Cannes: Asia Voices Disappointment Over Limited Inclusion in Lineup

Zhang Yimou's "Coming Home"
Zhang Yimou's "Coming Home"
 LeVision Pictures

South Korean media headlines Thursday reflected the general disappointment in the local film industry, as Korean films were absent from the competition section at the Cannes Film Festival for the second consecutive year.

And China and Japan -- the world's second and third largest film markets, respectively -- had limited news to celebrate, as Japanese director Naomi Kawase's Still the Water was the only Asian film to make the 18-title competition section, and China's Fantasia from Wang Chao is the only Chinese film to compete in the 18-film Un Certain Regard lineup. The art-house directors of Southeast Asia, meanwhile, have been entirely shutout so far. 

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Korean films have had a strong presence at past editions of the French festival, with Im Sang-soo's Taste of Money the country's last film to compete for the Palme d'Or, in 2012. The disappointment in South Korea was markedly greater this year, since the latest works of three of the country's most illustrious filmmakers -- Cannes laureates Im Kwon-taek, Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sang-soo -- all failed to make the lineup. Before the announcement there had been some Cannes buzz surrounding Im's upcoming drama Hwajang (working title), based on the best-selling novel of the same name. Im won the best director award at Cannes in 2002 for Chihwaseon, and Hwajang is the 102nd work by the prolific filmmaker.

"The film industry today has relatively been focused on producing mainstream works over arthouse ones. Film festivals tend to put a lot of weight on art films, and this seems to be why there are few [Korean] selections," said Shim Jae-myoung of Myung Film, which is backing Hwajang.

Kim Ki-duk, who won the award for best film in the Un Certain Regard section for Arirang in 2011, also did not make the cut with his latest vengeance story, One on One.

"It's disappointing because there were high expectations. But more disappointing is that there are no Korean films at all competing this year. We will be focusing on the local promotion for One on One," said a spokesperson for Kim's company Kim Ki-duk Film. One on One is set to hit Korean theaters on May 22.

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It isn't all bad news for Korea though. There will be three Korean films showing out of the main competition: Dohee-ya by July Jung in the Un Certain Regard program, The Target by Yoon Hong-seung as part of midnight screening and Soom by Kwon Hyun-ju in the Cinefondation section for students.

Dohee-ya is an indie film starring Cloud Atlas actress Bae Doo-na as a policewoman who tries to help out a struggling teenager only to become victimized herself by the girl's stepfather.

"It's difficult to believe that my first feature film will be shown at Cannes. I am truly grateful and happy to be given the chance to share Dohee-ya -- which was created by a beautiful cast and crew as one whole team -- with such a large audience," said director Jung.

The Target, meanwhile, is the third Korean film, following A Bittersweet Life and The Chaser, to receive a midnight screening. A remake of the French actioner Point Blank, the film follows a man's struggle to rescue his wife after being framed for murder.

According to a statement released by The Target's production company Yong Film, the producers of Point Blank, Gaumont, praised the remake. "The makers of the original said they enjoyed the film and were particularly impressed by [our lead] Ryu Seung-ryong's acting. [The original film's director] Fred Cavaye called Ryu 'the Korean Robert De Niro' and said he would like to work with him one day."

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Japan's Kawase, Asia's only representative in the main competition, is a longtime Cannes regular and her selection didn't come as much of a surprise.  In 1997, she became the youngest winner of the Camera d’Or with her debut Suzaku. She went on to take the Grand Prix for The Mourning Forest in 2007, as well as making other appearances in competition and serving on the jury last year. The fact that she has become such a regular on the Croisette, coupled with the very limited theatrical release and exposure her films get at home, seems to have contributed to a somewhat muted response to her nomination this year in Japan. Still the Water is said to be a drama about a teenage couple on Amami-Oshima island, and the strange goings-on there. 

When contacted by The Hollywood Reporter, two prominent Southeast Asian directors said they had noted the lack of films from their region in the selection, and were hoping for better news when the Critics’ Week and Directors’ Fortnight sidebar programs are announced next week.

The reaction to China’s underwhelming representation in the Cannes list was somewhat understated, except for a few notices in the state press praising the inclusion of Zhang Yimou's Coming Home. But Cannes' decision to give the Gong Li-starring period film a special out-of-competition screening means Zhang, one of China's most celebrated talents, won't be taking home the critical plaudits and prestige that Chinese leaders so crave -- as their domestic movie market grows but their films' critical reception abroad often falters. 

The limited presence of Chinese films in this year's lineup is all the more striking given the selection of three edgy Chinese titles by the Berlin Film Festival in February -- Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice, Lou Ye’s Blind Massage and No Man’s Land by Ning Hao. Black Coal, Thin Ice ended up taking the Berlinale's Golden Bear. 

Last year’s Cannes best screenplay winner, Chinese director Jia Zhangke, took the opportunity of the announcement to raise a pointed question about how censorship might be affecting Chinese cinema's potential on the international festival circuit. When Jia's A Touch of Sin was picked for Palme d’Or contention last year, it was the first Chinese contender in three years.

“Yesterday, an official asked me how -- if the cultural exchange between China and France is so frequent -- how can we ensure Chinese films attain glory at the Cannes film festival?,” Jia tweeted from his Weibo account.

My reply was: “Ever since Farewell, My Concubine in 1993, films that have won prizes at Cannes have been unlucky in terms of getting a release in China. (Chen Kaige’s) Farewell, My Concubine, (Zhang Yimou’s) To Live, (Jiang Wen’s) Devils on the Doorstep, (Lou Ye’s) Spring Fever -- all have been out of luck in getting a release [here in China]. Is it time to rethink this problem?”

China’s relationship with the Palme d'Or prize has always been a rocky one. Lou Ye entered Spring Fever in the competition in 2009 while he was serving a five-year ban on filmmaking in China for showing his previous film Summer Palace at Cannes in 2006 without government approval.

Last year's festival also featured one of the more bizarre episodes in the Chinese industry's ongoing hot-cold relationship with Cannes. Zhang Qiang, vice president of the all-powerful state film colossus, China Film Group, abruptly left the festival and canceled a press conference after all of his luggage was stolen from his hotel room near the Coisette. He took to Weibo, China's Twitter, to vent his outrage when hotel staff told him to contact the police himself.

“Security in France is so bad, and the [people] are so arrogant,” he wrote.“This film festival is not worth mentioning!” 

The Cannes Film Festival runs May 15-25, with the awards handed out at a closing ceremony on May 24.

Clifford Coonan in Beijing and Gavin Blair in Tokyo contributed to this report. 

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