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Lights! Camera! Eastern Europe: SEEFest Rides Again

Ed Rampell: By La-La-Land escapist standards, The Japanese Dog is excruciatingly slow moving (a pejorative in Hollywood), thoughtful and always deeply human, with heartfelt acting by an Eastern European master and the supporting cast.
The Japanese Dog

THE JAPANESE DOG Film Review

From April 30 through May 7 the 10th annual South East European Film Festival is putting features, shorts, animation and documentaries that are primarily shot and/or set in Southeastern Europe in the limelight. As such, SEEFest provides a beachhead for cinema from this part of the world, giving foreign films entrée to moviedom’s world capital, Hollywood. It also presents avid filmgoers undaunted by subtitles with the opportunity to view works they may not otherwise get the opportunity to see, especially on the big screen. In addition to screenings at several L.A. venues, SEEFest co-presented its 7th Annual Business of Film Conference, “Connecting South East Europe and Hollywood,” on May 2 at the Goethe-Institut, which, among other things, dealt with the complex issue of distribution in the lucrative, if insular, U.S. marketplace, followed by a networking luncheon.

The April 30th gala at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills was well-attended by filmmakers, moviegoers and dignitaries, such as a representative of the L.A. City Council and the Swiss Consul-General, Jean-Francois Lichtenstern. The office of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and L.A. City Council presented proclamations expressing appreciation to SEEFest and its Artistic Director, Vera Mijojlic, plus to actor/dancer George Chakiris, who scored a Best Actor Oscar for 1961’s West Side Story. Mijojlic also presented Chakiris, who is of Greek ancestry, with SEEFest’s inaugural Legacy Award. 82-year-old Romanian actor Victor Rebengiuc was given SEEFest’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award in absentia.

However, Tudor Cristian Jurgiu - director/co-writer of one of the Bucharest-born thespian’s latest features - flew to L.A. for SEEFest, accepting the award on behalf of Rebengiuc. Their film, the oddly named The Japanese Dog, then kicked off the Festival’s screenings, followed by a Q&A with Jurgiu conducted on the stage of the Writers Guild Theater by Mijojlic, along with questions from the audience, which then enjoyed a feast of Eastern European cuisine in the lobby festooned with posters of classic movies, many of them with texts in various languages.

No Reservoir Dogs, The Japanese Dog could also be entitled “The Anti-Avengers Film.” Typical Tinseltown escapist mass entertainment equates drama with action - the more violent, the more “dramatic”, rendered through head spinning rapid cutting by no talent, harebrained sociopathic dimwits like Michael Bay appears to be. Of course, this is an expression of a sick society suffused with and suffocating in violence, where youths get their necks broken for the new thought crime of “looking while Black”; the national pastime is a sport causing concussions, brain damage, etc.; and far away countries get shocked, awed, droned and attacked at the drop of a hat. Hollywood’s over-reliance on violence to peddle tickets is also a reflection of extremely bad writing by screenwriters incapable of subtlety and expressing conflict without bombardments, AK-47s, vehicular homicide, ad nauseam.

These screenwriters, directors, producers, et al., are unable to express deep human truths, whereas films such as the enigmatically named The Japanese Dog do, represent the drama of everyday life - all without a single, solitary screeching car chase, explosion, shooting and the like. (There is, however, a sort of robot - so maybe there’s hope for transforming Michael Bay after all?)

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By La-La-Land escapist standards, The Japanese Dog is excruciatingly slow moving (a pejorative in Hollywood), thoughtful and always deeply human, with heartfelt acting by an Eastern European master and the supporting cast.

The protagonist of The Japanese Dog is the antithesis of the Hollywood hero - 80-year-old widower Costache (Rebengiuc) lives alone in a flood ravaged, dirt poor Romanian village. (Seriously comrades, is that the level of development and prosperity the Stalinist model of “socialism” can produce after half a century? Apparently, the villagers haven’t fared better after almost a quarter century of capitalism.) Costache’s estranged son Ticu (Serban Pavlu), who has emigrated overseas, returns to Romania, along with his foreign wife, Hiroku (Kana Hashimoto) and their young son Koji (Toma Hashimoto).

Costache and Ticu are faced with the conflict of resolving their estrangement and reestablishing that Turgenev-ian relationship between fathers and sons. And Costache must decide whether familial or national bonds are more important to him.

By La-La-Land escapist standards, The Japanese Dog is excruciatingly slow moving (a pejorative in Hollywood), thoughtful and always deeply human, with heartfelt acting by an Eastern European master and the supporting cast. But Jurgiu’s 85-minute directorial debut feature has more humanity than all those dreadful Transformers movies put together. And The Japanese Dog does it without firing a single shot. Imagine that!

Regarding the film’s cinematography, Variety had this to say: “Ace d.p. Andrei Butica (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Child’s Pose) again proves his consummate versatility with measured visuals that underline the importance of environment and the villagers’ coexistence with their landscape, even after Nature flexed her muscles; the luminous effects of daylight, dappling figures with their warmth, add to the pictorial pleasures.”

As for why this Romanian movie is mysteriously named The Japanese Dog - well, you’ll just have to see it yourself, Dear Reader. And thanks to SEEFest, American audiences got that opportunity - as well as a shot at breaking into the American movie market. It may not be as action-packed as Marvel’s The Avengers, but The Japanese Dog, which was Romania's 2015 entry in the Foreign Language Oscar category, is marvelous in its own way.

The 2015 South East European Film Festival takes place through May 7 with works from Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Moldova, Montenegro, Turkey, Kosovo, Georgia, Germany, Macedonia, Spain, Albania, France, USA, Denmark, Italy, Bosnia Herzegovina, Belgium, Greece, Azerbaijan, etc. These screenings mark the North American and/or West Coast premieres for many of the works. For more info see: seefilmla.org.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

The latest book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” .