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Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2000


Basking in the Academy's sunshine

Palm Springs is one of those places that, like Hollywood and Las Vegas, looms large in the American mythic landscape. Over the decades this desert resort outside Los Angeles has been the playground and permanent home of some of the biggest names in American show business. Charlie Chaplin once frolicked here, as did Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and myriad others. Today the Palm Springs area's more prominent citizens, senior or otherwise, include former president Gerald Ford and comedian Bob Hope, whose hillside estate glitters in the distance from downtown like a desert Shangri La.

So it should come as no surprise that Palm Springs hosts a film festival. What is surprising is that the Nortel Palm Springs International Film Festival -- its official name -- celebrated only its 11th edition from Jan. 13 to 24 this year. But though still relatively new as festivals go, it has become one of the biggest showcases of foreign films in North America, screening more than 200 films from 49 foreign countries and territories this year.

Also, it has become known as the place to see films nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, with eight films shown at the fest going on the win the award. This year there were 30 nominees on the program, including favorites "All About My Mother" (Spain, Pedro Almodovar), "Three Seasons" (Tony Bui, Vietnam) and "Caravan" (Eric Valli, Nepal). Why Palm Springs? More than 300 Academy members live in or near town, making the festival a must for any film hoping to survive to the final five.

So for my first visit to the festival, and Palm Springs for that matter, I was expecting, if not movie stars on every street corner, more Hollywood glamour than I would find at, say, the Tokyo International Film Festival (though it did give us Leonardo live onstage a couple years back). And glamour there was, though much of it was supplied by stars on the far side of 50, including Kirk Douglas, who appeared at the screening of his new film "Diamonds," and Catherine Deneuve, who gave an interview in the auditorium of the local high school (looking, I might add, impeccably fashionable and impossibly beautiful, while being entrancingly articulate).

In fact, gray hair was much in evidence everywhere at the fest, among both the volunteers taking tickets and the film fans paying for them. After years of being the old man in the audience in Japan, it was neat to feel like a whippersnapper again. Palm Springs, I realized, had become the St. Petersburg of the West Coast, with thousands of retirees flocking there from colder climes -- or escaping there from L.A.

Despite what one fellow film critic described as "the geezer factor," the festival's program was anything but starchily conservative. There was a large section devoted to gay and lesbian cinema, and another to American independents. Also, not a few of the foreign entries featured young directors and stars, including Toshiaki Toyoda's "Pornostar" and Hiromitsu Yamanaka's "Shooting Star." (Are the titles merely a coincidence or a case of synchronicity? Don't ask.)

Even so, the biggest crowd pleasers tended to be -- what else? -- geezer-friendly, either in theme or treatment. "Ame Agaru (When the Rain Lifts)," the gentle-spirited Takashi Koizumi period drama based on a script by Akira Kurosawa, received a rapturous response from a full-house crowd, while the Shibuya gang film "Pornostar," which featured several spectacular knifings, inspired several walkouts.

My own favorites? One was Emily Liu's "Woman Soup," a romantic comedy about four Taiwanese women who have educations and careers, but either no men or the wrong men in their lives. In a society that still regards marriage the sine qua non of adulthood, they feel like failures. Meeting at a hot springs near Taipei, they become fast friends and co-conspirators in their never-ending quest for the perfect mate.

Though her film may have a definite feminist slant, Liu is anything but didactic or strident. While telling home truths, she succeeds in making her foursome funny, real and -- heretical though it may sound -- sexy.

Another was Yon Fan's "Bishonen . . . (Beauty)," which depicts a romantic roundelay in Hong Kong's gay hustler subculture. At the film's center is Jet, the number-one boy at a gay club, who glides from triumph to erotic triumph until he encounters Sam, a soft-spoken, devastatingly handsome policeman -- and begins to understand the power and tragedy of love.

In depicting the youthful beauty and charm of his subjects, director Yon Fan may gloss over the sordidness of their lives, he is also intimately familiar with their world and wise to the ways of the heart. Though Asian gay cinema at its most unabashedly sensuous, "Bishonen" goes beyond surface eroticism to a real poignancy that anyone, gay, straight, or somewhere in between, can understand. Catch it when it opens in Tokyo in March.

Still another find was Zhao Xiansheng's "Mr. Zhao," that begins with a blazing argument between a middle-aged teacher of traditional Chinese medicine, and his wife, who has just discovered his affair with a younger woman. Filmed in faux documentary style, this drama about the disintegration of a marriage has a rawness and impact that will have cheating husbands everywhere -- as well as those who have only lusted in their hearts -- squirming in their seats. But while an unsparing expose of male selfishness and indecisiveness, "Mr. Zhao" nonetheless evokes sympathy for the poor devil who is its title character.

And Palm Springs itself? The money is certainly there -- even the SUV that schlepped us around to screenings was an Infiniti -- but there is also plenty to see and do for the trust-fundless. Golf? There are more than 100 courses, in all price ranges -- and you don't have to drive three hours to tee up. Food and drink? The place has everything, from fast-food Mexican to a fancy French bistro I stumbled into whose wine steward had a real Parisian sneer.

My favorite? Capra's, a small Italian restaurant on the main drag run by the son of the director of "It's a Wonderful Life." Where else can you gaze at an honest-to-gosh Oscar while eating some of the best on the planet?


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