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Cannes - Gavin Rees on how a minor film industry is making a great impact

It's sunny in Cannes, but a cold, disapproving wind is blowing across the Croisette, and its object is British film. The decision of the director of the Cannes festival, Thierry Fremaux, not to include any of our "product" in the official selection, designed to celebrate the best of contemporary world cinema, should not be read as just more Gallic condescension. (Truffaut infamously set the tone. When asked what he thought about British cinema, he replied that it was "a contradiction in terms".) Instead, we should take it squarely on the chin, and thank Monsieur Fremaux for a timely wake-up call.

The members of the new Film Council are busy recruiting a small army of policy wonks, and, in between counting all that Lottery silver, they will doubtless be off fact-finding in LA. They might do better, though, to head east. Cannes this year had three Japanese and two Taiwanese films in the competition section alone. In addition, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has defied gravity on screen and at the box office; Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood for Love and Edward Yang's A One and a Two (Yi Yi) have both been garlanded with wild approbation by the broadsheets.

Indeed, anybody who wants to sample cinema's highest capabilities should see Yi Yi. Its ambition is remarkable. Yang tells the entire life story of a middle-class partner in a computer company, N J Jian (Wu Nianzhen), by parcelling out its different stages among his extended family. None of the younger characters knows that they are living out NJ's previous mistakes and triumphs. Only the eight-year-old son - whose hobby is photographing the backs of strangers' heads - has not yet had his emotional foresight blunted by failures in love. This is dense, emotional storytelling, but despite its complexity, events breeze through the structure like improvised jazz. (Hence "A one . . . and a two . . .") Never mind the subtitles, the three-hour running time and the Taiwanese locations; whether you live in Oslo or Rotherham, it's hard not to be engaged.

Taiwan, a country of 22 million, boasts three other film-makers regularly counted in the world festival A-list: Ang Lee, Hou Hsiao-hsien (at Cannes with Millennium Mambo) and Tsai Ming-liang (What Time Is It There?, which was also in the competition). The intensity of their work might spring from an Asian interest in internal emotional states, of elevating the non-verbal over the spoken, or of a graphic consciousness derived from languages that have to be drawn, rather than just written. Perhaps, but the truth could be simpler than such cod orientalism suggests. What these directors are committed to making are meaningful films.

It is a bizarre idea. Most of ours are clever exercises in parodying previous successes. We are supposed to enjoy what the market testing says we should. Taiwan, however, does not have armies of executives or script editors to weed out anybody maladjusted enough to stray from the banal. Indeed, it does not really have a film industry at all.

Hou Hsiao-hsien, rated as one of the world's most technically gifted auteurs, is self-taught, and trained most of his collaborators and actors himself. On record as saying that he might have become a gangster had he not discovered film, he sees cinema as the only medium through which to make sense of Taiwan's fractured and hidden history. Genuine artistic freedom became possible only with the death of Chiang Kai-shek and the lifting of martial law in 1987. Hou's stories are steeped in the murky unfinished business of the Japanese occupation, the conflicts between criminal gangs and the postwar migration to Taiwan from the Chinese diaspora. (Both Yang and Hou were born in mainland China.)

The Tainan Academy of Arts, where Hou teaches, has also produced marvellously talented documentary-makers, who devote more time to trying to distribute their films on video, samizdat fashion, to the communities who need them, than to bowdlerising them for official outlets. In Swimming on the Highway, Wu Yao-tung films a friend dying of Aids. The protagonist compulsively flirts with the camera. He believes that telling his story will give his life the grandeur he fears it lacks. The more he invents (he recasts those who abused him as ideal lovers), the more he aggravates his documentarist friend. Only near the end does he decide it is time to stop telling stories. Terminal illness might provide a metaphor to explain the vigour of Taiwanese film culture: trapped in the bubble between a censored past and the threat from mainland China, there is a sense of living on borrowed time.

Japan is more jaded. Blunted by 30 years of consumerist excess, it feels adrift. Nevertheless, a restrictive social code can act as a prompt to greater creativity. Shinji Aoyama and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (both had work showing at Cannes) have a background in experimental film, and search obsessively for new ways of using composition and timing to underscore the psychological states of their characters. Kurosawa survives financially by turning out boys' own gangster flicks and genre horror movies at a prodigious rate (often three a year) on minuscule budgets. He divides the rest of his time between making his own brooding art-house thrillers and coaching newcomers working on non-professional films.

It is not an ecology that Guy Ritchie would recognise. The UK film industry is in hopeless emotional and commercial hock to Hollywood, and sees little need to run loose with the medium. Moreover, our tendency to recruit film directors either from the theatre or from the advertising industry blesses us with some directors who understand actors, and others adept at telling stories in short graphic bursts. Talents such as Mike Leigh (theatre) and Ridley Scott (advertising), who span both, are rare. But cinema is not theatre or graphic design. It is something in itself. So why can it not be studied as such? I have found more films by British film-makers such as Nicolas Roeg - or even Hitchcock - in Tsutaya, the mainstream Tokyo video rental chain, than I have seen anywhere in London. Asia can boast much bold film-making because it is full of rampant cinephiles.

If the new tsars at the Film Council were to gaze eastward, they would see that fiddling with tax incentives or aping the structures of Hollywood will never seed a new generation of film-makers with the kind of ambition commonplace in Asia. We should toast the success of our Full Montys and Notting Hills. But, if that is all we can make, surely it is a limited triumph.

Gavin Rees is a film editor

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis