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Southeast Asian films step into the spotlight on the French Riviera at the world's most prestigious film festival

Published: 20/05/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Outlook

Journalists come to Cannes Film Festival to watch the masters spar. Even when times are tough, when the economic blues have finally made inroads into the global film industry, the annual pageant of artistic movies continues on the French Riviera with unperturbed pomp. Life, of course, is more important than cinema, only that sometimes it's through cinema that we come to understand why life is so important.

Or so we hope. After halfway, the 62nd edition of the world's most influential cinefest, which runs from May 13 to 24, hasn't yielded a stupendous gem, and the astronomical expectation that the elite Competition line-up, where 20 films from mostly respected film-makers face off, would produce a spectacular battle has only partly materialised.

There have been solid, beautiful, and competent titles, but critics and industry professionals seem to be waiting for something that would lift them off their feet, something that would follow them into their dreams, or nightmares.

Nevertheless it has been an rich year for films from Southeast Asia.

The region's representative in the Competition is Kinatay (or "To butcher" in Tagalog) from Filipino maverick Brillante Mendoza. The mild-mannered Mendoza became the first director from the archipelago to have back-to-back films in the coveted Competition, a rare feat, after he walked the red carpet in 2008 with Serbis (which was released in Bangkok). Moving away from the raw sensuality of the previous film, Mendoza gives us a sinister, sinewy thriller that, like most of his earlier movies, slowly expands into a critique of the social ills of his country.

Kinatay is based on a real case of a brutal abduction and dismemberment of a prostitute by a gang of policemen.

The story takes place in a single night, and the horror of the incident is relayed through the eyes of a young cadet. Here, Mendoza may not have achieved the wondrous elasticity of Serbis, a film set in a porn cinema, but Kinatay leaves a bitter taste in the mouth from its unblinking depiction of corrupt officials, a Southeast Asian phenomenon if nothing else. It's fair to assume that the film won't win Cannes's top prize, the Palme d'Or, but at least this is a documentation of an incident that smacks of contemporary urgency.

Filipino directors are on a roll actually. Beside Mendoza and Kinatay, there are two more films from the Philippines in the Official Selection: Independencia by Raya Martin and Manila, by Adolfo Alix Jr and Raya Martin. Both movies, made by the young, under-30 directors, concern the search for the identity of the nation, an investigation into national history that resonates into the present.

Independencia takes place during the 20th century war between the islanders and the invading US forces, while Manila is a riff on two classic Filipino films and an acidic ode to the capital of this nation.

"In the Philippines, the story of cinema parallels the one of the colonial situation," says Raya Martin. "Formally Independencia mimics the aesthetics of studio films during the US occupation, whereas the story focuses on the resistance during the same period." The result, as seen here, is ingenuous, evocative, a sepia folk tale of family bliss amidst war and misery.

The strong presence of the Filipinos in Cannes signifies a few things: This is a country mired in economic and political troubles, a country whose film industry enjoys little government support and has no official booth in Cannes (Thailand has two, from the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Commerce). These Manila boys blaze their paths through persistence and intellect - their aesthetics are steeped in the tropical heat and chaotic past of their homeland, and it's not presumptuous to say that they will be around in the art film scene for a long while.

Thailand also has a movie in the sidebar Un Certain Regard section: A supernatural love story Nang Mai by Pen-ek Ratanaruang. The film, a lean drama about marriage and guilt, is being shown today, overlapping with a Singaporean movie, Here, by visual artist/film-maker Ho Tzu Nyen. Here, shown in the parallel Directors' Fortnight section, tells the tale of a man who checks himself into a mental hospital after the death of his wife, where he's subjected to an experimental treatment - the film, though it's not clear to what extent, more than likely contains footage of the anti-Thaksin street protest in Bangkok in 2006.

Still in Southeast Asia: Malaysian director Chris Chong has a movie called Karaoke in the Directors' Fortnight programme. The film, a studied, pensive anecdotes about the life of palm plantation workers in rural Malaysia, was shot by a Thai cinematographer and cut by a Thai editor in Bangkok.

What's quite certain however, is that Karaoke - as well as other Southeast Asian titles mentioned above - won't secure a theatrical release in our city, a pity, since there are many cultural opportunities if the countries in the region work more closely, especially when Asean cinema has proved to enjoy a healthier status than the Asean economy (or Asean summit, that is).


Asian films in general have gathered mixed reception so far at Cannes.

The film that has divided critics the most is probably Park Chan-wook's vampire misadventure Thirst, in the Competition no less, which features madcap sex and plenty of haemoglobin-splashed violence.

The story of a Catholic priest who turns into a lusty vampire is, at best, an exercise in stylised horror and a derivative of a Dracula-like doomed-love tale, while its potential controversy (a friar having sex in his soutaine!) is quickly subdued by the film's cartoonish tone. Anyhow, this is a movie that stands a good chance of getting a release in Thailand.

If vampirism is a new sickness, a Japanese film in Un Certain Regard paints a menagerie of social maladies that probably have no cure. Air Doll, by Hirokazu Kore-eda, offers a philosophical metaphor on the emptiness of modern existence through the story of a sex doll that finds a heart and comes to life. Kore-eda strives, and partially succeeds, to look at the real human condition by way of this fantastical plot. If a sex doll has nothing but air, then what's inside a human being?

Five years ago Kore-eda made a near-masterpiece called Nobody Knows, which became a sleeper hit when it was shown for over two months at one cinema in Bangkok. The Japanese director has delicate, compassionate touch, and in Air Doll, once again he manages to ask big questions by means of a small, thin premise.

Another Asian film-maker isn't concerned himself too much with deep analysis; he goes for a bang, a big bang. Hong Kong maverick Johhnie To, well-known for over a decade among Thai movie-goers, scores a Competition slot with Vengeance, an operatic revenge saga that thrives on theatrical set pieces and starring, to the excitement of the French press, Gallic rock star Johnny Hallyday.

In the 1960s, avant-garde French film-makers went crazy over the US film noir genre - half a century later they have the hots for lurid gangster tales from the Far East, seeing in them a primal joy of cinema as a visceral experience. Vengeance, in which a French trendy granddad goes on a shooting rampage in Macau and Hong Kong after his grandchildren were brutally murdered by the local triad, is one such specimen, a modern Western in which the cowboys wear black suits and dark glasses instead of checkered shirts and fedoras. It is likely that Vengeance will find its way to Bangkok cinemas some time later in the year.

It must be said that none of the Asian titles so far has generated a critical buzz, or a cult following. A French prison drama The Prophet by Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, released in Bangkok two years back), remains the top favourite at mid-festival; its probe into the underbelly of convicted French-Muslims gives it a stark urgency. Meanwhile UK social-realist master Ken Loach surprises everybody with a feel-good drama Looking for Eric, in which a struggling father and Man United fan receives advice on life from footballer Eric Cantona, who appears in the film. Another solid offering so far is Bright Star, Jane Campion's take on poet John Keats' tragic love affair. Campion won the Palme d'Or with The Piano in the 1990s, and Bright Star, like a Keats poem, is beautifully sad, or sadly beautiful.

As Cannes enters its last stretch - queuing up to present their films this week are Quentin Tarantino, French veteran Alain Resnais, Taiwanese Tsai Ming-liang, Palestinian Elie Suleiman, among others - the film that has slapped the audience's face the hardest is the family horror by the Danish auteur Lars von Trier. Here is an infamous agent provocateur who's out to shock, even to anger, the viewers with his extreme vision of life - and Cannes witnesses his antics again with Antichrist, a movie about a couple who retreats to a forest cabin after the death of their child and slowly descends into something like madness. Sensible behaviours aren't to be expected from Von Trier's characters, there are certain ugly deeds administered to the genitals of both the husband and his wife. Is this the virtue or vice of cinema? Should a movie beat along with a human heart, to should it try to disrupt the status quo? Is this, to repeat the age-old question, art? Cannes, by picking something as excessive as Antichrist, continues to foster the vigorous debate of these questions.

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