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Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2003


Asia through a kaleidoscopic lens

Japan has had a conflicted relationship with Asia, trying to conquer large chunks of it for several decades, then ignoring its culture for several decades more. For most Japanese moviegoers, "foreign films" long meant ones from Hollywood and Europe -- period.

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Peter D'Almedia and Nimmi Harasgama in "August Sun"

Since it started in 1991, the Fukuoka International Film Festival has challenged this mind-set, bringing its audiences the variety and vibrancy of Asian films. In the process, festival director-general Tadao Sato and coordinator Hisako Sato have discovered Asian films little known in Japan or elsewhere, as well as launching several directorial careers. If anything, they have been too successful; today dozens of festivals compete for the best Asian films, and Fukuoka -- with a smaller budget and profile than Cannes, Berlin and other biggies of the festival circuit -- has had to fall back in line.

But the Satos inspire loyalty, and several filmmakers they championed early on keep returning to the festival, held this year Sept. 12-23.

One of these is Iranian director Majid Majidi, whose "Children of Heaven," "Color of Paradise" and "Baran" have won numerous awards around the world. This year Majidi came to Fukuoka with "Barefoot to Herat," a documentary shot from November 2001 to February 2002 in Afghanistan, focusing on Afghan refugees fleeing from the war and chaos around them. Due to a scheduling mixup, I missed this film -- and kept hearing raves about it all week. Majidi told me it will probably never be screened in Japan -- "At one hour it's too short for the theaters," he explained -- but he has hopes that NHK may buy it. I can only hope he's right.

Another Fukuoka regular is Indian master Adoor Gopalakrisnan, whose "Shadow Kill" was this year's opening film. Hailing from the southern Indian state of Kerala, Gopalakrisnan may make his films in his native Malayalam language for a primarily local audience, but he is also a humanist of the old school, with a talent for cutting through the cultural clutter to the universal bone. In "Shadow Kill," set in pre-independence Kerala, his hero is an elderly hangman who has come to dread his job, though it brings him benefits and privileges. The reason: He is tormented by the fear that he may have once executed an innocent man. Then comes another hanging -- and his fear becomes a mind-shattering reality.

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Jiro Manio and Albert Maritinez in "Magnifico"

In telling this story, based on a true incident, Gopalakrisnan presents his hangman in an unexpectedly sympathetic light, as a husband, father and even faith healer. (A hangman's rope, according to local belief, has healing powers.) In the final act, he puts us inside his hangman's desperately confused mind, while telling a tale of young love and death that has an archaic simplicity -- and comes from the deeper recesses of the collective unconscious.

Striking a more contemporary note was "August Sun," Prasanna Vithanage's drama about the war in Sri Lanka between government forces and the Tamil Tigers that has claimed more than 60,000 lives in the past 20 years -- but has been severely under-reported in the West. Vithanage tells three stories about people who become caught up in this war -- and end up intersecting, if not always interacting.

One of these concerns a soldier in the Sri Lankan army who goes to a brothel with several of his comrades -- and finds his sister working there. Another focuses on a young woman in Colombo who contacts a war reporter about her husband, an air-force pilot who has been missing for six months. Together they go in search of him in enemy territory. Still another is about a father and his young son who are forced by the Tamil Tigers to evacuate their village, which is said to be a refuge for traitors to the Tamil cause, and end up fleeing for their lives.

Vithanage brings a documentary impact to these stories -- he filmed several scenes near Tamil-held areas -- but he is also a skilled director of actors. As the wife of the missing pilot, Nimmi Harasgama portrays her character's desperation and pain with an immediacy that is startling. Overcome with emotion as she begs the journalist for help, she flushes crimson and tears leap from her eyes. It looks absolutely spontaneous, but Harasgama told me that Vithanage, a veteran theatrical director, rehearsed her and the other cast members for weeks before filming.

Also affecting -- if for quite different reasons -- was Maryo J. de los Reyes' "Magnifico," a Filipino film about a boy who is a Christ figure in miniature. Though stuck with a name that might inspire many a boy to a life of crime, Magnifico (Jiro Manio) does what he can to help his struggling family -- his father is a carpenter who can barely make ends meet. He not only uncomplainingly cares for his younger sister, made mute by cerebral palsy, but diligently raises money for the funeral expenses of his grandmother, who is dying of cancer. This may sound too goody-two-shoes to be true, but Manio's Magnifico is an unaffected, sunny-spirited kid who just does what comes naturally -- though his definition of "natural" includes building grandma's coffin from scratch.

De los Reyes, a veteran director in a variety of genres, may not stint on melodrama, but as is often the case with Filipino films, the story builds an irresistible emotional momentum. By the end there was not a dry eye in the theater -- and this reviewer was no exception.

Power of another kind was present in "Hanoi 12 Days and Nights," a film by Bui Dinc Hac that portrays the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972 -- a massive attack by B-52 bombers that Richard Nixon, fresh from his election victory over George McGovern, hoped would break North Vietnamese will. It did nothing of the sort; instead it strengthened North Vietnam's determination in its decade-long struggle with the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. In Bui Dinc Hac's retelling, the bombings become North Vietnam's Battle of Britain, with the defenders brave, loyal and true to the last starry-eyed man and woman.

Gaudy jingoism of this sort has all but vanished from screens in the West -- though it has made a reappearance in the United States, if the recent made-for-TV movie about George W. Bush's heroics on 9/11 is any indication. War propaganda everywhere wears the same face -- though Hollywood's still has better makeup.

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