Asia has had a good showing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, now in its 66th year, from three Asian directors on the illustrious panel of judges to a number of Asian films being screened. And of course, with Bollywood celebrating its centenary this month India has received special treatment as this year’s guest country.
Appearing alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, legendary Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan said, “I just feel that the Indian film industry has its own identity…so I'd rather call it 'the Indian film industry', especially now we celebrate 100 years of the Indian film industry this year.”
Bachchan (aka “Big B”) was making a point that is becoming increasingly clear: Indian cinema is not the monolithic entity media often makes it out to be. It is as wildly diverse as its country of origin. Further, Indian film is moving full speed ahead just like the Subcontinent itself, propelled by the youthful exuberance of a new crop of directors beginning to emerge.
Most notably, a group of young Indian filmmakers walked the red carpet for the gala screening on Sunday of their film Bombay Talkies. The film comprises four short stories directed by Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap and Zoya Akhtar. It pushes social boundaries and violates taboos, with Johar’s segment addressing the subjects of same-sex relationships and denial – a hot button for Indian society.
“There are a lot of directors who started directing movies in the early 2000s,” Banerjee said. “They kind of took mainstream Bollywood films, big sets, stars and narratives and gave them a very new tilt which reflects the urban India of today.”
While the attention being paid to India may be significant, the nation’s presence at Cannes is not new.
"Bollywood has been at Cannes for at least a decade. But nothing much has happened yet,” Rajinder Dudrah, Senior lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of Manchester, told The Diplomat. “But lots of endorsements have taken place off the red carpet as I’m sure they will this year too."
India is not the only Asian country with a presence on the Riviera this year. Rubbing shoulders with major Western directors making new film debuts, including Steven Soderbergh (Behind the Candelabra), Roman Polanski (Venus in Fur), and the Coen Brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis), were some other big names of Asia. Japan’s Takashi Miike, Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke and Hong Kong’s Johnnie To stand out. Further, the jury, headed by Steven Spielberg, includes Taiwanese Oscar winning director Ang Lee, director Naomi Kawase of Japan and Indian actress Vidya Balan.
Among films to screen at Cannes, Andy Lau’s Firestorm has fared well, selling rights across Asia. In the film, Lau stars as a hardened police inspector who must break some rules to catch some criminals.
A slew of other Asian films are either enrolled in official competition or honored in some form. One of them, a Japanese tearjerker called Like Father, Like Son, tells the tale of a father who discovers that his six-year-old son was accidentally switched at birth. Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, the family drama is one of many official selections for competition.
A Japanese film with a decidedly different tone is Takashi Miike’s Shield of Straw, also up for competition. The movie tells the story of a billionaire who puts out a one-billion-yen bounty in a newspaper for a man he claims murdered his granddaughter. Given Miike’s penchant for slick, hyper-violent scenes, the premise sounds promising.
In A Touch of Sin, Chinese director Jia Zhangke casts his gaze at a slew of social inequities plaguing his country, from corruption to the growing income gap. Jia’s film is also enrolled in official competition.
Four Asian films officially received “un certain regard.” Bends, a Hong Kong film directed by first-timer Flora Lau with cinematography by Australian great Christopher Doyle (extensive collaborator with Wong Kar Wai), explores the complicated relationship of a wealthy Hong Kong woman and her chauffer from the mainland.
Death March is a Filipino independent film directed by Adolfo Alix Jr. that explores the brutal conditions endured by U.S. and Philippine troops under the Japanese Imperial army during World War II.
Other heavy-hitting films include The Missing Picture about Cambodia’s genocidal history and Norte, the End of History, a four-hour drama about a man who is unjustly thrown in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. A host of other official selections came from Hong Kong, India, Singapore and Taiwan. The complete list, compiled by The Wall Street Journal, can be seen here.
So how did all the films enrolled in competition fare? The results will be unveiled May 26 when the festival is wrapped up. Stay tuned.