Buzz-worthy Cannes films without the controversy
One sparkling morning in Cannes, I saw a riveting movie that, with the right distribution deal, has the power, truly, to change the world. After the screening (which left many in tears), the audience rose in a standing ovation. It won the top prize in its category. And yet Michael Moore was nowhere in sight, because Moolaade, one of the OTHER activist highlights of the lively 2004 Cannes film festival, is the work of Ousmane Sembene, the 81-year-old Senegalese father of modern African cinema. A calmly passionate drama about the tradition of female genital mutilation still practiced in many African countries, Sembene's inspirational fiction presents a good village wife who chooses to shield her daughter from the kind of lifelong excruciating physical pain the mother knows firsthand. Sembene's patient camera loves his Africa; his gorgeous accomplishment is not just in laying out a forceful argument against female circumcision but in treating the traditionalists, too, with dignity and the kind of compassion that allows people to embrace difficult change without humiliation.
Such an approach is not, let's just say, in the aesthetic playbook of Michael Moore, whose round-house partisan documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, a brute-strength attack on the presidency of George W. Bush, turned this year's fest into an international anti-Bush rally on the Cote d' Azur. And with that as its raison d'etre, the movie's a corker -- a call to arms assuming the best patriotic ammo is fury at the current administration followed by regime change enacted in the voting booth. What impresses most is the accumulated force of the damning footage Moore's archival researchers have been able to assemble (particularly of the dead and wounded, both American and Iraqi, in the ongoing war), the ardor of his despair as a citizen, and his energy as an entertainer. And what unsettles (and can aggravate even willing enlistees in Moore's army) is the tricky-dick scattershot assault of selectively presented facts and accusations in a movie, however urgent, that encourages fist pumping first, reality checking only a distant second.
Anyhow, there was much more than Moore at Cannes this year. In fact, after last year's blahs, Cannes programming chief Thierry Fremaux has begun re-shaping the festival, cautiously, as the less hidebound international sampler it should be, without counting on Hollywood glitz to excite the crowds. Put it this way: There'll always be a Coen movie in competition (this year it was ''The Ladykillers''). And Pedro Almodovar's personal, passionate, and characteristically stylish opening-night melodrama Bad Education (featuring young boys in love, molesting priests, and drag queens) is a festival must. But, notably, there were also so many fine entries from Asia and Latin America that a celebrant could have had a full Cannes experience without even dutifully watching, say, Our Music, the latest distilled, late-period elegy to image, text, despair, and politics by Jean-Luc Godard.
Wong Kar-wai's dazzling 2046, which appeared to have been delivered by a panting marathon runner minutes after completion, is an achingly romantic, past-and-futuristic follow-up to his swoony 2000 meditation on romance, ''In the Mood for Love.'' Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers brings eye-popping operatic richness to the ''wuxia'' genre of swordplay and chivalry made popular for Westerners with ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.'' (''Dragon'''s Zhang Ziyi stars, with deepening maturity, in both ''2046'' and ''Daggers.'') From Korea, Chanwook Park's jazzily violent, screwed-up revenge-and-incest saga Old Boy (a natural to win the second-place Grand Prize from a jury with Quentin Tarantino as its president) contrasts sharply with the episodic vignettes in Hong Sangsoo's Woman Is the Future of Man -- a deadpan study of girl-boy relationships as lousy as any in a Neil LaBute script, but more Korean.
The mesmerizing anime artistry (and impenetrable, futuristic ''Matrix''-ian plot) of Mamoru Oshii's Innocence couldn't be further from the collage-like realism of Nobody Knows, an emotionally raw drama about a family of abandoned Japanese kids, by Kore-Eda Hirokazu. Everything legato and underplayed about Yang Chao's Chinese road trip Passages is balanced by the polished kick of Johnnie To's snappy and immensely likable cops-and-bad-guys Hong Kong action flick Breaking News. And in Tropical Malady, the first Thai film ever in competition, Apichatpong Weerasethakul tries -- and almost masters -- a humid, seance-like style that turns the story of a love affair between a soldier and a country boy into an allegorical love affair between a man and a ghost tiger.
On another continent, nontraditional indie style enhanced young Argentinean filmmaker Lisandro Alonso's coolly creepy Los Muertos, about a man released from prison who sets out to find his grown daughter. We see him do average things -- buy bread, row a boat -- and yet what we don't see or know about him, his past, or, indeed, his present induces a pleasurable anxiety familiar to students of ''The Blair Witch Project.'' In Whisky, meanwhile, a droll sketch about a fusty old Uruguayan Jewish sock-factory owner who recruits his spinster assistant to pose as his wife when his brother visits, hip directors Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll show themselves to be kindred spirits with fellow dark comedians Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki. (The movie -- if it's released -- could become a pocket-size hit.)
Finally, Cannes 2004 offered two outstanding films as organically feminine in their cinematic strengths as a work by Moore or Tarantino is masculine. La Nina Santa, by the strikingly talented Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel, who made the 2001 award-winning ''La Cienaga,'' displays an intimate understanding of the mix of good and evil, sexual restlessness and spiritual longing in teenage girls. And Agnes Jaoui (''The Taste of Others'') has made another French treat with Look at Me, a sparkling urban comedy about sophisticated people shafting each other in keenly believable ways. (Jaoui and her writing partner and costar Jean-Pierre Bacri won the screenwriting prize.) Actually, either film would have been a worthy Palme d'Or recipient. But political commentary played no part in their pleasures. And at Cannes 2004, what was the fun of that?