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Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2001


Asia's best shine at cinema showcase

Film festivals are addictive, especially if you've got that magical piece of laminated paper called a press pass. Volunteers smile at you, directors schmooze with you and theater doors swing open for you at the flash of a badge. Best of all, you can spend all day watching movies with no guilty feelings whatsoever -- just doing a job, don't you know?

"Baran" (above), featuring Zahra Bahrami, and "Devils on the Doorstep" (below) were among the standouts at this year's Fukuoka Film Festival.

There are exceptions -- at the Cannes Film Festival, where press passes are graded as strictly as ceremonial robes at the Heian court, journos with the wrong colors get, not the glad hand, but the beady eye or even the strong arm from burly security guards at screenings.

The Focus on Asia -- Fukuoka International Film Festival, which was held this year Sept. 14-24, is at the other end of the journo-friendly scale. The program and guest lists are small enough, and the two main venues are close enough that even the compulsively lazy and socially challenged can see nearly everything and meet nearly everyone without undue strain. Also, programmers Tadao and Hisako Sato are not only among the most knowledgeable people on the planet about Asian films, but nurturing types who, since launching the festival in 1991, have assembled a large surrogate family of Asian filmmakers -- and the occasional outlander film critic.

The Fukuoka fest has changed over the years, from a pioneering event introducing unknown Asian cinemas and their underappreciated films to one of a lengthening list of festivals with an Asian flavor. And it's a flavor that has become the trendiest around. Several of the filmmakers the Satos championed early in their international careers, such as Marilou Diaz- Abaya and Majid Majidi, have since gone onto bigger things. In Majidi's case, that included an Oscar nomination for his 1999 film "Children of Heaven" and a best film prize at the 2001 Montreal Film Festival for his latest, "Baran," also the opening film this year at Fukuoka.

Diaz-Abaya has likewise received numerous festival invitations and awards, both domestically and abroad, while her 1998 biopic of national hero Jose Rizal became the highest-grossing film in Philippine movie history. (It will open Dec. 15 at Iwanami Hall in Jinbocho.) This year the Fukuoka festival honored her with a retrospective and the Fukuoka city government awarded her its 12th Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize.

Having seen many of Diaz-Abaya's films at previous festival editions -- she has come to Fukuoka nearly every year since 1995 -- I gave them a pass this time around, though I admire her work for its passion, honesty and commitment to social justice, even in films, like "Jose Rizal," aimed at a mass audience.

Instead, I saw "Baran," fresh from its triumph at Montreal and vitally relevant in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks. An examination of the plight of the nearly 1.4 million Afghan refugees in Iran, the film is reminiscent of Majidi's previous work in its deep humanism and strong storytelling, but with a new starkness that perfectly matches its theme. The setting is a gray, grimy construction site in northern Iran.

Latif (Hossein Abedini) is an impulsive, excitable teenager who is forever getting into trouble with his harried, short-tempered boss. Then an Afghan guest worker is injured and replaced by his son, the delicate but determined Rhamat (Zahra Bahrami). Unable to do heavy labor, Rhamat nearly loses his job, which he needs to support his family, but is fortunately assigned Latif's duties of cooking and tea-serving. Latif resents this change, until he discovers that Rhamat is a girl named Baran.

The film is less a gender-bending mystery -- we quickly guess Rhamat's true identity -- than an unusual love story, both comic and tender. It is also a chilling glimpse of conditions for Afghan women under a fanatical regime that denies their rights and humanity.

Another prizewinner on the program, with a Silver Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival, was Wang Xiaoshuai's "Beijing Bicycle." One of a cycle of six films set in Beijing, Taiwan and Hong Kong ("Betelnut Beauty," also screened at Fukuoka, was another), "Beijing Bicycle" tells the familiar story of a naive young man from the provinces trying to make it in the big city, who becomes the victim of a devastating crime.

A leading sixth-generation director, Wang films this story with uncommon artistry, deftly combining pathos and comedy, sharp social observation and an intriguingly twisty plot. No one is quite what they seem in Wang's Beijing, with its extremes of poverty and wealth, whose Westernized youth define their identities by the clothes they wear, the sports they play and the bikes they steal.

Still another was "Devils on the Doorstep," the new film by renowned Chinese actor Jiang Wen that won the Grand Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Set in a farming village in Hebei Province in the fading days of World War II, the film begins as farce: A jowly farmer (Jiang Wen) and an attractive young widow (Jiang Hongbo) are making frantic love in his house when a stranger with a gun smashes his way in and orders the farmer to care for two prisoners -- a Japanese soldier and Chinese interpreter.

When a village council convenes to decide the fate of the two men, the soldier, bent on an honorable death, peppers them with abuse, while the interpreter, eager to save his own hide, translates the curses as compliments. It's all very clever and funny, with rapid crosscutting and extreme close-ups heightening the tension and underscoring the absurdity.

But as the weeks and months pass, the Japanese prisoner's death wish gives way to a desire to live -- and a feeling of gratitude to the farmer and his now hugely pregnant lover for taking such good care of him, despite the endless trouble he has caused them.

The film's ending will come as no surprise to anyone who knows the true history of this time, while its black humor, taking the grotesque form of cringing Chinese peasants and blustering Japanese soldiers, feels too much like Stepin Fetchit pandering, as though Jiang Wen set out not to undercut Western stereotypes but reinforce them. Nonetheless, his desire to tell the truth about the brutality of the Japanese occupation compensates for much of his smirking irony.

The Chinese consulate protested the screening of both "Beijing Bicycle" and "Devils on the Doorstep" at Fukuoka, saying that the films were banned in China and had been submitted to the festival without state permission. The festival organizers, admirably, rejected this request, showing again why Fukuoka is still the best showcase in Japan for important Asian films.

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