Film: Two gongs for two Zhangs in Venice

In his second report from the Venice Film Festival, Lee Marshall applauds both winners and losers

WHEN CHINESE TV crews were allowed to take up prime positions in the Palazzo del Cinema on the Venice Lido an hour before the award ceremony began, the rumours were confirmed. Zhang Yimou was to be given the Golden Lion - the Festival's top award - for his film Not One Less. But the real surprise came when his compatriot, Zhang Yuan, was awarded the Special Prize for Best Director for Seventeen Years, the other Chinese film in competition.

The older and more established of the prize-winning Zhangs - Yimou - has the approval of the Chinese authorities, while the other - Yuan - is seen as a maverick independent director. He had to turn to fashion retailer Benetton to get Seventeen Years produced. (The film was listed in the Festival catalogue as an Italian film.)

Media coverage centred on the "embarrassment" caused to the Chinese delegation by the prize awarded to Yuan, but Yimou too has had his brushes with China's spectacularly obtuse cinema bureaucrats in the past. And while Yuan's previous independently financed and distributed films, like his 1997 Cannes entry East Palace, West Palace, about the homosexual attraction between a police officer and a young writer, seem designed to induce apoplexy in the censors, his latest effort is hardly likely to enrage. In fact, it would take an experienced China-watcher to spot which of this year's two prize-winners was the subversive film, which the apologia for the regime.

In Seventeen Years, a teenage girl kills her half-sister after a banal family quarrel and after 17 years in prison is given leave to visit her family for the New Year. But her elderly parents aren't sure they want her back. Cue tears, cue catharsis, cue the Chinese equivalent of Academy Award acting.

In the end, the funniest thing that was to come out of this 11-day bonanza was Harmony Korine's written confession to Dogme 95.

Dogme, of course, is the quasi-religious Back to Basics school of filmmaking that coalesced around Danish director Lars von Trier. Korine's exhilarating julien - donkey boy is the fifth finished Dogme film and after shooting it, the New York director confessed his sins to the brotherhood - in other words, he made a list of all the times he broke the Dogme rules on set.

Infringement number one will do as a taster of this classic document: "I confess to Chloe Sevigny's pregnant belly not being truly pregnant. I tried to impregnate her myself, but there wasn't enough time. Plus she felt not ready to carry a child for nine months. I did try, though. Perhaps it is my fault. Perhaps I am shooting blanks".

These days, it seems, there are two ways for young directors to make exciting films. The first - the Zhang Yuan method - is to make them somewhere where the restraints are institutional. The second - the Harmony Korine approach - is to make your own cage and sit in it.

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