The women take Berlin

Catherine Deneuve, Rebecca Miller and China's Bai Ling stole the show at the Berlin Film Festival, reports Kaleem Aftab
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The Independent Culture

First, there were the exploits of one woman: 34-year-old Bai Ling. The Chinese-born actress best known, if at all, for her roles in Wild Wild West and Anna and the King has taken advantage of her position on the jury to run a shameless self-promotion campaign under the adoring flashlights of the world's paparazzi.

First, there were the exploits of one woman: 34-year-old Bai Ling. The Chinese-born actress best known, if at all, for her roles in Wild Wild West and Anna and the King has taken advantage of her position on the jury to run a shameless self-promotion campaign under the adoring flashlights of the world's paparazzi.

Ling, the shining light of a generally lacklustre festival, stole the thunder at the presentation of the jury by "letting slip" that she will next play an exotic dancer in a production for the Playboy channel. On every red carpet, Ling has ensured she is the centre of attention by ignoring the freezing temperatures and turning up in skimpy colourful outfits that make Paris Hilton look like a nun.

Ling tops off her one-woman bandwagon with a brilliant performance in Fruit Chan's excellent Dumplings. She stars as a 64-year-old who by eating aborted human foetuses unlocks the secret to eternal youth. It leaves little to the imagination and, at the public screening , the commotion was caused not by Ling but by a woman fainting.

More importantly, Catherine Deneuve, a woman who holds her own key to the secrets of eternal beauty, was in town to promote her best performance in years playing the object of Gérard Depardieu's affection in Andre Techine's Changing Times. The French icon was in playful mood and, commenting on the young stars trying to make a name for themselves in Berlin, she said: "I would not like to start the career of an actress today. It is very difficult to last. They give actors leading parts when they maybe need more experience working with a number of directors and if they don't make it, they're thrown away... The career of an actor is over very quickly now. I think that is really a problem. They are put under too much pressure to sustain."

Yet the film industry continues to revolve around the next big thing. The European Film Promotion network has spent $129,000 at Berlin pushing new talent in their Shooting Stars scheme and has invited more than 40 European casting directors to assess the merits of 21 actors. The British shooting star is the Yasmin actress Archie Panjabi. And, just to show how well it works, the jury member Franke Potente was once promoted by the scheme.

The films on show have been noteworthy for the amount of fresh talent they showcase. Eighteen-year-old Lou Taylor Pucci is mesmerising as Tilda Swinton's son in Mike Mills's hugely enjoyable coming-of-age drama Thumbsucker. Pauline Malefane, who wowed the West End in the South African production of the The Mysteries, is the eponymous lead in an adaptation of Georges Bizet's Carmen, set in the slums of South Africa and sung entirely in Xhosa.

Topher Grace, meanwhile, confirms the buzz from the US with his performance as a young sales executive who becomes Dennis Quaid's boss in Paul Weitz's In Good Company. The Canadian Don McKellar is director, writer and star of Childstar, which takes a surprisingly profound look at the dangers of having too much fame too soon.

Julia Jentsch, 26, may walk off with the best actress award for her performance in Mark Rothemund's Sophie Scholl: The Last Days. Jentsch plays the member of the White Rose resistance group who was arrested and executed in 1943 for handing out anti-Nazi flyers. German cinema is going through a renaissance at the moment. Last year, Fatih Akin's Head-On was the first German film in 18 years to win the Golden Bear; Scholl may provide Germany with another victory.

Two films detailing the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that took the lives of a million people are also in the running for the top prize. Though Terry George's Hotel Rwanda, with its three Oscar nominations, has been receiving all the attention, it is Raoul Peck's Sometimes in April that best captures the horror of the Hutu militia's massacre of the Tutsis following the assassination of President Habyarimana.

On a lighter note, in anticipation of the World Cup being held in Germany in 2006, there was a section of the festival - Shoot Goals! Shoot Movies - dedicated to football films. It screened some of the upcoming features that have taken the beautiful game as their theme, notably Ken Loach's section in the portmanteau Tickets, Hannes Stöhr's amusing One Day in Europe and Sherry Hormann's Balls.

The British presence, however, has largely been disappointing. The much anticipated opening-night film, Man to Man, starring Joseph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, is a drab affair set in the 1870s that details a scientific argument on evolution. David Mackenzie's Asylum has three men vying for the heart of Natasha Richardson. Scripted by the Closer playwright Patrick Marber and based on the novel by Patrick McGrath, it is another tale revolving around the games people play for love and it's a slow burner that picks up only when Ian McKellen comes to the fore.

Once again, the new talents provide the most interest. The British director Peter Mackie Burns has won the Golden Bear for the best short film in competition for his film Milk. Starring Brenda Fricker and Kathleen McDermott, the 10-minute short shows a young woman playfully giving her grandmother a bath.

Ireland's Lenny Abrahamson's junkie drama Adam & Paul conjures up memories of Laurel and Hardy, and Pearse Elliott's The Mighty Celt is a touching love story set against the Troubles, starring Robert Carlyle and Gillian Anderson.

The most touching moment of the 55th Berlinale was provided by Daniel Day-Lewis and his wife Rebecca Miller. Only a few days after the death of Rebecca's father, the playwright Arthur Miller, the couple decided to honour their long-term commitment to attend the festival. Miller was there for the world premiere of her second film, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which deals poignantly with the relationship between a dying father and his daughter. Her husband stars in the movie, who was in town on his own account to pick up the Berlin Camera, given in honour of his services to acting.

The award was presented to Day-Lewis after the screening. He revealed: "It took us a couple of days to decide whether to come, but as soon as we did, we knew that we had made the right decision. It is a shame that Arthur Miller could not be here in person; he was immensely proud of his daughter and would sing her praises to anyone who would give him an ear." Miller, fighting back tears, listened from the side of the stage.