Asian Festival
Some movie artists from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are now working in the West; few stay home. But most show their wares at Toronto's exhausting, enthralling film festival

by Richard Corliss

The audience sat, rapt and giddy, through Zhang Yuan's rollicking documentary Crazy English. Then China's top young renegade director surprised the Toronto crowd by announcing that he would show his brand-new feature, Seventeen Years, which had won the best director prize at the Venice fest just two nights before. The movie wouldn't end until nearly 1 a.m., but most of the crowd stayed. What the heck? For North America's most avid film fans, this was news. This was fun. This was typical Toronto.

Now in its 24th year, the Toronto Film Festival has long been a favorite tourist destination for Asian movies. John Woo was a cult name here in the late '80s, when the Hong Kong auteur was still John Who? in Hollywood. Mani Rathnam, prime fashioner of India's musical melodramas, received a lavish Toronto retrospective in 1994. Today, when few U.S. film lovers know of the resurgence of Japanese cinema or the flowering of movie vitality in South Korea, the Canada cognoscenti have seen most of the best.

So again this year, Festival goers bought a quarter of a million tickets and queued neatly, often for an hour or more, often in the rain, for an all-you-can-eat banquet of films: more than 300 of them from 52 countries. There were the state visits from Bruce Willis, Elton John, Ralph Fiennes, Catherine Deneuve and other celebs, dashing up the red carpets toward the premieres of their films. But Toronto is not a star's festival; it belongs to the people. And never forget that it is called the Toronto International Film Festival, where movies from all over are avidly consumed, considered and debated. After the screening of Sylvia Chang's lovely domestic saga Tempting Heart, two viewers of Asian extraction enthusiastically discussed the film: one speaking English, the other answering in Cantonese. Didn't someone call film the universal language?

So roll out the films from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan: 14 in all at the Toronto fest. Bring on the Japanese: the North American premiere of the anime smash Princess Mononoke, and a spotlighting of the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. And ... wait a minute, where are the Indian musicals?

Alas, none could be found this year - Rathnam's From the Heart, a prizewinner at the Berlin Film Festival was particularly missed - but Toronto had the next best thing: an Egyptian musical in the Indian style. Youssef Chahine's The Other is a teeming, cartoonish melodrama about two young lovers caught in a maelstrom of corporate chicanery and fundamentalist terrorism. Mid-east meets West as a mullah's incantation is interrupted by the beep of an e-mail call. From the desert a vision of religious harmony magically rises: a single building that contains a synagogue, a cathedral and a mosque. Parents scheme against their kids; a Waco-style siege is bungled; and through it all Cairo's Romeo and Juliet whisper hot nothings. (He: "May I touch your hand?" She: "If you're not afraid of catching fire." He, while caressing her hand: "My lips are jealous of my fingers.") It was Indian in everything but language: Egyptian, with-don't ask us why - French subtitles.

The Other proves how Asian movie influences have spread across the globe, aesthetically and geographically. Asian cinema now stretches from the Philippines in the East to Iran in the West. Connoisseurs of Pacific Rim films shouldn't mind this cultural annexation, especially of the Islamic Republic; for when film folk meet years from now, they will say of the '90s: that was the Iranian decade. Toronto showcased two exceptional Parsi parables of survival, one from an old master, the other from a maturing comer.

Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us (winner of the Silver Lion prize at Venice) tells of a city man who comes to a mountain village. Why is the intruder there? We're not sure - probably some kind of modernization scheme. But suspense isn't Kiarostami's aim; he is after ordinary rapture, the gentle collision of distant cultures. "Prefer the present!" cries one old man, and this film makes the rhythm of rural life lucid and luminous.

By contrast, Majid Majidi's The Color of Paradise--top prizewinner at Montreal's World Film Festival, which just precedes Toronto--has plenty of plot. A blind boy (the wondrous Mohsen Ramezani) comes home from school, his widower dad looks for a new wife and finally both father and son tumble through violent rapids in a climax that will end in a death. The Color of Paradise could be called the first Iranian action movie if it weren't so much more than that: heart-achingly simple, beautifully observant of man and nature--an epic in miniature, and a big step up from Majidi's Oscar-nominated Children of Heaven.

Iranian films are rooted in millennia-old soil. Chinese movie artists don't always have that luxury; during an industry recession, and hearing siren calls from Southern California and other exotic realms, filmmakers from the three Chinas go where the work is. That is why, at the end of the millennium, Chinese cinema is less a regional art form, more a point of departure.

The handprints of the Chinese diaspora were all over this year's bulging (432-page) Toronto Festival program. Taiwan's Ang Lee and Hong Kong-born Wayne Wang tackled very American subjects for U.S. companies. Hong Kong's Leong Po-chih made a thriller in England. And though nothing says Manhattan with a more distinctive accent than a Woody Allen comedy, his new one, Sweet and Lowdown, was photographed by China's Zhao Fei, who had shot Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern and Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin. Even France caught the Asian flu: Anne Fontaine's Augustin, King of Kung Fu is a comedy about an actor who dreams of martial-arts stardom and visits an acupuncturist played by Hong Kong enchantress Maggie Cheung.

Lee's Race With the Devil is set in the American Civil War, when a young man was at war not only with his brother but with his own best instincts. Whether killing is a cause, or just a sustained misanthropy, the kids keep at it like wind-up samurais. These are ghost warriors; if they didn't move with the swaggering sociopathy of biker gangs and dress like rock stars, we would realize that they are already dead. Still, for all the carnage, Lee's tone is contemplative. The film pines for those quiet moments when a wounded man can sit holding a baby, the newborn sucking on the man's nubbin of a blasted-off finger. And though the setting is 1860s Missouri, the story has Asian reverberations: this could be China during its long fratricidal war between the Red Army and the KMT.

It is a truism that any film by a Chinese director can be seen as a scathing parable of communism; that is why so many innocent Chinese films remain unreleased on the mainland. But Wang has made most of his movies (The Joy Luck Club, Smoke) in English; by now his films are utterly, at times facelessly, assimilated into U.S. culture. But like a decent director from any country, he can mine a story's suitable emotions. In Anywhere but Here, based on Mona Simpson's novel, Wang does a good job with a tired fictional trope: the blowsy mom at odds with her mature daughter. The two characters do transcend cliché, thanks to boldly delicate performances by Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman.

Leong, the London-born director of such smart historical dramas as Hong Kong 1941 and Shanghai 1920, calls himself a "banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside." The films he made in Hong Kong observe his own people from an ironic distance. His all-British The Wisdom of Crocodiles is a thriller about the ultimate outsider: a vampire (hunky Jude Law) who wants to be human, though he knows that falling in love means an end to his predatory life. From its first shot, of a crashed car high up in the branches of a tree, this fascinating film proceeds with an elliptical elegance. Leong is the compassionate surgeon, operating on a disease called longing.

Are any Hong Kong directors still making movies at home? A few. The one that came to Toronto, Wilson Yip's Bullets Over Summer, is your basic violent buddy picture. Inflation has certainly hit the Hong Kong action film: a couple of hold-up punks, a delivery boy, a half-dozen office workers and an entire wedding party are killed in the first seven minutes. That's just muscle-flexing; Yip is really interested in the impromptu family created when two cops (Louis Koo and Francis Ng) on a stakeout commandeer the flat of a cantankerous granny (Law Lan, whose 60 years in Hong Kong films must be a Guinness Book record). Bullets also has time for a few up-to-the-minute gags. When an informant is hassled by the cops for a botched tip, he says, "Nobody's perfect. The Americans bombed the Chinese embassy by mistake too."

Mainland directors are not noted for their sense of humor. So surprise mixed with delight at the appearance of two laugh-out-loud comedies. Shower, by the video director Zhang Yang, begins with a peek at a prototype ablution. A man steps into a cabinet and gets a car-wash-style shower: he's soaped, scrubbed and blow-dryed as if he were a grimy Toyota. That is the bath of the future; the rest of this family film deals with the bath of the past, one of the 20 or so communal bathhouses still open in Beijing. Zestfully told and acted, Shower was one of Toronto's most buoyant films. It's cleansing!

Exclamations abound in Crazy English, the documentary about Li Yang, China's leading motivational speaker. A messianic capitalist, he teaches English by shouting self-help phrases: "I! May! Dit! I Made It!" And why are you teaching your children English? "One reason: Make Money!" Director Zhang Yuan lets you decide if Li is crazy like a fox or like a mad Englishman. He's certainly engaging--and successful. In the past decade he has won 13 million acolytes in such venues as Tiananmen Square. The sound you hear under the cheering at Li's rally is of Mao rolling in his grave nearby.

Seventeen Years, Zhang's midnight surprise, is a more stolid affair. Two teen-age stepsisters live with their bickering parents; the "good" girl steals a five-yuan note (about 60 cents) and pins the blame on the "bad" one, who is sent to prison. Seventeen years later, she is discharged and goes looking for her family. The film is nicely played but, to Western eyes, too familiar to rise above the ordinary. It wasn't quite worth staying up for.

For an extraordinary blend of all the top themes at Toronto - humanist politics, family travails, wild melodrama, the blight of war - the film to see was one that had hardly been seen in 25 years. Lung Kong's Hiroshima 28, which Sylvia Chang presented at the festival, casts Hong Kong actors (including the ever-radiant Josephine Siao) as Japanese survivors of the atomic holocaust. The film deftly pirouettes from social realism to ghost story, between sympathy to those poisoned by the blast and residual anger at the nation that had so ferociously occupied China. Indeed, the A-bomb is seen as God's wrath on a sinful nation. As Siao's fiancé says, "They [the Hiroshima victims] are still paying for crimes we [the Japanese] committed." The film's message is as relevant now as then. It says that the price for any disaster, military or ecological, will be paid by generations to come.

Lung Kong, now living in Staten Island, New York, is a vigorous 65; three years ago, as an actor in the Hong Kong action film Black Mask, he kicked Jet Li's butt. Yet he has not directed a film since 1977. "I will never retire," he told the Toronto audience. "I still have stories to tell." Hiroshima 28 proved that he deserves a chance to tell them on film. It also proved that, at a 300-film festival, nothing is as new as a terrific old movie.