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Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2002

A masala of Asian movies


Films from Asia are now hot at festivals around the world, with several, such as the Hawaii International Film Festival, Udine Far East Film Festival and Fukuoka Film Festival, specializing in them. But only two decades ago, when the pioneering Hawaii International Film Festival presented its first program, Asian films were an exotic rarity nearly everywhere outside Asia -- and even inside.

News photo
Pan Nalln's "Samsara" was among the highlights at this year's Cinefan film festival in Delhi.

In India, where Bollywood churns out more films annually than any other national film industry on the planet, "foreign films" long meant movies from Hollywood and Europe, period. Then, in 1988, film scholar Aruna Vasudev began Cinemaya, a quarterly magazine that introduced Asian cinema to readers around the world. In the decade and a half since, Cinemaya, published in New Delhi, has carried articles by leading Asian film scholars, interviewed major filmmakers and otherwise carried the flag for Asian cinema, in its home country in particular. (I should mention that I am the magazine's Japan correspondent.)

In 1999, the tireless Vasudev, together with her Cinemaya colleagues, launched Cinefan, a festival devoted to Asian cinema -- the first of its kind in India. Starting with one venue in New Delhi and a small program of films, the festival has since grown to a 10-day event with 59 films screening in seven sections, with private and governmental backing and, as I learned soon after my arrival, intensive media coverage. I had served on film festival juries before, mostly anonymously, but soon after arriving in Delhi as a judge of the 13-film Cinefan competition, I found myself deluged with interview requests. Even the BBC wanted to hear my opinion of the entries -- before I had seen a single film.

Now that I've seen them all, I can honestly say that we had to make tough choices from among a strong field. Given that the festival was in danger of cancellation because of the volatile India-Pakistan political situation until shortly before its July 19 opening date, this was no mean feat, as well as a tribute to the organizers' expertise, connections -- and sheer determination.

The winner of the Cinefan grand prize was Serik Aprymov's "Three Brothers," a coming-of-age film from Kazakstan about three brothers growing up near an air base. Narrated by one of the brothers, who has since become an air force pilot, the film is "Stand by Me" transferred to a Soviet backwater, where aged steam locomotives rust in the rail yard and off-duty pilots make hurried love to overweight prostitutes among the boxcars.

The place is a paradise to boys on the cusp of adolescence, who smoke, drink and pull pranks unhindered. They also listen to Klein, an old railroad man, tell them stories about a mysterious lake where officers carouse with loose women. Of course, the brothers and their pals have to go there. Told as a memoir, the film has the requisite nostalgic glow, but is also funny and insightful into the ways boys behave away from prying adult eyes. I didn't care for the ending, with an airborne deus ex machina providing the tears to balance the smiles, but I quite liked the film, which celebrates the freedom (and lawless anarchy) of boyhood in a way almost unheard of in Japanese films today.

The winner of the second-place Netpac prize was Stanley Kwan's "Lan Yu," a film shot in Beijing about a gay love affair. Based on a novel that was a succes de scandale in China several years ago, the film begins with a middle-aged construction-company executive bedding a college boy from the countryside, who is selling himself to survive. This commercial transaction becomes a passionate romance, with power flowing inexorably to the younger man. Kwan tells this simple story with no blinders, no agendas; just sympathy for and insight into the ways human beings, of whatever sexual preference, fall in and out of love. Though gay-themed, the film is not exclusively -- or even particularly -- for gay audiences (however, it is so far unreleased in China).

The best actor prize went to Jacky Cheung for his performance in Ann Hui's "July Rhapsody" as a high school teacher who falls in love with one of his students, while dealing with a crisis in his marriage. Restrained, but finely layered, Cheung's depiction of a man faced with the decision of a lifetime was for the judges one of those so-obvious-it-barely-requires-discussion choices.

Far harder to pick was the best actress, given the number of outstanding candidates. We finally opted for Indonesian actress Jajang C. Noer, playing the mother of a defiantly independent daughter in Riri Riza's "Eliana, Eliana." Rejecting the usual histrionics, Jajang provided a solid emotional center to the film's picaresque wanderings through the Jakarta night.

Among other highlights was an Akira Kurosawa retrospective, which featured eight films from all stages of the director's career. Still another was the Indian premiere of "Samsara," Pan Nalin's drama about a Buddhist monk's spiritual quest. Made by a consortium of European and Indian backers, "Samsara" has been one of a growing number of Indian films to find an international audience.

My own favorite? "Seafood," a first feature by Chinese director Hai Xian about a funny, strange, fatal encounter between a suicidal prostitute and a seafood-obsessed cop. Referencing everyone from Wong Kar-wai to Stanley Kubrick, the film is fresh, perverse, utterly baffling and, on its own terms, utterly logical. Depending on your taste, it infuriates or fascinates. It opened me to new possibilities in film and made the trip, even the press interviews, worthwhile (as did the wonderful food -- and I'm not talking about deep-fried prawns).



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