Neo Sora, director of “The Chicken,” playing in this year’s Locarno Festival short film competition, and his producer Albert Tholen have shared details on the filmmaker’s upcoming debut feature “Earthquake,” a screenplay participant at Berlinale Talents Tokyo in 2017.
Friends, roommates and collaborators, Sora and Tholen are enjoying the bittersweet distinction of a Locarno Festival world premiere. While thrilled by the honor, there is sadness that they will be participating from thousands of miles away, and separately, Tholen from the two’s apartment in Brooklyn and Sora from Tokyo, where he has been stuck since the COVID-19 breakout slowed international travel.
“Locarno is one of the best festivals out there for curating films that capture the most forward-looking cinema around the world. For us, we could not be happier that we got into Locarno,” said Sora. He also pointed out that after the publication of Locarno’s shorts program, other festivals were quick to get in touch about the film.
“As American filmmakers we are interested in working internationally, and Locarno really is a beacon for international cinema. When we were dreaming about ideal premieres, Locarno was right at the top of the list,” added Tholen.
Taking place on a steamy New York afternoon in November, “The Chicken” turns on Hiro, a young Japanese immigrant living in New York who is visited by a friend from back home. While out, he decides to buy a live chicken to cook for dinner but, after dismissing the severity of a medical emergency in the street which quickly turns serious, Hiro finds himself shaken and unable to slaughter the bird, leaving the duty to his very pregnant partner.
For “Earthquake,” Sora heads back to Japan and a near-future Tokyo awaiting destruction as the city is rocked by a series of foreshocks that predict a larger, more disastrous quake on the horizon. With the anxiety looming over them, a group of teenage best friends and musicians get into typical teenager trouble that tests the strength of their relationships.
Apart from the coming-of-age story leading the “Earthquake” narrative, Sora also wants to take a speculative look toward a future in which migration will lead to greater diversity globally, but particularly in a major city like Tokyo. While casting hasn’t started yet, the idea is and always has been to look across all of Asia for actors, to recruit a diverse cast which will allow the story to explore what racism, nationalism and identity might look like to teenagers in a few years’ time.
“Looking at the elements Neo wanted to play with: Immigration, nationalism, politics and a looming natural disaster, Japan ended up being the perfect cross-section of these things,” Tholen explained of the film’s eventual shooting destination.
Several drafts in, the script is shaping up following its Berlinale Talents Tokyo participation in 2017. Now, with a working budget in place to finish development, Tholen and Sora are courting co-producers in Japan with an eye on starting production.
“We are looking for a production partner that will understand an American indie style of filmmaking,” said Sora. “I am thinking about bringing key crew members from the U.S. to Japan, and the Japanese style is very different. We need to look for partners that want to try new things.”
According to Tholen, the film’s primary audience is likely to be adult, indie cinema fans, “but we wanted to make a movie that teens can engage with too. That’s important to us.”
“Looking back on my own viewing habits as a teenager, I don’t think a movie like this will go over anybody’s head. And I think it’s important for young people to engage with challenging movies,” he added. “Not that this is super challenging material, but I think we can strike a balance.”
“There is a very strong music element in the film and we are looking to get well-known electronic musicians on the project, which I feel will be part of the way we will draw attention of younger audiences as well,” Sora elaborated.
A coming-of-age film seems the perfect bait to get younger audiences on the hook, but that’s not necessarily the case in Japan, where many teenagers are indifferent to the cinema-going experience. However, Sora and Tholen are confident that by telling a politically motivated story focusing on issues facing teenagers today they will find their audience.
“One thing that has been remarkable to watch is the political activation of older teens in recent years,” noted Tholen. “If you look at the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S., so many people participating are 17 or 18. That’s amazing and it gives me hope that a movie like this with political themes is something teenagers will want to engage with.”