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The Japan Society's (333 East 47th St.) Japan Cuts film series (July 12 - 28, 2012), in conjunction with Subway Cinema's New York Asian Film Festival, is a daring film series assembling some truly unique examples of Japanese cinema. Japan Cuts as a film series excels at having a little something for everyone. You have standbys like Takashi Miike (Ace Attorney), veteran actors like Koji Yakusho and Yoshio Harada along with a new breed of filmmakers that look to turn their lens on a post 3/11 Japan.
Japan Cuts is the sort of series that does a great job of attracting both experts on Japanese cinema as well as new viewers. And it wouldn't be possible without the guidance of Japan Society's film programmer, Samuel Jamier.
Sam joined The Japan Society in 2009 after a stint as Senior Program Officer at The Korea Society, where he conducted lectures, film series, and organized the New York Korean Film Festival. At the Japan Society he recently organized the Love Will Tear Us Apart film series, a cavalcade of toxic romances and erotic thrillers throughout Japanese cinematic history.
I sat down with Sam to discuss his role at the Japan Society, the rigors of chosing the right films to show, and the state of the film industry in Asia.
Q: From reading your Twitter feed I can see you’ve been very busy lately with the New York Asian Film Fest and the Japan Society.
SJ: The Twitter doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Q: How did you get involved at the Japan Society?
SJ: I was at the Korea Society for about two years. I was running the lecture programs, cultural programs, and corporate programs. Then the position opened at the Japan Society and I thought it would be interesting to focus on the cinema specifically. And we have a nice theater here. I joined about three years ago, September 2009.
Q: What’s your role in the Japan Cuts Festival?
SJ: I am the main programmer of the festival. The festival was set up in 2007 as part of the 100th anniversary of the Japan Society. They decided to start a large scale festival, but that was before my time. When I joined that became one of the operations I focused the most on. It is arguably the biggest operation at the Japan Society focused on film.
It’s been exciting ever since. I try to diversify the lineup, bring more and more prestigious guests. Strike a balance between commercial cinema and cinema from Japan.
Q: What goes into the selection process?
SJ: A lot of things. It’s all about balance. Try to have a bit of this a bit of that. The last thing you want to do is just show nothing but the same. That’s the issue of being a programmer of films from one national culture, it can get boring easily. You might just focus on one genre. I like genre films.
I always try to include a few genre heavy titles, a few art-house titles, a balance of interesting titles. Not everything in the lineup is meant to appeal to just me. One particular film doesn’t appeal profoundly to my sensibilities, but I thought it was pretty interesting. I also try to think about the audience and what they like.
I try to get a sense of what audiences are looking for. Sometimes you program something you think is great and not many people show up. And sometimes something you have no expectations for does really well. T
here’s no real formula behind this. But no matter how great a film is, it doesn’t really exist without an audience. So I try to find an audience for these films and I think there is to an extent.
Q: What films interest you personally?
SJ: I’m a pretty big Wong Kar Wai fan. I like a lot of art-house directors like Tarkovskiy. It’s pretty hard to define what interests me actually. Everything has its function.
Sometimes you just want to watch a recent Hollywood blockbuster or a big fat spectacle with special effects. I don’t want to be bored; I like to be entertained. I don’t usually go for comedies actually. That’s not usually a natural choice for me.
I tend to like stuff that is more on the dark side or the extreme side. The most personal festival series I ever organized was the Love Will Tear Us Apart series. That’s pretty close to what I like; erotic dramas with a lot of danger.
Crying Fist is one of my favorite Korean films. I like Oldboy, movies like that are the kind of cinema I’m deeply interested in. Mostly Asian stuff.
Q: Akira Kurosawa is very good at translating Russian stories to Japanese settings.
SJ: Something Kurosawa is very good at doing is refitting elements of story and refitting them to work in Japanese. He did the same with Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky of course. He’s very good at adapting material, but then again that might be a Japanese quality.
Q: Some people said these are tough times for Japanese films and it’s like in the US right now with nothing but remakes and adaptations, but this festival seems to have a good variety.
SJ: Yeah, but you really have to go look for it, it’s not easy. This year was a bit of a challenge. Long story short, it’s difficult to find these films. We’re facing tough times ahead for the industry, that’s pretty obvious.
Theatrical sales are not looking great overall. There is a crisis of commercial cinema. The fact that the industry is adapting systematically from manga or already popular novels is not that great of a sign. But you can say the same thing about the US.
Everything that’s a popular comic book or video game has been optioned. In the case of Japan the tsunami had a financial impact that affected the film industry, like all industries were that affected by that.
But these amazing filmmakers, through thick and thin they will find a way to have their story told. That’s pretty amazing.
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