FILM / Rushes: The Bear heads east

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The Independent Culture
LIKE THE sun that rose over a snowy Berlin this week, the best things at the 43rd International Film Festival came from the East. The joint winners of this year's Golden Bear were Taiwanese director Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet (shot in New York), and The Woman from the Lake of Scented Souls, by China's Xie Fei.

The latter film dominated aesthetically, enveloping its audience in a tale of infidelity and shame on the banks of a placid lake. Siqin Gaowa, a Mongolian actress now living in Switzerland, was persuaded to take the lead role for a fraction of her usual fee, and brings an anguished radiance to every scene. She plays an abused wife having an affair with a delivery boy, only to be discovered by her retarded son's wife (whom she 'bought' for an inflated dowry). Rather than betray her, the younger woman colludes in the deceit.

The Wedding Banquet is an altogether different creature. A farcical comedy of manners, it sets up Wai Tung, a gay Taiwanese real-estate agent in New York, in a marriage of convenience with Wei Wei - an impoverished artist. This satisfies his parents back home who long for offspring; she gets a green card. Then Wai Tung's parents insist on arriving for a wedding ceremony, which they lay on at great expense for the couple, not twigging that their son's constant male companion Simon (played by Roy Lichtenstein's son Mitchell) could be something besides a friend.

But it is more than the mechanics of the plot which amuse. There are endless telling glances, visual gags and mistaken conventions which keep you on the edge of a giggling fit. Wai Tung, desperately re-vamping his flat in preparation for his parents' arrival, swaps a Robert Mapplethorpe-esque study in leather for his own portrait in military uniform. Kitchen scenes are elaborately choreographed to convince the parents that it is Wei Wei, not Simon, who cooks such exquisite Taiwanese food.

Despite subtitles for the Chinese dialogue, and this unfamiliar throwing together of cultures and habits, The Wedding Banquet's absolute communication of its humour and compassion earned it a rousing ovation in Berlin.

Outside the official competition, a further section of the Young Film-maker's Forum was dedicated to Chinese film. The highlights included Mama, by the 29-year-old director Zhang Yuan. 'Something is happening in China,' observed the Forum director, Ulrich Gregor. 'There is a new freshness in its films. They are moving away from the operatic, stylised visions of recent years towards more modest, but more realistic treatments.' He eagerly awaits Zhang Yuan's next project, to be entitled Beijing Bastards, which stars a young Chinese rock star.

Alongside increasing thematic flexibility, China's studios are finally being freed from state control. From January this year, filmmakers like Zhang Yuan have been at liberty to raise money from any source, then produce and distribute films themselves. For Western producers, this represents a chance to tap into the world's largest market, with its 1.3 billion potential movie-goers. It is likely to be local economies such as Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan which make the first moves. But in any case, Berlin saw the coming of age of a film culture which will throw a lengthening shadow over the European screen.