In light of these enduring subjects, it's even more obscene that a critic for the U.S. trade paper Variety, seemingly in deference to the all-important demands of the Western marketplace, called in his review for "radical cutting by some 60 minutes with a shot at specialized distribution then reasonable." Have bottom-line-oriented critics become so bossy these days as to confuse their roles with those of studio execs?
Good thing Jiang doesn't seem to have given the reviewer's suggestion much credence, at one point even characterizing his near-three-hour movie as fast-paced. "I think the rhythm of the film is closely related to the subject," he says in between frequent, nervous-tic-style coughs that sound like hiccups crossed with snorts. "I'm convinced that you always have to go from the content to the form: You think about the content first, and then you choose a form that's suitable to the content. Also, in China, we have a saying that the [penmanship] resembles the person. In life, I'm an impatient person--I talk fast--and so it makes sense that the film should resemble my personality."
As part of that personality is reflected in the film's provocative mix of tragedy and comedy, one writer among us asks whether the movie risks political misinterpretation, particularly in Japan (an interesting reminder that the U.S. lacks a monopoly on historical imperialism and its resentment). "It was never my intent with this film to talk about Sino-Japanese relations--that's not my subject," says Jiang. "The story is really just a pretext for a look at war and how it changes people. Asian people are famous for face-saving attitudes. It's easy to criticize others, but as for criticizing ourselves, it's not so easy. Among Chinese viewers of this film, there will be those who won't accept that it criticizes Chinese attitudes during the war. And the same goes for the Japanese."
Given the tremendous volume of Asian films in Cannes this year, I ask the director for his interpretation of what it might say about the state of Asian cinema at the moment. "I don't agree that Cannes is showing more and more Chinese movies, or Asian movies in general," he replies, voicing what would become a refrain during the fest. "For example, Zhang Yimou has been in Cannes for many, many years, and also other Chinese filmmakers have been very present. This is not a new phenomenon."
Indeed, Asian directors have been celebrated at Cannes since the 1950s. Japan's Kohei Sugiyama won the Best Cinematography prize in 1952 for his work on director Kosaburo Yoshimura's Tales of Genji, and since then films such as Japan's Gate of Hell, Woman in the Dunes, Empire of Passion, Kagemusha, Suzaku, and The Eel; China's Farewell My Concubine, To Live, and The Emperor and the Assassin; Hong Kong's Happy Together; and Iran's Taste of Cherry have snared prizes at the fest. The year 1997 was a watershed one, as Cherry and The Eel split the Palme d'Or, Happy Together earned the Best Director prize for Wong Kar-Wai, Naomi Kawase's Suzaku landed the Camera d'Or for best debut feature, and The Ice Storm, an American film by Taiwanese-born chameleon (and Hollywood aspirant) Ang Lee, took home a Best Screenplay trophy.
Yet this year's Cannes roster is something else again. Besides Jiang's film, there's Chunhyang, a moody tale of 13th-century passion by South Korean director Im Kwon Taek; Eureka, a mesmerizing, near-four-hour Japanese road movie shot in black-and-white Cinemascope by Aoyama Shinji; Taboo (Gohatto), a minor work about gay samurai by major Japanese auteur Nagisa Oshima; In the Mood for Love, a ravishing, Sixties-set Hong Kong romance by the brilliant Wong; Blackboards, an Iranian work of hardscrabble neorealism set near the fractious Iraqi border, directed by the young Samira Makhmalbaf; Kippur, a searing war film by Israel's Amos Gitai (Kadosh); and A One and a Two... (Yi Yi), Taiwanese director Edward Yang's sentimental yet incisive portrait of archetypal family woes.
Additionally, among the movies screening out of competition is Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a big-budget martial-arts epic whose exhilarating fight scenes will likely give those vociferous opponents of the more measured Asian cinema an opportunity to express their preferences. Then there's Jacky, a snail-paced study of the Dutch-born son of Chinese immigrants living out his ennui in Amsterdam; and "the first Asian Dogme film," South Korea's Interview, an exceedingly conventional Gen Y soaper proving that certification from the Danish collective can indeed be purchased through its Web site. (Rule No. 5 of "How to make Dogme-film," as stated at www.dogme95.dk: "When we register your payment, we will arrange for you to receive the Dogme Certificate as soon as possible.")
Ultimately, it's no surprise that, when asked what all this Eastern cinema might mean in the global-cinematic scheme of things, a number of the Asian filmmakers at the fest have appeared reluctant to contribute to this year's Variety-approved trend ("Cannes choices accent Asia and familiar faces," reads one pre-fest headline). Indeed, from the perspective of highly individual filmmakers who have toiled on their art for decades (as many as four in the case of Oshima), what's the honor in being recognized as merely a part of a "new" renaissance--or, worse, another spiffy product doing brisk business across tariff-free borders? And in the context of Asian cinema's steady growth to maturation on the world stage, why would anyone who cares about the films themselves want to reduce that progress to the story of a single, aberrant year?