SeeNL Magazine

Film focus

Tokyo, Silent City

When westerners make films set in Tokyo, they invariably emphasise the exoticism and strangeness. This wasn’t at all the intention of Threes Anna when she was shooting her second feature, Silent City, selected for San Sebastian New Directors section. Geoffrey Macnab reports.

Writer-director Threes Anna, who adapted the film from her own novel De Stille Stad, set out to give a grounded and realistic, as well as a glamorous, view of the city. “Tokyo is ugly; Tokyo is plastic, noisy…it’s not Zen gardens and Bonsai trees!” Anna points out. “We decided to go and shoot with a very small crew, almost guerilla (style). That had an amazing influence on the light,” the director recalls.

Silent City is the story of Rosa, a young Dutch woman, adrift in the city. Her ambition is to learn the art of preparing fish from one of Japan’s master chefs. To do so, she needs to immerse herself in a new and often bewildering culture.

Filming at night-time in the neon-lit metropolis was sometimes hazardous – the authorities hadn’t given permission for Anna and her crew to be there – but it was also exhilarating.

“We were so fast, we were so small that always when people just realised what was going on, we were already gone,” the filmmaker says of how she “stole” shots on the underground and in Tokyo’s Ginza entertainment district (where yakuza are the dominant power.)

The main character is played by Laurence Roothooft. “I had seen around 250 young women and when this girl came in, I knew it was her,” the director says of her leading lady. “She has extremely special energy…she had this inner strength.”

Re-moulding her novel into a screenplay presented obvious challenges for Anna. She had written it as an “interior monologue” in which the readers were “in the head” of Rosa.

“I didn’t want to work with a voice-over. That was clear from the beginning. So I had to translate every image in her head into a (real) image,” the writer-director notes. Her goal was to preserve the tone and spirit of the novel.

“The funny thing is that at one of the test screenings, there were two people in the audience who had read the novel and they said they had never seen a film that was so close to the novel!”

Fish loom large in Silent City. Anna drew on an experience that had struck her deeply when she had been in Japan many years before. “I lived in Tokyo for almost a year. The last day I was there, people invited me for a dinner. That’s 25 years ago. It was in a fish restaurant.” Her hosts asked her to go to a tank and pick out a fish. “I had no clue for what! Then the fish arrived on the table. The fish was almost still living. It was already cut into pieces.”

The fish tasted utterly delicious but she felt an unease about the way it was prepared. This mirrored her attitude toward Japan as a whole. “It’s hate and love, love and hate, fascination and horror! Of course, I use bits of my own experience in the script.”

Anna clearly takes the challenge of film directing in her stride. As a former artistic director of the Dogtroep theatre company, she is used to working with teams of collaborators and overcoming daunting logistical hurdles. She isn’t afraid of working on an international canvas. Her debut feature The Bird Can’t Fly, starring Barbara Hershey, was set in South Africa.

The interiors of Silent City were actually shot in Luxembourg. The director relished the opportunity to create her own little corner of Tokyo…in the heart of Benelux. “A few Japanese people have seen the film and they absolutely don’t see it,” Anna says.

The film will premiere in San Sebastian prior to its Dutch debut at the Netherlands Film Festival. It was produced by Hanneke Niens and Hans De Wolf of Key Film. “They are very experienced, they know the world and they know how to make movies,” Anna says of Niens and de Wolf. “I had an extremely positive and fantastic experience with them. They were always precise and careful.”

Having adapted one of her novels for the screen, Anna is now working on a screenplay based on another of her books. Waiting For The Monsoon, touted by one reviewer as “Slumdog Millionaire Meets Jane Eyre,” is set in India in the mid 1990s.

The writer-director remains is active in literature, film and theatre – and she’s a keen blogger and twitters (@threesanna) too. But when she is focused on a novel or a script, she won’t hold meetings or allow herself to be distracted. She likes to concentrate on one project at a time – and never to risk spreading her talents too thinly.