CANNES 2000: Asian Attack, Yang's "A One and A Two" Jumps Out Front
by Stephen Garrett
No breakout hits have emerged yet at this halfway mark in the festival, with audience members scratching their heads at the solid, though hardly sterling selection of competition films. Although opinions range on high-profile movies like Ken Loach's "Bread and Roses," Neil LaBute's "Nurse Betty," and Joel and Ethan Coen's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", only Samira Makhmalbaf's repetitive but affecting schoolteacher-among-the-Kurds parable "Blackboards" has held its own as the days have passed. "The more films I see," said one festivalgoer, "The better and better Makhmalbaf's movie gets."
As always, though, there are small gems to be found elsewhere on the Croisette. The Director's Fortnight warmly welcomed Sundance's chick-boxing romance "Girlfight," by Karyn Kusama; while the Critics' Week offered up the absorbing, structurally ambitious "Amores Perdidos" ("Love's a Bitch"), by Alejandro Gonzales, three interconnected stories about Mexicans and their dogs. Un Certain Regard showed the visually poetic avant-garde film "Wild Blue," from Thierry Knauf; and in the market, Christopher Nolan's masterful film noir "Memento," once rumored for a slot in the official selection, frankly upstaged some of Gilles Jacobs' choices by being so smart and wickedly clever.
The Asian contingent of Cannes 2000 is beginning to shows its colors, even though some of the heavy-hitting and hotly anticipated contenders have yet to play, including Nagisa Oshima's "Taboo," Im Kwon-Taek's "Chungyang," and Wong Kar-Wei's untitled latest (which is still being edited days before its Saturday morning debut). The results have been strong, though mixed, and always worth discussing. Most controversial of the lot is the Chinese entry "Devils on the Doorstep," by actor Jiang Wen, an ambitious, overlong, rowdy and occasionally dazzling film set during the last months of World War II that probes the delicate, explosive dynamics between simple Chinese folk and the Japanese occupying their country. When country villager Ma Dasan (Jiang Wen) gets two Japanese soldiers thrown into his house one dark night, the entire town is thrown into an upheaval about what to do with them. The result, elegantly shot in black and white, is a kaleidoscope of hysteria, an exhilarating, sometimes exhausting barrage of screaming peasants, rigorous Japanese soldiers and physical pratfalls verging on slapstick. Ultimately, though, the film aptly ties up its stressed-out narrative in a profound, ironic climax.
Un Certain Regard's Japanese entry, "Sunday's Dream," is drastically muted in contrast, an elegiac film about twenty-something Kazuya who, after being fired from his company job by his own father, stays unemployed and befriends a hooker in the red-light district. He also moves in with his divorced mother, who soon gets remarried to a man that Kazuya, to put it mildly, doesn't quite like. Beautifully shot on video, the subtle, deliberately paced film shows a great talent in second-time director Yoichiro Takahashi, who demonstrates a strong eye for framing and great restraint in his modest camerawork while depicting desperation and loneliness with aplomb.
The Korean entry in the Director's Fortnight, Lee Chang-Dong's "Peppermint Candy," is equally modest in its camerawork but more involving in its characters' lives, as Lee uses a backward chronological structure to unravel the history of his protagonist, Yongho, who begins the movie in frenzy, breaking away from a group of old friends having a 20th reunion picnic in order to stand in front of an oncoming train to commit suicide. As the movie moves further and further into the past, more of Yongho is revealed, including his first love and his former career a as a policeman and a factory worker. The film ends twenty years earlier, at the most optimistic time in Yongho's past, marking a bittersweet start point for what turns out to be a social history of Korea as seen through the eyes of Lee's main character.
The best of the lot so far, though, is Edward Yang's Taiwanese film "A One and a Two." Running almost three hours, Yang's epic-length drama is a quietly powerful look at three generations of one middle-class family, the Jians, and how each of them come to terms with the different emotional challenges they face in their everyday lives, from the youngest, grade-schooler Yang-Yang, to his father, fortysomething computer executive NJ, to the family's grandmother, who suffers a stroke.
Rekindled romances, first loves, and even a crime of passion define Yang's touching story, the kind of intimate, mature look at ordinary people that, judging by this year's entries, seems beyond the reach of the American directors here. While the Coen brothers indulge their accomplished camerawork and smug scriptwork, while Merchant-Ivory dish up another scoop of stiff-upper-lipped costume drama wrapped in ravishing set pieces, while LaBute stumbles his way through a violent, magical-realist comedy, "A One and a Two" shows just how powerful ordinary people really can be. "Movies are so lifelike," one of its characters says. "That's why I like watching them." Yang's film is the only one that makes that line really ring true.
[Stephen Garrett is the new film editor for Time Out New York.]