At Cannes, Asia's star shines

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One by one they paraded to the stage in the Grand Palais to speak their thanks, usually in English, to the jury and its Asiaphile president, Quentin Tarantino. Maggie Cheung accepted the Best Actress scroll with her usual cool poise, while her director and ex-husband Olivier Assayas squirmed in his seat. The Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul solemnly dedicated his Prix du Jury (third place) for Tropical Malady to his recently deceased father. And so it went. Four of the eight award winners at this year's Cannes Film Festival were from East Asia. By the end of the ceremony the only surprise was that the most eagerly anticipated movie, Wong Kar-wai's 2046, won no prize at all.

The fact that a Hong Kong movie could shock the smart-money people by being shut out proved that Asian film has not simply arrived at the world's largest and most prestigious movie bash; it has conquered. The Asian Invasion of world cinema is complete. Now comes the occupation.

Asia wasn't the only continent that made the 57th session of this world-cinema showcase a successful one. The opening-night film, Bad Education, from Pedro Almodóvar, gave plenty of hints about the movies to come: a film noir thriller with oodles of plot (the festival rediscovered narrative tension this year), an exposé of child abuse (perhaps a dozen films touched upon this sensitive theme), and a demonstration of masterly verve from a veteran director. Almodóvar has for decades been described as the enfant terrible of Spanish cinema. Now he is middle-aged, and terrific.

In years past, for injections of energy, Cannes would have looked to Europe, Latin America and Hollywood (or the off-Hollywood of independent U.S. films). But not to Asia. Throughout the '80s and '90s, everyone knew that movies from Hong Kong, India, Japan, South Korea and Thailand were unmatched for cinematic vigor—everyone, that is, except the tastemakers at Cannes and a few other highfalutin festivals. The Asian films they imprimatured tended to be the pensive sort that wore Art on their embroidered sleeves. It was as if the French wanted only those films that imitated the European Minimalist style rather than those that took Hollywood as their model.

And Asia, for Cannes, often meant what was once called Asia Minor. Iran, with its handsomely spare dramas, folkloric but sophisticated, became the Asian nation of choice, and Abbas Kiarostami the cinematic imam. Kiarostami had two films in Cannes this year: an autobiographical documentary, 10 on Ten, and a Minimalist essay, Five, comprising five shots of a shoreline. No dialogue, no story, but, for the attentive viewer, much visual wit. One shot featured ducks waddling from left to right on the beach for a few minutes; then, suddenly, two ducks seem to change their minds and head back the other way; the rest of the flock, and many more, follow suit. A sweet parable of conformity. But if Kiarostami's movies get any more austere, they'll be wallpaper.

Occasionally, a naive Asian version of a Euro-theme movie gets into the festival—as this year, with Tropical Malady. This gay, but morose, love story begins in Bangkok and then heads for the jungle, where man-beasts and other cinematic metaphors lurk. Few people sat through the whole film; fewer still found much merit in it. Yet it won a prize, apparently at the urging of jury member Tsui Hark.

That story indicates the art-film vs. popular-movie split at Cannes. Tsui Hark is invited to serve on the jury; yet not one of his (or any other Hong Kong maestro's) action movies ever appeared in the competition. Nor did exceptional films by India's Mani Ratnam, Japan's Takashi Miike and Korea's Chang Yoon Hyun. It seems not to have occurred to Cannes that a continent containing nearly half the world's population—and many of its most avid moviegoers—might be producing some movies worth watching, and cheering, at an international film festival.

This year, that changed with a bang. And a slash and an ouch! After a 2003 festival that was widely derided for its turgid batch of competing films, Cannes's chief programmer Thierry Frémaux promised that this year's selection would be less stodgy, more Hollywoody, more fun. That meant two things. First, the jury president had to be from Hollywood. (One insider said Tarantino got the call only after Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep had respectfully declined.) Second, for films that offered serious fun, Frémaux had to look to the East.

Among the Asian movies that competed: Mamoru Oshii's Japanese animé Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Voluptuous futuristic graphics complement an astronomical robot body count. The film was produced by the same company that provided the gorgeously gruesome animé sequence in Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Hong Kong-based director Johnnie To's Breaking News. A melodramatic critique of the media's connivance in glamorizing criminals (it's like a Survivor series with no survivors), the movie boasts a madly complex heist scene, captured in one incredibly fluid five-minute shot.

Park Chan Wook's Old Boy. It took the Grand Prix du Jury, or second prize. (Only Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 finished higher, copping the Palme d'Or.) When Tarantino read out the Old Boy award, he proclaimed that the jury was "delighted" with its choice.

One Cannes regular described Old Boy as a Tarantino movie that Tarantino would be afraid to make. It surely has its quota of Quentinian quirks, including cool bad guys dressed in black, a revenge motif that won't quit, some acts of abuse that would have given de Sade appreciative shivers—and, most important, an expert's joy in expanding and subverting the rules of genre. The gnarled story line, also familiar to fans of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, careers from 1988 (when the main character, Oh Dae Su, is kidnapped and confined without being told what his crime is or how long he will be held) to 2003 (when Oh is released, only to be toyed with by his unknown torturer) and back to 1979 (when Oh and his assailant were schoolboys) for the revelation of many guilty secrets.

That's where Old Boy and the Tarantino oeuvre part company, in the Korean movie's belief that guilt, not vengeance, can be the spur to a man's darkest deeds. The film's big set pieces—the devouring of a live octopus, the tongue removal without benefit of anesthetic, even a bout of lovemaking—are essentially acts of self-mutilation, in a world where Original Sin blots out the sunlight of redemption. That's not a Hollywood precept. What American movie would climax with the hero begging for the villain's mercy and licking his shoes? What U.S. movie star would dare play the part? None. Which is why Choi Min Sik's performance as Oh was not just the most bravura but the bravest on view in Cannes.

Popular Asian films, like their counterparts in North America, have a crucial movie element that is often lost in Cannes's worship of directors: star quality. Choi had already vaulted to celebrity in the Korean blockbusters Shiri and Failan. Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li were bulwarks of Hong Kong cinema, before they decamped to Hollywood. And in India, actors like Amitabh Bachchan are near-deities. (Alas, the delirious seductions of Bollywood musicals still elude the Cannes programmers—no Indian pop musical has been invited to compete for the Palme d'Or in nearly a half-century.)

In Asia, an actor's allure can glamorize art films as well as mainstream fare. China's Zhang Ziyi proved that in her debut movie, The Road Home, directed by her mentor Zhang Yimou, before beguiling the world as the willful young heroine of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. At Cannes this year she was radiant in two fine films: 2046, where she managed to outshine longtime mesmerizers Gong Li and Faye Wong; and Zhang Yimou's own House of Flying Daggers, a follow-up to his martial-arts epic Hero.

Hero was a meditative, superbly color-coded parable of love and death. Daggers is also perfumed by the haunting musk of death, but it's a jauntier piece, shot in luscious autumnal colors and with fabulous stunts supervised by Hong Kong-based action guru Ching Siu-tung. This time, renegade killer femmes do fantastic battle with 9th century cops (Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro) who pursue and fall in love with them. Daggers would be an excellent adventure even without its leading lady. But as the new embodiment of Chinese beauty and resilience, she gives the film a kind of buoyant gravity. Daggers is serious and it soars.

The Cannes jury would have honored itself more than Zhang by giving her the Best Actress prize for 2046 or for Daggers, which was not shown in competition. A source close to the film said the festival brass declared it "too good" to compete. (Who says the French have lost their gift for diplomacy?) Instead, it cited Maggie Cheung, the most intelligently beguiling Chinese actress of the past 15 years.

In Clean she plays the drug-addled wife of a rock star, whose death forces her to take stock and attempt to break her habit in order to win back the custody of her nine-year-old son. Nick Nolte lends sturdy support as the rocker's grieving, generous father, but Cheung—speaking in English, French and Cantonese—carries the movie. The question is whether this meandering, predictable fable of regeneration was a load worth bearing. We say no. At any rate, Cheung won for Clean and not for the film from which her performance was almost completely excised in the final cut—2046.

Cheung, at least, was there to receive her prize. The Best Actor was not. He was back home, in Tokyo, taking exams at his junior high school. At 14, Yuuya Yagira, star of Hirokazu Koreeda's poignant real-life fable Nobody Knows, is the youngest recipient of the award, and he deserved it. He plays the eldest of four children abandoned by their mother and left to survive without a social safety net. They do so with a calm, desperate resourcefulness that implicitly condemns Japan's welfare system and makes it clear that, in this family, the younger generation is by far the more mature.

Yagira, whose face has the smooth, attractive androgyny of an animé hero, behaves on film with a wondrously gentle sense of authority. Yet when he finally got his hands on the Cannes prize last week, he showed that there's still a kid inside him. When asked where the trophy will go, he replied, "Can I take it home?"

He can take it home—as Asian filmmakers could take home the knowledge that they are no longer bit players at the Cannes festival. Now, they're the stars.