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An Asian kaleidoscope

Cinefan, festival of Asian films held recently in New Delhi, proved once again that despite similarities in our value systems and cultures, our socio-political and economic conditions are marked by disparities. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN narrates her experience.

Pan Nalin's ``Samsara''... splendid spiritual underpinnings.

WOULD YOU believe that it is more difficult for Asians to grasp the cultural nuances in Asian films than in European and Hollywood films? Our post-colonial heritage has made us more familiar with the West than with our neighbours.

Cinefan, the Asian film quarterly Cinemaya's fourth annual festival in New Delhi (July 19-28) proved once again that despite similarities in our value systems, our cultures past and present, our socio-political and economic conditions are marked by disparities.

The most familiar world view for Indians came from Iran and Turkey. Philippines, with its pungent Catholic ambience, had the distant taste of Latin America.

Cinefan showcased over 60 films in different sections. Asian Frescoes had variety. ``Behind the Painting'' (Khang Lang Phab, Thailand) showed you a society in transition from monarchy to democracy through the love between a student and a princess.

``The Map of Sex and Love'' was the first digital film from Hong Kong, ``Offside,'' (Serdar Akar) brought football mania from Turkey, ``Ayurveda'' (Pan Nalin, India-Germany-Switzerland) was a fine, in-depth study of the subject; ``Talking Cock The Movie'' (Singapore) was a surrealist amalgam of tales linked by sketches and animation.

India Bazaar had works by significant filmmakers, including the premiere of ``Ride on the Rainbow,'' Jahnu Barua's final work in his Koka (grandfather) trilogy. In this, 11-year old runaway orphan, Kukoi, kills his employer in self-defence. The remand home is not free from corruption and perversities but there is gentle understanding in the old warden who kindles the boy's hope and imagination once again.

Barua is sensitive in dealing with the shell-shocked child, who tries to preserve his self esteem through lies based on fantasies. The characters are not paper cut outs. Yet the film misses the mark — the form has no surprises, the content is totally predictable. The song and dance sequence at the end is tepid and redundant.

Tibetan monk spouts philosophy, French woman spouts more philosophy, Tibetan child crosses the snow singing an English song on the Dalai Lama, another child on the phone pleads for an unidentifiable Gomti Ma, the son in the Air Force fails to call, the clock ticks, the phone rings, the clock ticks, the phone rings...

"Ride on the Rainbow" ... the last of Jahnu Barua's Koka trilogy was marked by sensitive characterisations.

Did the man who made the brilliant ``Piravi'' make ``Nishad''?

Art films have their own formulae for melodrama as we see in Shaji Karun's self-indulgent study of grief. The characters are one-dimensional, their speech stilted, their actions stiff. Gopi (Rajat Kapur) works in the small town hospital and tries to hide his anxieties about wife and son.

Wife Sati (Archana) teaches in the local Tibetan school, has not got over the loss of her seven-year old son, is distressed by the separation of a Tibetan child from his parents, traumatised by the war which jeopardises her surviving son's life, and hallucinates about the return of her dead child through the voice on the phone making wrong calls.

In her depiction of motherhood, an endlessly weeping Archana borrows every expression from the mainstream Mother stereotypes.

The words may talk of coming to terms with death and disaster but the visuals frame numb defeatism.

The festival also provided the excitement of varied stylistics that differed as much as their languages did (slice-shuffle-serve, discontinuous sequencing, coiled progression, montage, patchwork).

Many films replicated the randomness of life. You have to mind the gap and fill in the blanks. In comparison, the Indian director tells you virtually everything.

Two films intrigued you and for reasons quite different. Dariush Mehrjui's ``Bemani'' (Stay Alive) stunned the viewer not so much as cinema, but as scenes from reality in present day Iran where women remain chattels in the patriarchal, theocratic society. For the first time we see no-holds-barred violence in an Iranian film (how did it get past censorship?)

The brother decapitates his sister for suspected whoredom and justifies it at the police station as sanctioned by religion. Reduced to penury by Iraqi bombings, the family sells daughter Bemani in marriage to a rich old man.

Driven to desperation by cruelties the girl thrashes him back before running away. Both Naseem (whose brother locks her up for studying medicine in ``dens of vice'' like college and hospital) and Bemani, set fire to themselves.

Finally, a severely scarred Bemani finds solace in selling candles at a remote cemetery. She is dead to family and society. Not a film to forget in a hurry.

``Blue Gate Crossing'' by Yee Chih-Yen, Taiwan, was remarkable for its non-judgmental, empathetic framing of adolescent befuddlements. In a typical teen tangle Yuezhan asks best friend Meng to discover if athletic Zhang (to whom she is attracted) has a girlfriend.

In the process Zhang begins to woo Meng who thinks that she is a lesbian. The film conveys the bubbling blitheness of youth, not only in characterisation, but even more, in the lilting visuals.

At the end, Zhang tells Meng to let him know if ever she finds that she likes boys after all. Then the crowded streets flow on in an Impressionist riot of colours lit by a sympathetic piano, through which the pair floats and dances and finally fly on their two-wheelers.

Once in a long while you get to see a film that leaves you speechless by its originality. The magnificent, must see ``Third World Hero'' (Mike de Leon, Philippines) had that kind of magic in both content and form.

Here spoof and parody melt into drama and mystery, as a young pair of filmmakers, try to profile national hero Dr. Jose Rizal, executed by the Spanish masters for inciting rebellion through his writings. The film-in-progress takes us through controversial tracts (Did the heretic recant? Did he marry a Eurasian?). It summons the dead — mother, sister, brother, mistress, priest — for painful interviews.

The humour slides from light to black along with the sifting of evidence. The viewer remains uncertain about her own emotions until the end when the director says, ``If Rizal retracted he died a coward. His novels and poems say otherwise.''

Listening to filmmaker Pan Nalin talk about the opening film ``Samsara'' was to be mesmerised by his convictions about the relevance of Buddhist metaphysics to the contemporary world.

His eloquence displayed the splendid spiritual underpinnings in every scene and action, silence and ambient sound, images fleeting and steady as also sequences of sexual gymnastics carefully planned to differ from each other. (The last dizzy spell has the woman hanging from a stick to spin in the air).

All that for a take off on the Siddhartha legend as Tashi quits the monastery to plunge into samsara and returns after the death of the senior monk who sends him the question, "What is more important: satisfying one thousand desires or just conquering one?''

The pageantry dazes you. Cinematographer Rali Raltchev throws you headlong into the rarefied heights of Ladakh mountainscapes. Cyril Morin's windblown music is sheer opium.

``Samsara'' has been doing exceptionally well in many countries (in both festival and regular screenings), and is slated for release in India.

But, sorry Mr. Nalin, to this viewer the four-pronged co-production (India-Italy-France-Germany) seems to be clad in the Emperor's new clothes that she simply cannot see.

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