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Cannes 2000 - Part One: Asian pot-pourri in Cannes
ASIAN curry spiced up Cannes this summer (May 2000). An overwhelming number of movies from the continent flooded the Mediterranean shores of the French Riviera, turning the annual May International Film Festival into an Asian jamboree.
Even the jury, headed by a very French director, Luc Besson, found itself overpowered by the spicy tang of Asia's powerful cinematic idioms. Four of the top honours went to this cinema, and that included the Grand Prize and the Special Jury Award.
It was nothing short of sensation when Samira Makhmalbaf (indeed the daughter of the great auteur, Mohsen Makhmalbaf), 20-year-old Iranian girl, smuggled her second feature, "Blackboards" across the borders into the prestigious Cannes' Competition to win a hearty pat from the jurors.
The youngest ever to compete in the history of this Festival, Samira may have made mistakes when crafting life in war-torn Kurdistan, located between Iran and Iraq. But the story of refugees living virtually on landmines and breathing the toxic fumes unleashed by chemical weapons is not just provocative, but moving and melodious. A certain repetitiousness and some flaws do not take away its powerful message, which Samira writes on the blackboards a few teachers carry around, hoping to educate not just the young, involved in the dangerous game of smuggling drugs, but the old and the infirm as well.
Through almost surreal images, Samira draws the viewer to a frightening climax. But in the end, what remains etched in one's memory is the incident of an old man asking a teacher to read the letter which he has received from his son, who is in a Iraqi prison. The teacher cannot, because it is in Arabic, but he does, nonetheless, make up what he thinks the son might have written to his aged father.
Another work that was as gripping was Im Kwon Taek's "Chunhyang" from Korea. The 13th tale of love and passion between a courtesan's daughter and the son of a nobleman unfolds on a stage; a solo singer and a drummer narrate the sequences in a perfect blend of colour and movement.
Seventeen-year-old Chunhyang (played by 16-year-old Yi Hyo Jeong) falls in love, but is separated from her man when he has to go away to Seoul. In his absence, a government official demands sexual favours from her, who refuses claiming fidelity to her lover.The consequences are predictable, but picturised with remarkable restraint. One critic described it as an artistic and cultural triumph.
"Chunhyang" was the first ever Korean film in Cannes Competition, and Taek, with 90 films to his credit, was severely criticised by the Press at home for the nude scenes. But they were tame by Western standards, and tastefully shot, as was the entire movie itself whose vibrancy struck me.
Wong Kar-wai's modern-day parable, "In the Mood for Love" (Taiwan), stands in contrast to Taek's period piece. Set in 1962 Hong Kong, it is about marital infidelity and is stated in muted tones. A newspaper editor, played by Tony Leung (who was adjudged the Best Actor), moves into a new flat with his wife and finds himself attracted to his neighbour's mate. Wong has this amazing ability to twist his plot most unexpectedly, but despite the language of the movie, English, its stylistic interpretations of human behaviour often appear confusing.
Love seemed Asia's favourite theme, Japan's Nagisa Oshima also captures it on his canvas, but this time it is between Samurai warriors. Certainly, "Taboo".
The maker says that "I have spent all my life breaking taboos". His first effort, "A Town of Love and Hope" (1959) sketches the tender relationship of a poor pigeon vendor with a young girl from the middle class, and ends on a note of shocking brutality.
"Taboo" happens in the spring of 1865, and deals with homosexuality among the country's traditional fighters, and Oshima, who has always kindled controversy with his intriguing subjects of politics and sex, fills up "Taboo" with scenes never seen before: men making love under the sheets, a geisha talking about the disappointing performance of one unwilling for heterosexual pleasure and so on.
The narrative is straight, till about the last reel when a Samurai is ordered to kill his longtime lover, and the imagery turns from realism to the ghostly. Yet, Oshima steers clear of the bizarre, even injects humour. Takeshi Kitano (remember his "Hana B" and "Kiku's Summer" that he directed ?) as the captain provides relief to otherwise grim proceedings.
We had another entry from Japan, "Eureka" by Aoyama Shinji. It reminds one of Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter" and Peter Weir's "Fearless" which examine guilt and trauma in the aftermath of a tragedy. Shinji probes these further in his film that is nearly four hours long, that is in black and white and that is told with little fuss and no drama. But the study of three victims of a violent bus hijack in the south-west of the country one hot summer morning is so intense that a viewer can find himself psychologically drained, even devastated.
The three people - the driver, a schoolgirl and her elder brother - find life taking peculiar turns after the incident. The driver vanishes from the town, but returns to live with the children, who had by then been orphaned. A new storm strikes when several young women in the area are murdered, and Shinji holds audience attention through deliberate and slow movements, often shot with a single camera. Does this convey a sense of listlessness? It does, and quite effectively, but probably an hour could have been edited out of "Eureka". Next time, he better put this job on to somebody else.
Another odyssey was Jiang Wen's "Devils on the Doorstep". From China, it offers the portrait of a tiny village occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War. There is excitement when two prisoners are dumped by a mysterious figure on an innocent farmer, who is told at gunpoint to interrogate them.
Shot in a series of close-ups that necessarily makes it character-driven with a fine script and some excellent ideas, the film, however, fails to say what it intended to: something about ignorance and instilled prejudices. Clearly, wit and tension get diluted in the bargain, and "Devils on the Doorstep" wears down one quickly. The two-and-a-half hours of black and white starkness becomes a little too much to take. Yet, Wen won the Grand Prize - which is one short of the Golden Palm - for this.
Also irritatingly long, but which again found favour with the jury, was Edward Yang's "A One and A Two". Yang won laurels for Best Direction.
The story hardly has enough meat to carry it along for nearly three hours. Talking about the plight of a Taiwanese family as it faces a dilemma when an elderly member suffers a stroke, the picture attempts a multi-layered narrative. The man of the house runs into a lover he lost contact with three decades ago. His daughter is envious of her neighbour's flourishing love life. Yang's attempt at pulling these people together with the health crisis as the focal point has interesting possibilities, but somewhere the helmer falters, and his work struggles to rise above the mundane.
No such problem with Ang Lee's first Chinese language celluloid piece, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". The director who made "Eat Drink Man Woman", "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm", now gets into a frame of mind that is far removed from all these. "The film is a kind of dream of China, a China that probably never existed, except in my boyhood fantasies in Taiwan. Of course, my childhood imagination was mainly fired by the martial arts movies. That these two kinds of dreaming should come together now, in a movie I was able to make in China, is a happy irony for me," says Lee.
The tale revolves around two sisters, one who chooses a life of crime and the other who falls in love with a bandit. That their destinies will lead to a climatic showdown is apparent from the word go. Yet, the costumes, the decor and the scenery itself make pleasant viewing, as does the lengthy shots of combat, which is surreal and stupendous.
Undoubtedly, exciting, even melodramatic, and that was quite a turnabout for Lee, otherwise known for his sombre shades, as it was for Cannes itself that went ga ga over Asia.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated June 4 2000)
(This story continues in Cannes 200O - Part Two, on June 11 2000)
Cannes 2000 - Part Two: The gems of Cannes
CANNES zoomed into the new age without its traditional hang-ups. For years, it had remained fascinated with American cinema. If it were not the big studios, then it were the independents who worked outside the Hollywood system. In this mad scramble to seduce glamour into visiting its shores, the annual International Film Festival at the French Riviera had to, often, overlook movies from other continents. Although, Europe managed to elbow itself onto the Cannes bandwagon with at least a token presence, Africa and Asia invariably found themselves out.
This May, Cannes caught the Asian fever all right - which I spoke about last week - but Europe came a close second, with America following. In fact, the mighty studios from across the Atlantic were absent, and with them the big stars. Some resented this, arguing that famous actors and actresses lent colour to a festival. Maybe, but sheer good cinema - which Hollywood seldom makes - that Europe (and Asia, of course) contributed this summer gave divine joy. Cannes was certainly enriched by this.
One of the gems of the Cannes 2000 was Liv Ullmann's "Faithless". Scripted by Ingmar Bergman himself, this movie directed by the onetime wife of the great Swedish master, who now lives the life of a recluse on a Baltic Sea island, Ullmann proved that she was a good pupil.
The story is simple. We see an aging writer who lets his imagination wander, to settle on a beautiful actress (played splendidly by Lena Endre). We then watch her telling the man about herself. Married to a renowned orchestra conductor, she begins a sexual affair with her husband's best friend, a film director. How this brings about grief has been narrated with brilliant finesse.
"Faithless" is not just powerful, but moving and unforgettable. Shot in the flashback form, with absolutely no confusion, Ullmann's creation can well be a novel on celluloid.
Perhaps, that was its undoing: it went unsung at Cannes, and The Guardian's respected critic, Derek Malcolm, said that "it was a disgrace that 'Faithless' was not honoured at all".
What was, was Lars Von Trier's ,"Dancer in the Dark" from Denmark. By no means as good as his previous Cannes entry, "Breaking the Waves", his latest attempt at copying the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s (his lead actress and renowned pop singer, Bjork, who clinched the Best Actress Award, compared this movie to the all-time classic, "The Sound of Music") was awfully disappointing. Bland at the best of times, and overacted at the worst (including Catherine Deneuve), "Dancer in the Dark" does not quite rise from the beat of the drums and the tap of the toes. Choreographed rather unimaginatively and edited thoughtlessly (sometimes the dancing feet, sometimes the arms get scissored out of the frame), "Dancer in the Dark" walked away with Cannes' crowing glory, Golden Palm for the Best Celluloid Work.
Was Luc Besson and his jury swayed by the sob story? I would never know. It is a tale of a Czech immigrant in an American factory who is going blind because of a hereditary disease. She saves up money for an operation that will save her son from the same illness. In a series of contrived turns, the mother becomes a murderer and has to pay a supreme price to see her ambition fulfilled. Some would call it romantic, I would add fatalism to it, and Von Trier never tires of being buried in the dark and the depressive world.
In contrast, Amos Kollek's "Fast Food, Fast Women" is a wonderful piece of art that cheers you up. On the face of it, it is a delightful comedy about old people looking for love. Beyond that, it narrates the life of a waitress, who, at 35, is wondering whether she ought to carry on with a married man. In comes a cabbie with children that his wife has dumped on him and left, and when he meets the waitress, initially on a note of deceit and falsehood, a strange chemistry develops between them.
Not just entertaining, but laced with sweet optimism, particularly when Kollek picturises his elderly characters, "Fast Food, Fast Women", sent audiences out with a smile on their lips and a spring under their soles.
Ken Loach's "Bread and Roses" rings positive as well. Essentially tracing a confrontation between poor Latin American immigrant janitors and powerful office-block owners in Los Angeles, Loach introduces an element of love and passion between a Mexican woman and an American lawyer, who tells her people to fight not just for bread, but also for roses.
Disliked by a section at Cannes - which termed this Loach work minor compared to his earlier "My Name is Joe", "Raining Stones" and "Ladybird, Ladybird" - "Bread and Roses" captures in essence the mythical David and Goliath encounter, with a camera that does not rise above the eye level and with a lighting that is natural and soothing. To me, it was a film that endeared.
Another that I would always fondly remember was James Ivory's "The Golden Bowl". Based on the last novel of Henry James, and adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, this movie, like most others that have come from the Merchant-Ivory Productions, is strong on the narrative. Uma Thurman and Jeremy Northam play adulterous lovers. Northam is an impoverished Italian prince who marries Kate Beckinsale for money. Thurman weds Kate's millionaire father, Nick Nolte, to be close to her one-time lover.
Pleasingly paced, except for the closing sequence when Ivory appears to be on a fast-forward mode, "The Golden Bowl", set in the first years of the last century, is explicitly lucid and is picturised with a certain sweet grandeur. The one black dot is Thurman, who seems ill at ease playing a role of this kind.
Arnaud Desplechin also adapts from the fiction of an English writer, Arthur Symons, to give us "Esther Kahn". Creating something in the English language for the first time, this French helmer talks about Esther, (the daughter of Jewish immigrants living in the 19th Century East End of London) and her transformation after her experiences on stage. But one was a trifle disappointed at having learnt very little about the theatre of those days, and even Desplechin's characterisation leaves a lot to be desired.
Dominik Moll's French entry, "Harry, He is Here to Help", has no such drawbacks. Here the characters leave a deep imprint. A twisted black comedy, with some questions that were not convincingly addressed by the director, this film focusses on a husband-wife-three daughters' vacation, where Harry, claiming to be an old classmate of the man, intrudes. It does not take us long to realise that beneath the helpful and suave Harry lurks a psychopath. This work may be morbid, even macabre at times, but keeps the viewer at the edge of his seat.
Will Michael Haneke do something similar? I thought he would, given his string of psychological studies, each dealing with ruptured minds. His 1997 "Funny Games", also at Cannes, drove many out of the auditorium with its weird tale of a pair of killers who descend on a holiday villa, where a family is driven to an emotional breakdown before the murders are actually committed.
Happily, Haneke's latest, "Code Unknown" with Juliette Binoche, is a pleasant canvas of assorted people, who meet one another as they go about their routine lives in Paris. We have a young actress, we have her war photographer boyfriend, we have his younger brother, we have a beggar from Romania and so on who go on to make "Code Unknown" a refreshingly new kind of viewing. It gripped me all right with its lightheartedness and swift turn of events.
There were three more hard to forget Cannes entries. Hugh Hudson travels to Africa, seeks the help of environmentalist-writer, Kuki Gallmann and films her own story - "I Dreamed of Africa" - which begins on the canals of Venice and ends in Kenya. Thirsting for adventure and freedom from all that she has known, she marries dare-devil playboy and goes into Africa, and finds, at the cost of formidable suffering and tragedy, that life there is not the fairy tale existence she had presumed. Hudson's star Kim Bassinger as Kuki was not always in great form, but the movie had a certain warmth that allowed it to stay afloat, even sail with resilience.
Cannes did have its share of disappointments. To me the greatest was Roland Joffe's opening film, "Vatel", which opened the Festival. Gerard Depardieu is Master Vatel, who, despite his accented English, plays an excellent, understated, subtle steward to a bankrupt French Prince, who invites the entire court of Louis XIV for a sumptuous three-day celebrations hoping that the King would help him. Despite some high points, "Vatel" is all noise and glitz, but little else, which comes as a slight blow from Joffe, the director who gave us "Killings Fields" and "City of Joy".
The closing shot was no great shakes either. Denys Arcand's "Stardom" follows super model Tina (Jessica Pare) as she is catapulted from her ordinary hockey playing existence in Canada as an international celebrity, when nothing in her life remains secret or sacred. "Stardom" seemed like a minor irritation in a Festival that was otherwise enthralling.
(This story appeared in the Hindu dated June 11 2000)
(Part One of this story appeared in The Hindu dated June 4 2000: Asian pot-pourri...)