Amidst a gigantic Orson Welles Retrospective and a massive programme at the 58th Locarno Int'l Film Festival held in August, it was still possible to find Asian cinematic gems. Philip Cheah reports.

Out of the three years that I've been to the Locarno Int'l Film Festival, my lasting regret has been that I'd never found the time to ride the funicular cable car up the picturesque mountain landscape. Oh well, I've been equally cursed this year. After keeping track of the competition screenings, I had my eyeful at the Orson Welles Retrospective that Festival Director, Irene Bignardi, mounted. That dashed all my free time for mountainous leisure options. Many of the Welles classics - The Trial, Macbeth - plus B-grade acting roles - David and Goliath, Man in the Shadow - were too tempting to miss.

The Welles retro was a difficult task as many films had disputing rights holders. Because Welles was destroyed by the Hollywood studios, he had to spend the rest of his life raising money wherever he could find it - Spain, France, Austria, England, Italy and even Iran and the former Yugoslavia. This is why so many foreign documentaries are made on Welles and the retro had a wonderful collection of them. Every country had their own favourite story about their favourite son. Also remarkable were the collection of numerous TV episodes that Welles either directed or appeared in, including a cameo in I Love Lucy!

In fact, Welles regretted falling in love with film towards the end of his life. He lamented that the medium was just too expensive and had he stayed in theatre, he would have been more successful. But like his Harry Lime character in The Third Man, he wouldn't have chosen the latter route. Peacefulness would only have produced a cuckoo clock.

Outside of the reliable retrospective, Locarno had its slew of world premieres. But as world premieres go, there were many big name disappointments. The Quay Brothers' The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes registered a non-reading on the Richter scale. Nobuhiro Suwa's A Perfect Couple suffered from too much composure while Iraqi expatriate director Samir's Snow White was truly an unbelievable fairy tale.

Christian Frei's The Giant Buddhas.

The video competition fared better. Li Hongqi's So Much Rice, which took the NETPAC Award, is an absurdist meditation on the current mean spirit that is taking root in China. The protagonist Mr Mao goes to live with his friend in a small town. But each day he finds common decency becoming uncommon. His friend abuses a woman who gives herself romantically and sexually to him. His friend even offers the woman to him. Mr Mao meets a youth who refuses to apologise to an old man after causing an accident. In the end, he leaves his friend, and wanders off carrying a sack of rice, a symbol perhaps of China today with enough to eat but nothing to believe in. Shot in a minimalist style to produce a sense of alienation, the theatrical look of the film suggests Li's literary background as a published author and poet. The cameo by rocker Zuzhou Zuxiao (perhaps this generation's Cui Jian) gives the soundtrack a commentary and resonance.

The other stunning work in the video competition was Mohammad Shirvani's President Mir Qanbar, a documentary of Mir Qanbar, a 75-year-old Iranian living in a small village, who campaigns for his election as president of Iran. We see him riding to rural villages, meeting people and handing out pamphlets (not more than three copies per town as he can't afford it). In a key scene, he quotes Ayatollah Khomeini as saying that the Iranian people must believe that they can rule the country. It's one of the strangest twists to the film because it is a truly democratic signifier, one that dismisses the meritocratic demands for academic and professional qualifications. Of course, the film is a critique to Iran's current state, with Mir Qanbar representing the little voice that is often shut out. Shirvani directs with a post-modern pop sensibility yet there is a sense of distance and space in his composition. His work can only get more interesting.

Less successful was the latest edition of the Jeonju Film Festival's Digital Short Films by Three Filmmakers. The first has Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Worldly Desires, which works as a sort of coda to last year's Tropical Malady. We see a film crew shooting a music video and a melodrama in the forest. It's a series of contradictions that he puts forward, the natural environment visited by unnatural drama. It's playful, irreverent and a nice fun piece. Shinya Tsukamoto's Haze follows with a tale of a man escaping an unknown prison. Typical of Tsukamoto's work, Haze is both punishing and painful, the images brutal and horrifying. At the end of it, you find yourself applauding out of sheer relief. Finally, there is Song Il-gon's Magicians, about members of a rock band who meet to share memories three years after their guitarist committed suicide. Going backwards and forwards through time with a slightly melancholic mood, the film drowns in its own lack of tension.

The joint winner of the Video Competition was Brilliante Mendoza's Masahista (The Masseur). Highlighting the lives of workers in a Filipino gay massage parlour, the film uses extensive flashbacks to show how the protagonist is forced into his current occupation through poverty. It also reveals how heterosexual men take on a bisexual role just to get a job. Mendoza makes the best of a script which doesn't flesh out (no pun intended) the characters enough, through a structure of flashbacks.

Meanwhile, in the Filmmakers of the Present section, Christian Frei's The Giant Buddhas documents the monumental efforts to reconstruct the giant Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, six months before the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. He narrates how the Taliban reacted to UN sanctions by destroying the Buddhas. Then he shows how UNESCO is trying desperately to rebuild the monument and, in the process, farmers who used to live in the ruins have been forced to relocate to a more remote area. The film is full of historical and religious detail including a trip to China to visit the giant Buddha there and its relationship with the Bamiyan Buddhas. Finally, there is the irony, that two monuments were destroyed - the Bamiyan Buddhas and the World Trade Centre - two symbols of the spiritual and material world.

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