Asia major

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