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Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2000


Where hype is a dirty word

Covering film festivals has its rules, which the film journalist violates at his or her peril. One is to attend the opening party. The speeches by local dignitaries may be cliched and clueless, said dignitaries having not seen a movie in a theater since"Sound of Music," but schmoozing opportunities abound, allowing you to catch up with folks you have not seen since . . . last year's opening party.

Another is to actually see the film you have promised its director you will see. If you miss it, you are sure to run into said director at least three times a day, including at least one excruciating elevator ride a deux, until you are begging him to send you a tape of his earth-shattering masterpiece.

Still another is that big is not always better. At Cannes, the biggest festival of all, attendees at media screenings are treated like so many recruits at a boot-camp induction center. You line up and wait endlessly under the steely eyes of blue-suited security men -- and God help you if don't have the right color badge.

At the Fukuoka International Film Festival, which has been showcasing Asian cinema annually since 1991, the program may be smaller -- 17 films this year in the main Asia Panorama section and five films in the sidebar on Indian cinema -- but the welcome is definitely warmer. Also, instead of searching for gems amid the welter of heavily hyped junk, you can go to most screenings knowing that the film will be, if not an earth-shattering masterpiece, at least worth taking seriously.

Director-General Tadao Sato and Coordinator Hisako Sato, who have programmed the festival since its beginning, try to achieve a balance between high art and crowd-pleasing entertainment, but they never include junk. If they err, it is on the side of the crusading angels, who may be fighting the good fight for a better world, but whose films plod earnestly rather than soar creatively.

The 2000 edition of the festival, the 10th, was especially strong, as several Asian filmmakers the Satos have supported over the years returned with excellent new films. One was Korean director Im Kwon Taek, whose opening film "Chunhyang" brilliantly combined pansori -- a form of folk singing that might be described as the Korean answer to opera -- and period drama. While recording the concert performance of pansori singer Cho Sang Hyun, who is considered the leading living exponent of the art, the film provides a highly colored, unabashedly dramatic backdrop for Cho's rendition of "Chunhyang," a story of star-crossed love that is to the Koreans what "Chushingura" is to the Japanese -- a touchstone of national character.

Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), the hot-blooded son of a provincial governor, falls in love with and secretly marries Chunhyang (Yu Hyo Jeong), the beautiful daughter of a court concubine. He is torn from his wife, however, when his father orders him to Seoul to prepare for the all-important examination that will gain him entry into the bureaucratic elite.

Then a new governor arrives -- and demands that Chunhyang follow in her mother's footsteps, straight to his bed chamber. Proclaiming that she will only have one man, Chunhyang refuses and the enraged governor orders his minions to beat her to death. Meanwhile, Mongryong, now a high official disguised as a lowly traveler, is riding to the rescue.

Im films this morality play as a feature-length music video, cutting nimbly between concert and film, while supplying a contemporary spin. Chunhyang becomes the ur-liberated woman, howling her defiance of male authority to the world, while Mongryong becomes the ur-government whistle-blower, throwing out the rascals with a satisfying thoroughness.

Also playing the cinematic power chords was "Reef Hunters" (Japanese title: "Muro Ami"), a film by Marilou Diaz-Abaya that might be described as a Philippine "Moby Dick," with elements of everything from Coleridge's "The Ancient Mariner" to Cameron's "Terminator 2." While framed as an expose of muro-ami -- the practice, imported to the Philippines from Okinawa, of beating coral with rocks to frighten fish into waiting nets -- the film finds its dramatic heart in the relationship between the madly driven captain of a muro-ami fishing boat, played by local superstar Cesar Montano, and his white-haired father, who fears that, in his pursuit of profit, his son is defying nature and courting disaster.

Though the film abounds in the kind of melodramatics Philippine audiences love -- the film was a huge hit following its domestic release last year -- it offers a clear-eyed examination of the muro-ami industry, which wreaks environment havoc while endangering the lives of the boys who serve as divers, as well as spectacular underwater sequences that display the beauty the muro-ami fishermen are pounding into oblivion.

More personal in its concerns, if equally intense in its drama, was "Mask of Desire," a first feature by Nepalese director Tsering Rhitar Sherpa. Set in Katmandu, the film depicts an unusual romantic triangle that develops when a woman distraught over the death of her infant son consults a medium who claims to serve as a conduit for the goddess Tripura. They become friends -- until the woman notices that the medium, a dazzling kohl-eyed beauty, is paying more than professional attention to her soccer-playing husband. Then jealousy erupts in its all green-eyed fury -- or is it, as the medium insists, the rage of a demon that resents the goddess's power?

Raised in a Tibetan refugee community in Nepal, and intimately acquainted with that community's spiritual traditions, Sherpa deftly escalates the conflict between the medium's belief in her goddess-given mission and her unruly human desires, while refusing to offer a neatly packaged answer to the central question of her credibility.

Far more than the Hollywood directors who claim sympathy with Tibetan beliefs, Sherpa knows whereof he speaks. His film is yet another illustration of the Fukuoka Film Festival's value as a showcase and supporter of the best of Asian cinema.

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