Chen Kaige looked distinctly uncomfortable on the stage of the Cannes Film Festival's Grand Palais. Not that the tall, handsome filmmaker from Beijing doesn't cut a dashing figure--and a familiar one, since he has attended the world's largest annual convention, in one capacity or another, each of the past four years. But here he was, at the closing-night ceremony, accepting an award for superior technique for the production designer of his film The Emperor and the Assassin. The citation was a minor one, early in the evening, and it indicated that Chen would be a supporting player at the ceremony, as he was in his sumptuous new action epic. Apparently, the bigger awards would go to some of the other notable veterans--David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Takeshi Kitano, Atom Egoyan, Arturo Ripstein, John Sayles, Marco Bellocchio, Raul Ruiz--who had brought films to Cannes. As it turned out, Chen was the only member of this estimable fraternity to take home a prize from the 52nd Cannes fest. The jury, chaired by Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, instead gave the Palme d'Or to Rosetta, the second feature by the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. The Grand Jury (runner-up) prize went to L'Humanité, another second film, by Bruno Dumont of France. The acting awards were split among three non-professionals who starred in the two big prizewinners. Moloch, a Russian-German film about a day in the cloistered lives of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, was deemed to have the best screenplay. Of the world-class directors on hand, only two were acknowledged: Pedro AlmodÓvar for the direction of his heartbreaking screwball melodrama All About My Mother, and Manoel de Oliveira for, more or less, still being alive, functioning and in Cannes at 90.
Rosetta is a fine, ferocious little film about a girl desperate to find and keep a job. L'Humanité is a ludicrous, slogging bore, and its citation by the jury a seeming prank, a stink bomb thrown in the lap of received opinion. And Moloch, like last year's Life Is Beautiful, proves only that the Nazis remain an easy subject for directors who want to tap the audience's lurid fears. Perhaps Cannes should simply give an annual Hitler prize for the laziest evocation of evil in a competing film. It would make as much sense as most of the awards the Cronenberg jury handed out.
But to take the awards as the defining event of the festival would be as silly as fretting about a delightful party because, at the end, the host got drunk and insulted his guests. Cannes '99 was a 12-day Riviera feast of sunny skies, beautiful people and films that, if not of masterpiece quality, proved that the prime art form of the 20th century ain't dead yet as we head toward the 21st. It also provided a showcase for Chinese moviemakers in the competition, the prestige sidebar events and the hectic film market that make Cannes the prettiest crash site for the ongoing collision of cinema art and the entertainment business.
One man who plays both sides is Kitano, called Beat Takeshi at home. When he isn't ornamenting nearly every show on Japanese TV, he is painting, writing books and, lately, serving as writer-director-star of crime movies that, at their best (Violent Cop, Sonatine), have the uninflected concrete poetry of an epitaph on a yakuza's gravestone. In Kikujiro, Kitano takes a vacation from his dour muse; this is a brightly colored slapstick romance between a gruff guy and a nine-year-old searching for the mother he has never met. All right, the whimsy sometimes gets spiked with hemlock: the boy is briefly detained by a child molester who tells him, Take your pants off, and I'll take you to see your mommy. Lurching from surrealism to farce to melodrama to sentiment, Kikujiro shows that there's nothing more bizarre than a samurai cinéaste trying to prove he's a sweetie.
In Japan, Kitano's films are both critical and popular hits. In China, though, filmmakers have yet to find that magic potion. The occasional international production, like Yip Ying's A Time to Remember, stumbles as it tries to reconcile English and Mandarin dialogue and actors from Hong Kong (Leslie Cheung as an ailing communist leader in 1936), the U.S. (Todd Babcock as the doctor who befriends him) and mainland China (Mei Ting, a lovely young star, as Cheung's lover). In the People's Republic, as in most countries, the box office is dominated by Hollywood blockbusters--though the exact tally is hard to gauge since, as Chen says of the local accountants, They hate computers, and so they never know how many tickets are sold.
Chinese filmmakers face other obstacles besides foreign competition. As Chen enumerates them, they are censorship, financial problems and a general lack of imagination. And the wrong role models as well. It is curious that, aside from Chen and actor-auteur Jiang Wen (In the Heat of the Sun), Chinese directors have been little inspired by the bustle and intensity of the best Occidental cinema. Nor do they imitate the richness of period detail in Raise the Red Lantern and other films of Zhang Yimou (who caused a ruckus by withdrawing his two new works from consideration just weeks before the festival began). Instead, most of the serious filmmakers on the mainland and in Taiwan are imitating European art films--those pocket encyclopedias of despair, in which disaffected youth simmer in rage and slouch toward some unearned disaster.
Wang Xiaoshuai's So Close to Paradise is a country-mouse, city-rat parable about two young guys caught in the crossfire of gang warfare in Shanghai. It has a high violence content for a Chinese film, but a dangerously low pulse rate. Another mainland effort, Shi Runjiu's A Beautiful New World (note the subtle irony in these titles), is also about a rural naif: the winner of a bogus prize for a city apartment, who moves in with his auntie and learns her garish new-world ways. The male lead, Jiang Wen's younger brother Jiang Wu, has charm, but the film is so minor as to vanish from memory the moment it's over. In Darkness and Light, directed by Chang Tso-chi, a girl lives with her father, blinded in the car crash that killed his wife, a blind stepmother and a slow-witted young brother. Oh, and her boyfriend dies violently. The unmissable moral: don't be young and poor in Taiwan!
After all this drab art, a moviegoer can savor the dark brio of The Longest Summer, a mordant fable of post-'97 Hong Kong from Fruit Chan, who won last year's Hong Kong Film Critics' prize for his debut, Made in Hong Kong. His follow-up suffers from sprawl and carelessness--Chan is no John Woo--but, man, this movie moves. Two brothers and a triad again, this time with a view as cynical as that of a retired mafioso. A store sells guns of bank-robber quality. The triad boss sneers at the brothers' idea of big money: Two million? That can't buy you a parking space. Rudeness abounds: lots of Chris Patten jokes and cops who cringe at a bomb that turns out to be a watermelon. At the end, a man gets shot through both cheeks; we stare through the gaping double wound. The movie is apocalyptically daft, but at least its characters don't mope around waiting for an early date with Grim Death. Hell, they hit the streets and hunt it down.
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What makes a film a movie? Well, it never hurts to have a beguiling actress. Love Will Tear Us Apart has two mainland charmers: Lu Liping (star of the classic The Blue Kite, here in a sexier role) and luscious novice Wong Ning. Tempting Heart, Sylvia Chang's valentine to the '70s and '80s, has sweet Gigi Leung rubbing up against moody, hunky Takeshi Kaneshiro. In The Personals, director Chen Kuo-fu manages to build an entire, engaging movie around a woman's first (and usually last) meetings with a parade of loser men, but the film would falter without the slow smile of Rene Liu, who illuminates every scene. Each of these films could have been sharper; the actresses could not be more radiant. They prove that the Hong Kong cinema's old knack for sprinkling stardust did not evaporate when Brigitte Lin retired.
And what makes a movie a festival film? Some formal inventiveness, the spark of unpredictable life, an edge of weirdness. You get all that in Away With Words, a first feature by Christopher Doyle, the Australian-born cinematographer of many of the finest Asian films. The film is a gorgeous mess, with Doyle's pixelated superrealist camera style butting heads with--and practically getting knocked out by--a free-form portrait of an alcoholic night crawler (Kevin Sherlock) who screws many more people than he charms. Emotionally exasperating but cinematically rhapsodic, Away With Words is to be seen for Doyle's gift for throwing paint on the celluloid canvas. His visual facility is, in both senses of the word, staggering.
In Cannes, Doyle conceded he'd rather be in bed with someone in Hong Kong than be here. But he was happy to see the Asian film community's unity at Cannes. We went through a period when people cared only if their films were recognized. Now we know we have to stick together, or we'll destroy our credibility, our access and our market. Doyle is putting his metier where his mouth is. He has turned down many offers to work with distinguished Western directors in order to shoot Wong Kar-wai's next two films.
Chen Kaige is another commuter between cultures. The first Chinese director to win a Palme d'Or (in 1993, for Farewell My Concubine), he is also the most cosmopolitan of cinéastes. He plans to direct an English-language film for Miramax (from a script by The Silence of the Lambs' Ted Tally), has discussed working with superstar Mel Gibson and is considering a move from Beijing to Los Angeles. Yet he remains as committed to understanding China as he is to finding a bridge to the West.
The Emperor and the Assassin, considerably revised since its Japanese premiere, is a complex tale that instructs and entertains for much of its 158-minute running time. Set in the 3rd century B.C., it tells of the struggle of Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian) to unify China and become its first emperor. His aims are honorable, his methods increasingly brutal. Ying sends his lover Lady Zhao (Gong Li) to her Han homeland, where she finds a professional killer (Zhang Feng-yi, in a potent turn) who will try to put an end to the emperor's dynasty before it ever begins.
The story's metaphorical plangency and its sympathetic depiction of the killer may not win the film powerful friends as China approaches the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square fracas and the golden jubilee of the People's Republic. The film's immersion in ancient history may also befuddle foreigners. But the message is clear, and it reverberates outside Chen's homeland. Chen thinks his film even has echoes in the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. My film is really about war that starts in the name of peace, he says. History always reflects what is going on today.
The film has a few missteps and longueurs, but for the most part this is glorious moviemaking, mixing De Mille and Dostoyevsky: the cast-of-thousands splendor of an old Hollywood spectacle and the gnarled psychology of Chen's Temptress Moon. It has a host of attractive actors, notably Wang Zhiwen as a smilingly scheming marquis and Gu Yangfei as a queen mother prone to regal hysteria. And there is one scene that haunts the heart: an ethereally beautiful blind girl kills herself after the assassin has eradicated the rest of her family. Few directors can create such indelible imagery; Chen does it in nearly every frame. His film deserves a wide audience, from beyond Cannes to China itself.
With reporting by Jeffrey Ressner/Cannes