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At 50, Cannes hasn't lost its power to seduce talent, shatter expectations and anger tyrants.
Asians again showed in strength at awards time at this year's Cannes Film Festival (May 7-May 18), but the messages were distinctly different from those of 1993. Once again, Palme d'Or honors were shared by an Asian film, Unagi (The Eel) by Japan's Shohei Imamura -- a previous Palme d'Or recipient for 1983's Ballad of Narayama and a Grand Prize winner in 1989 for Black Rain. That makes him only the fourth double-recipient of a Palme in Festival history. The award was the first to a Japanese film in seven years,. ending the second longest Cannes drought ever for Japanese films. The aging Imamura couldn't be there to accept the award in person.
Heralding a seeming resurgence in Japanese cinema, first-time filmmaker Naomi Kawase won a Camera d'Or for her debut film Moe no Suzaku (The God of Suzaku).
The relationship between the Cannes Film Festival and Asian cinema has traditionally been a tempestuous one, characterized by triumph, tragedy and controversy throughout its five decades. From the rise of the Japanese New Wave during the 50s and 60s on through the emergence of the Chinese 5th Generation, Cannes has been a consistent barometer on the state of Asia's diverse film industries. It was here, in fact, that many lesser known Asian industries and filmmakers received their first exposure: Cambodia's Rithy Panh, Vietnam's Tran Anh Hung, Taiwan's Ang Lee and Edward Yang to name only a few.
In 1993 Farewell My Concubine director Chen Kaige became the first Chinese and non-Japanese Asian filmmaker to win a Palme d'Or, marking a coming of age for China's so-called Fifth Generation of filmmakers. Fellow director Zhang Yimou cemented it with a Grand Jury Prize in 1994 for To Live and a special technical achievement prize the following year for Shanghai Triad. But 1993 was a watershed year for Asian films in other ways as well. With Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien winning a Jury Prize for The Puppetmaster and Tran Anh Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya taking the Camera d'Or for Best First Feature, Asian filmmakers were enjoying their greatest success ever in Cannes. More importantly, none of the Asian recipients hailed from Japan, previously the only Asian country to enjoy success at the Festival.
The Chinese presence, so dominant in recent years, was clouded by controversy this year. At the last minute Zhang Yimou's Keep Cool was pulled from the competition in retaliation for the screening of Zhang Yuan's gaythemed East Palace, West Palace in the Un Certain Regard sidebar selection.
Other Chinese directors, however, did make …