Asian films gain luster at festival

5:00 AM PST 05/16/2007 by Jonathan Landreth, AP

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BEIJING -- The influence of Asia will be felt from the moment Wong Kar Wai's "My Blueberry Nights" lights the opening-night screen Wednesday at the 60th edition of the Festival de Cannes.

Shot in the U.S., the Hong Kong director's English-language debut stars Jude Law and features the acting debut of singer Norah Jones. It joins three other Asian films in the official selection at Cannes.

"There is definitely some kind of love affair between Cannes and Asian cinema," said Christine Pernin, chief China representative of Unifrance, the French government's cultural envoy.

Also In Competition is "Breath," the 14th film by Kim Ki-duk, one of South Korea's biggest names on the international film festival circuit. "Breath" stars Taiwanese actor Chang Chen as a man awaiting execution who falls for a betrayed wife.

Also from Korea is "Secret Sunshine," by Lee Chang-dong, a former minister of culture and tourism and one of Korea's most respected filmmakers. Lee's 2002 film "Oasis" -- about a social misfit who falls in love with a woman with cerebral palsy -- won the FIPRESCI prize and Marcello Mastroianni awards at Venice.

In "Secret Sunshine," Lee again tackles a challenging subject, the story of a grieving widow who travels to her late husband's hometown only to find that her newfound religious faith fails her when she is struck by another tragedy.

The lone Japanese entry In Competition comes from director Naomi Kawase, who, at 27, won the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1997 for her first feature film, "Moe No Suzaku." Kawase is back this year with "Mogari No Mori" (The Mourning Forest). Scheduled for a June 23 release in Japan, the film is about the relationship between a young caregiver and her recently widowed elderly ward in a retirement home in the mountains.

The three Asian films in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar include the debut film of Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, "Dai Nihonjin." Ai Inoue, spokeswoman for domestic distributor Phantom Film, describes it as a "one-of-a-kind comedy." "He didn't want it to be reviewed in the orthodox way," she said.

Matsumoto told reporters in January: "I definitely don't think it's the kind of work that will be winning prizes at Cannes."

Also in Directors' Fortnight are "Foster Child," Filipino director Brillante Mendoza's exploration of international adoption, and the erotic thriller "Ploy," by Pen-ek Ratanaruang of Thailand.

There are four Asian films in Un Certain Regard sidebar: "The Red Balloon," Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's take on the classic French children's book; "Pleasure Factory," by Thai helmer Ekachai Uekrongtham, set during one night in the red-light district of Singapore; and two films from mainland China, "Blind Mountain" by Li Yang and "Night Train" from Diao Yinan.

International festivals, including Cannes, always have been politically sensitive for directors from China, who must gain Beijing's approval if they wish to get domestic distribution and avoid being blacklisted. In 2006, Lou Ye was banned from filmmaking in China for five years for taking his film "Summer Palace" to Cannes without permission. The film touched on the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.

Pernin said that this year's selection of Chinese-language films came as a surprise to many Asian film fans, as little-known directors got spots at the festival at the expense of such veterans as China's Jiang Wen, who is rushing to finish "The Sun Also Rises."

"Many people thought the old masters were shoo-ins, but this year's selection shows more diversity," Pernin said. "Perhaps it was timing that worked against some films still in postproduction."

A late Out of Competition addition is the police story "Triangle" by Hong Kong hitmakers Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To.

Told in 30-minute segments and starring Hong Kong talent Louis Koo, Simon Yam and Sun Hong Lei, the film will be distributed on the mainland (now key to boosting Hong Kong's flagging local industry) by co-producer Poly Bona, the business arm of China's army.

As such, "Triangle" would have needed to get the Film Bureau's approval to screen at Cannes.

Industry insiders are watching to see if Beijing's approval of a collaborative and potentially commercial genre film was a one-off marketing decision or a shift in policy inside the notoriously conservative Film Bureau.

Mark Russell in Seoul and Julian Ryall in Tokyo contributed to this report.

Asian films at Cannes 2007:
In Competition:
"My Blueberry Nights," Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong (opening night)
"Breath," Kim Ki-duk, South Korea
"Mogari No Mori," Naomi Kawase, Japan
"Secret Sunshine," Lee Chang-Dong, South Korea

Directors' Fortnight
"Dai Nihonjin," Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan
"Foster Child," Brillante Mendoza, Philippines
"Ploy," Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand

Un Certain Regard:
Opening -- "The Red Balloon," Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan
"Blind Mountain," Li Yang, China
"Night Train," Diao Yinan, China
"Pleasure Factory," Ekachai Uekrongtham, Singapore

Short films:
"Grandma," Anthony Chen, Singapore
"My Dear Rosetta," Hae-hoon Yang, South Korea

Special screenings, Out of Competition:
"He Fengming," Wang Bing, China

Critics Week
"Funukedomo, Kanashimi No Ai Wo Misero," Daihachi Yoshida, Japan
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