Not quite. Yeoh was outshone by Hollywood's Sharon Stone, just recovered from a brain hemorrhage and still the paparazzi's favorite playmate. Devdas, a three-hour romantic phantasmagoria, got little indulgence from the international critics. Though they sat obediently through dozens of mopey minimalist movies, and one with a brutal nine-minute rape scene, they had a low threshold of pain for a pretty film with pretty people singing of love and loss; exactly one critic (this one) was there at the end. As for Chihwaseon, one insider announced a few hours before the awards ceremony that the jury had decided to give it the Palme d'Or (top prize). Yet Im settled for half of the Best Director prize (roughly a fourth-place award); he had to share it with U.S. director Paul Thomas Anderson, cited for the Adam Sandler comedy Punch-Drunk Love.
In the end, a jury that was expected to reward eccentricity and innovation (because it was headed by iconoclastic American auteur David Lynch) gave the Palme d'Or to Roman Polanski's The Pianist, a conventional, if sharply drawn, epic about a Jew surviving the Warsaw Ghetto. Second place, the Grand Prix, went to Aki Kaurismaki's The Man Without a Past—one of the deadpan-comic Finn's finest films, but more sweet than startling. And Im's thanks-for-coming prize was the only laurel Asia received. The one competing Chinese film, Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures, got nothing. As for Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Thailand, they had no films invited to the main festival. India too: Devdas was shown out of competition.
To add injury to insult, Korean director Kwok Jae Young, in town to celebrate the purchase of his romantic-comedy hit My Sassy Girl for a Hollywood remake by DreamWorks, was hit by a car while standing outside the popular Petit Majestic Bar. The French driver, instead of apologizing, chastised Kwok for standing in the way; then, according to the trade paper Variety, three French toughs formed a cordon to let the driver escape. The director left for Paris the next day, body bent but spirit unbroken.
Now one has to ask: has Cannes' Asian spirit been broken? Like a dot-com stock, the cachet of Chinese, Japanese and Korean films soared through the '90s. What was once a nonentity became a new wave. Asia had it all: a rigorous art-film movement and—in Hong Kong action films, Indian musicals and Korean romances—a vigorous populist streak. Inevitably, these achievements produced high expectations. Now Asian films are judged by the strictest standards: the ones they set for themselves. So Asia takes a brief break from trendiness, as Cannes discovers new "hot" cinemas in Latin America and the Middle East.
To westerners, Asia meant Japan in the '80s, China in the '90s; these were the prime areas of an outsider's political and cultural interest. But it's a big continent. Asia also means Iran—arguably the most productive of the past decade—and the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. Who knew that these countries, familiar to CNN viewers mainly as restive neighbors of Afghanistan, had thriving (or even furtive) movie centers? That's a prime function of Cannes: to inform the world of the impulse, and ability, to make good films in strange places. Look around, in programs outside the main competition, and find the truth in Lynch's remark on closing night: "Even if the world it reflects is in trouble, the world cinema at Cannes is alive and well."
Darius Mehrjui's Iranian film Bemani tells of three women in circumstances that are extreme but not, alas, unusual: an Iraqi who befriends an Iranian soldier and is beheaded by her outraged father; a studious Iranian who doesn't tell her father she's taking pre-med courses and is beaten by him; a third girl hit by her father because she chatted with a shepherd, then forced into a loveless marriage with a rich man who will pay her family's rent. The last two women set themselves on fire in protest and despair. Yet the film can also burst into comic atonalities: the rich man who has a security alarm on his refrigerator (it's where he keeps his money), the shepherd on a cell-phone call to a pal in St. Petersburg. Life is sad; life is odd; life goes on.
The Tajik film, Djamshed Usmanov's Angel on the Right, has such a steely appreciation for man's deep need to fleece his fellow man that it plays like a David Mamet film moved to the village that time forgot. An ex-con returns home to help his dying mother. But mom is only pretending; she's a crook too, and wants sonny boy to fix up her house so she can settle the family debts. In a town where every transaction is negotiated with a handshake (you don't let go till you've agreed on a price) and the mayor is a penny-ante Vito Corleone, no one can be trusted, so no one is trusting—including the ex-con's 11-year-old son. The boy's education in moral larceny is the final lesson in this bracingly acerbic amorality tale.
At least Tajikistan is a nation, unlike Palestine. As director Elia Suleiman says, "It's a concept, not a country." Most people would not guess that Palestine had even one filmmaker; if you asked them to define "Palestinian film," they'd say it was newsreel footage of a suicide bomber. And don't even ask about a Palestinian sense of humor. Yet Suleiman's Divine Intervention, which won a jury prize, was one of the most sophisticated and, in its dark way, funniest films at Cannes.
At times a whimsical depiction of little wars (neighbors tossing garbage on each other's lawns), the movie escalates to fire bombs in residences and comic battles at Israeli checkpoints. A balloon with Yasser Arafat's face on it floats above the soldiers; a Palestinian ninja babe beats the enemy with her Yeoh-worthy maneuvers. With its smart humor, as dry as the Negev, this is a film that might raise a chuckle even from Ariel Sharon. Give irony a chance!
One irony behind these Third World films is that their makers often were schooled in the U.S. or Europe. Mehrjui is a graduate of UCLA, a few miles from Hollywood. Suleiman went to New York University, a mile up from Wall Street. The Thai film Blissfully Yours was made by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. Blissfully was named best film in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, in part because it plays by the minimalist rules of international cinema: a static camera, forlorn characters, lots of driving and a little sex for spice. See what you can learn in Western film schools?
Unknown Pleasures has this same edgy ennui in its tale of four young people; this being China, the driving is all on motorbikes. A more traditional mainland film, Dai Sajie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, brings literature to the rural masses but not much pop to the party. Outside the competition, Taiwan pursued its two-cinemas-one-country course. On the art side: Yee Chih-yen's Blue Gate Crossing, a teen courtship fable with a lovely, troubled mood. On the pop side: Chen Kuo-fu's Double Vision, an enjoyable, disposable serial-killer thriller with stars from the U.S. (David Morse) and Hong Kong (Tony Leung). It's been made before, too many times.
Devdas, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's 1917 novel, has been filmed at least three times before, but surely never with such opulence as director Sanjay Leela Bhansali has lavished on the new version. Reportedly the most expensive production in Indian history, it could well be the most visually ravishing movie ever. Its gorgeous, gargantuan sets inebriate the eye, even as the plot (boy loves girl, boy loses girl, boy dies) seems drunk on luscious masochism. Khan, a total, tragic charmer in the title role, is bookended by two beauties (Madhuri Dixit and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai) with a sad wisdom to match their screen charisma. The dialogue is ripe enough to provide song cues for nine fabulous dance numbers. But the fervid emotion and visual chic are what make the thing sing. In just his third feature, Bhansali seems a young master of the medium.
And Im is the Korean grandmaster. He's been directing for 40 years; nearly 100 features. Chihwaseon, his portrait of 19th century painter Jang Seung-Up (known as Ohwon) is both a biography of an inspired, difficult man and as close as Im is apt to come to autobiography. Like a film director, painters work in public: the brilliant peasant Ohwon is ever surrounded by members of the artist class who, in their cool high hats with wide brims, look like hip Hasidim. He applies his drips and daubs like a performance artist (or like Jackson Pollock, another alcoholic who mistreated his women). Im lays out this complex mindscape with the precision of one who knows the artist's wary relation to his audience. As if referring to his own segue from popular movies to art films, he has Ohwon say: "People read in my paintings only what they expect. I must get away from that. If I don't, I'm their prisoner." Just now, Asian films are prisoners of Westerners' expectations. But with artists like Im, films from the East will never lack artistry—or a worldwide audience.