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

Still, one striking scene in A One and a Two... acknowledges the international scope of the audience's youthful desire for pure escapism, which has always been popular cinema's principal blessing and biggest curse. Standing in line at a restaurant, a teenage girl and boy are discussing the unnamed movie they just saw. The girl says she liked the film--"but why did it have to be so serious?" "You prefer comedies?" her date inquires. "Maybe. I just don't know why the film had to be so sad." "Well," he says, "life is a mixture of things--happiness and sadness."

Then the punch line: "So if those things are in life," says the girl, "then why do we go to movies?"


Devils on the Doorstep
Devils on the Doorstep

Not a bad question, in fact--and particularly not at the end of another long film festival. On this, the final day of Cannes, everyone is tired to the bone but still hustling like crazy. Rumors are rampant that the fest's jury president Luc Besson hates all the films in competition (except, perhaps, Lars von Trier's latest throwback to the Euro art film of the Sixties, Dancer in the Dark), and is considering whether to leave this year's Palme hanging on the vine. The photographers have been lined up for hours near the front entrance to the Grand Théâtre Lumière--where, unless there's an unexpected hunger strike at the Hotel du Cap, more celebrities will be sauntering up the famed red steps for the gala clôture than at any other time all week. Members of the press have been given one last daily screening schedule listing all 23 competition films, playing around town from dawn to dusk--as if our eyes weren't bloodshot enough already.

And, although you'd have to read it online (Variety and the Hollywood Reporter are the only stateside dailies readily available in these parts), today's New York Times features MPAA showman Jack Valenti starring in his own Chinese gangster movie even before the trade vote has been tallied. "'We're not going to buy any theaters [in China] until we own them,' Mr. Valenti said. 'And we're not going to put more money into theaters if they're not letting in more American pictures.'" My, what a performance. Maybe he should get the Palme d'Or.

Meanwhile, about a dozen of us scribes are crowding director Wong Kar-Wai at a tiny table in the Grand Hotel courtyard, where we're discussing In the Mood for Love, his gorgeously abstract, deeply sensual tale of two married neighbors in 1960s Hong Kong who discover that their spouses are having an affair--while the jilted pair's own love remains (perhaps) unrequited. Naturally, our group's penetrating question is: So did they or didn't they?

"We had a sex scene in the film until a week ago," says the English-speaking filmmaker in between brief glances over his trademark shades. "During the final mix, I was thinking, just as an audience member, 'You know, I don't want to see that scene. Because that would be too explicit.' I decided I'd rather leave it to the audience's imagination. And so now there's no hanky-panky [laughs]. As Hitchcock said, film is about suspense and surprise. And so, without seeing [the sex scene], you have suspense. And it keeps haunting you, you know?"

In more ways than one, In the Mood for Love is about the weight of decisions in the heat of passion. Indeed, Wong's long-awaited followup to his Happy Together has been more than two years in the making, including a short eternity in the cutting room. This owes in part to the Asian economic crisis that temporarily crippled the movie's investors, but more, it seems, to the director's rather romantic reluctance to limit his artistic options. Only a week ago, Wong was rumored to be reshooting the film's finale in the Cambodian ruins of Angkor Wat (another example of pan-Asian currents at Cannes); just days ago, he was still tweaking the subtitles in a Paris lab; and at the start of the fest, the English name of the film remained Untitled, as it's known in the official Cannes program. Wong claims he chose In the Mood for Love while listening to Bryan Ferry--and in light of his willingness to borrow other people's titles, I'll mention that One Life to Live would have worked magnificently as well.

Befitting his own magnificent obsession, Wong's love-struck protagonists wander the movie's lush dreamscape forever mulling whether--and, if so, when and how--to act on their attraction. The conceit is archetypal, but the execution, as usual for Wong, is distinctive to the point of reinventing the form. The plot is almost nonexistent: Neighbors in the same apartment complex, Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Chow (Tony Leung) begin to pass each other--provocatively--in the hallway, as the slo-mo-loving filmmaker extends every sweep and swish of their movements until an ordinary traipse becomes a tango.

The two start to meet for dinner while their spouses are away; they talk intimately at all hours of the night; and Wong occasionally cheats the march of time by replaying the subtlest of their interactions with minor, hypothetical variations, emphasizing the impact of each word and each gesture upon the lovers' future, and our interpretation of it. Is it inevitable that they'll end up in bed together? If not, does a merely close companionship constitute a kind of infidelity? Are the two justified in cheating if their spouses have? Does the viewer's longing for adulterous behavior in a movie reflect his ethics outside the movie?

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