Cannes first for Campion: NZ and China share top festival prize, writes Sheila Johnston from Cannes

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The Independent Online
TO LOUD cheers, the two critical hits of the Cannes Film Festival received Golden Palms last night: Jane Campion's The Piano, a passionate romantic drama set in 19th-century New Zealand, and Chen Kaige's Farewell To My Concubine, a fresco of modern Chinese history seen through the eyes of two actors at the Peking Opera.

Both break new ground. Farewell To My Concubine is the first Chinese film to win the Golden Palm, while Ms Campion, a New Zealander, is the first woman to do so. Ms Campion, who is eight months pregnant and was not present to receive her prize, won in Cannes for the best short film 10 years ago, but her feature debut, Sweetie, was roundly booed here in 1989.

Britain also made a strong showing, with the prize for best direction awarded to Mike Leigh for Naked, a tough, explosive film set among London's homeless. Mr Leigh, who is in Cannes for the first time and was unknown to many foreign critics, began his speech in 'tourist French' before - to everyone's relief - lapsing into English. Naked also netted the best actor prize for David Thewlis, who plays its cynical protagonist and who brought off the difficult task of starting the film with a brutal rape but proceeding to fascinate the audience and even make us feel sorry for his character.

Ken Loach also comes home with an award, the Jury Prize (effectively third place) for Raining Stones. This compassionate comedy about the struggles of an unemployed family in the north of England is closer in tone to Loach's Riff Raff than to his more overtly polemical pieces such as Hidden Agenda. Taken together, Naked and Raining Stones present a dark and pessimistic view of Britain today, although both directors were keen to emphasise that the problems they show are by no means confined to this country.

Mr Loach's award was shared with The Puppetmaster, a Taiwanese film by Hou Hsiao Hsien, which many critics found dull.

But the biggest booes in the critics auditorium were reserved for the winner of the Special Jury Prize: Wim Wenders' follow-up to Wings of Desire. The new film, Far Away So Close] returns to the same characters, a group of guardian angels watching over Berlin, and features a cameo by Mikhail Gorbachev.

Holly Hunter was named best actress for her riveting performance in a non-speaking role in The Piano. Ms Hunter plays a woman whose mysterious muteness is a sign of her emotional inhibitions, which she overcomes under the erotic ministrations of a fellow settler.

(Photograph omitted)