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Copyright 2004




Deauville Asian Film Festival 2004: Entertaining


Deauville is a quaint little French town, actually a twin town along with Trouville, in Normandy on the Atlantic coast that tries to shake off its rather long, and cold winter by hosting an Asian film festival every March.

This year was the sixth edition of a comparatively young festival (March 10 to 14 2004).

One might just about wonder what has Asia got to do with Deauville. I could just about harbour a couple of guesses: Asian cinema has, of late, been in the limelight. I would not know whether the reason is right: Western movies, including the big Hollywood banners, and even those from Europe somehow appear to have hit a low spot with their dark, pessimistic, bordering on cynicism, themes and characters.

Asian pictures, on the other hand, despite their obsession with American celluloid works and their exaggerated, often comic and even stupid approaches, have somehow been able to retain the flavour of the original idea and meaning behind this moving medium: entertainment. And, Asian films continue giving their ticket paying masses precisely that with their colour, their songs and dances and their bright characterisations and story lines.

My other guess is that the French have always been artistically inclined towards good and varied cinema. It is perhaps only in Paris that one can hope to catch a rare Indian arthouse movie or the creation of some relatively unknown African director. I have,in the course of my travels in France over the past 12 or 13 years, seen a Ray or a Ghatak picture playing in a regular commercial theatre in the French capital.

And, well, Deauville has somehow taken this cue and has been hosting this Asian Festival.

This year, the five-day event opened with a South Korean work by Kim Ki-Duk: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...And Spring". It basically elaborates the Buddhist doctrine of retribution and regret through a tale set in a monastery. An old monk there is the point of focus and narrative, which in a sometimes linear, sometimes non-linear way talks about him and his ward, actually a child when the film opens.

Slick production values, almost to a flawless picture postcard dimension, make Duk's effort seem suspiciously close to a desire to catch the eye of not just Western audiences, but also festival organisers. In a cycle that follows a man's growth from childhood to adulthood and old age, "Spring, Summer....." tries capturing the inner conflict of monkhood, the natural pulls of sex and lust that invariably lead to possessiveness, jealousy, hatred, revenge and violence.

The movie scores in those scenes which underline man's tendency to control another life, to bully the weak and find sadistic pleasure in tormenting someone less fortunate and in the pain that causes in the other creature. As, for example, when the child monk ties a stone to a fish or to a frog or to a snake and watches each one of them struggle or die. Here a viewer grapples with the enormity, nay complexity, of human existence: these are well conceptualised and shot grippingly.

A Japanese entry in Competition by the cult director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, "Doppleganger" is a rerun of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, done quite amateurishly. It begins like a spooky thriller and ends like a tale of vengeance and vendetta with Koji Yakusho doubling himself as the good and the bad, till about the time when the two identities blur beyond recognition perhaps pointing to the fact that each one of us have a bit of both.

The Chinese Competition entry, "Green Tea" by Zhang Yuan has a similar streak. Here we have the protagonist loving someone because he imagines her to be someone he fancies and hallucinates about. Ask a psychologist, and he would tell you how common this trait is among people.

Bhutan too presented a work in Competition, Khyentse Norbu's "Travellers and Magicians", a typically road film which captures the dilemma of a young civil servant as he battles between an aspiration to escape to the land of opportunities and staying back in Bhutan, with its timelessness and a life of leisure.

Norbuweaves two stories together, one of a novice magician who dreams of finding a pretty mate, and the other of a traveller who gets "waylaid" by a local beauty, a meeting that appears to take the sheen off his American dream. Although Norbu has the advantage of an ethereal setting in Bhutan, a tiny kingdom that lies sandwiched between two huge powers, China and India, and his pace just right, the link between the two men often seems tenuous, as does their goals. While one wants to get out of his village to find a pretty girl, the other is driven by a motive far removed from this, though,admittedly, the escaping civil servant is impeded by a chance meeting with a local belle.

The lead actor, Tshewang Dendup, portrays the main character's inner conflict with imagination and restraint, and I could literally feel him slowing down on the high mountain road as he hitchhikes towards Thimpu, towards America.

India presented Manish Jha's "Matrubhoomi: A Nation without Women".Ludivine Sagnier, the French actress on the Deauvillejury, wanted to know if what Jha said about female infanticide was true. Does such a thing still happen in India, she asked me as we walked along the beach front towards her hotel.

Much as I hated it, I had to admit that female infanticide was a reality, though not on the scale to destroy every girl and push the community towards a womenless state, as Jha conveys. Of course, it is fiction and futuristic.

However, it is Jha's first feature and is extraordinarily powerful for that. It is in many aspects a perfect film that borrows from the Indian epic "Mahabharata" to unfold a story of six men, four brothers and their widowed father, who marry one bewitchingly pretty girl only to treat here like a beast.

With images that shock one, Jha tries to sound a note of warning to the Indian society, already suffering from an uneven sex ratio of 900-odd females to 1000 males.Some of the scenes are awfully brutal, and could perhaps have been excised or moderated. I do not think the picture would have suffered in the least.

On the other hand, Thailand's "Last Life in The Universe" by Pen-ek Ratanaruang is a subdued piece of celluloid that treats a budding relationship between a thai girl and a Japanese immigrant with sensitivity. There is no sex, merely sentiment, and the work haunts you long after the final sequence has been narrated.

On the whole, the selection at Deauville may not have been astounding, but it still managed to leave a strong impression even with a hardcore critic like me.

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