Cannes awards show global recognition for Asian cinema

A clutch of awards at the Cannes Film Festival has given global prominence to what insiders say is a bold era in Asian filmmaking, where China is emerging as a creative power.

Directors from China, Japan, Singapore and Cambodia took to the stage at the Palais des Festivals where the world's most prestigious movie bash ended on Sunday.

Praise was heaped on China's Jia Zhangke for his screenwriting of "A Touch of Sin" (Tian Zhu Ding), which he also directed -- a tale of corruption, greed and exploitation in modern China that festival jury boss Steven Spielberg said was nothing less than "visionary."

Jia, 43, was born in the poverty-stricken province of Shanxi, which has frequently provided a grim tableau for his lens.

After graduating from Beijing's prestigious national Film Academy, he produced a series of gritty films portraying low-life characters including pickpockets, thugs and prostitutes, set in Shanxi and filled with long, meandering dialogue in local dialect.

"A Touch of Sin," based on four true stories of poor people driven to acts of desperation, contains his most outspoken criticism yet of capitalist-communist China.

When a trailer for it was released last week, Internet chat rooms buzzed with expectation that it would never be seen in China -- or at least not in the form seen in Cannes.

But in an interview with AFP at the start of the festival, Jia said the film -- part-funded by a state-owned organisation, the Shanghai Film Group Corporation -- had been given official approval and would be shown uncut.

"Cinema makes me live," Jia said in faltering English as he received the best screenwriting award. "China is now changing so fast. I think film is the best way to me to look for freedom."

Spielberg and a fellow Oscar winner, Taiwanese-born American Ang Lee, pointed to exciting times in China, although Lee also warned of risk.

"China is coming on strong not just as a marketplace for international motion pictures, but coming on strong as a creative force," Spielberg told a press conference.

Lee said "A Touch of Sin" was "an important movie" that the jury had unanimously liked.

"The Chinese market and the people who love movies is growing up to be very sizeable, (and) perhaps (will) even one day surpass English-speaking territories," said Lee.

"So I really hope it grows, whether it is commercially or artistically or anything in between, (and) that everybody can grow healthily," he said.

"A vicious cycle... is a big trap we need to look out for," he warned, without elaborating.

Another laureate was Japan's Hirokazu Koreeda, whose "Like Father Like Son" -- a portrayal of two families who discover their boys were swapped at birth -- won the third-ranked award, the Jury Prize.

Koreeda, 50, gained international recognition with "Nobody Knows" (2004), in which Yuuya Yagira, then 14, became the youngest actor to win Cannes' Best Actor award.

The movie is based on a real-life story in which four children were abandoned by their mother and left to fend for themselves.

Also highly praised this year was Singapore's Anthony Chen, who won the Camera d'Or for a debut feature. It is also the first time that a Singaporean feature has won at Cannes.

"Ilo Ilo," set during the Asian financial crisis in 1997, explores the lives of Singapore's workaholic, ambitious middle classes and the domestic help on which they depend.

It tells the tale of a Singaporean family and their Filipina maid, who befriends the family's troubled son.

"The director's intelligence and sensitivity bring forth very important issues -- childhood, immigration, class struggles and the economic crisis," said the jury citation.

On Saturday, a documentary on the Khmer Rouge earned Cambodia's Rithy Panh the top award in the "Un Certain Regard" category, which showcases emerging directors.

Entitled "L'Image Manquante" -- "The Missing Picture" in English -- the 95-minute work mixes archive footage of Khmer Rouge atrocities with hand-carved, painted figurines to represent Panh's lost relatives.

The Hollywood Reporter praised it as "a deliberately distanced but often harrowing vision of a living hell."