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Asian Cinema at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival

Written by Kevin Ma Tell a Friend

One of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, the Cannes Film Festival showcases some of the world's best films over the course of just ten days. The film festival's main venue also hosts The Marché du Film, one of the largest film markets in the world. Every May, tens of thousands of film fans, industry professionals and stars flock to this little town in the south of France to celebrate the finest in world cinema.

Asian cinema has always had a strong presence in Cannes and 2013 was certainly no exception, with more than 12 Asian films being screened in the main festival and other sidebar programs. The Marché du Film also featured some of the most anticipated Asian films of the coming year. As an Asian film fan, it's hard to imagine a better time to visit the Cannes Film Festival for the first time than this year.

Violence in China, Hong Kong Cinema Returns and the Modern-day Ozu

Despite the rise of China's commercial film industry, Chinese films have been missing in the major film festivals. In 2012, no Mainland Chinese film was chosen for the main competition of Cannes, Berlin or Venice, the world's three largest film festivals.

Cannes 2013 finally broke that streak with the selection of Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin. Dubbed as Jia's tribute to wuxia genre director Chang Cheh, A Touch of Sin is an anthology of four stories featuring mentions of controversial real-life incidents such as the murder of a government official, the Wenzhou high-speed rail collision and employee suicides in factories. All four tales explore the various roots of violent incidents in China, from the willful ignorance of corrupt officials to desperate acts driven by poverty or despair over employment. The film is an incendiary and provocative drama that marks the long-awaited return and a stylistic breakthrough for China's premier auteur. After its Best Screenplay win at the festival, A Touch of Sin will certainly be one of the most anticipated Chinese films of 2013.

Also making a big return to the Croisette this year is Hong Kong, which had two highly anticipated films in the festival. Given an out-of-competition screening slot, Blind Detective is Johnnie To's sixth film to play Cannes and also the first big-screen reunion of superstars Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng since 2004. There was an air of excitement at the film's midnight screening at the Grand Lumiere – attended by To, the two stars and writer Wai Ka Fai – as the audience enthusiastically cheered for each company logo on the screen (the Milkyway Image logo got the biggest cheers). The audience was then pleasantly surprised by a boisterous and wickedly dark romantic comedy featuring cold cases, cannibalism and perhaps the best Andy-Sammi pairing since Needing You. Even though the screening didn't end until 2:45 a.m., the Cannes audience gave To and co. an enthusiastic standing ovation after the film.

On the other end of the Palais, there was also excitement over Un Certain Regard selection Bends. The low-key drama, about a driver who needs to smuggle his pregnant Mainland Chinese wife to give birth in Hong Kong and a socialite whose husband suddenly disappears, marks the feature film debut of young filmmaker Flora Lau. Bends had already attracted attention for having the backing of Nansun Shi (also Tsui Hark's producer), cinematographer Christopher Doyle, as well as stars Carina Lau and Aloys Chen. Expectations then skyrocketed when Cannes selected it for the Un Certain Regard section, a rare feat for a directorial debut. Despite the heavy rain, audiences flocked to the Debussy Theater for the gala premiere – attended by the film's stars, Jia Zhangke, Un Certain Regard jury member Zhang Ziyi and Carina Lau's husband, Tony Leung Chiu Wai – and saw a sensitive, elegant drama that signals an emerging new talent for the Hong Kong film industry.

The Asian film that got the biggest reception, however, was Kore-eda Hirokazu's Like Father Like Son. Starring Fukuyama Masaharu, the family drama follows two families who are told that their sons were switched as babies. Reminiscent of Ozu Yasujiro's low-key family melodramas, Like Father Like Son is a touching film that explores the idea of nature versus nurture and how important blood relation is in a family. Tickets to the two premiere screenings were quickly taken (I waited in line for over an hour for the day-after screening instead), and the film reportedly received a ten-minute standing ovation at the gala premiere. Kore-eda ended up going back to Japan with the third-place Jury Prize.

Future Blockbusters: Inside and Outside the Marché du Film

The Cannes Film Festival isn't open to the general public, which means all attendees are involved in the film industry in some way. One way to get in is to be a participant in the Marché du Film. One of the busiest film markets in the world, the Marché du Film is filled with distributors from all over the world looking to bring the next blockbuster to their home country and film companies trying to convince buyers that they have that film. Asian countries – especially Hong Kong, Japan and Korea – are all over the market, taking large booth spaces on the market floor and turning nearby apartments into offices for wheeling and dealing.

Despite a weak presence in the festival itself, South Korea had a very strong lineup of films for sale. CJ Entertainment, who had the biggest booth by a Korean company, was heavily promoting Snowpiercer, the English-language debut of Bong Joon Ho (The Host), and big-budget plague film The Flu, starring Jang Hyuk (Iris 2) and Soo Ae (Sunny). Other major Korean films being promoted include the big-budget family comedy Mr. Go, hit gangster film The New World, Kim Ki Duk's controversial Moebius, Hong Sang Soo's Our Sunhi, actor Ha Jung Woo's directorial debut Fasten Your Seatbelt and new Jeon Do Yeon starrer Way Back Home.

Some of the biggest box office hits in Japan are based on television series, and Japanese companies had quite a few in the market. Fuji Television was promoting Midsummer's Equation, the second Galileo film starring Fukuyama Masaharu, and The After-Dinner Mysteries, based on the drama starring Arashi's Sakurai Sho and Kitagawa Keiko. Also on offer are Mitani Koki's star-studded period comedy Kiyosu Kaigi, Miike Takashi's Cannes Competition film Shield of Straw, the live-action adaptations of Library Wars and Gatchaman, Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Real, Sono Sion's Why Don't You Play in Hell and the horror sequel Sadako 3D 2.

With the close ties between Hong Kong and China's film industries, many future Chinese blockbusters were represented by Hong Kong companies in Cannes. Some of the biggest China-Hong Kong co-productions in the Marché du Film were Benny Chan's action thriller The White Storm (starring Lau Ching Wan, Louis Koo and Nick Cheung), period action film White Haired Witch (starring Fan Bingbing and Huang Xiaoming), Tsui Hark's Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (starring Mark Chao and Angelababy) and John Woo's upcoming epic The Crossing.

Another major emerging Asian film industry, Thailand had several large displays throughout the market. The biggest one of all was for Tom Yum Goong 2 3D, Muay Thai superstar Tony Jaa's long-awaited sequel to the 2005 smash hit. Sahamongkol Film also heavily promoted Vengeance of an Assassin, the latest film from Bangkok Knockout and Born to Fight director Panna Rittikrai. Pee Mak, now the highest-grossing Thai film of all time, also got prominent placement with a frontpage ad on one trade magazine.

In addition to events inside the Palais, the Croisette is blanketed by movie billboards and press events during the festival. While Hollywood films like Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire and Pixar's Monsters University got the most attention, several Chinese films also made huge splashes with their press events. Already in Cannes for A Touch of Sin, Wang Baoqiang took some time to appear with Donnie Yen and Eva Huang at a special press event for Iceman 3D. Fan Bingbing, who captured press attention during an appearance on the red carpet for the festival Opening Film The Great Gatsby, was actually in town with Jackie Chan to promote their upcoming film Skiptrace.

A Movie Lover's Paradise (If You Can Afford It)

For most of the year, Cannes seems to be a quiet seaside town ideal for a summer vacation. During the film festival, however, it is literally enveloped by the film industry. Festival attendees are easily recognized by the festival bag they carry, every single cinema in the city is used by the festival for market screenings or sidebar programs and thumping bass from the parties can be heard throughout the city center well into the night. Ironically, Cannes residents likely have to leave the city to catch a commercial film in a theater, while restaurants and hotels in the city mark up their prices considerably during the festival.

If you are fortunate enough to gain a badge into the film festival, you will be treated to ten days of the world's best films in exchange for the willingness to spend a few hours in a queue (sometimes in the rain). The Cannes Film Festival may not be the ideal place for a vacation, but I can't imagine a better place in the world for a film lover to be.

Published June 13, 2013

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