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Tuesday, Sept. 21, 1999


The big picture on Asian cinema

The Fukuoka International Film Festival may not have the glamour of Cannes or the buzz of Sundance -- no one descends a red staircase in an Armani gown or rockets to fame on a multimillion-dollar deal -- but it has, over the decade of its existence, presented some of Asia's best films and best filmmakers -- no small accomplishment.

Unlike the programmers of other festivals with an Asian interest, Fukuoka's Tadao and Hisako Sato are not parachutists or part-timers, but dedicated Asian film scholars who have traveled extensively around the region seeing hundreds of films and meeting dozens of filmmakers. Working without the budget or clout of some of their larger rivals, they have managed to consistently assemble groundbreaking programs that other festivals borrow from freely (or steal from shamelessly).

True, their tastes tend to run more to the earnest than the edgy, but they also have a genuine empathy with their filmmakers' cultures and values. At other festivals, Asian films are the exotic spice -- at Fukuoka they are the main course.

This year's festival screened 20 films from 11 countries, with a focus on the cinema of Iran. In the past several years, Iranian filmmakers have won growing international acclaim, as evidenced by Abbas Kiaro-stami's Golden Palm at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for "A Taste of Cherry" and Majid Majidi's Best Foreign Film Academy Award nomination for "The Children of Heaven." They have also been stereotyped as makers of films about children and, because of government censorship, little else.

There is truth to this stereotype -- many excellent films by Iranian directors have dealt with children and their problems. But several films at this year's festival showed that Iranian films can also feature actors over the age of 12 in starring roles and explore a broader thematic range than stories of lost homework assignments.

One was Majidi's new film, "Color of Paradise." Once again the hero is a child, an 8-year-old blind boy who returns to his home in the countryside on a school holiday, but the film also focuses on the boy's father, a balding widower for whom the boy is an obstacle to his marriage to the daughter of a prosperous peasant. This union, he feels, will lift him and his family, including his two daughters and aged mother, above a life of grinding poverty, but it will never occur if his intended's father discovers the existence of his "defective" son. So he disposes of the boy by apprenticing him to a blind carpenter. When the boy's grandmother, who loves him dearly, learns of this, she sets out to bring him back.

The boy, played by a newcomer Majidi discovered at the school for the blind in Tehran where he did much of his research for the film, expresses emotions, from wonder to fear, with an intensity and directness that springs, unmediated, from the heart. Also, Majidi portrays his world with an insight and sympathy that verge on the mystical, as when the boy touches pebbles, plants and other natural objects and tries to "read" them the way he would Braille. He is searching, we see, for the signature of God, for the meaning of His creation.

But while telling this story, which has the simplicity and power of a parable, Majidi is also examining the life of the father. Instead of an ogre sacrificing his son on the altar of his own greed, he is revealed as a wounded soul who grew up fatherless, feeling alone and unwanted. In his son, he sees not only an inconvenience, but an image of himself as a child and, pathetically, a rival for his mother's affection. But however selfish and low his actions may seem, he also has a real love for his son and a capacity to change. His transformation gives the second half of the film much of its narrative density and drive.

Compared with the high standard set by "Color of Paradise," the other Iranian films on the program were, at best, engaging departures from the festival norm. The most entertaining was "Sweet Agony," a family comedy made by veteran director Ali Reza Davudnezhad using members of his own extended family in the lead roles.

Though perhaps dictated by budgetary necessity, this unusual casting gives the film a relaxed (though occasionally noisy) feeling of intimacy. The story of a pair of teenage cousins who were betrothed as children by their doting parents and now want to get married, over their relatives' vehement objections, unfolds with all the ragged edges of real life on display. Also, Reza Davudnezhad, a heavy-set young man who is the director's son, plays the putative bridegroom with a comic naturalness reminiscent of John Candy. Not expecting laughs from an Iranian film? "Sweet Agony" supplies them in full.

Another film that broke new ground at the festival, though in a totally different way, was Reis Celik's "Goodbye Tomorrow," a drama about the arrest, trial and execution of student activists in Turkey in the early 1970s. The students were violently opposed to Turkey's security ties to the United States. The government and military labeled them red terrorists, while their supporters hailed them as martyrs to the nationalist cause.

A quarter of a century later, the controversy still rages and, in making the film from the latter point of view, Celik had to overcome a long series of hurdles, from funding difficulties to rightwing interference.

"Goodbye Tomorrow" suffers from choppy editing and other technical rough spots, but a strong, nuanced performance by Berhan Simsek as student leader Deniz Gezmis -- imagine a taller, more rugged Gary Sinise -- carries it brilliantly through. Yes, the film is propaganda, but it also presents the human face of a struggle that once divided the country and still echoes in the ongoing debate over Turkey's relationship to the United States.

Other reasons for going to Fukuoka? The directors of all three aforementioned films were present to answer questions from the audience -- and schmooze with a visiting critic. I can't say the same for Cannes or Sundance. Small can be beautiful.

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