Arts: Better book fast, baby

Dennis Lim previews all the best bits of this year's London Film Festival

The London Film Festival is a decidedly audience-friendly event, bringing together highlights from flashier showcases like Cannes, Berlin, Edinburgh, Venice and Toronto. This year's LFF, the 41st, reels some 180 films from 40 countries. Beyond the sellout evening galas, it offers cineastes easy access to an impressive selection of international films, many of which will never again be screened in Britain.

Reacting perhaps to Hollywood's persistent shoddiness, new LFF director Adrian Wootton turns to British directors for both the opening- and closing- night films - Robert Bierman's adaptation of Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and One Night Stand, Mike Figgis's stylish (and rather American) mood piece. But the real home-grown success looks likely to be Nottingham wunderkind Shane Meadows; his first feature, Twentyfour Seven, should deliver on the promise of his inventive low-budget shorts.

More than anything else, the overall line-up reflects the lacklustre state of English-language movies. The traditionally popular US indies are a mediocre bunch this year (worst offenders: the feeble-humoured comedies Kiss Me, Guido and Kicked in the Head). Oddly enough, three films are structured around Thanksgiving family reunions; all are underwhelming. The Myth of Fingerprints provides tastefully-appointed middle-class misery, redeemed only by the luminous Julianne Moore. The House of Yes is a stilted, incest-themed black comedy; and, the best of the trio, Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, captures the brooding tone of the original Rick Moody novel, but few of its insights.

Gummo, the graphic directorial debut of Kids screenwriter Harmony Korine, arrives following vitriolic American notices ("the worst film of the year," shrieked the normally sedate New York Times). Talented though he may be, it's difficult to defend Korine; the few flashes of inspiration can scarcely disguise the film's callow smugness. The two most interesting American entries have in common only their sheer audacity. Neil LaBute's debut In the Company of Men is about two white-collar marketing men who systematically and simultaneously woo and then dump a deaf woman. Less about gender warfare than it is about male oneupmanship, it's an astonishingly successful exercise in making the viewer squirm. As candid, thoughtful, and non-sensationalist as Cronenberg's Crash, Kirby Dick's Sick: the Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is a moving portrait of the remarkable cult figure who drew upon his cystic fibrosis and masochistic impulses to create therapeutic performance art. (Among US movies, the much-hyped porn-industry epic Boogie Nights is such a glaring omission , it must be the favourite for this year's surprise film.)

Outside of Asia, France offers the most noteworthy block of films - mostly from new names like Xavier Durringer (the stark, powerful Bat Out of Hell) and Bruno Dumont (the provocatively uneventful La Vie de Jesus), but also one from a founding father. For Ever Mozart is Jean-Luc Godard's umpteenth fractured contemplation on death, art, and - what else - the movies. Highlights from elsewhere: Destiny, a Egyptian agit-prop musical by Youseff Chahine; The Kingdom II, five more intoxicating hours of the world's best ongoing soap opera from Danish hellraiser Lars von Trier; and a newly discovered and restored Michael Powell film, His Lordship.

This year's "Facing East" slate is the festival's strongest section, thanks to the continuing high quality of Asian film-making, and also to especially judicious programming by Tony Rayns, the acknowledged expert in the field. Taiwan's Tsai Ming-Liang, Korea's Park Chul-Soo and Singapore's Eric Khoo are hardly household names, but they're some of the world's most gifted young directors. Zhang Yuan's East Palace, West Palace takes on sexual taboos in a way that should make it a landmark Chinese film. Takeshi Kitano's Venice prizewinner Hana-Bi, a lyrical, darkly comic cop flick, is a jubilant return to form after a lazy run.

To conclude, two wholehearted recommendations: Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together and Alexander Sokurov's Mother and Son. A former Tarkovsky protege, Sokurov has created an intimate 70-minute opus about a young man caring for his dying mother. The woman drifts in and out of consciousness throughout, and the film itself inhabits a similar twilight zone: the colour is smudged, the sound muffled and arbitrary, and there is an optically disorienting absence of perspective. Suggesting German Romantic landscapes (barely) come to life, the film achieves an ethereal stillness and emotional force of revolutionary purity.

Happy Together is Wong Kar-Wai's most exhilarating film to date - which is saying something for this caffeinated Hong Kong romantic who gave us Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. Photographed by daredevil-cameraman Chris Doyle in rich monochrome and singed, high-contrast colours, the movie is a giddy collision of false starts and new beginnings, Manuel Puig and Godard, Astor Piazzolla and Frank Zappa. Adrift in Buenos Aires, a gay HK couple (matinee idols Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung) break up, make up, and break up again. There's little plot to speak of, but Wong plunges into his characters' homesickness and heartbreak, emerging with a deliriously sensuous melancholy all his own.

The LFF runs at various West End cinemas, from Thurs to 23 Nov. For enquiries, booking, and to request free programmes call 0171 420 1122.

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