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May 18, 1998 2:00 AM
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At Cannes, Loach Goes with "Joe," Ming-Laing Jumps From "The Hole" and Solondz Hits with "Happiness"

At Cannes, Loach Goes with "Joe," Ming-Laing Jumps From "The Hole" and Solondz Hits with "Happiness"

by Anthony Kaufman with Stephen Garrett




As of the end of the first weekend in this fest of all fests, Ken Loach's
"My Name is Joe" and Tsai Ming-Liang's "The Hole" remain the critical front
runners to steal this year's golden palme -- but its still early and there are
several more days to go, with buzz stirring around Lodge Kerrigan's "Claire
Dolan,"
eager anticipation for Todd Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine", as well as
foreign heavy hitters like Lars Von Trier and Hou Hsiao-Hsien waiting in the
wings. Robert Benigni's competition pic, "La Vita e Bella" ("Life is Beautiful")
which was acquired for U.S. release by Miramax prior to the festival, also
looks to be an audience favorite with an apt blend of commercial humor,
tear-jerking drama, and a Chaplinesque sense of character and direction.
But as for the critics picks, many are looking to Loach.


Actor Peter Mullan plays director Ken Loach's newest working-class hero
in "My Name is Joe," a wrenching Scottish drama about a recovering alcoholic
trying to get his life back on track in a part of poverty-filled Glasgow that's
rife with drugs. "There's a very human need to try and find [a way to] laugh and
somehow get by," explained Mullan at the film's press conference, "[while]
all the time on top of it is this sheer concrete sense that you're never
going to escape from it." Croisette buzz also holds Mullan as the heavy
contender to win the Best Actor award here.


Loach added his own words about the situation he depicted in his film: a
far-too-common occurrence of general despair that he has observed in
Glasgow and elsewhere in the U.K., "There's this passivity and in a way that's
an insane response because the response ought to be anger, shouldn't it?
And yet there is this feeling of just calm passivity on the surface; and that
is kind of alarming."


The oppressive plight of Loach's characters is similarly felt in Tsai
Ming-Liang's duo of rain-soaked, symbolic neighbors in "The Hole."
Produced as part of a series of films for the end of the millenium by French
production company, Haut and Court, "The Hole" refers to a missing piece of
floor that brings together its two lead characters, a down-and-out man
possibly infected with a millenial epidemic who lives upstairs (Lee
Kang-sheng) and the women down below, played by the much-acclaimed
Taiwenese actress Yang Kwei-mei. "Essentially, a film about rain," said
the director whose water metaphors also suffused his previous festival
hit, "The River," "The Hole"'s setting is a seedy apartment building flooded
by ongoing downpours. The water and minimalist, meditative nature of
the direction lends itself to much broader meanings. "From my experiences
in Taiwan, you have a big rain, and then you have a big fall. Anything
that's happening now is the price we pay for the economic growth of the
last decade." But the film's bleek depiction of its cockroach-like urban
inhabitants is counterbalanced with some fantastic surreal musical
sequences lipsynced Monroe-style by Kwei-mei. The film also includes
an inspirational conclusion. On these lighter moments, Ming-Liang
ultimately sees the movie as a sort of love story, "a kind of salvation"
and as "counterweapons for my harsh reality."


When asked if the world market is more open to Asian films, French
producer Caroline Benjo claimed, "It's not very fair to this cinema, for
sure. In Europe, it's better. In France, particularly, there is a great forum
for Asian cinema. But, I wish America was a bit more open to Asian films.
They've discovered thanks to Tarantino (though it's pretty late) that
suddenly there is that Wong Kar-wei thing. But there are many other
films. I wish North America was more open," she concluded. "I think
it's time." Despite Ming-Liang's success along with a few of his
compatriots, he felt the current state of filmmaking in Taiwan is
under desparate times. "Directors in Taiwan are facing the worst
environment ever and every director has a very small budget and the
films we are making under this low budget create similar qualities --
you can't afford to have big stars, you can't afford to have more sets
and props, but on the other hand, these kinds of financial restrictions
allow us more freedom because we're not too controlled or influenced."


Financial freedom (and lack thereof) is something that indie director Todd
Solondz knows a lot about. But the director of the low-budget film
"Welcome to the Dollhouse" returns to the big screen with an assured film
that will settle the minds of anyone doubtful of his abilities to continue
an auteur's career. Selected for Directors Fortnight, Solondz's perverse
black comedy, "Happiness" -- produced by Good Machine along with help
from its U.S. distributor, October Films -- is as enjoyable as it is disturbing.
Among its sick and twisted characters,"Happiness" profiles a suburban
father who is also a serial-killing pedophile. "He had a wife and children.
And I just couldn't help wondering who these people were," said Solondz.
"Who his family was and how that could possibly exist? It was not a
unique situation -- I've read about other serial killers whose wives
have discovered dead bodies after many years in the basement. And that
kind of management of an illness I just found very provocative." In
attendance at a specially added market screening were several selection
committee members from the New York Film Festival, so don't be surprised. . .
Solondz's soon-to-be controversial release is also being eyed by many
international distributors with several territories, including the UK,
going over the weekend.


With the weekend over, the real work begins. Screenings today include
Italian comedian-philospher Nanni Moretti's competition film "Aprile" as
well as the anticipated Un Certain Regard screenings of Stanley Tucci's
follow up to "Big Night" named "The Imposters" and John Maybury's "Love
is the Devil
" which stars Sir Derek Jacobi as British artist Francis Bacon.


>> RELATED ARTICLES @ indieWIRE.com:


(May 15, 1998) Day Two At Cannes with Willem Defoe, Paul Auster, and the
International Market of Technologies and Innovation in Cinema


(May 14, 1998) Cannes Kickoff -- Nichols, Scorsese, Troma, and Pamela Lee


(Apr 23, 1998) 1998 Cannes Film Festival Lineup

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