Living in Leeds as a film fan has its perks. The city has a long historical association with filmmaking, and annually hosts the Leeds International Film Festival, celebrating films from across the world. Despite living in the city for over a decade now I only started attending the festival in recent years, but it’s quickly become an annual tradition of my own. Every year I enjoy looking through the programme, keeping a particular eye out for Japanese cinema. 2020 has disrupted this yearly ritual as much as anything else. LIFF2020 is smaller, with fewer feature films on the programme, and split between some of its usual venues and a new online player.
I’m a big fan of the idea of this player, at least in principle – we’ve yet to see how it actually works out in practice. But I’m very much for opening up festivals and events like these to participation by more people, including those who cannot physically get to the venues for whatever reason. It took a global pandemic to accelerate what accessibility advocates have been asking for for years, but at least it’s happening. In the case of LIFF2020, not every film will be available online – in fact, a number of titles I was particularly looking forward to are only available in venues, and while I can’t make the decision for anyone else, I’m not planning on crowding into an indoor theatre any time soon.
One of those films, the new Benson and Moorhead picture Synchronic, is a particular disappointment. Just last month, the filmmakers released a statement ahead of their film’s theatrical release in the United States. At the time, the situation in the UK was probably looking a lot better than in the US, but with local lockdowns across the country and the threat of a new national lockdown around the corner, their statement seems just as relevant here and now as it was then.
I don’t want this look at the programme to be entirely negative, but it’s impossible to comment on the selection of films without observing which will be available online and which won’t, which is going to greatly impact who can see them – even for those willing to risk an in-person screening, social distancing requirements are going to cut down on the available tickets. Some films, like Synchronic, will have multiple screenings, though not notably more than available in a typical festival year. It’s worth noting, though, that much of this is probably outside the festival’s hands – as Benson and Moorhead note, the theatrical screenings of Synchronic were fixed by their distributor.
Still, let’s talk about Japanese cinema. Sadly there are only two feature films from Japan in 2020, both anime. Liz and the Blue Bird (2018) is Naoko Yamada’s follow-up to the celebrated A Silent Voice (2016). Described by the festival as “the story of two best friends who face their final year of high school knowing that they’ll have to go their separate ways soon, a situation reflected in the musical piece they’re rehearsing with the school’s brass band”, Liz and the Blue Bird is also a spin-off of the Sound! Euphonium anime series. It’s a production of Kyoto Animation, which suffered a deadly arson attack in 2019, though this film predates that tragedy. Nevertheless, it features the absurdly beautiful, detailed animation the company is known for.
Next is On-Gaku – Our Sound (2019), directed and apparently almost entirely animated by Kenji Iwaisama. The festival guide pitches it as a slacker comedy starring Shintaro Sakamoto, longtime vocalist and guitarist for Yura Yura Teikoku turned solo artist. Viewed in comparison to Liz and the Blue Bird, it’s impossible to ignore the contrast in animation style, with On-Gaku striking a much less realistic, more stylised tone that is nevertheless striking in motion.
With no other Japanese films to highlight, a quick tour of the other available films reveals some standouts. I’ve already mentioned Synchronic (2019), Benson and Moorhead’s fourth feature film. I was blown away by Resolution and The Endless – with Spring still sitting high on my watchlist – so this is something I’m looking forward to when it hits streaming platforms or a physical release. There’s also Peninsula (2020), the sequel to hit South Korean zombie flick Train to Busan. I was never quite as taken with Busan as most, though I appreciated Ma Dong-Seok’s performance. Both Synchronic and Peninsula will be available in venues only.
My hesitation about returning to venues aside, for anyone willing to make the trip two of Buster Keaton’s comedies will be playing accompanied by a live organ performance. Last year I had the pleasure of seeing Man with a Movie Camera with such a performance, and it really is an excellent way to see classic silent films. This year LIFF hosts Sherlock Jr. and The General, both excellent works – even if Keaton’s elevation of the Confederate side in The General sits very poorly when viewed from 2020.
The last film I’ll mention is Get the Hell Out (2020), a Taiwanese zombie film. Described as “a gory horror-comedy romp that pokes a satirical finger at politics while turning a spotlight on the rise of rightwing groups, the environment and social media” it sounds like my kind of film. Several zombie horror comedies – among them Shaun of the Dead, One Cut of the Dead, The Dead Don’t Die, and both Zombieland films – have a special place in my heart, so I’m eager to see if this could be added to the list.
Of course, there’s plenty more showing beyond what I’ve highlighted, both on the LIFF Player and in venues – and that’s without looking at the short film selections. The pandemic may have put a dampener on the festivities in a number of ways, but I’m still looking forward to participating in LIFF2020.