Film: Of gentle gangsters and juvenile delinquents

The Locarno Film Festival is perfect. Almost.
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The Independent Culture
THE LOCARNO Film Festival is in full swing. This year, its 52nd, a total of 25 films from countries as diverse as France, Italy, Egypt, South Korea, the US, Hungary, Japan Russia and Australia (but regrettably not the UK) lined up for the prestigious Gold and Silver Leopard Awards. Unlike its other European counterpart Cannes, this 11-day Swiss festival eschews glitz and glamour (there is no Palais de Festival, for example) in favour of a more personal approach.

The festival is in the process of change, with the appointment of a new president, an increase in budget to Fr4.2m (almost pounds 2m) and elevation to the same level as other institutions such as symphony orchestras and museums. All of this augurs well for the future, but what of the present? Well, 1999 proved, if not a vintage year, then certainly a notable one.

The major coup of festival director Marco Muller was to secure, at the last minute, the print of Liu Bingjian's "scandalous" Men and Women, (Nannan Nunu) which is banned in China and is the first film to emerge from the country's radical gay movement. It is winter 1999. Xiao Bo, a reserved young man, arrives in Beijing looking for work. Taken in by a manageress, whose husband then decides to rape him, Xian Bo takes refuge with a homosexual friend, Chong Chong.

Rejecting any form of judgemental attitude, Liu Binjian uses an accumulation of small details to trace the development of his characters. The result is a subtly subversive, unsentimental portrayal of contemporary Chinese society which, despite its provocative subject matter, avoids vulgarity or sensationalism. The actors are mainly non-professional and the film has a cinema-verite sense of authenticity.

Kitano Takeshi is a director who is held in high esteem especially in Switzerland and a documentary about the making of his latest work was screened as an appetiser for the main event, shown out of competition, The Summer of Kikujiro (Kikujiro No Natsu). Takeshi, who won the Venice Film Festival two years ago with Hana-Bi, has produced a much gentler, more whimsical piece here, with none of the violence of his past films. Its protagonist, Kikujiro (Takeshi himself), is a "gentle" gangster who takes to the road with a young boy, Masao. The trouble is that Takeshi fleshes out a straightforward story with surrealistic images, dream sequences and comic routines, some of which work, most of which don't. But the film has a Chaplinesque quality and is beautifully shot, while Hisaishi Joe's haunting, evocative music adds a true touch of magic.

The top award at the festival, the Gold Leopard, went to Helene Angel's striking first feature Skin of a Man, Heart of a Beast (Peau d'Homme, Coeur de Bete). The film is about capturing a distant time, when the world appeared a primitive place, and reliving events which cannot be changed or transformed but which remain with you for the rest of your life. A taut psychological thriller that builds up an atmosphere of menace, the film is given a sense of conviction by its largely unknown cast.

Post-Stalinist Russia is the setting for Valerij Ogorodnikov's The Barracks, which was the recipient of the Silver Leopard. Adapted from a short story by Viktor Petrov, I found this tragi-comic portrait of the world of everyday provincial life in rural Russia a confused and frenetic affair, lifted by some good performances.

The best film was the superb US indie The Dream Catcher, by debut writer- director Ed Radtke, about two men, Freddy and Albert, who cross the US together, getting to know - but also hate - one another. The familiar road-movie-cum-crime-caper theme is given a renewed lease of life here thanks to a hard-hitting script with illuminating insight into characters and landscape and intense performances by its two excellent young leads, Maurice Compte and Paddy Connor.

But it is Radtke's own experiences as a juvenile delinquent that make this bleak but absorbing work such a committed and moving experience. Needless to say, the film went unrecognised by the jury and failed to win one of the main prizes it so richly deserved.