Enigmatic Romanian film “The Japanese Dog” at SEEFest

LOS ANGELES – In May, the annual South East European Film Festival put features, shorts, animation and documentaries that are primarily shot and/or set in Southeastern Europe in the limelight. As such, SEEFest provided a beachhead for cinema from this part of the world, giving foreign films entrée to moviedom’s world capital, Hollywood. It also presented 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.

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 actor’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 with questions from the audience, who 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.

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 faraway 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, by representing 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?)

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. [Between May 13 and 18, 2014, a low-pressure cyclone designated Tamara and Yvette, affected a large area of Southeastern and Central Europe, including Romania, causing floods and landslides. It may take 5 years for agriculture in the affected regions to recover.] 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 Turgenevian 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) and thoughtful, with heartfelt acting by an Eastern European master and the supporting cast. Jurgiu’s 85-minute directorial debut feature has more humanity than all those dreadful Transformers movies put together. And does it without firing a single shot. Imagine that!

Regarding the film’s cinematography, Variety had this to say: “Ace director of photography 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 named The Japanese Dog – well, you’ll just have to see it. And thanks to SEEFest, American audiences got that opportunity – and the film got 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 offered 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, and Azerbaijan. These screenings mark the North American and/or West Coast premieres for many of the works. For more info: seefilmla.org.

Photo: “The Japanese Dog,” film still.



Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.