Conventional wisdom runs like this: you go to Berlin to sell the film you've finished and you go to Rotterdam to finance the one you are about to make. Like much conventional wisdom, this statement contains more than a grain of truth but fails to tell the whole story.
Berlin's European Film Market, produced by veteran Beki Probst, receives a lot of attention: it is very well-attended by distributors and (especially) tv buyers looking for small, relatively inexpensive pick-ups before they shell out big bucks for "erotic thrillers" at the AFM in Los Angeles a few weeks later; Rotterdam's Cinemart is equally well-attended by superfunds, tv investment people and distributors looking for pre-buys on the cheap.
But both of these festivals are not just markets. A film gets much more attention if it is actually part of an official section. But, in Europe, where and in what official section a film plays can have serious consequences for the media exposure and type of sale a film receives. This should be extremely important to young filmmakers, particularly those wary of critical labeling and narrowcasted audiences. After all, a European launch is not about a visit to the Brandenburg Gate; it is the moment when film and filmmaker get defined by the world's most influential art-film opinion makers.
The relative significance of various events and their sections is, obviously, a fluid thing, subject to changing fortunes, effective scouting and the quality of new films available. Such calculations have become more difficult still due to a kind of "class warfare" currently being fought between a few upstart medium-sized festivals, including Rotterdam, and the legendary "Big Three" (Berlin, Venice and Cannes).
One of the battlegrounds for this fight is the American independent scene. Teams of Berlin and Rotterdam programmers swooped into Toronto and the IFFM last fall, trumping each other's invitations at every turn. Rarely have low-budget American films been so aggressively courted. But, paradoxically, these two festivals also picked up far fewer Sundance titles than ever before, making their U.S. selections seem a little like also-rans. (There are a number of explanations for this. Many filmmakers certainly have a Sundance-or-bust production schedule now that blinds them to the outside world. But many invitees also remain convinced that their film will be invited to Cannes on the basis of its selection in Sundance. This is wrong and dangerous: Cannes, in all of its sections, never invites more than four or five American independents and only two or three of those normally premiere at Sundance. This number will only get smaller as Cannes becomes jealous of Sundance's increasingly important international position.)
The 25th International Rotterdam Film Festival certainly suffered from this fight. A new insistence by Berlin on premieres in every section cut out a swath of the Festival's normal programming, particularly the films they traditionally shared with the Berlin Forum. This was a sad state of affairs for Director Emil Fallaux, in his last year heading the Festival. Fallaux has been a champion of envelope-pushing American indies for his five-year tenure; he has invited challenging films and has positioned them elegantly for his local audiences. His is a curatorial influence that will be missed.
Rotterdam is the economic heart of The Netherlands, a massive Europort with numbingly sterile architecture - the place was carpet bombed at the end of World War II - and an easy-going egalitarian atmosphere. The festival is known for programming the most challenging new international films for an incredibly sophisticated public; these people brave blizzards to see that "hot" new experimental short from Moldavia. The festival also features wonderful retrospectives - this year a tribute to "Pink Porn" director Kumashiro Tatsumi, a complete recreation of the very first Rotterdam Festival and a multimedia event called "Exploding Cinema" - and generally very good projection. (Although Jennifer Montgomery's Art for Teachers of Children was the guinea pig from hell for one venue's 16mm machines.)
The major innovation of Fallaux's directorship, resisted by some who felt it compromised the non-competitive nature of the event, was the creation of the Tiger Awards, a special competitive section for young (or young-thinking), innovative filmmakers. Three equal grand prizes are awarded in the spirit of Festival "equality."
Representing the United States in the awards was Eve Annenberg's sweet Lower East Side comedy, Dogs: The Rise and Fall of an All Girl Bookie Joint. Annenberg had nothing but positive words for the Festival: "It has been a fantastic experience. We were shocked to find out that Dogs was the only American film in the Tigers. It was a huge honor and the media coverage has been wonderful." Annenberg's film, the story of a group of funky gals who go into the illegal gaming business, went on to generate a great deal of interest in the Berlin Market on the basis of a strong Rotterdam outing.
Alas, Annenberg did not win. The Tigers were awarded to Gillies MacKinnon's tough, beautifully acted remembrance of gang warfare in 1960s Glasgow, Small Faces, Zhang Yuan's (Beijing Bastards) latest toxic report from the underbelly of Chinese society, Sons, and Japanese director Hashiguchi Ryosuke's Like Grains of Sand. This latter film, perhaps the true discovery of the winter festivals, also won the FIPRESCI critics' prize. It is an astonishingly moving and exquisitely detailed portrait of teenage desire; its climax, a kiss between two boys, could well be the most romantic movement in recent cinema.
The Audience Award, with obligatory voting by every audience member, went to Angel Baby, Michael Rymer's much traveled autopsy of a clinically psychotic couple.
Other important discoveries included Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas' lyrical black-and-white thriller, Foreign Land from Brazil; and a hard-hitting Egyptian comedy about three unmarried women trying to find true love, Life...My Passion which shows that Jane Austen's influence extends farther than we think.
Housed in perhaps the single ugliest building of post-war Europe, the legendary Berlin International Film Festival is the second largest gathering of film professionals after Cannes. Once a monolith, the conduit for the great Eastern European cinema of the '60s and the radical fringe of the '70s, the festival has suffered in recent years. Reunification has made the city whole, but, according to many, it has also compromised the city's edge; from an island of decadence and East-West tension to just another European megalopolis.
Last year's festival underlined this trend. A festival so lackluster that even its director, Moritz de Hadelin referred to it as a "disaster," a giant seemed primed for a fall. But to the credit of de Hadelin and the other section programmers - Wieland Speck for the Panorama and Ulrich Gregor of the Forum - they redoubled their efforts and authoritatively shut out prior European premieres for a whole range of films. It was bloody, but the Festival seems to have benefited. The European media, calling for de Hadelin's head through 1995, was praising him this year.
Reality check. De Hadelin's "success" was based not on a particularly strong slate of Competition films or intelligent organizational changes to a horrifyingly bureaucratic event; it was his ability to convince the studios to give him the Christmas Oscar contenders and deliver stars. Of course, the European media is happy; they can bank all their work here for the succession of pre-Cannes big releases in Europe. But what of the other films?
Disappointing new work from Hungarian Ildiko Szabo (Bitches; she made cult hit Child Murders in 1993); Taiwanese Edward Yang (Mahjong; his Confucian Confusion was a Cannes entry last year) and Korean Park Kwang-su (A Single Spark; To the Starry Island was a Festival hit two years ago) made one despair for the state of the current cinema; however, not very good films from good directors are better than...
The simply bad, such as Dani Levy's masturbation fantasy, Silent Night and the execrable Australian mess What I Have Written, which raised questions of taste and judgment.
The Golden Bear went to Sense and Sensibility, Ang Lee's second Berlin win, after The Wedding Banquet came to international attention here a few years ago. It seems unlikely that Sense needs the push.
The Silver Bear was awarded to Bo Widerberg's All Things Fair, an earth-toned autobiographical remembrance of a boy's affair with his teacher. While much of the film was well-liked - particularly the light-hearted first half, before the teacher becomes a psychotic stalker - many of us found it simply dull, dated and dumb.
The director's prize was shared by Richard Loncraine for Richard III - an odd choice considering the film is entirely Ian McKellan's - and Yim Ho (The Day the Sun Turned Cold) for The Sun Has Ears. Very well-liked (but not seen by this critic), Yim's story of a young peasant woman's awakening to the political hardships of 1920s' China will certainly be seen on the festival through 1996.
Best actress went to Bertrand Blier's eternal muse, Anouk Grinberg in his Mon Homme - this one is especially baffling; her mewing whore routine is now, let's see, about 20 years out-of-date. Best actor was Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking.
Apart from the Competition, Berlin has two other main sections for new films: Panorama is an offshoot of the Competition, with much of the programming done by de Hadelin's staff. It is a real grab bag every year, with lots of clunkers and a few gems. (Tokyo Decadence came out of this section a few years ago). It is also well-known as an important site for new gay and lesbian cinema to premiere.
The Forum for Young Cinema is an oppositional program, cooperative with the festival administration but steadfastly independent in its programming selections. It tends to pick more daring work - like gay serial-killer movie Frisk this year - and attracts a hipper, more traditionally Berlin crowd.
Panorama hits included Serbian policier Premeditated Murder, rumored for a U.S. remake pickup, Bruce LaBruce's Hustler White, featuring Tony Ward as a hustler in an (early) Felliniesque L.A. frolic and Greta Schiller's thoughtful documentary on the American women in 1920s' Paris, Paris Was a Women. But the buzz was all about the French. Didier Le Pecheurs Des nouvelles du bon dieu, Pierre Salvadori's Les apprentis and Cedric Klapisch's Chacun cherche son chat, provided refreshing, buyer-friendly youth-lite cinema.
Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express sequel Fallen Angels and Todd Verow's Frisk were the big debates of the Forum, splitting audiences down the middle. Tellingly these films were picked up in the fall Festivals in North America and sat on until Berlin. So too with about a dozen other prominent Forum titles.
For the intellectuals, Oleg Kowalow's strange journey in Sergei Eisenstein: Autobiography proved provocative if scattered fodder.
The Berlin Market yielded few surprises this year. Megabuzz only attached itself to one film, the U.K. Channel Four's gay-teen love story, Beautiful Thing, featuring the usual dynamite ensemble British cast and a fun soundtrack. American independents in the market are give a big push by two umbrella organizations, one run by the New York Foundation for the Arts, the other by International Media Resources, but as quality is suspect - they feature few films from Berlin, Rotterdam or Sundance - the little gems these organizations unearth can often be passed over.
As usual, the best cinema of either Rotterdam or Berlin or anywhere else on the planet was to be found in the legendary Berlin retrospectives. This year they featured William Wyler and Elia Kazan, with spectacular new prints, a great screening venue and a beautiful poster. Perhaps this is why the Berlin Festival often seems somewhat underwhelming - you know truly great cinema is just down the road.
The first couple of days I spent at Sundance, all the L.A.-types wanted to talk about was the death of producer Don Simpson. Just a day before the festival had begun, the man behind Top Gun, Flashdance, and numerous other '80s blockbusters, was found dead in his bathroom. Although Simpson could hardly be considered a Sundance figure, talk would shift from the few titles which generated buzz early in the festival - like Dan Ireland's period romance Whole Wide World and Nicole Holofcener's engaging relationship comedy Walking and Talking - to wistful remembrances of wildly decadent Simpson soirees of years past. Clearly the increase this year of romantic comedies and other PG-13 type material wasn't doing it for everybody.
Indeed, cognitive dissonance was the name of the game at Sundance this year. While some have been urging the festival to scale down its scope - issue fewer passes and take the festival back to the more intimate gathering place it was ten years ago - the world of independent film is simply too woolly a place right now for that to happen. With more and more films competing for slots and hungry acquisition execs needing the blessing of Sundance to go for "execution-dependent" small titles, it seems unlikely that the festival will return to the relaxed vibe of earlier years. Still, the general consensus was that if Sundance is going to continue on the kingmaker path, it should at least acquire better screening facilities. A number of this year's screenings were hobbled by broken projectors, bad sound, and, in one case, no chairs in the auditorium
Susan Streitfeld's Female Perversions, with its riveting central performance by Tilda Swinton and strong supporting work by Karen Sillas, was hardly the disaster many claimed. The story of a neurotic female San Francisco D.A., adapted from a psychoanalytic study of female perversity, the film, at times genuinely nutty but always fun to watch, at least had the courage of its convictions. The filmmaking seemed plugged into the same obsessions as Swinton's character. When Paulina Porzikova, playing a rival attorney, came under Swinton's withering glare, her close-ups seemed to go soft. The Warshawski brother's Bound could have used some of Female Perversions' eccentric bravado. Although it boasted lesbian sex activist Susie Bright as a "technical consultant," its intriguing attempt to blend lesbianism with neo-noir conventions got bogged down in formula plot turns. Another unsuccessful "artsploitation" pic was Francis von Sterneck's God's Lonely Man - an inexplicable remake of Taxi Driver (with a scene from Paul Schrader's Hardcore thrown in). Although the film went so far as to cast a would-be De Niro lookalike (who actually resembled Peter Coyote), it failed to make clear the point of revisiting Scorsese's psychic terrain in such a slavish manner.
Much better were Holofcener's film, a deftly directed audience-pleaser which found unexpected emotional resonance in a series of small-scale encounters; prize-winner Welcome to the Dollhouse; I Shot Andy Warhol; American Job; and many of the docs, including When We Were Kings and Troublesome Creek. Still, the increase in selections this year meant, for the first time, that a huge number of films seemed to fall entirely by the wayside. It didn't seem to matter whether a film was in Competition or not, but at the start of the fest a number of titles attracted the buzz while others attracted little debate, pro or con. Sundance this year added a new American Spectrum as a sort of grab-bag of additional titles. Several films, including John Walsh's genial romantic comedy Ed's Next Move, sold out of the Spectrum despite grumbling by producers that the two screenings accorded Spectrum films - as opposed to four for Competition titles - made selling the films that much more difficult. - Scott Macaulay
As good as festival hits Welcome to the Dollhouse and the equally high-profile I Shot Andy Warhol and Walking and Talking were, six weeks post-Sundance finds me still thinking about another handful that flew below the critical radar. I was captivated by Richard Lewis' raw turn as a man in freefall in Peter Cohn's Drunks, a double-edged study on the seductive nature of twelve-step alliances. Alexander Payne never struck a wrong note in Precious (also called Meet Ruth Stoops), a black comedy about abortion activists with a similarly ironic sensibility as Dollhouse and Laura Dern in her best performance yet. Also at home in this vein was Lisa Krueger's assured debut about kids set adrift and forging ahead on their own, Manny and Lo, in which a wise child guides her needier teenage sister towards truth and trust. Then there was Bandwagon, John Schultz' sharply observed rock-and-roll comedy about a North Carolina garage act on the way up, pure souffle but absolutely delightful. Big Night's focus on brothers partnered in a failing restaurant rivalled Eat Drink Man Woman for the most mouth-watering meal-preparation scenes in recent memory. - Mary Glucksman
In addition to the American Spectrum, the festival also inaugurated the Frontier section which was devoted to more experimental feature films, and while some people lamented the sense of marginalization, it was a pleasure to find more cutting edge work at the festival. James Bennings' Deseret traces a history of Utah via articles culled from old issues of the New York Times. These are read over images of Utah, each of which runs for a set time. The result is a steady layering of politics, conflict and history over a seemingly empty and stark space. Nina Menkes' The Bloody Child is a simultaneously brooding and visceral meditation on the murder of a woman by her Marin husband. Menkes continues her hallmark critique of patriarchal violence, as well as her collaboration with her sister, Tinka Menkes, who plays a Marine in charge of the arrest of the suspect. Based on a true incident, the film offers a sense of the psychic reverberations of the bloody murder. Also in the section was Michael Benson's Predictions of Fire, a riveting documentary about art, politics and ideology in Eastern Europe. Selected for the Panorama in Berlin, the film will open at New York's Film Forum through Artistic License in October. - Holly Willis
Picture yourself with a newly completed first feature under your belt. You've lived with your film for years; now it's time for feedback. Who will look at your work, and what will they see? It's also time for payback. You need a distributor, buyers. A sales rep points you to Mannheim. The festival flies you and your producer to Germany and puts you both up for a week while your film is screened in competition no less than four times, twice in Mannheim and twice in Heidelberg. What will you have gained?
The International Film Festival of Mannheim-Heidelberg is as highly respected as it is long-standing. For 44 years it has built a reputation as a no-glitz fest that gets high on dialogue. Its erudite director, Dr. Michael Kötz, and his committed colleagues are on a singular mission: to put the word out on new and independent film artists.
In stalwart, no-nonsense Mannheim stands the brightly bannered Stadthaus, the hub of the festival. There at the city's center is the hall-turned-theater with adjacent press boxes, video monitors, and foyer-cafes where the "industry" wheels and deals, but not with names and faces, hits and stars.
A half-hour shuttle ride down the Neckar lies picturesque Heidelberg. A curious "Kinozelt" (film tent) rises up from the cobblestones of this old university city where the climate is young with vivacious, cinema-savvy students, in many ways an American filmmaker's best audience. It's one place where a director can count on a no-holds-barred reception, which is at the same time a highly articulate one, from a lay public. What used to be the Mannheim Film Week has expanded its turf and fattened its pocketbook in ways that count for the filmmaker - services, outreach, and financial support. Last year when Kötz extended the terrain of his fest to Heidelberg, he doubled not only the number of venues (and the audience, by 50%), but also the budget. With its significant program enlargement, this year's fest featured U.S. indies in three sections: in the Competition, where three out of 27 were American entries; in the "Independent Life" section with the Cassavetes retrospective; and in a special segment, "U.S. Independents," showcasing eight new talents. Although he is proudly steeped in the Euro-vision that "business does not come before art in author's cinema," Kötz has come to see distribution and sales as key concerns for indies. This season he initiated a "market service," delegating two specialists to guide some 30 buyers through the fest. Kötz himself aggressively interfaces between filmmakers and German tv buyers, for example, drawing on his experience as an art filmmaker for ZDF and on his reputation as critic, scholar, and consultant. Referrals are on his agenda, and he is flanked by four equally sharp cronies on his selection committee who are active in every corner of the media industry. To put money behind their words, the fest management offers a grant of DM20,000 to the distributor who ensures the theatrical release in Germany of one of the fest's prize-winning features.
An astute indie benefits differently from the twin cities of the festival. Whereas the hoots and hollers of Heidelberg's audience may spill over into a "prosting" session with the filmmakers, drawing in distributors and buyers who are there to conduct their litmus tests, Mannheim's more sober pros (critics, directors, producers, and programmers) nod gently as the lights come up. They save their "spiel" for the daily Midnight Talks, where the fest's artists and cine-specialists sit on panels facing their peers with both structured commentary and spontaneous debate. A session on American indie cinema went on for three hours as New Yorker Peter Hall (Delinquent) opposed USC grads Samer Daboul and Trevor Sands (Finding Interest) by upholding the Mannheimer stance of "authorean cinema" - the artist's individual and creative expression, over what was labeled the more American concept of "independent cinema" - the economic leverage Daboul and Sands would relinquish to Hollywood.
"There's no way my film wasn't discussed here," glowed Peter Hall, who'd signed a distribution deal the day he left for Germany and simply wanted to give Delinquent a good launch in the "U.S. Independents" side program. "I was in the newspapers daily, on Russian and German tv, and I was solicited by a Greek programmer. The staff here goes without sleep. They have a great heart and work incredibly well with each other. I've shown my movie to another culture, made business breakthroughs, and found inspiration, camaraderie, and an exchange of art."
Hall will help director Takaaki Watanabe market his Alice Sanctuary in the West. The film won the fest's award from the FIPRESCI jury, one of the biggest international organizations of critics. Alice Sanctuary is a stunning and psychologically adept visual poem about a teenager whose unconditional love both breeds and resists violence in others.
American Neil Abramson found his invitation to Mannheim at the Berlin Market. "You can't get more recognition at a smaller festival," he claims. Not only was Without Air, his first feature, screened six times in Mannheim and Heidelberg, after which he was approached by distributors from two different countries in two days, but he returned to Los Angeles with a DM10,000 award as the "Most Promising Newcomer" at the festival. His bluesy, edgy portrait of a woman whose only emotional sustenance is her singing kicked up the kind of self-dialogue in the spectator that the festival pursues with a vengeance. Evoking Janis Joplin in its casting, performance, "Down-on-Me" mise en scene and subjective camera style, the film often provoked, depressed, and even irritated viewers.
"Mannheim has always been a festival of directors - for them to gain the experience of presenting and discussing their work," maintains Dr. Kötz. It's exactly this commitment that initiated Toronto's Michael Bockner into the festival circuit with his handsomely mounted Johnny Shortwave, about a guerrilla radio commentator who jams government signals. A didactic dystopia of the future that is now, but even more so a meditation on our relation to the charismatic voice, Bockner's film, perhaps more than any at the festival, highlighted the power of dialogue. "My film's actually about the people who travel through Johnny's world - how they affect him and how he affects them," claims the director. "I really enjoyed this festival because there's very little pretension here. There's an equality among all the filmmakers, and between the filmmakers and the audience, so you can talk to anyone, and you should."
To arrive at Waikiki is to arrive at cinema. Planted with palm trees and exotic flowers that sway lush and plastic against the facades of the stucco hotels, the bustling walkways and parking ramps feel as unreal as the cinematic simulacrum-cities of Southern California. And the streets feed in and out of the hotel lobbies and shopping centers as smoothly as if they were designed for the long tracking shots of film cities like the Soho of Absolute Beginners or (given the preponderance of Japanese among the tourists) the Edo of Shakaru. Then at night, as electric storms crack the sky like carbon arcs over the thong of beach, the hundred and one thousand hotel rooms become stacks of peep shows, each with a honeymoon drama glimpsed as fragments of shadow-play behind the curtains.
This interpenetration of cinema and tourism makes Hawaii the perfect location for an international film festival, especially one as good as this. Inevitably, the 110 films, brought in from 26 countries with an emphasis on the Pacific basin, provided a variety of spectacles; but no less remarkable were the similarities among them. All the features-at least the ones I was able to see - developed around three core underlying concerns, which I take as providing a morphology of the postmodern art film.
First, there is an emphasis on local places, on distinct cultures and geographies, richly rendered in the mode of tourist photography, with poverty and backwardness de-emphasized or prettified. Second, there's a return to a period in the past when signs of modernization indicate the imminent dissolution of the idealized community, and so provide the basis for a generalized nostalgia. And third, the interpolation of other mediums create the spaces of reflexiveness that references to Hollywood supplied to the post-war European art cinemas. The present moment finds film as a clearing house, the power of its images capable of incorporating and marshaling both earlier mediums - the novel, still photography, and, most important for all Asian cinemas, previous theatrical forms - and those that have succeeded to some of its functions: television especially, but also cellular phones, faxes, and so on. As the environment becomes more totally mediated, the kind of comprehensive representation to which film has historically aspired increasingly becomes the representation of our interaction with media apparatuses. But in this representation, cinema tends to conceal itself and the economic arrangements subtending its production.
Makoto Shina's Naran is a high-end version of this general model. Lavishly photographed in remotest Mongolia, its boy-meets-horse coming of age story is set in achingly beautiful meadows and mountains, punctuated with extended vignettes of local animal life. But the nomad community is shadowed by illustrated books from Hong Kong, a Toshiba radio, and eventually a wind generator that powers a single electric light bulb, illuminating the yurt's interior in new tones. And in the nearest township a television brings in MTV to supplement the primitive comedies still playing at the local movie theater. Against these cultural incursions, it is a given that the local griot's songs of earlier horsemen heroes, which are recreated as cinema and intercut with the main film to picture the boy's motivation, will not survive much longer than the short summer of his youth.
In Mani Ratnam's Bombay, controversial in India but already an international hit, the modernization is ideological. A Hindu boy's love for a Muslim girl leads them both to leave their village and elope to the city to marry. Their story unwinds between the comedy of their respective parents' anger and the tragedy of the religious riots of the early 1900s; but through it all are dazzling extended dance and music sequences that successfully parlay traditional styles through the languages of music videos. Another more contemporary version of the model is Hu Xueyang's Drowning, a welcome respite from the relentless anti-communism that has made recent PRC cinema so popular with western audiences; instead of attacking the cultural revolution, this attacks the capitalization of human relations in the new economic zones, where money buys everything and everyone is someone's whore. Again, with rich irony, music videos supply the intertext, but in this case they are a means of smuggling back in premodern values: clips for pop songs shot in the countryside that the protagonists have left for success in the city propose idyllic young love independent of the cash nexus, while in real life all relationships are bought and sold.
Given the ubiquity of the anxiety in the international unconscious that produces the most basic paradigm, it's all but inevitable that the best films are those that manipulate it with the most sophistication, and the less interesting those that simply cash in on its immediate pleasures. Kazuyoshi Okuyama's The Mystery of Rampo and Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Good Men, Good Women instance the first, with Park Chong-won's Eternal Empire and Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad the latter. Eternal Empire looks to be part of a general project of the new Korean cinema to use the international recognition gained by Im Kwon-taek's period films as the basis for a spectacularization of history parallel to the Japanese success with samurai legends. Set in the 19th century when Korea's long isolation was ending, it is a palace intrigue, the tale of a struggle between a progressive king and his reactionary bureaucrats over the interpretation of a secret document and the Book of Odes. But the thematic implications demand extended allegorical transpositions that are swamped by the brilliance of its costumes, the architectural reconstructions, and similar elements in its luxurious mise en scene.
Like Rampo, the two Chinese films are set in the '30s and their different uses for this, the period when the political forces of East Asia were crucially reconfigured, neatly bracket the stakes in the contemporary art film. Zhang Yimou, who, along with Chen Kaige, was essentially discovered for the international market at previous Hawaii festivals, is arguably the most successful postmodern auteur outside Hollywood, a fact that the festival recognized in giving him its highest honor, its Vision in Film Award, and mounting a retrospective of his films. When his work is seen as a whole, the conditions of his success are obvious enough: take a historical melodrama that will let foreigners visit the exotic Orient but make it be both sufficiently portentous to allow western critics to read it as an anti-communist allegory of Chinese politics, and elliptical enough not to bother the Chinese censors; and put at its center Gong Li, the thinking man's sex symbol and a Monica Vitti for the '90s. Add scintillating photography and you've got Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern.
Not all his films follow this formula, and his work his most interesting when he abandons the formula and asks more of Gong Li than to be there to be seen. But mostly his oeuvre has offered easy pleasures, and (except for the shadow puppets in To Live) he has not tried to add depth by incorporating intertexts as has Chen Kaige. Shanghai Triad, his most obvious (and obviously commercial) attempt at a Hollywood genre film, is a gangster flick set in the 1930s seen through the eyes of a young boy. We do get to look at Gong Li decked out in the costumes of the boss gangster's moll. But this time out, she shakes her booty self-reflexively: as a nightclub chorine in a frilly tutu, she sings songs about being looked at!
Good Man, Good Women takes a similar hand, but plays it a different way. A weave of two distinct stories, its gangsters are in the present and its '30s are overtly political. One plotline concerns a group of Taiwanese students who go to the mainland to help in the struggle against the Japanese invaders; back in Taiwan after the war, they create a leftist cell that falls foul of the Koumindang authorities when they attempt to circulate a reading of the mainlander's occupation in specifically class terms. The other concerns a young woman who had previously been a bargirl with a gangster lover but is now an actress playing a leading role in a movie that is being made about the first story. Sometimes the connections between her various roles are obscure and my single viewing left me suspecting that the film is unnecessarily complex; indeed, most of the general conversation about it I overheard bemoaned its difficulty. But in its attempt to understand the alienation of contemporary Taiwan historically, it is the most ambitious, sophisticated, and ultimately powerful film I've seen, well, since City of Sadness. It won the "Golden Maile" as the festival's best feature - and deservedly so.