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.

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.

A more gentle but nonetheless provocative side of the Xian style emerges in ``The King of Children,'' directed by Chen Kaige, who used his own experiences as one source for the story of a teacher who vainly tries to instill intellectual curiosity and independent thinking in the pupils at a rural elementary school during the Cultural Revolution.

Telluride had the edge in presenting most of these films to American audiences for the first time. But other countries have already recognized them - for instance, ``Old Well'' and ``Red Sorghum'' have won festival prizes in Tokyo and West Berlin, respectively - and Xian productions will soon be making their appearance in regular United States theaters. Americans will also be getting wider exposure to some of the Soviet films that had their US premi`eres here. And a lively, vigorous group of movies they proved to be.

A couple were brand new: the sexually charged family drama ``Little Vera,'' directed by Vassili Pitchul, and the mystical fable ``Aschik Kerib,'' co-directed by Sergei Paradjanov, a Georgian filmmaker whose meditative, offbeat works have earned him an international following and, at times, severe official penalties in his own country.

Other films were completed as long ago as 1967 but never released for public exhibition. These included ``Angel,'' by Andrei Smirnov, and ``Homeland of Electricity,'' by the late Larissa Shepitko - both of which echoed the Chinese films I've discussed by suggesting the horrors as well as the triumphs of life immediately after the revolutionary period in their native country.

Together, the Chinese and Soviet films at Telluride demonstrated two things:

First, that many filmmakers in these gradually liberalizing countries share an interest in setting the record straight on 20th-century developments (both historical and psychological) in their nations.

And second, that a change has taken place in movie-world geography, with the proverbial ``cutting edge'' of cinematic development shifting dramatically to the Eastern hemisphere.

What makes this remarkable is the fact that ``cinema art,'' at least as American critics and scholars have defined it, has generally been considered a Western monopoly (with some Japanese input, as well) for the past 40 years. Various countries have taken turns in the center-stage position during this period: Italy with its ``neorealists'' in the '40s and '50s, France with its ``new wave'' in the '60s, Germany with its ``neue kino'' in the '70s, and always Hollywood, with its abundantly financed studios, acting as leader of the pack.

Although these countries are still important production centers, this year's Telluride program has heralded the beginning of a new era in which non-Western films will be ever more visible on American screens.

The trend will gather more momentum later this season in the New York Film Festival, which will include movies from such nations as China, South Korea, and Romania for the first time. I helped program that event, and I can testify that no stretching was needed to find non-Western films that fairly and squarely beat out their American and Western European competition for slots in the program. Eastern film is coming of age, and the language of cinema is becoming more actively international than it has ever been before.

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