Anyone who attended The Vancouver Asahi world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival on September 29 saw the intense J-power of the J-pop machine in full force.
Japanese stars Tsumabuki Satoshi and Kamenashi Kazuya (who are actors as well as J-Pop stars) aren't just big in Japan, but across Asia. And, as evidenced by the screaming throngs of fans at the Centre for Performing Arts, also around the world, including right here in little Vancouver.
Fans were not only vocal in their adoration, but also physical.
When the stars waltzed the red carpet, fans mobbed up against the line of security guards. At one point, the stars were ushered off the red carpet after the situation threatened to deteriorate.
What's more, the event went viral online, spreading VIFF's name to the farflung reaches of the World Wide Web.
A few days earlier, Vancouver was graced by another dazzling convoy of Asian stars: Abhishek Bachchan, Deepika Padukone, and Bollywood powerhouse Shah Rukh Khan. As Charlie Smith reported, King Khan and his costars drew massive crowds to the Pacific Coliseum.
Of course, these aren't the first or last times that Vancouver has seen the power of Asian stars to reel in huge crowds, even if they fly under the radar of mainstream media.
However, there appears to be an opportunity for the Vancouver International Film Festival to recognize, should it be intent on balancing a commercially competitive future with an artistic one.
The Toronto International Film Festival has well established itself as a destination event for Hollywood's glitterati. The VIFF has traditionally focused more on being a filmmakers' festival, and it can't compete with TIFF for attracting stars. Well, from Hollywood, that is.
But contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe (or beliebe, for all you Beliebers), there is a world of stars beyond it.
VIFF undergoes change
Judging by this year's changes at VIFF, there have been hints of more competitive marketing and a broader reach than in previous years, such as the creation of the new Style in Film series and the merger of the two print guides into one.
A surprising move was the transformation of the Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema into the Best New Director Award. The award was expanded from new directors from Pacific Asia to new directors from around the world.
Although this shift will widen interest, both from filmmakers and audiences, it will subsequently downplay some of the festival's progressive dedication to Asian cinema that it has built up over the past 20 years.
Considering Asia's increasingly Goliathan economic might and pop cultural sway, anything that helps us keep tabs on Asia's pulse would be of benefit to both the festival and our city—socially and economically.
A world of stars to choose from
One way to do that—and to compensate for the replacement of the Dragons and Tigers Award—might be to continue pursuing Asian stars as guests to the festival. (This year it happened because the actors starred in a film based on a historical Vancouver story.)
Admittedly, TIFF does have the industry-oriented Asian Film Summit, which brought the likes of Keanu Reeves and Jackie Chan as guests to their festival. However, VIFF can still focus on bringing in Asian stars from numerous countries as a way to distinguish itself from TIFF.
Korea's film industry and pop culture, thanks to Hallyu or the Korean Wave that arose in the late 1990s and pumped out TV dramas and K-Pop hits (hey, anyone remember PSY and his Gangnam Style?), has massive pan-Asian appeal.
Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema stars would be another obvious market. Some of them, like Nicholas Tse, even have Vancouver connections.
Huge lineups for Filipino films screening in Vancouver have also demonstrated huge demand for an underserved local population. Imagine what would happen if stars like Joel Torre or Piolo Pascual showed up for a red carpet.
South Asian films, whether from Bollywood or other South Asian film industries (such as Tamil, Telugu, or Pakistani cinema), regularly hit the Canadian box office top 20, without any mainstream marketing. Although TIFF did attract Bollywood stars in the past, there's no reason why VIFF can't also, including critically acclaimed stars such as Irrfan Khan (who starred in The Lunchbox which screened at VIFF 2013).
How Vancouver and the festival would benefit
Since Vancouver has been criticized for a lack of cross-cultural interaction, this could be a way for VIFF to connect with (and even draw attention to or educate about) Vancouver's numerous cultural and linguistic communities. It'd be a way to acknowledge different demographics that get regularly ignored by local English-language media. With Vancouver's large multicultural population and media (not to mention sizeable ESL student population), this is one city in which audiences to support these stars would be feasible. After all, Vancouver has one of the largest Asian populations outside of Asia (after Honolulu).
Of course, the appeal would also extend to locals who have visited, worked, or lived abroad, or have an interest in Asian cultures. Or are just plain curious and like getting swept up in the drama of it all.
While Asian stars would attract attention, at the same time, they wouldn’t necessarily overshadow the festival in the way that most North American, or even some European, stars would.
What's more, VIFF is facing increased competition from other local festivals.
The Whistler Film Festival, which runs in December, has been attracting Canadian and Hollywood film stars and directors ranging from Daniel Radcliffe to Atom Egoyan and Jason Priestley. Festivals like Richmond's Your Kontinent Festival are pursuing similar programming for the suburbs while others are catering to specific ethnic communities.
In this age of vanishing movie theatres and heightened competition from digital media, it may be necessary for VIFF to branch out beyond its strong art-house programming reputation and create a bolder international reputation for itself. While purists would balk at the idea of more stars coming in, there may be a way to do it in a way that manages to balance what has been built up in the past (particularly in the Dragons and Tigers series) as a means to ensure longevity in the future.
Asian stars might just be the answer.