Planet Moviewood

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Barriers between East and West fall at the Hong Kong film festival, as Asians make snazzy melodramas in the smart old Hollywood style

A man wakes up in a strange hotel on a Monday, unable to recall what he's done since Saturday night. Awoman in Apartment 6 receives a stash of hot cash that should have been delivered to Apartment 9, because the number on her door has turned upside down. Aguy falls in love with a pretty girl who takes a suicide jump from a bridge; later he meets the girl's exact double-or could it be his drowned darling, who either doesn't remember him or refuses to acknowledge him?

These sound more like Hitchcock thrillers (roughly, Spellbound, The 39 Steps and Vertigo) than selections at the 24th Hong Kong International Film Festival. Aren't Asian art films supposed to be cinematic still-lifes, full of dappled imagery and quiet anguish?And isn't sitting through them meant to be an exquisite ordeal, like watching pain dry? Yet here they all were, these films from Japan, Thailand and mainland China, proceeding briskly, raveling suspensefully, with hardly a lotus leaf or tea ceremony in sight. Like art-house directors before them, from Truffaut to Fassbinder to Tarantino, Asian directors have learned to trust the packed plots and sprung rhythms of the thriller genre. Asian cinema's got a brand new dogma: art is entertainment, and East is West.

The Hong Kong festival, which ended its 16-day bash last Thursday, celebrates cultural collisions and collaborations by presenting films (about 180 this year) from all over. Oscar winners like Topsy-Turvy mingle with favorites shown at Western festivals but new to Hong Kong: Being John Malkovich, The Wind Will Carry Us, No One Writes to the Colonel-lots of good stuff. Oddly, though, the fest is at a disadvantage in showcasing the best local wares. Directors of the most eagerly awaited Chinese-language films withhold their product in hopes that it will be chosen for the higher-profile Cannes Film Festival, which begins next week. Thus new work by China's Jiang Wen (During the War), Taiwan's Edward Yang (AOne and a Two) and Hong Kong's Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love) went unshown here. France will see them first.

So festival programmer Jacob Wong went looking for quality pictures in non-Chinese film industries nearby. East Asia now boasts several vital, rambunctious national cinemas, and the gala provided a synoptic view of the political, artistic and emotional terrain. What did one find? That films are more easily categorized by mood or genre than by country. Today, every director is a citizen of Planet Moviewood.

The traditionally artisticfilms were either agitated studies of youthful angst (like Alex Lai's Blue August, a smart-looking Hong Kong mood piece that borrows Wong Kar-wai's color scheme but lacks the master's narrative zest) or semi-documentaries about marginal lives. A mainland director, Li Jing, won a critics' prize with 2H, a portrait of two Chinese immigrants in Tokyo:a painter seeking to have a baby and an elderly Nationalist general waiting to die (he gets his wish). Ascene in which the general's body is lugged down five flights of stairs, from his apartment to the ground floor, is either a tour de force of soldiering on or an unintended exercise in cinematic futility. We're too nice to say which.

The documentary impulse was in the minority at this year's festival. Most of the notable films boasted dense, quirky stories told as compellingly as possible. It's less a case of art imitating life than-and this has been going on for about a century now-movies imitating movies.

If any cultural inferences were to be drawn from the Korean films, it would be that the kids are pissed off. The country is a class battleground, a petri dish for anarchy, in Kim Song-jin's Attack the Gas Station! Four guys-in socially tilted action movies, it's always four guys-decide to rob a gas station. Why? Just for fun, the film says. And what fun! They charge customers for more gas than is needed, play strip word games and beat up a few hostages. It all ends with the hooligans caught in a crossfire between gangsters and delivery boys. The movie certainly moves: and, sure, we like the gaudy depiction of senseless violence as much as anyone. But can we see a comedy about sadism that isn't on the side of the sadists?

Youthful vengeance, Korean-style, takes a sunnier turn in Kim Jee-won's The Foul King. A bank clerk named Dae-ho (Song Kary-ho) is so bad at his job that his boss singles him out for public humiliation, then fells him with The Headlock of Horror in the loo. For desperate men, dippy measures. Dae-ho plans revenge by trying to learn wrestling, but he's only good enough to become a bad guy in pro matches. Slapdash, and sporadically violent, The Foul King is a one-man show:Song's. With his blithe mugging, his verbal agility and a dollop of charm, he is close to a Korean version of Hong Kong's star farceur Stephen Chow. But Song, for all his exertions, only proves the old adage: wrestling is easy; comedy is hard.

A more somber Korean film, Lee Song-in's The Rush, shows initial promise. Its alienated youth are carefully drawn; they have enough wit or urgency to keep the screen glowing while they earnestly misunderstand each other. (Girl:You're a sophist, aren't you? Guy: What is that, a new kind of condom?) Eventually, though, this hymn to nonconformity turns numbingly conformist as clich� collapses on clich�: the nice kid who goes psycho; the student who rejects his panicky ex-girlfriend because he's cramming for exams; the girl who retorts, I'm pregnant with your baby. It's an unwritten law that every country has to make one of these coming-of-rage films every few years. And each time, the director thinks he's inventing the wheel, when he's really only polishing James Dean's hubcaps.

In movies, emotional dislocation has more buoyancy when it's anchored to a specific place or propelled by a plot that might have come from a James M. Cain novel. Lou Ye's Suzhou River fits this bill. It's a love story set in seedy Shanghai, where gangsters plan to kidnap a rich man's beautiful daughter and the only thing likely to float in the cesspool of a river is a pretty corpse.

If Ileave you some day, the elfin Meimei (Zhou Xun) asks her videographer beau, would you look for me forever? Most of Suzhou River is a flashback, in fine film noir form, about Meimei's lookalike, Moudan, and Mardar (Jin Hongsheng), the fringe criminal who loves her. She may love him only for his motorcycle; drive fast, she says, like Schwarzenegger. But this fast lady is too elusive for poor Mardar. A leap into the Suzhou, and he has lost her-until he sees her again, as a mermaid in a nightclub aquarium show.

She might be Kim Novak in Vertigo; he could be Burt Lancaster in The Killers, a tough guy whom the mob wants to rub out for going soft over a girl. Shot in the grainy, high-contrast fashion of a Wong Kar-wai film (he's everywhere!), Suzhou River has art and heart. It also has a Hollywood-worthy starmaking turn in the work of Zhou Xun (who was the ethereal blind girl in Chen Kaige's 1999 film The Emperor and the Assassin). At the end, the girl vanishes again, leaving a message scrawled on a wall:Find me if you love me. And that, movie fans, is modern romance.

If there were a prize for most cunningly constructed screenplay-or for the film most likely to be remade as a Julia Roberts vehicle-it would go to Thailand's Pen-ek Ratanaruang for 6ixtynin9. A woman named Tum (beguilingly glum Lalita Panyopas, who looks a bit like the young Josephine Siao) is suicidal over having been fired. But before she can swallow that bottle full of lye, Tum finds a box containing 1 million baht left at her apartment door. It's all because the 6 on her door has accidentally swung down to become a 9, the flat where the cash was to be delivered.

Ratanaruang, who studied design at New York City's Pratt Institute, swathes his scenario in pop-art colors; the blood, and there's lots of it, shimmers like Jell-O. More important, he knows the American model of lady-in-distress comedies, and how to ring wicked changes on it. The thug in the closet; the helpful cop with bad timing; the jealous neighbor; the good friend who gets in the way; the gangster weepy because his mother died from a bad manicure (Which salon? Tum asks blandly)-all these characters snuggle into stereotype, then confound expectations. So, in this high-style, deadpan thriller, does our heroine. Death becomes her; as a victim, and then as a killer, she comes to life.

Finally, how about a nightmare plot that doesn't let the hero or the viewer wake up? That's what writer-director Hiroyuki Tanaka, also known as Sabu, has devised in Monday. His hero, Takagi (Shinichi Tsutsumi), is the clueless culprit in the hotel room. Now he recalls attending a funeral. During the ceremony, the dead man's doctor calls to say he forgot to take the pacemaker out of the deceased; if the body is cremated it will explode. There are two wires inside the corpse's chest-would someone please cut the red wire? Takagi volunteers. He opens the chest and finds two red wires. He cuts one. The corpse's eyes open. Blam!

This scene simply revs the motor for the wild ride taken by Takagi as he slowly remembers, or fantasizes, what he has done since Saturday night. Seems he met a respectable gang boss (his business card reads Gang Boss) who let him dance a sexy duet with his moll. The two men struggled over a rifle and the boss died. Takagi killed a couple of henchmen and a punk on the street. Now he's back in the hotel room. Did he dream it all? Takagi turns on the TV and sees a news report on his crime spree. He peers outside; the place is surrounded by cops. Their guns are aimed at his room.

Sabu has pulled cool melodramatic pranks of this sort before (Bullet Runner, Postman Blues), but Monday has the relentless purring energy of a doomsday machine-where paranoia becomes prophecy and a man's worst fears aren't half as lurid as the reality he can tumble into with a single false step. Just like in the movies, from Hollywood, Shanghai, Bangkok or Tokyo, at a festival in Hong Kong.