Inspecting the Cannes

In its 50th year, is the world's most prestigious film festival showing its age?

Egoyan also intrigued his fans by showing more emotion than usual. Like Secrets & Lies, The Sweet Hereafter (which won the second-place Grand Prix) is a tale of family turmoil dredged up and laid bare, as a repressed big-city lawyer (Ian Holm) swoops into a small town in British Columbia to seek settlements for the grieving parents of 14 children who died in a bus accident. In a typically complicated Egoyan narrative of flash-backs and -forwards (based on the Russell Banks novel), we discover that Holm's character has loved and lost one of his own brood, too. Egoyan was criticized in some quarters for failing to tie up thematic loose ends, but I'd say that further supports his ambitious bid to make his oeuvre a little messier and more true to life.

The ratio of strong films to weak might have increased further with the presence of Zhang Yimou's new Keep Cool, but this was not to be. Just as the New York Film Festival was nearly denied permission to screen Zhang's Shanghai Triad because of the Chinese government's objection to the Tiananmen Square doc The Gate of Heavenly Peace, here a Chinese film about homosexuality called East Palace, West Palace, directed by Zhang Yuan, provided the pretext for China's decision to prevent Keep Cool from screening at Cannes. (Apparently, China chose to pull the hotly anticipated Keep Cool rather than the ostensibly offending film in order to make its point more forcefully--or perhaps to settle a score with Zhang for his previous work.)

This situation was all the more disappointing in light of the fact that Palace played like a timid and didactic Kiss of the Spider Woman knockoff, in which a gay man (Si Han) attempts to explain his sexuality to a homophobic cop (Hu Jun)--the latter being a surrogate figure for the perceived mass audience. Although discreet flashbacks to the man's dangerous liaisons do nothing to make his affairs resemble "normal" love (the root purpose of this sort of Philadelphia-style exercise in mass consciousness-raising), China's hostile reaction to the film does bear out its degree of risk and admirable agenda to enlighten.

In this way, East Palace, West Palace provided a timely reminder that films should always be judged in the context of where they were made--after all, one country's cheesy melodrama might be another's political breakthrough. Especially given the threat to world cinema posed by Hollywood imperialism this year at Cannes, any movie that distinctly reflects its country of origin is worthy of respect.

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