Montreal Fest boasts world view

Event screening films from 80 different countries

By now, you'd have thought Serge Losique's Montreal World Film Festival would have been pushed into irrelevancy by the Toronto International Film Festival. Toronto, after all, usually gathers all the festival buzz thanks to the presence of Hollywood stars screening potential Oscar contenders.

So when Losique rolled out his 430-strong film lineup for the MWFF's 34th edition, observers wondered if he was putting quantity before quality.

Not so, he insists: "Toronto is dominated by the major studios and their junkets, and that has nothing to do with a normal selection of films, based on quality only."

Losique refuses even to acknowledge a rivalry with Toronto, playing Montreal's best card -- its status as a truly global film event. "Our aim is to bring the best films from as many countries as possible," he says, noting arguably: "There's no other festival in the world that's showing quality films from 80 different countries."

For die-hards like Montreal-based casting director Jo-Ann Gregory, the MWFF's world cinema picks are a perfect reflection of her city's multicultural makeup.

"You have certain communities that are more loyal to films from their particular countries," she says. "And the festival is well attended by the local community, especially young people."

The heart of the fest remains its world competition, which this year includes two American entries: Jeff Lipsky's family drama "Twelve Thirty" and Carl Colpaert's "The Land of the Astronauts."

Lipsky and Colpaert will compete against 20 features and 16 shorts from 24 countries in the official competition, including the Canadian entries "Route 132," from Louis Belanger -- which opens the fest Thursday -- and "Silence Lies," directed by Julie Hivon.

Losique has extra enthusiasm for the latest work from Asia.

"There is a great China-Japan axis that will dominate the future of world cinema," he insists.

Noting that Asian talents like Ang Lee, John Woo and Jackie Chan are already Hollywood stars, he foresees an even bigger global presence now that China has emerged as an economic super power; indeed, it recently surpassed Japan as the world's second-largest economy.

"These and the major directors in China will constitute a main force in world cinema. There will be more Zhang Yimous in the future," he says, speaking of the "Raise the Red Lantern" helmer.

Looking for that next wave of Chinese directors, Montreal has booked Yimou's "A Simple Noodle Story," Zhou Gehe's "Blue Knight" and Mei Hu's "Kongzi," starring Chow Yun-Fat, all to screen out of competition.

It's also going to be a big year for Japanese filmmakers in Montreal, with three films in competition: Lee Sang-il's "Akunin," Banmei Takahashi's "Box: Hakamada Jiken -- Inochi Towa" and Hideyuki Hirayama's samurai drama "Hisshiken Torisashi."

Losique also lauds Russian cinema, which he says is entering a new era of strength after years of post-Communist chaos. "They have a great culture with a great cinematographic tradition. There are a lot of emerging talents in Russia."

Russian fare competing in Montreal includes Svetlana Proskurina's "Truce," while Yusup Razykov's "Gastarbeiter" and Mikhail Konovalchuk's "The Day of the Beast" will screen out of competition.

The Montreal festival also remains a key launching pad for Quebec-made, French-language films, much as rival festivals in Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax showcase regional filmmakers.

Sheila de La Varende, director of national and international business development at Telefilm Canada, the federal government's film financier, says Montreal offers crucial exposure to established and emerging Canuck filmmakers.

"The Montreal moviegoing crowd is very attuned to what's going on at the MWFF," she says.

Looking to get noticed in Montreal this year is Toronto indie producer Julian DeZotti of Doublesee Prods., bringing his dramatic comedy "New Year" from director Philip Borg for a world bow. DeZotti co-wrote the low-budget comedy about death, unwanted pregnancy and partying with Borg.

DeZotti expects to connect with a younger audience in Montreal because he and his team work away from the traditional state-sponsored film community in Canada.

"We're different, we're not a real art film," he says. "Our film is a bit more sexy and fun, and more commercial."

The festival has also scheduled tributes for two international actresses -- France's Nathalie Baye and Italy's Stefania Sandrelli -- as well as Iranian director Jafar Panahi (2003's Cannes winner "Offside"), who was president of last year's Montreal jury.

But Panahi will need to retrieve his passport from Iranian authorities, following his recent imprisonment and release in late May, if he has any hope of showing up for the tribute itself.