Beyond the Fringes (Image Forum Festival 1996)

Wednesday, April 24, 1996

It used to be that experimental film lived on the fringes, confined to the margins because it was both uncomfortable and unpalatable to the mainstream. MTV seems to have changed all that. When combined with Madonna or Nirvana, avant-garde imagery is now mass multimedia art, invading the core of even major Hollywood productions like Natural Born Killers.

To some, this may toll the postmodern death of the experimental as a radical forum, but the day is yet to come when the latest Japanese TV drama is shot in the style of Andy Warhol. Experimental film still provokes, only its boundaries have widened to penetrate our everyday imaginary.

The Image Forum Festival, a showcase for experimental film and video in Asia, has been a testimony to these changes. Established in 1987, the festival celebrates its 10th year this spring with a greatly expanded format. Shown simultaneously in Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka April 27-May 6, and in Fukuoka in August, this year’s cornucopian selection of avant-garde film, video, animation, and documentary features more work from Asia and across the world than in previous years.

A century of cinema history having passed, the centerpiece of the 1996 festival is “Experimental Lumiere,” which explores film history from the standpoint of the Lumiere Brothers’ invention.

The highlight is probably Lumiere et compagnie, a project for French television that features 40 of the world’s most famous directors, including Theo Angelopoulos, Wim Wenders, David Lynch and Peter Greenaway, attempting to shoot 52 second films with an original 1890s Lumiere camera. While there are hits (Zhang Yimou, Abbas Kiarostami) and misses (Spike Lee, Jacques Rivette), each is a precious mixture of old technology with new ideas.

Among the other notable works from this section, Harun Farocki’s The Workers Leaving the Factory imaginatively uses the eponymous Lumiere film to explore the history of work in the cinema.

The Image Forum Festival always sports a cutting-edge selection of invitational works from Japan and abroad. The foreign visitors this time include Leighton Pierce’s 50 Feet of String, a hypnotically impressionistic concerto of light, sound, and string, and the first live action feature-length film by the infamous Brothers Quay.

Japanese invitees include the most recent films by Oki Hiroyuki and Kawase Naomi, each fresh from capturing awards at festivals in Berlin and Yamagata, respectively, as well as much-awaited works by established artists like Idemitsu Mako and Suzuki Shiroyasu.

Image Forum’s mainstay is its open competition for up-and-coming filmmakers, expanded this year to include films and videos from the rest of Asia. Works by young women exploring their sexual and other identities have become quite prominent recently. A wonderful example is this year’s Grand Prize winner, Wada Junko’s Peach Baby Oil (“Momoiro bebi oiru”), which is a rhythmic exploration of the relationship of body and space.

Comparing her work with that of American Sadie Benning, the precocious lesbian video artist also featured at the Festival, might offer an introductory lesson in comparative youth culture.

Works by Ishida Miyuki and Nick Deocampo are also worth a look.

By Aaron Gerow

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 25 April 1996, p. 10.

Copyright 1996: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow