.

Kawase also gave a talk last Tuesday at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands, during which she credited the festival for screening Suzaku before Cannes took notice of it.

"When I was here 20 years ago for the festival, the Marina Bay area was completely different. There was only the Merlion," she says.

But it was while she was here that the fax confirming Suzaku's Cannes selection reached her, making the island an "unforgettable" place for her.

She also told the audience that the city of Nara, where she was born and raised, has a pace of life which suits her.

Her philosophy of film-making is to "look inside yourself". Nara is where she gets to do that, thus discovering "the important things in life", minus the bombardment of stimulation that Tokyo's residents receive.

But sometimes, she films in Osaka or Tokyo if she needs to show tall buildings.

Around the world, film-making is a practice dominated by men and Japan is no exception, she tells The Straits Times.

It was tough breaking through when she started, she tells The Straits Times, but now that she is established, the struggle to be taken seriously is gone.

There are more Japanese women film-makers today than when she started, but they still form a minority of perhaps 10 per cent, she says.

Women are expected to be the primary caregiver after having children, which stalls careers in the film industry.

Kawase, who is divorced, is the single parent of a 12-year-old son.

"It's not easy raising a son single- handedly - you have to be 100 per cent mum, 100 per cent film-maker," she says.

Her secret?

"Energy."

•Naomi Kawase will be speaking at a screening of An today at 2pm at the National Museum of Singapore. Tickets for the session are sold out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2016, with the headline 'Singapore International Film Festival: Film-maker looks inside herself from the outside'. Print Edition | Subscribe