Eastern Standard Time

Devils on the Doorstep

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.

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?

For his part, A One and a Two... director Edward Yang--who arrives a little late to meet a handful of critics at his publicist's rented apartment, having been reading the rave review of his film in Variety--appears more eager to talk about cinematic universality on the one hand, and industry economics on the other. Wearing a slightly wrinkled white linen shirt with short sleeves, and a mop-top of black hair speckled amply with gray, the English-speaking maker of such complicated Taiwanese masterpieces as Mahjong and A Brighter Summer Day begins by discussing the deliberate simplicity of his latest effort. Deftly unspooling intertwined strands of a single yarn, A One and a Two... follows a Taipei family in the wake of a grandmother's demise, a father's midlife crisis (accentuated by his facing the Asian economic one), and two children's attempts to reconcile their feelings about death and loss.

"Basically," says Yang, "I think an extended family is best to allow a very broad observation of life, because every age is represented. I knew this would create a strong structure for the movie. I wanted the movie to be simple--like the title, which comes from what musicians would say at the start of a jazz session. If I was a musician, or a painter, or any kind of artist, the most important thing to me would be to touch my audience. So the film should be like writing a letter to a friend. When you read a letter from a friend, you don't think you're reading Ernest Hemingway--you don't look between the lines to figure out the intricacies of what he's trying to suggest. It's about sincerity."

As a heartfelt and involving family drama, not to mention a gentler take on Yang's characteristic theme of alienation, A One and a Two... would seem a film to which most anyone could relate, being principally about, as the saying goes, birth, school, work, and death. In fact, were it not for some of the film's more deliberately slow and contemplative passages, one could nearly imagine it as a Hollywood movie. And if it were, perhaps it would be deemed more worthy of praise in papers like the Hollywood Reporter, whose critic Kirk Honeycutt called Yang's film not only "irritating, indulgent and self-important," but a work that "stands no chance in commercial cinemas outside of Asia at its present [three-hour] length." No chance of what--moving an audience to tears? Inspiring a viewer to reconcile with a family member before it's too late?

One wants to say to Mr. Honeycutt, after slapping his face: Speak for yourself, buddy.

Still, in a sense, it must be admitted that the ever-shrewd Hollywood trades do speak for the industry, both parroting its aesthetic preferences and, through a type of tautology, informing the industry of projects that have strayed from those standards and should therefore be considered bad investments. If these papers predict that a film will fail, it probably will--one way or another.

And yet Yang seems uniquely armed to defy those odds, displaying a mind for both craft and commerce. In fact, it seems odd that a humanist of Yang's caliber would also be an expert at the numbers game--but so he is. The Taipei-raised filmmaker got his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, and his master's in computer design at the University of Florida, whereupon he took a job as a microcomputer and systems designer at a research institute in Seattle. After seven years there, he returned to Taiwan in the early Eighties to pursue filmmaking. "I could have been a billionaire by now," he says without a trace of immodesty. "But I decided to have fun making films." Yang's technical prowess aside (as in many of his films, the images in A One and a Two... are simply composed yet deeply immersive), his knowledge of the state of film financing is impressive--and no doubt a strong survival tool in this era of globalization and rampant Hollywoodism.  

"International co-productions are the most economical and effective way of working," he said during a sparsely attended press conference a couple of days before our meeting, referring to film deals between multiple investors from different countries. A One and a Two..., for example, represents one-third of a "Y2K Project" set up three years ago by Yang, Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan, and Japanese director Shunji Iwai as "a model for a new form of filmmaking in and for Asia as one region," allowing Asian filmmakers from different countries to pool their resources. "If I sell a film in Taipei," says Yang, "all the major markets are now consolidated, so I can sell it in Korea and Hong Kong and Tokyo as well. Meanwhile, we all go to Bangkok for our Dolby sound mixing, because it offers the most competitive price, and the working conditions are the best.

"The borders are merging. I don't think it even makes sense to talk about national cinema now. But at the same time, we [filmmakers in Taiwan] haven't lost our identity, because the financing options have given us more freedom, more independence. The situation is only getting better."

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?"


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?

So many choices, so little time. Every cut and every camera move in the film seem to draw the director, his characters, and his audience into a kind of shared lament for the infinitesimal decision that has just been made, and can never be made again. No wonder Leung's character is a newspaper editor: His career is predicated on making choices that can never be reversed once the copy goes to press. And how understandable it is that Wong found it so difficult to finish this project. Not since the most ambitious work of Kubrick and Scorsese have the theme and style of a film so strongly matched its maker's hyperobsessive methods.

Not wanting to let its own brief moment of opportunity slip away, the American art-film distributor USA Films purchased In the Mood for Love several days ago, sight unseen--which means that it will likely show up in theaters sometime this winter, in time to qualify for year-end awards. As for whether the movie will attract a larger stateside audience than the director's Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, it seems unlikely--and unlikely to matter much in the context of Wong's sizable international reputation as a genius.

Still, the desire to catapult the filmmaker to the proverbial "next level" is palpable: During the roundtable interview, one writer asks Wong whether he'd consider making a movie in Hollywood.

"Well, it has to be mutual," he replies. "I'm not sure that a producer in the West would like to work with a guy who has no script, who has no schedule. So even though I want to, it's not easy. I'd better continue to work in my own way. Hollywood has certain requirements. To work in Hollywood, you have to be Hollywood, you know? It's not that you have to be American, but you have to be Hollywood--you have to speak that language."

And in the end, this sentiment may be what best defines the year at Cannes. For while the currency of international film--the greenback--spoke loudly as usual, directors such as Wong, Yang, and Jiang insisted on communicating in that richer language of cinema.

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