Related News

Home » Feature » People

Japanese vampire seeks suicidal girls

ACCLAIMED Japanese film director Shunji Iwai has once again caused a stir among Shanghai film buffs who were wild with anticipation about their hero's first visit to the city in six years and his first big screen film in six years.

But most of them, including media, were sorely disappointed that there weren't enough tickets to his new film "Vampire" and other Iwai works screened at the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival that closed last Sunday.

The 48-year-old film maker and video artist was in town to head the jury for the festival's Asian New Talent Award and barely had time for anyone. He tweeted to fans on weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and chatted with reporters in his hotel room.

Considered one of the most influential among young Japanese directors, the Sendai native has frequently been a guest at international film gatherings. But being a juror was quite a different experience.

"Since I completely understand the hardship of making films, I always tend to go easy on others, thinking they all deserve 100 points for finishing the work. But that may not work for competition," Iwai wrote on weibo.

He has been tweeting away on everything in both Japanese and Chinese (translated by his assistant), from his latest works to film reviews, from interesting picks at film festivals to the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, which affected his hometown. Since he started tweeting in January, he has attracted more than 170,000 followers.

Iwai received awards early in his career and is candid about the downside of early glory. "I feel a little frustrated because winning a prize at an early age usually leads to no good. I know a bunch of directors who received awards when they were young but accomplished nothing later. Their talents may be distorted if an award is recklessly honored," he wrote.

He was given the New Directors Award by the Directors Guild of Japan for his TV drama "Fireworks" in 1993, the first time a TV drama director was so honored.

This was the second time Iwai was invited to the Shanghai festival. Eight years ago, he won the Special Jury Award with one of his classics, "All About Lily Chou-Chou" (2001). The famous film is a disturbing look at the life of a junior high school student who seeks sanctuary from school bullies in the music of a pop singer Lily Chou-Chou.

This year, there was retrospective of Iwai's works, including "Love Letter" (1995) and "Hana & Alice" (2004), as well as the English-language debut of his latest film "Vampire."

The film launches Iwai's return to big screens after a six-year absence since "Hana & Alice." "Vampire" follows the story of a shy biology school teacher who has a secret predilection for the taste of blood and finds willing victims on the website for the suicidal. He's looking for a girl who's young, beautiful and wants to die.

It is the first time Iwai has addressed death and suicide, a far cry from his artfully crafted signature depictions of teenage angst, bewilderment, lost and pure romance.

"When I was young, I never thought about death and couldn't face it. But I'm now over 40, I realize there's no use being afraid of death. You have to face it and cherish the moments you now enjoy," Iwai told reporters. He looked a bit haggard from his tight schedule as he chatted in his hotel room.

"Japan has a high suicide rate of over 30,000 per year, yet people seldom talk about it," Iwai said, further explaining his focus on suicide in the new film. "Those who commit suicide are actually the ones who can't be accepted or understood by society. I hope through this film, people will start to care about this phenomenon."

The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, has received applause.

"Iwai Shunji demonstrates that he is a master of cinematic storytelling in any language. Breathtaking, lyrical camera movement and unconventional framing capture beautifully macabre images while the evocative music and sound design complete the sensory tour de force," the film festival committee said on its website.

Critics have said that Iwai tends to change his artistic style, but the director has his own side of the story, saying his "state of mind and beliefs still remain."

"It isn't a thriller, but a pure love story deep inside, just like many of those I've made before," he said, adding that he's been working on the basic story for 10 years and couldn't get a chance to make it. "It was even before 'All about Lily Chou-Chou' that I wrote the first image."

Big changes

But those around him sensed big changes.

"Director, your works are getting more and more twisted," he quoted Japanese actress Yu Aoi as saying. She plays a leading role in "Vampire" and has starred in two of Iwai's other films.

Born in 1963 in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, Iwai was interested in art, movies and music from a young age and in college experimented with 8mm films.

After graduating as an art major from Yokohama National University in 1987, Iwai was bored by the conformity of the Japanese film industry and switched to directing music videos, TV ads and dramas. This had a major impact on his idiosyncratic visual style on the big screen.

In 1994, his TV drama "Undo" was well received, made into a film of the same name and honored at the 1995 Berlin International Film Festival. From then on, Iwai returned to feature films, starting with the blockbuster "Love Letter," involving two stories of two young women with the same name, both seeking lost love and corresponding with each other by letter.

The ethereal cinematography, magical use of light and affecting plot made the film a box hit and brought a refreshing breeze to the recessionary Japanese film industry. It had a great impact on other Asian countries, especially South Korea where Japanese films were not shown after World War II.

Iwai was dubbed the "standard bearer of Japanese New Wave" in the 1990s. "Swallowtail Butterfly" in 1996 depicted the struggle of immigrants. "April Story" in 1998 is a touching tale of puppy love. Then came "All About Lily Chou-Chou."

Few of Iwai's films have been screened on the Chinese mainland, yet his works and stories are adored by young Chinese film aficionados. He is affectionately called the "Japanese Wong Kar-wai" by fans for his aesthetic in cinematography. Unlike Wong, Iwai focuses more on youth.

"Life is quite ordinary most time. But if I cut open an ordinary life like cutting up fruit, youth is the attractive juicy cross-section. This is what I want to show the audience in my films," Iwai told reporters.

There has been speculation that his works reflect his own love stories, but Iwai denied it with a shy smile.

"My puppy love was in elementary school. No proclamation, no holding hands," he said. "But I do have a special obsession with secret crushes. Compared with the love given unsought, I'm more interested in the love that's hard to get. It has more dramatic conflicts and more stories to tell."

Fans naturally would have preferred that their hero film the adaptation of "Norwegian Wood," a Haruki Murakami classic about love, pain, pleasure and loss in growing up. It was made last year by Vietnam-born French director Anh Hung Tran.

Iwai was bombarded by reporters' questions about "Norwegian Wood," which premiered at the Shanghai Film Festival. But Iwai didn't say much. "In most cases, I'd like to shoot the stories I wrote myself," he said. "If I'm the producer (of 'Norwegian Wood'), I'll ask someone else to direct."

Iwai is multi-talented. He is also a producer and script writer. He acted in one film and writes the songs and lyrics for his films.

Earlier this year, he opened his own film website called Iwai Film Festival ( where he posts prose, interviews and his classic and new scripts. Registration and payment is required for full content.

"In the coming five years, TV dramas from the US and Europe will have a huge impact on Japanese films," he said. "Japanese directors should work harder to present high-quality works. Otherwise, we may be facing a bleak prospect."

One of his new projects will be adapting his script "A Guard Dog Guarding the Garden" (to be posted on his website). It looks at the use of nuclear power and was inspired by the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima.

"The film is to make people aware of the enormous damage human beings have done to the environment and the potential impact on our children and grandchildren," he said.

Shanghai media reported Iwai would return soon to Shanghai to stage a piano concert featuring his film theme songs.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend