Few would have missed the chorus of lament sung mostly by the American and British press about this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Now a standard response from the corporate and grassroots press who file regular dispatches from the event each year, the march in step to declare the year as uneventful by “consensus” has become dreadfully chic. Yet, those rushing to such verdicts have never revealed their samples, and many who do simply don’t present credible ones. Several thousand press cover Cannes each year, and the staggering diversity of this mass of humans — marked by biases such as culture, gender, language, nationality and herd mentality disciplining — should crush any fancy that a reliable consensus about films, let alone the experience of the entire festival, can be reached.

Predictably, until the main competition awards were announced, the Anglophone press wrote off 2010’s lineup as shoddy. The most common reason cited: no films sustained talk or created enough buzz. The truth is, talk is cheap to produce, while buzz is much more expensive. But if the best publicity is the kind that volunteers itself, there was plenty of the serendipitous kind to be had. This was a year when Manoel de Oliveira presented O Estranho Caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica), a beauty for the books in many ways; when French jingoists worked pro bono to help Rachid Bouchareb’s Hors la loi (Outside The Law) score front page headlines in their PR campaign against the film; when the hype surrounding the ‘Romanian New Wave’ was hinted to be as tedious as Cristi Puiu’s Aurora, widely praised despite its insufferable naval-gazing on People Who Kill; and when French films and films with a French Connection virtually dominated the official awards. Indeed, add fickle expectations to the list of variables affecting consensus.

Yet, such an appraisal of a blockbuster festival selection tends to overlook the cruder reality that a great deal of horse-trading between numerous power brokers goes into making each annual lineup what it is. It’s true, the game is rigged. Besides, beyond this, no corporate festival is immune from the capricious nature of the cinema world’s political economy either. With the rivalry between big festivals brewing constantly, it’s likelier that the stars won’t be aligned for everyone. And in spite of the reputation it has to defend, even a spectacle like Cannes knows it cannot always get what it wants. Naturally, a better way to judge Cannes’ lineups and its reputation among its peers is to routinely scrutinise the films it isn’t able to show, while figuring out why. It’s too bad that much of this scoop remains privileged intelligence.

As far as worthy talking points this year go, here’s another: the broad visibility of the cinemas of Asia programmed across the festival’s different sections, and later brought into relief in the prizes. Thailand may have left Cannes with that coveted sprig of rosemary encased in a box, but it was South Korea by far that enjoyed a marquee presence with five films spread across four sections, notably in the two films in the main competition: Im Sang-soo’s Hanyo (The Housemaid) and Lee Chang-dong’s Shi (Poetry); and with Hong Sang-soo’s Hahaha in the Un Certain Regard section, Jang Cheol-soo’s Bedevilled in the parallel Semaine de la critique (International Critics’ Week) section, and Kim Tae-yong’s short film, Frozen Land in the Cinéfondation. For one of the world’s most energetic film industries capable of standing its ground against a sustained Hollywood incursion, these are enviable numbers.

Although the Palme d’Or and the Prix Un Certain Regard went to Thailand and South Korea respectively, it’s worth mentioning that Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Lung Boonmee Raluek Chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) and Hong’s Hahaha aren’t the kinds of films that typically win over their home audiences — a problem faced by many Asian films desiring critical attention in the West. The same could be said for a film like Phan Dang Di’s Bi, dung so! (Bi, Don’t Be Afraid!), winner of two independent prizes in the debutante corner of International Critics’ Week, whose Asian-heavy lineup of seven feature films comprised, apart from Phan’s Vietnamese title and Jang’s Korean one, Boo Junfeng’s Sandcastle from Singapore. In fact, Thailand and South Korea produce some of the most fashionable genre pictures these days. While many are lousy, the ones that stand out often impress on the strength of their creativity. And even as these kinds of films easily find favour at home and in certain territories of Asia, they are often denied esteemed visibility at events like Cannes.

For a film like Uncle Boonmee, the opposite is true. Compared with the stately Sud Pralad (Tropical Malady, 2004) and Sang Sattawat (Syndromes and A Century, 2006), Apichatpong’s latest film certainly feels lighter in all senses of the word, from being less ponderous in pace to appearing more playful in spirit. One reason could be because the film forms one component of a larger visual arts undertaking called Primitive, a project commissioned by Münich’s Haus der Kunst, Liverpool’s FACT and London’s Animate Projects, and comprising installations and short films dedicated to exploring the lives and memories of the folks of Isan, Thailand’s agricultural and troubled northeast. (One of these short films is called A Letter to Uncle Boonmee [2009], which can be considered an unofficial prologue to the feature.) Unlike Apichatpong’s two previous features, too, there’s the sense he’s working with a singularly exotic theme here: reincarnation.

Set in Isan and loosely based on a primary source — a published collection of stories by individuals who claim to be able to see their previous incarnations — Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives concerns the ailing but cheerful title character who is paid visits by the apparitions of his dead wife and lost son. This set up isn’t totally a fantasy gimmick. In many parts of Asia, especially those heavily influenced by Buddhism, it’s widely acknowledged that folks who suddenly report ‘seeing’ their deceased relatives or loved ones in dreams or in varying states of consciousness are in fact near death. Such sightings represent a sign that those who were once close to the dying have now come to coax them to the other side. In the film, it’s as if Uncle Boonmee’s sightings have become magnified for the imagination, where these visits prefigure the equivalent of what’s known as ‘seeing one’s life flashing before oneself’ — except that the man’s on an enigmatic tour of his past lives.

Elsewhere in the main competition, authenticity appeared as a motif in a handful of titles, though none as openly as in Abbas Kiarostami’s Copie Conforme (Certified Copy). Much of the interplay in his story is based on this debate — the values ascribed to originals and copies of art, where it’s often argued that any distinction is negligible. There’s also Kiarostami’s insistence that how we look at things beats taking them at face value. Is Juliette Binoche’s fragile single mother pretending to be the spouse of William Schimell’s high-strung academic after all, to the point that the story’s later acts differ dramatically from its lead? If so, it’s one thing to dislike their pretence, but another to say that what happens between them ‘originally’ trumps their ‘artifice’. Likewise, those convinced Kiarostami has sold out by making a bourgeois Eurocentric film are probably longing for the ‘original’ and ‘authentic’ Kiarostami – perhaps the imagined world of Iran’s dusty foothills. Yet, anyone seeing Certified Copy without first knowing the identity of its author would surely fail to recognise it as certifiably Kiarostami’s.

Equally beguiling was Im’s The Housemaid, a film widely reported as a “remake” of Kim Ki-young’s eponymous title from 1960. Interestingly, the late Kim had refurnished this plot at least twice later on: in Hwanyeo (Woman of Fire, 1971) and Hwanyeo ’82 (Woman of Fire ’82, 1982), thus forming a variation-on-a-theme trilogy of sorts. To legitimise its status as an original, Cannes screened Kim’s landmark film in 2008 as part of its Classics sidebar, under the restorative patronage of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation charity. Nevertheless, Im’s version is so profusely embellished that there’s little evidence to connect the two films intimately. Given the pronounced class conflict underscoring Im’s picture, it’s more practical to view his take as a reinterpretation of Kim’s story, based on his view of the socio-economic mores in today’s South Korea.

Structurally, the plots of both films follow the same trajectory, in which a moneyed family conspires to deal with the fallout after the male head sexually abuses the hired help. Of course, Im’s version is more richly furnished to reflect cinema’s advances half a century on. But apart from a calculated change in character and body count between both films, one key distinction is that in Kim’s version, Lee Eun-shim portrays the maid as a sultry cat who all but invites her employer’s abuse. However, under Im’s direction, Jeon Do-youn has eliminated this trashy aggression, so that her contrasting demureness allows the liaison between her and her master to be amply titillating. Captured subtly, the vulnerability of Jeon’s character — as an abused woman and middle-aged divorcee whose marriage failed due to infertility — may explain why she gets fired eventually.

Perhaps partly a business strategy and one of public service, Kim’s restored film received a rerelease in South Korean cinemas this past June to coincide with the theatrical release of Im’s film a fortnight earlier in May — itself positioned to exploit the headwinds offered by its Cannes premiere. Comparisons between both films are inevitable, not just over superficial details, but also the extent of Im’s treatment of Kim’s original story. For all its sophistication, Im’s version has relied greatly on elements of camp and kitsch to achieve its desired qualities of shock and sleek eroticism. A case can also be made that Im has pared down the complex gender and interpersonal politics between Kim’s characters with the aim of directing audience empathy: whereas every major character in Kim’s version was evil, Im dangles an impassioned heroine in front of us as vindication.

Cannes Film Festival
12-23 May 2010
Festival website: http://www.festival-cannes.fr