Far East in South of France

Asian films project a powerful presence at Cannes festival

Film: Cannes

May 23, 2004|By A.O. Scott | A.O. Scott,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CANNES, France - It has become something of a journalistic cliche to preface any mention of Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 with the words long awaited.

Four years have passed since his In the Mood for Love, with its elliptical story and fabulous clothes, set the critics swooning at the 53rd Cannes International Film Festival (and won its dapper male lead, Tony Leung, the award for best actor). Wong's new film was expected at the Cannes festival last spring, and then in Venice the following summer. It was not ready for either of those events. At this year's just completed 57th Cannes festival, where catalogs listed 2046 among the competitive entries, audiences again had to wait a bit longer than anticipated.

It was announced on Tuesday that the press screening of the elusive picture would be delayed. Why? Some people impishly suggested that the director, who has been known to reshoot and recut his films until the last possible minute (and beyond), was still on location or in an editing room somewhere. A joke making the rounds in the cafes and hotel bars suggested that Wong was working out a deal with festival organizers whereby his next movie would be given the Palme d'Or in 2007 and shown in 2008. Or perhaps the title of 2046 referred to its projected completion date.

Ultimately, the film was screened, and what we witnessed was, well, a Wong Kar-Wai movie, full of lush, melancholy sensuality and swathed in light as lustrous and supple as the Shantung dresses all of the actresses seem to wear. The title, by the way, refers both to a hotel room in Hong Kong in the late 1960s and a high-speed train racing through the future.

Whether or not 2046 would take the Palme (announced yesterday), its scene-stealing provided a fitting climax to this year's festival. The dominant personalities - Michael Moore and Quentin Tarantino - may have been American, but Asia was the continent most heavily represented in competition, with six of the 19 entries. In addition to 2046, from Hong Kong, there were two each from South Korea and Japan and one from Thailand.

The other programs were also full of Asian films, ranging from the quiet, well-received Passages by the first-time Chinese director Yao Chang to the lavish, crowd-pleasing House of Flying Daggers by the eminent Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou. There were, among other offerings, a smattering of Hong Kong action spectacles, a science-fiction anime feature from Japan (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, in the main competition) and a Korean War picture (Sword in the Moon, in Un Certain Regard).

You could extend the theme of Asian dominance by noting that by virtue of Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Tarantino, the president of the jury, might qualify as an Asian filmmaker himself. (Through his enthusiastic advocacy of Japanese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong movies, he is certainly as responsible as anyone for turning the eyes of American audiences eastward. He may do the same for the Cannes jury.) After a day in the screening rooms, you could wander out of the Palais and be forgiven for thinking that the Mediterranean Sea was really the Pacific Ocean.

This is not the first time that Asian films have had a significant presence in Cannes: 2000 was the year not only of In the Mood for Love but also of Yi Yi, Chunhyang, Eureka and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Recently this festival has become one of the premier Western showcases of Asian cinema, a development that reflects both the tastes of the programmers and the state of global film culture.

What Europe was 30 years ago, Asia is today: a continent with at least a half-dozen artistically and commercially thriving national cinemas producing work in a dizzying variety of styles and genres, from challenging festival fare to populist blockbusters. Their influence is felt around the world, in the high-flying martial-arts wire work that has lately become a Hollywood cliche and, more interestingly, in the delicate urban anomie (a specialty of Wong's) that permeates Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.

At the moment, the biggest boom may be happening in South Korea, one of the few countries outside the United States where domestic productions dominate the box office. One of last year's biggest local hits, Park Chan-Wook's Old Boy, an ultra-violent revenge noir, is in competition here. Alongside it is Hong Sangsoo's Woman Is the Future of Man, a low-key, sexually frank study in disconnection.

Their presence in Cannes is further evidence that both large-scale commercial filmmaking and art-house cinema are thriving in Korea. But this situation creates some tensions and anxieties. Over lunch on a terrace at the Grand Hotel, Hong noted that actors, prodded by a new breed of managers and agents, are increasingly drawn to high-profile, potentially lucrative projects. He worried that his country's rapidly expanding film production might marginalize less splashy work.

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