Eastern Standard Time

While Western art cinema draws the flashbulbs at Cannes, contemplative works from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong leave the festival glowing in klieg lights from the East

Cannes, France--

 

This is not like a normal trade agreement, this is more like a membership deal--[the Chinese] get in the World Trade Organization and we get great new access to their markets.

--Bill Clinton to Tom Brokaw, NBC Nightly News

 

If Congress votes no, my judgment is that all the agreements we have made [with China] will be null and void. I mean, would you keep an agreement with someone who just exiled you and kicked you on the backside?

--Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, quoted in the New York Times

 

This year Asia is under the spotlight. Tomorrow, I'm sure, it will be Argentina and Latin America. In the future, India or Greece. Who knows? It's our job to remain vigilant, like sentries lying in wait for talent to appear.

--Gilles Jacob, programming director of the Cannes Film Festival, quoted in Variety

 

"Enter the Dragon--The US-China Market Beckons"--this according to a recent headline in the Singapore Straits Times. But in the South of France, the martial arts pas de deux between Asian movies and global commerce is already in full swing. Indeed, at this year's Cannes Film Festival--the epic industry trade expo that lasts ten days under the Côte d'Azur sun and the scorching glare of flashbulbs--international politics and cinematic culture appear as well-connected as Yuen Wo-Ping's gravity-defying "wire work" in The Matrix.

On one screen of the Cannes multiplex is Jack Valenti, veteran keeper of Hollywood hegemony, who's busy selling Congress on a plan to make China safe for blockbusters; on another is Gilles Jacob, the omnipotent festival gatekeeper whose decision this year to present an unprecedented number of Asian films (but nothing by John Woo or Jackie Chan) has, of course, nothing to do with the vested interests of the European Union; and on another is Bill Clinton, who, nearing the end of his acting career, has made a gallant run for the Oscar with his latest role--inspired, some critics would say, by both Neville Chamberlain and Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin. Too bad John Travolta recently chose to invest in Battlefield Earth's Scientological hooey rather than a well-timed sequel to the 1998 Cannes opener Primary Colors, since the image of "Clinton" on festival screens would have been enough to clinch this as a standout year for viewing Cannes as a microcosm of the WTO (or would that be the other way around?).

Of course, there are a few differences. The upcoming vote on whether to grant permanent normal trade relations to China will likely eliminate the need for an annual inspection of human-rights policies--whereas at Cannes, there's still plenty that's up for review. (Nonetheless, in my more cynical moments, I wonder whether either set of critiques has made much difference.) This year, a full third of the 23 titles in competition hail from the Near or Far East, including, from China, Jiang Wen's period war film Devils on the Doorstep (Guizi Lai Le)--which, not surprisingly, has engaged in a battle of its own with Chinese censors.

On a typically sunny morning halfway through the festival, Jiang's English translator is struggling to relay a journalist's query about the Chinese authorities' threatened ban of the film from competition. "How do you say censorship in Chinese?" she wonders aloud. This would seem a rather important word for a Chinese filmmaker's assistant to know, especially at Cannes, given the festival's history of being denied (and nearly denied) the right to screen a number of key works from China. Most recently, in 1997, a typical disagreement between the Chinese government and Cannes programmers as to the merits of Zhang Yuan's gay-themed East Palace, West Palace resulted in the withholding of another Cannes-slated Chinese film, Zhang Yimou's Keep Cool--this because the offending one had proven immune to a Chinese ban from the fest on account of its French financing. (Global trade prevents a government crackdown on free speech! All those libertarian prayers to St. Ayn Rand have come true at last!)

In any case, the latest victim of China's threatened cinematic embargo was up drinking until very late last night, which may explain his current laid-back attitude toward the brouhaha surrounding his movie. (No doubt it helps immensely that the film did end up screening in the festival as planned.) Eventually, the translation issue is sorted out, and Jiang, a buff-looking 36-year-old dressed in a tight black T-shirt and flared blue jeans, answers the censorship question candidly and in good spirits.

"There's no logic behind [the censors'] requests," he says, addressing ten or so writers--most from Asian papers--who are seated around the filmmaker in the beach tent of the Grand Hotel. "They asked me to change the name of the film, for example, because they didn't want to offend 'certain minorities' in China--but exactly who was never explained."

Actually, the film makes it clear enough. Set in a small Chinese village at the tail end of the Japanese occupation in World War II, Devils on the Doorstep is a long, loud, deliberately abrasive, and brilliantly choreographed mix of horror and slapstick--something like the Underground of the Far East, or, some might say, the Hogan's Heroes of Asian art cinema. It follows a gullible Chinese peasant farmer (played almost Martin Lawrence-style by the hammy Jiang) who, in the midst of making love with his girlfriend, is coerced by a mysterious, unseen man into interrogating a Japanese POW and his translator over the course of five days. Trouble is, these five days stretch unexpectedly into six long, increasingly violent months, as Jiang's film deals not only with the persistence of xenophobia but the interminable nature of war.

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