If the Cannes' Best Film prize seemed a little undeserved, the awards that went to the other categories were better spread out. And at least, many of the undeserving films didn't get anything. Philip Cheah reports.

The fact that Bruno Dumont won the Grand Prize for Flanders was a tender mercy. Dumont's films are normally quiet but often possess a brutal, ugly centre. Flanders follows that path. Here three farm boys from Belgium are drafted into military service in the Middle East. While Dumont doesn't say so, it could very well be Iraq or Afghanistan. The trouble is two of them are in love with the same girl who offers them equal sexual privilege (here is Dumont's theme of Christian compassion a la Mary Magdalene which makes this film the real Da Vinci Code).

When the film jumps into the war zone, some of the most believably brutal war scenes take place including rape and torture. Only one of the three men makes it back home. He is one of the two who loves the girl. When they have sex again, he finally declares his love for her. Dumont's film is a meditation on love and violence, and the question is why the former is harder to express than the latter. While it doesn't rise above his best film, Humanity (1999), it is definitely one of the best films about the current war.


Racheb Bouchareb's Days Of Glory.

Similarly, it was a great relief that Algerian director Racheb Bouchareb's Days Of Glory took a collective Best Actor Prize. The film is about North African Muslims who volunteered in World War II to fight the Nazis to free France, their colonial master, an irony in itself. Bouchareb's film is wonderfully made with strong dramatic moments and taut action scenes. It can rank with any of the best World War II films.

Like the Japanese Americans who fought in World War II alongside the Americans, the African Muslims were also never accorded the glory given to a liberator. After holding out in the village of Alsace against all odds (thus saving the villagers), the African Muslims were shunted out of view while the French held a victory parade. This film like Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley joins the group of films that echo what Loach said: "And maybe, if we tell the truth about the past, maybe we tell the truth about the present."

Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu also tries to tell the history of the present. He won the directing prize for Babel, featuring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in a multicultural drama about a rifle. You can almost subtitle the film, "The Shot that's Heard Around the World." Given by a Japanese hunter to his Moroccan guide who sells it to a shepherd, the rifle is tested by the shepherd's sons who unintentionally wound an American tourist (played by Cate Blanchett).

Like the Japanese Americans who fought
in World War II alongside the Americans,
the African Muslims were also
never accorded the glory given to
a liberator. After holding out in the
village of Alsace against all odds
(thus saving the villagers),
the African Muslims were shunted out
of view while the French held a
victory parade. This film like Loach's
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
joins the group of films that echo
what Loach said: "And maybe, if we tell
the truth about the past, maybe we tell
the truth about the present."

Meanwhile, the American tourist's Mexican maid takes their children back to Mexico for a wedding but is suspected of kidnapping when she tries to re-enter the US. The whole tapestry of confusion and misunderstanding reveals Inarritu's point about the multicultural world today, we are still a cacophony of unheard United Nation voices. Inarritu sure has the skill of narrative patchwork which warrants the Best Director prize but like most anthology films, some parts are not equal to the other parts. The film feels loosely sewn together and qualifies for being an audience film for the critics.

Sad to say, both Aki Kaurismaki's Lights in the Dusk and Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette were underwhelming exercises. Kaurismaki ends his Loser Trilogy (which began with Drifting Clouds and The Man Without A Past) with a portrait of a man who doesn't know how to fight back. Unfortunately, unlike previous works, Kaurismaki's deadpan humour here falls flat rendering the film more two-dimensional than it should have been.

Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette takes the post-modern period film where Moulin Rouge left off, by charging off with a wall-to-wall punk and alternative rock soundtrack, complete with American mall-girl accent for the Marie Antoinette character (played by Kirsten Dunst). The conceit wears out after 30 minutes and drifts out into stylised poses. Not even the best rock music helps and if this is 18th Century France, no wonder Kurt Cobain committed suicide.

Finally, kudos to Wong for not wearing his nationalism/ethnicity on his sleeve. Lou Ye's Summer Palace had only one thing going for it - nudity of young Chinese couples. We all figured why China has such a large population so why not show it? Better than his last outing, Purple Butterfly (2003), Summer Palace distinctly pales against Suzhou River (2000), his best work.


Aki Kaurismaki's Lights in the Dusk.
 

In Summer Palace, Lou Ye is trying to do a Jia Zhang Ke by situating the personal against a broad sweep of history (the Cannes thing again!). A girl from the village goes to Beijing to study in the university. She leaves her childhood lover back home and discovers the free sex in Beijing. After the Tiananmen massacre, the student friends split up and the film's latter half takes place in Berlin. Here, we see the fall of the Berlin Wall. Finally, the third act sees them in adulthood, none the wiser, maybe a sad reflection of the history of the world.

The sex scenes in Summer Palace is bold (for China) but boring. "How many positions can you have in a student bunk bed?" quipped one critic. The Chinese censors apparently weren't so discriminating. As the film was rushed to Cannes without getting the censors' approval, Chinese journalists were told not to play up the film, and the official Chinese delegates left earlier than expected.

In attempting such a broad sweep, Lou Ye himself seemed a little bored and tried to use his entire visual bag of tricks to engage the viewer. But the characters themselves had vague inner lives and that in itself was a problem Their bodies however weren't so problematic. China should at least be proud that their revolutionary cadres excelled themselves physically.

In a year when the Asian content in official selection was so low, it seemed almost a consolation that Wong Kar Wai was elected jury president. And considering how erratic the selection was (the opening Da Vinci Code was a sign), it was a consolation that I survived my 15th year there.

Next week: The Road From Cannes, Part III


Click here for other movie articles by Philip Cheah:


On The Road From Cannes, Part I
East Goes West, West Goes East

Finding Asian Film Gems In Locarno 2005
Five Leaves Left: The Last Days Of Kurt Cobain
Imagine There's No Countries...
The Power Of Nightmares

The Year Of Speaking Mandarin




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