A festival crammed with delights The films in Cannes …

May 21, 2004, Friday

A festival crammed with delights The films in Cannes ranged from a
balletic martial-arts epic to a gripping family drama made for just


This was meant to be the year when Asian cinema conquered everything
before it at Cannes. Korean pulp maestro Chan-Wook Park certainly
didn’t take any prisoners with Old Boy. It’s a dark revenger’s tale
about a wild-haired guy who is hellbent on finding out why he was
imprisoned in a windowless apartment for 15 years and who it was that
killed his family.

Violent, nasty and thoroughly exciting, it features gag-or-glee
scenes in which characters eat live octopuses and chop out their own
tongues. One terrific kung-fu scene where the guy takes out more than
a dozen assassins, a scene shot in profile and almost in silence,
will have had Quentin Tarantino (head of the voting panel and a huge
Park fan) in raptures.

More poetic was Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers. This Chinese
martial arts epic about a love triangle that develops between members
of the ninth-century Tang Dynasty and its radical opponents has very
little blood-letting. Instead, the fighting is choreographed with a
deftness and grace that turns it into a form of ballet. It’s rare to
see a female lead, Zhang Ziyi, play such a prominent role, not least
since she portrays a blind double agent. Costume and music are used
to ravishing effect, while the russet colours of the landscapes in
which the drama unfolds are both unusual and deeply lovely.

Coffee and Cigarettes by American indie giant Jim Jarmusch is a
low-key but delightfully droll collection of dialogues between
well-known and counter-cultural faves, mostly playing themselves.
Cate Blanchett is a feted Australian actress who is visited during a
press junket by a snarky, punky cousin (also played by Blanchett).
Iggy Pop pow-wows with Tom Waits; Jack and Meg White of the White
Stripes have a curious dialogue about motor technology; Bill Murray
works undercover as coffee-guzzling restaurant hand, before being
spotted by members of the WuTang Clan. Best of all is a double-header
in which Alfred Molina arranges a meeting with Steve Coogan to inform
him that they’re cousins. Coogan, in LA to hustle for Hollywood
roles, is distinctly unimpressed – until he learns that Molina is a
friend of Spike Jonze. The film is a tribute to the joys of creative
idling and ends with a nice touch: the slogan “Long live Joe

One of the more subtle pleasures of the festival has been Argentinian
director Lucrecia Martel’s La Nina Santa. It’s an oblique and
elliptical comedy of manners set in a small hotel that’s hosting a
medical convention. It’s run by a glamorous middle-aged mother who is
attracted to a delegate with an unfortunate tendency to rub against
young girls, one of whom is his suitor’s teen daughter. Not that she
minds – she’s a languorous adolescent who wants to use the Catholic
doctrines she studies in school to try to save him. The plot is full
of false turns, and belly laughs are scarce. Still, as both an
exquisitely constructed strand of higher sitcom, as well as a
portrait of the tensions around burgeoning adulthood, this is an
attractive curio.

Made for $218.32, Tarnation by Jonathan Crouette is a painfully
revelatory documentary about the director’s mother, who was
needlessly given electric shock therapy for much of her life, and
about his own subsequent descent into drug abuse and self-mutilation.

Intercut with home footage, it uses techniques associated with
experimental cinema (split screens, sound distortion), but puts them
to unusually emotional effect. Sumptuously soundtracked by Nick Drake
and Belle and Sebastian, and executive-produced by Gus Van Sant, it’s
likely to attract big audiences when it’s released in the UK.

Cannes prides itself on its respect for celluloid history, and this
year saw a welcome showcase for some of the key films of the
Brazilian Cinema Novo movement of the early 1960s, and a great print
of Mehboob Khan’s 1957 social epic Mother India.

Also of note has been Wall, Simone Bitton’s investigation of the
barriers constructed to separate Israelis from Palestinians, which
expands into an urgent and deeply felt tone poem about the psychology
and politics of the Middle East. I Died In Childhood is a haunting
portrait of the great Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov made by his
nephew. Including footage from now-unknown classics such as The
Colour of Pomegranates, it will be of interest to fans of Russian

So who will win this year’s Palme d’Or, to be announced on Sunday?
The smart money’s on Walter Salles’s The Motorcycle Diaries and Wong
Kar Wai’s 2046 (due to be shown last night, after a race against time
to get it finished). The strangest film, though, was Thai director
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s wild and imaginatively unfettered
Tropical Malady. That, and Michael Winterbottom’s audacious and very
affecting 9 Songs, have been my favourites of Cannes 2004.