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They come from all over the globe, but they all talk film

Festival-goers may have varying priorities but they share a common cinematic passion.

May 23, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

CANNES, France — At their most exhilarating, film festivals deliver you into other worlds. The other day here, I spent the afternoon in modern Taiwan, by way of the film "Robinson's Crusoe," and the evening in 1920s Manchuria and 1930s Shanghai, by way of "Purple Butterfly," two layovers in a worldwide festival that winds from Iran to Japan.

Continuing with my cinematic globe-trotting that same day, I also had coffee with two British journalists, dinner with a Singapore programmer and late-night drinks with an Austrian museum director, a sampling of 30,000 festival-goers from some 75 countries who are in attendance this year.

Sitting with my friends from the U.K. in the press cafe in the Palais, I discover that no matter how familiar much of contemporary British cinema seems from the vantage point of an American critic, it looks considerably worse to the Brits. To judge from the imports we get in the U.S., exemplified by the gritty social realism of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach at one distribution end, and such ingratiating entertainments as Roger Michell's "Notting Hill" at the other end, British cinema seems at a creative impasse. It's a verdict that, to gauge from the critical consensus, has been borne out by the three British entries in this year's festival.

"It's worse than last year," says Nick James, editor of the British Film Institute's monthly magazine, Sight and Sound. "Last year was a bit of an annus mirabilis, in that there were several British films of art-house quality, which is unusual now. This year the three films, in a way, reflect a kind of poverty in general in the U.K., a general lack of confidence, ambition and imagination.

"You've got 'Young Adam,' which has an exploratory, improv quality to it and is pretty much a success within those terms. You've got Michell's 'The Mother,' which is more traditional in some ways, very much a kind of [screenwriter] Hanif Kureishi taste of nastiness, which I like, but is also psychologically inconsistent. And thirdly, this 'Kiss of Life' [Emily Young's new-age ghost story], which I'm afraid is a lexicon of symptoms of why we're in trouble, in the sense that it's weak on every level."

For the Independent's film critic, Jonathan Romney, "Hanif Kureishi is representative of one of the malaises of British cinema in that it's very much a writer's culture. There are a lot of directors who don't have a very clear profile, a very clear style. Some of them are very, very good but they don't seem able to project a kind of identity, which seems to be natural in France. The tradition of people like Michael Apted, who came up through the BBC ranks and became brilliantly proficient filmmakers who can turn their hand to anything, has passed."

Rigors of running a festival

Later that day, I sit down to dinner with Philip Cheah, director of the Singapore film festival. Unlike James and Romney, who are looking for stories, Cheah is chasing down possible selections for his festival, which happens in April.

He doesn't mind the nearly one-year lag time or is, perhaps more accurately, just resigned to the reality of the international festival scene that finds about 85% of world premieres taking place at just a handful of major venues. Cheah has been running the Singapore festival for 16 years and coming to Cannes for the last 13; it's the only festival for which he pays to come. "The only other festivals I go to," he explains in between bites of flabby pizza and swigs of fizzy water, "are the ones that invite me -- that's how low-budget we are."

Some of his recent festival destinations include Sydney, Manila, Jakarta, Kazakhstan and Sochi, a Black Sea resort that hosts the premiere of all the new Russian films. Half of Cheah's selections come from Asia and he selects some 25 of his nearly 200-films from Cannes.

Running a festival is a tough and increasingly expensive proposition. "Nowadays," says Cheah, describing one trend that often goes unreported, "distributors want you to pay film rentals to show movies in U.S. dollars of about $300. State funding only makes up 4% of our whole budget -- we can't afford to pay a lot of money for rentals. The festival is something that the people in Singapore want but for us it's always been a matter of life and death."

A critic of Cannes

After dinner, I meet Alexander Horwath, director of Film Museum, the Austrian equivalent of the Paris Cinematheque.

"I'm on the lookout for filmmakers who will be worthy of retrospectives in a few years," says Horwath. "Year-round, we show retrospectives, premieres as well as complete monographs of important filmmakers and thematic shows."

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