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February 12, 2003 2:00 AM
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Halfway Through Berlin 2003, Frontrunners Emerge in Competition

Halfway Through Berlin 2003, Frontrunners Emerge in Competition

by Stephen Garrett









Jamal Udin Torabi in a scene from Michael Winterbottom's "In this World."

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

As the 53rd Berlin Film Festival rounds the halfway mark, this year's competition selections haven't generated any major excitement, although a few films are emerging as frontrunners for the Golden Bear. At this point, Zhang Yimou's "Hero," Michael Winterbottom's "In This World," Spike Jonze's "Adaptation" and Stephen Daldry's "The Hours" are winning over the international critics, while some other popular contenders have generated buzz among the kinovolk, such as Gabriele Salvatores' "I'm Not Scared," Wolfgang Becker's "Goodbye, Lenin!," and Isabel Coixet's "My Life Without Me."

Zhang, who first hit the international scene here in Berlin when his 1987 film "Red Sorghum" won the Golden Bear, returns to the festival with "Hero," a dazzling martial-arts epic starring Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi which this week won an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. The drama, about an unstoppable assassin out to kill a merciless emperor, may not match the love story of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" but is certainly its equal in fight choreography and elevates the genre even further with its ravishing visual splendor (photographed by DP wunderkind Christopher Doyle, who incidentally has four films at the Berlin festival). Color-coded costume and production design enhance the action scenes, which include a tag-team Cheung-Leung human shield fending off an army's furious deluge of non-stop arrows and a swirling cat fight between Cheung and Zhang in the middle of a fiery yellow field of leaves (which later tragically turns deep crimson).

The prolific Winterbottom, a Cannes regular, makes an uncharacteristic appearance at Berlin with "In This World," his cinemascope-framed, DV-shot semi-documentary about two real-life Afghan refugees and their heartbreaking journey to escape Afghanistan after the U.S. bombing campaign in 2001 and 2002. Painstakingly detailed about their border journeys through Pakistan, Iran, Italy, and eventually London via Paris (and in one night sequence pushing DV technology to strikingly eerie effect) the film nonetheless trades in any sense of storytelling for the visceral and not completely captivating effects of their car-bus-train experience.

More than a decade after the worldwide success of "Mediterraneo," Salvatores has once again found himself with another possible international hit. "I'm Not Scared," which Miramax bought just a few days ago, is a coming-of-age story about a rural kid who stumbles upon a kidnapped child -- and discovers that his father is one of the culprits. Beautifully shot in cinemascope, the straightforward and somewhat predictable story is thankfully enhanced by fine performances and suspenseful direction.

On the other hand, "Goodbye, Lenin!" takes a high concept premise and endearingly weaves it into a greater socio-political context. The spry German comedy set in 1990 shows the lengths an earnest East Berliner will go to in order to keep his weak-hearted communist mother in the dark about the fall of the Berlin wall after she awakes from an eight-month coma. Slapstick humor and clever sight gags abound in the kind of film in which a surprising nostalgia for life before reunification doubtless would have been hard to imagine a decade ago.

Among the more poetically -- and powerfully -- directed films in competition is "My Life Without Me," a tragic, life-affirming story of a young mother (Sarah Polley) coming to terms with a terminal illness she keeps secret from her family. An eclectic cast that includes Mark Ruffalo, Amanda Plummer, and Debbie Harry helps illuminate this touching English-language production (from Pedro and Agustin Almodovar's El Deseo) directed with a wonderful eye by Spanish helmer Coixet). But the film's true strength comes from the radiant Polley, who gives an indelible performance as the doomed-but-resilient lead. Funny, sweet and sad without ever falling into mawkish melodrama, "My Life" is one of the festival's small delights.

Big-name helmers in competition have turned in a few disappointing works. Alan Parker's studio offering "The Life of David Gale" (making its world debut) is a truly insidious, lurid, and ultimately nonsensical tale of deception and death dressed up in the self-righteous guise of capital-punishment abolitionism. "The Flower of Evil," Claude Chabrol's latest wicked tale of perversity and murder set among France's upper-middle class is, despite wonderful turns by Nathalie Baye and Gallic treasure Suzanne Flon, only sporadically engaging and overall a disappointment. And, making his first appearance here since his Golden Bear victory two years ago with "Intimacy," Patrice Chereau brings "His Brother," a tepid character study of two brothers, one gay and one dying of a mysterious blood disease, who learn to open up and share their lives with each other before it's too late.

Rounding out the other competition films that have played are U.S. releases such as Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris" and George Clooney's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," as well as Moussa Sene Absa's unremarkable African film "Madame Brouette," a banal story of love gone wrong between a shantytown single mother and her two-timing cop lover. And still to come are Rolf de Heer's sexual thriller "Alexandra's Project" and Pieter Kramer's Dutch musical comedy, "Yes, Nurse! No, Nurse!" Sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

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