The region's movies come of age at the Cannes festival, with four big awards-and, in Ang Lee's martial-arts fantasy, one peerless triumph
By RICHARD CORLISS
Just for fun, they should call it the Scandal Film Festival. Each May, Cannes brews enough brouhaha to keep 40,000 movie professionals coming back for more. Last year the festival jury gave the Best Actress prize to two novices and the back of its palm to half a dozen top directors who had submitted strong films.
This time the big laurels Best Picture and Best Actress went to an English-language musical, Dancer in the Dark, written and directed by Lars Von Trier, the melancholy Dane, and starring Icelandic pop star Björk. Half the audience thought it was the best-ever song-and-dance movie about a half-blind factory worker who wants to be Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. The other (sensible) half didn't. Much glowering ensued between the combatant sides. But that's one of the darling things about Cannes: film lovers are ready to declare war over movies most people will never care about, or even hear about.
At the 53rd International Film Festival, there were also a few we won't call them scandals controversies about the Asian films. This was the year Asia was finally to be fully recognized at Cannes, with seven of the 23 films in competition for the Palme d'Or coming from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Iran. The continent's moviemakers did not disappoint: they took a disproportionate share of the prizes handed out by French director Luc Besson and his jury. Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep (China) won the runner-up Grand Prix. Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards (Iran) shared the third-place Jury Prize; at 20, she is the youngest director ever to win a prize at Cannes. Edward Yang was named Best Director for A One and a Two (Taiwan); and Tony Leung Chiu-wai received the Best Actor citation for In the Mood for Love (Hong Kong). Eureka, from Japan, earned the top film critics' award.
A handsome showing, to be sure. Yet the film that, by common consent, scored the one unmistakable triumph at Cannes was not eligible for any jury award. Gilles Jacob, the festival's program director, did not select Ang Lee's made-in-China martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as one of the 23 films in competition. A resonant fantasy of young love fulfilled and mature love deferred, with some astonishingly buoyant combat scenes, the movie was perhaps a little too enjoyable for Jacob to consider it art. Lee defended the film with his usual diplomacy: I think the movie has a lot of artistic value, but it's also entertaining. Then he smiled. Maybe it's not in competition because it kicked ass.
Jiang Wen, mainland China's top actor and most vigorous director, is an ass-kicker from way back. Solid, defiantly outspoken, an enemy of tact, he doesn't court controversy; it buzzes around him like flies at a honey pot. So he is as unlikely to accede to political demands for changes in his bold black comedy as he is to cut a second of its 2 hr. 42 min. running time. No matter that the political wariness came from both the Chinese censor board and some potential Japanese investors; no matter that Jiang's own mother told him the movie was too long. I'm not making the film for anybody but myself,he says. That's not arrogance speaking. Only a director in love with his own work can make a film others will like.
Devils on the Doorstep is set at the end of World War II in a Chinese village occupied by the Japanese army. One night, a villager (the director plays the lead role) hears a knock on his door. Who's there? Me! The Me, who never identifies himself, orders the villager to take care of two bags for a few days. Inside the bags are a Japanese officer and his Chinese translator. The village council interrogates the officer: Have you killed Chinese men? Raped Chinese women? Yes! the officer expectorates. That's what I came to China for! But the translator, afraid that he will be killed along with his fellow captive, softens every oath into a compliment. The vilest curse becomes Happy New Year, brother-in-law! Then why does the officer shout with such fury? Japanese always sound the same, the translator explains, whether they're happy or angry.
Perhaps the antagonists wouldn't understand each other even if the translations were accurate, so different are their cultures. The villagers see their occupiers as barbarians; the Japanese see the Chinese as craven. That's the Chinese way of thinking, a Japanese says. Miserable life is better than honorable death. In this brutal demonstration of man's stupidity to man, all life is miserable; no death is honorable. The defenseless (an old man, a woman, a boy)will be killed for instruction or sport. And the film will explode from black-and-white into carnal color only when the last ordinary man has paid for the crime of being in the wrong place (earth)at the wrong time.
It is not a stretch to see the film which is too long but also quite powerful, a document written in human blood as Jiang's own battle for survival in the cultural crossfire. Japanese producers were afraid the film would upset the country's right wing. So they presented suggestions to me, he says. At the same time, I got a letter from the Chinese Film Bureau. Eighty percent of their objections were the same as the suggestions from the Japanese producers. Don't let Japanese soldiers kill people; Chinese people shouldn't be so dumb; Japanese soldiers shouldn't be kept as prisoners. If I followed these suggestions, I couldn't make the movie!''
The director concedes that he grew up with his own ethnic stereotypes: As a child I'd see foreign films and think all their eyes were so deep I just found them horrible-looking. But now he has to fight the stereotyping imposed by censors. The biggest problem today for filmmakers in China is that there are no strict, apparent guidelines. One can only guess. This game is a black comedy in and of itself. It's like the peasants in my movie: only imagining things, not being able to know for sure. Ishould call my next movie Guess. Jiang's films are shouts; Yang's are whispers. In A One and a Two he portrays a Taiwanese family tiptoeing individually and together to the precipice of crisis. NJ(Wu Nienjen) is a businessman whose company needs a new-media fix from a Japanese swami (the marvelous Issey Ogata). NJ's wife Nin-nin (Elaine Jin) seeks emotional solace in a Buddhist retreat. The other members of the family have their own picturesque problems, which Yang paints in a style closer to that of Japanese masters of the contemplative like Yasujiro Ozu than to that of the burlier Hong Kong and mainland films. At 2 hr. 52 min., A One and a Two contains a few too many scenes of silent staring into the middle distance, but they have a cumulative impact. Yang is like the family's young son who takes pictures of the backs of people's heads. You couldn't see it,he says, so I showed you. Yang takes pictures of the pain in people's souls.
Unlike his fellow countryman Ang Lee, Yang has stayed home, making films in the small, stricken Taiwanese art-house mode. He's in the very advanced American system,Yang says. I work in a handicraft industry. I feel fortunate to make films in Taiwan, because I get the challenge of doing everything myself. In Hollywood, I'd just be given the script and do the directing.
Most of the other Asian films are handicrafts, including Im Kwon-teak's pageant-like Chunhyang, a colorful retelling of a Korean fable in the ponsori song style. But whatever size the film, it gets the big Cannes treatment, like mandatory tuxedos for the main performance. Says Im, There's a convoy of official cars, a lot of photo calls-and the whole red-carpet ceremony. Psychologically, it's a very pressure-filled custom. But once I walked onto the red carpet, I was happy I wore the tuxedo. It seemed a sign of showing respect for the work we did.
Japan got no respect from the jury, though it brought Taboo, the first film in 15 years by perpetual renegade Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses), and Shinji Aoyama's Eureka, which many thought was the finest film in competition. Three people-a man (Koji Yakusho, star of Shall We Dance?) and two children-survive a serial killer's attack on a bus. The experience leaves the children mute. To help them, the man takes them on a long trip. How long? Eureka runs, or ambles, 3 hr. 37 min.; we're in Gone With the Wind territory here. But Aoyama has a facility with images and a gift for minimalist drama that makes this a searing journey. One could see the film and shout, Eureka!
There are no murders, but many little deaths of the spirit, in Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, a gorgeous showcase for the pensive glamour of Hong Kong's Maggie Cheung. She's a married woman who befriends a neighbor (Tony Leung). Soon they realize that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Should they follow suit? They start spending time together, trying to hide their forlorn, at first innocent friendship from nosy neighbors. Set mostly in 1962, the film depicts an old-fashioned, middle-class romance-all that delicious guilt without any messy ecstasy- spiced with the tension of furtiveness. This bereaved couple's only sin is that they are keeping their not-quite affair a secret. Do they ever consummate their love? The director says yes; you'll decide for yourself.
The film could be called For the Love of Mood, so attentive is it to the details of setting and costume, of feelings unspoken and, perhaps, love unfulfilled. The director of Chungking Express and Happy Together has put aside his celebrated cinematic and emotional pyrotechnics to portray a world of propriety and repression. Here, the important things are those withheld: information from the audience (we never see the faces of the cheating spouses), passionate release from the characters. Yet there is all the drama anyone could ask for in
Leung's sad, sensitive eyes, and in the solitude of chic misery as Cheung walks in slow motion toward her empty room.
There's motion aplenty, very little of it slow, in the high-flying Crouching Tiger. Also emotion, in the generational struggle between a pair of warriors (veteran enchanters Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-fat) and a girl-woman (Zhang Ziyi) with suspiciously superior kung fu skills. The first battle, with Yeoh chasing Zhang up walls and over roofs, spurred spontaneous applause at the critics' screening and the evening's performance-the movie is that kind of pleasure-giving experience. There are fights on the tops of bamboo trees (a tribute to King Hu's seminal film A Touch of Zen), a rapturous tryst for Zhang in the Gobi Desert (with hunky Chang Chen as a sort of Lawrence of East Asia) and a death scene to die for. And all in two hours flat.
Based on a series of novels published in the 1920s, this martial-arts marvel embraced all the best traits of Cannes. It had red-carpet glamour in its cast-we're convinced Michelle Yeoh is the world's most beautiful movie star-and a star-is-made performance by Zhang. Like A One and a Two it shows bright young people rebelling against their elders. It describes two poignant romances:one (as in Chunhyang) of young lovers battling a hostile world to be together; the other (like In the Mood for Love) of a mature couple in mourning for a love they acknowledged too late.
But it is daft to compare Lee's soaring spectacle with other pictures; this one was in a class by itself. Crouching Tiger was not only the best film at Cannes, it was the only real movie.
Reported by Jeffrey Ressner/Cannes