Fest reeling in Asian films

Influx this year points to French 'love affair'

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

Shot in the U.S., the Hong Kong director's first English- language film 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 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 the Venice Film Festival.

In "Sunshine," Lee again tackles a challenging subject. The story centers on 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 is 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 centers on 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 from Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, "Dai Nipponjin." Ai Inoue, a spokeswoman for domestic distributor Phantom Film, describes it as a "one-of-a-kind comedy."

Also in the 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 the 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; and "Blind Mountain" by Li Yang and "Night Train" from Diao Yinan, both from mainland China.

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. In 2006, Lou Ye was banned from filmmaking in China for five years for taking his film "Summer Palace" to Cannes without permission.

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

A late Out of Competition addition is the police story "Triangle," by Hong Kong hitmakers Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To. The film will be distributed on the mainland (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.

Insiders are watching to see whether Beijing's approval of a collaborative and potentially commercial genre film was a one-off marketing decision or a shift in policy.

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