'New Films' fest debuts fresh talents, future hits

Movies may be facing stiff competition from television, home video, and the Internet, but there's not a shred of doubt about the health of theatrical film as it heads further into its second century.

Fresh talents with novel ideas continue to surface on what seems like a weekly basis, and there's been a veritable explosion of film festivals designed to showcase the best of them.

All of which makes this a good time to celebrate one of the most closely watched American events devoted to raising the profiles of gifted young moviemakers. The influential New Directors/New Films program, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, shines an annual spotlight on pictures that have nothing in common except the fact that they're made by newcomers on the cinematic scene.

Now in its 29th year, the series has an excellent track record of introducing future hits - if you'd attended the 1999 program you would have seen "Run Lola Run" and "Judy Berlin," among others - and this year's lineup contains more potential crowd-pleasers among its 35 works from 23 countries.

Chinese movies have been in the news lately, thanks to "Not One Less" and "Xiu Xiu the Sent-Down Girl," and the new Shower should be even more popular when it opens in theaters this summer. Directed by Zhang Yang, the comedy takes place in a Beijing bathhouse run by an elderly father and his son, who faithfully maintain the traditions of their establishment until another son barges in with plans to modernize everything in sight.

Rarely have tensions between tradition and progress been explored with more grace and good humor, and rarely has such a bubbling blend of ingredients - from cockroach races to automatic bathing machines - been stirred into such an appealing cinematic dish.

Asian cinema also shines in the Japanese comedy Adrenaline Drive, directed by Shinobu Yaguchi and due in American theaters soon. The heroes are a clerk and a healthcare worker, both so bashful that it's hard to imagine them having an adventure - until a minor car accident and a gas-pipe explosion put them on a collision course with gangsters scrambling to recover a bag full of stolen loot. The movie is stronger in its first hour than its second, but its amiable acting and feisty visual humor make it a must for fans of Japanese film.

If the ongoing energy of Asian cinema is one thread running through the ND/NF series, another is the continuing vitality of nonfiction filmmaking. Among the festival's strongest offerings is Sound and Fury, a fascinating visit with two Long Island families into which deaf children have recently been born. One mother and father explore the possibility of a surgical procedure that could allow their deaf child to hear. The other parents refuse this option, clinging to their cherished "deaf culture" and rejecting the idea that deafness is a handicap. As rich and engrossing as most fiction films in recent memory, "Sound and Fury" explores issues of family responsibility and "identity politics" that resonate far beyond the deaf community. Josh Aronson and Roger Weisberg directed it.

Equally absorbing is The Eyes of Tammy Faye, an evocative study of mass-marketed religion as pioneered by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, leaders of the "televangelism" movement until their empire toppled in a storm of financial and sexual scandal. Effectively and often wittily directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the documentary reveals much about the intersecting dynamics of faith, money, and celebrity in our media-driven age.

Religion also plays a part in Jesus' Son, an unpredictable fiction film by Alison Maclean, starring Billy Crudup as a 1970s drifter who makes his way from drug addiction to salvation through tragicomic experiences. The movie is strong on unsavory details, but this makes its redemptive outcome all the more powerful.

French film has a special place in American hearts, and A Pornographic Affair (less sexually explicit than the title suggests) may attract moviegoers with its capable stars - Nathalie Baye and Sergi Lpez - and offbeat story about a couple who begin their relationship on a purely physical basis, then get to know each other as real human beings. Frdric Fonteyne directed. Among the Latin American entries is Mercedes Garca Guevara's smoothly filmed Hidden River, about a young mother who makes an emotionally difficult journey to rural Argentina in search of answers to a puzzle involving her husband.

Other films represent countries from Mexico and Korea to Iran and Slovenia and beyond. Not all will find their way to American theaters, but together they prove that international cinema continues to generate a nonstop wave of ambitious new talents.

* New Directors/New Films ends April 9 at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Theatrical release dates include 'Adrenaline Drive,' May 5; 'Jesus' Son,' June; 'A Pornographic Affair,' June; 'Shower,' July 7; 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye,' July; and 'Sound and Fury,' autumn.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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