Japanese producer on the mend

Yoshizaki lost $2 million on 'Guantanamero'

In the early ’90s, when she backed “Howard’s End” and “The Crying Game,” Japanese buyer Michiyo Yoshizaki was one of the few friends the British film industry had.

Now, however, it’s London-based Yoshizaki who needs all the friends she can get, after losing $2 million on her recent producing debut “Guantanamero.”

That movie is a cautionary tale about just how horribly wrong an international co-production can go — particularly an experimental drama about a suspected Muslim terrorist on the run in Cuba, with 17 assorted producers from cultures as divergent as Britain, Spain and Japan.

Exactly what happened remains shrouded in accusation and counter-accusation. All that’s clear is nobody behaved wisely, and everybody lost out.

None more so than Yoshizaki. When coin from U.K. tax financier Park Caledonia failed to materialize just two weeks before shooting started, she mortgaged her house to fill the gap. The chances of her ever seeing that $2 million back are remote.

Relations between Yoshizaki, her crew and her Spanish co-producer soured under the pressure. The movie, directed by Vicente Penarrocha, suffered. It premiered at the Malaga fest in March to mixed reviews and picked up a smattering of sales, but when it will ever be released is another matter.

Yoshizaki remains vengefully bitter about Park Caledonia, whom she accuses of treating her like a “geisha.” But with a hefty debt to pay off, her only way is forward.

Whatever her mistakes, she scarcely deserves her present plight after an influential career stretching back four decades, in which she was a key player opening up the Japanese market to Western auteurs.

A rebellious teen in the 1960s, she fled her conservative homeland in quest for la dolce vita in Rome. She studied under Pier Paolo Pasolini, got a job buying films for Nippon Herald, and then moved to London in the late ’70s, where she launched NDF Intl. in the heyday of Japanese tax financing, backed by a consortium of congloms and distribs.

She had a nose for movies to titillate the tastebuds of Japanese youth. At a time when British cinema was in the doldrums, her coin helped trigger the long upswing in Blighty’s filmmaking fortunes that continues today.

Indeed, she credits herself, only partly in jest, with having brought homosexuality out of the closet back home by importing so many pics about floppy-haired English boys discovering the love that, in Japan at the time, still dared not speak its name.

After so long in Europe, Yoshizaki is culturally impossible to locate. She’s famous for speaking English with an opaque accent. Yet she’s far from the demure Japanese lady she first appears. She’s ballsy, bullish and loves to shock — as producer Marc Samuelson discovered when he pitched his Oscar Wilde biopic, and was cut short with a frank question about the amount of sex he planned to include. Yoshizaki’s taste tends towards boundary-breaking cinema that defies categorization (and often, audiences). She co-financed David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch,” Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat,” Mira Nair’s “Kama Sutra,” Julie Taymor’s “Titus” and finally Wayne Wang’s “Chinese Box” — whose failure terminated her fund in 2004.

Re-inventing herself as a producer, she dreamed up “Guantanamero,” a typically cross-cultural idea about a fugitive from Guantanamo Bay who hides out in Havana. She traveled to Cuba, flirted with Fidel Castro at a party, and declined (she claims) an invitation to his bedroom for “script consultations.”

Now she’s hoping to raise a new fund from her old allies in Japan. Meanwhile, she’s pushing ahead with projects, including Franco Zeffirelli’s historical epic “Florentine,” and “Woman at Point Zero,” another provocative story about an Egyptian prostitute executed for killing her pimp. Her son Ado, British-born with an Italian father, is working alongside her, developing “City of Tiny Lights,” a detective novel about London Asians.

She relies increasingly on Ado, who has a growing reputation around the biz, to keep her in touch. “My taste is getting old. The audience is young, and I can feel a gap between the audience and me,” she admits. “But I can’t compromise. I can’t make films like ‘American Pie.'”

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