China becoming a major moviemaker. Telluride festival shows Eastern nations gaining in world market
THE news is out, and if there were any doubts about its importance, the 15th annual Telluride Film Festival has put them to rest for good. Simply put, the new development is this: Western Europe and Japan are no longer the chief non-American wellsprings of excitement in the movie world. China, the Soviet Union, and other Eastern nations are rapidly inheriting their mantle.Skip to next paragraph
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Signs of this were strongly in evidence at the Telluride filmfest, a modestly scaled but highly respected (and highly influential) yearly event. Traditional movie strongholds like France and Japan made significant contributions to the lineup. But the biggest newsmaker was the emergence of China as a major force in world cinema, a status that country has never held before. Another key focus of attention was the USSR, where glasnost has paved the way for stimulating new activities - and, just as important, the belated release of older films hitherto suppressed, censored, or otherwise withheld from public view.
Also represented on the program were such nations as Poland, Yugoslavia, India, and Haiti, not usually thought of as major centers of world-class film production. And even the Western European lineup had its share of surprises. A number of excellent offerings came from England, where economic pressures nearly killed off the once-thriving film industry just a few years ago. Also present was Spain, continuing its recent bid to become a major cinematic presence - on the strength of artistic and economic freedoms not available under the bygone Franco government.
If the People's Republic of China was Telluride's biggest hero in 1988, it's due largely to a single production company called the Xian Studio, and to the efforts of Wu Tianming, who has served as director and manager of Xian for the past five years - although he plans to leave soon, to the chagrin of many colleagues in the film community. A thoughtful and affable man, Mr. Wu is equally at home whether introducing a film to an eager audience or chatting good-naturedly with a critic on a Telluride street corner. His apparent modesty aside, however, he has become an almost legendary figure in Asian film circles for his success at revitalizing Chinese film in the wake of chaos and decline caused by the Cultural Revolution.
Based in Shaanxi in central China, far from the nation's cultural and political capital, Wu has shown a feisty willingness in his films to question and even criticize officially sanctioned aspects of the status quo. A splendid example at Telluride was the dramatic ``Old Well,'' which he personally directed. On the surface, it's a bittersweet tale about the challenges faced by Chinese peasants desperately trying to keep their village alive by finding a new water supply. Just below the surface, it's clearly a critique of China's lagging modernization programs - and a portrait of Chinese peasant life beset by familial, sexual, and territorial problems that would never have been hinted at, much less explicitly depicted, in the idealized yarns that once dominated Chinese film production.
More proof of Xian's innovative energy is visible in ``Red Sorghum,'' directed by Wu associate Zhang Yimou and featured in an evening-length ``Tribute to the Xian Studio'' at the Telluride festival. Again the setting is rural China, and again the characters - while representing a wide range of personality types - are neither idealized nor glamorized as they wend their way through a story that includes such harrowing episodes as the sale of a teen-age girl by her family, the predation of her household by a notorious bandit, and a horrifying scene of physical and psychological torture that illustrates the brutalizing effect of war.