Asia's moviemakers bullish for Cannes

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The Independent Culture

Asia's moviemakers will descend on the Cannes film festival in bullish mood, their confidence boosted by resurgent box office figures and a rise in the number of films being made in the region.

Asia will have an impressive presence at the world's most prestigious film festival from May 12-23 for both the red carpet, with its attendant fanfare for stars and their films, and the film market that surrounds the main event.

There, international distribution deals are made and the financial wheels are set in motion for productions due to roll out over the next 12 months and beyond.

Hopes are high for Asian films in competition this year following the region's success 12 months ago.

Then, the Philippines' Brillante Mendoza was named best director for his work on "Kinatay", China's Mei Feng picked up the best screenplay award for "Spring Fever" and South Korea's Park Chan-wook won the jury prize for "Thirst".

There are an impressive five productions from the region among the 18 vying this year for the festival's main award, the Palme D'Or.

South Korea - whose films have long been favoured by the arthouse festival crowd - is in the running with Im Sang-soo's "The Housemaid" and Lee Chang-dong's "Poetry".

Asia's other entries are Japanese director Takeshi Kitano's "Outrage", Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" and China's Wang Xiaoshuai with "Chongqing Blues".

The market will also feature an eclectic selection of Asian films seeking attention and support.

These range from Indian beauty Mallika Sherawat playing a snake woman in "Hisss" to the small-scale Singaporean thriller "Blood Ties", from first-time director Chai Yee Wei.

But much of the attention will focus on what has been going on in China over the past 12 months.

The mainland Chinese film industry claims that, on average, one new cinema screen is opened every day and the country's box office takings last year soared to 6.2 billion yuan (908 million dollars) - a year-on-year rise of 44 percent.

While the James Cameron epic "Avatar" dominated takings with an estimated 1.3 billion yuan, a few local productions held their own, with "Founding of a Republic" taking more than 400 million yuan and 12 mainland Chinese productions breaking the 100 million yuan mark.

China has maintained its limit of 20 foreign films being allowed to screen in the country each year - meaning more and more Chinese productions are needed simply to fill cinemas.

There has been welcome news from other Asian film centres, too.

"There is plenty to be cheerful about," explains Patrick Frater, a veteran film industry commentator, who recently co-founded Film Business Asia, a Hong Kong-based "film industry intelligence service".

"There is a lot of excellent Asian cinema that is still not seen beyond national or regional borders. The way that Indian cinema is currently diversifying is certainly ill-appreciated.

"And in China there are many strong films that, because of how they are financed and taken to market, fail to get the critical or commercial recognition they deserve.

"Japanese and Korean films have proved strong enough to hold on to their shares of home markets despite the extraordinary performance of two or three huge Hollywood pictures last year.

"Meanwhile, there is much talk of revivals in the fortunes of Filipino and Hong Kong cinema."

For Kim Dong-ho, founder of the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea - Asia's preeminent film festival - the signs over the past 12 months have been encouraging.

"It is a great success to see Korean films in competition in Cannes," he says.

"We are seeing an increase in production numbers again in South Korea after a few years of decline and we believe we are maintaining a high standard. Cannes is one way the world can see our films."

Frater agrees, saying Cannes plays an important role by not only screening the arthouse films which are staples at such festivals all over the world but also offering Asia's more commercial films a chance to be seen by international audiences and distributors.

"Sometimes it feels as if there are two parallel film industries," he explains.

"Most festivals tend to focus on arthouse films, either because they are less interested in commercial titles, or because they are not offered the biggest commercial films which use marketing muscle to reach their audiences.

"On the other hand, what is considered mainstream at home, may be labelled as exotic 'world cinema' elsewhere. Cannes is one festival that likes to mix it up."

The success of the likes of "Founding of a Republic" - a savvy retelling of China's history which featured an array of Chinese films stars - has revealed a rapidly developing commercial film-making scene.

And Frater believes the next step is for more of them to head to Cannes.

"Chinese films have a rapidly expanding home market and it makes sense for some titles to prioritise that," says Frater.

"But there are many Chinese films and Chinese directors would clearly benefit from being screened prominently at what is still the second biggest film event of the year (outside the Oscars) and the biggest film market in the world."

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