Sino the times in Toronto

Never mind the calendars: It’s the Year of the Dragon at this year’s Toronto Festival of Festivals. Reflecting the resurgence and cross-border ties of Chinese filmers, no less than 14 of the 23 pics in the Asian Horizons sidebar feature Sino talent on both sides of the lens.

Japan, with only four features (headlined by Takeshi Kitano’s “Sonatine”), is more lightly repped, reflecting the country’s embattled, fragmented local industry. India is present with three, with additional excursions to Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. The latter trio is showcased by the blended docu “Southern Winds.”

Likely to prove one of the hottest tickets of the section is Tian Zhuangzhuang’s “The Blue Kite,” a politically sensitive portrait of a Peking family during the campaigns of the ’50s and ’60s which won plaudits as a surprise last-minute entry in this year’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight.

Like “Beijing Bastards,” a semi-docu portrait of Mainland rock star Cui Jian, the pic got the thumbs down from China’s censors. Participation of “Bastards,” sophomore outing of young director Zhang Yuan (“Mama”), at last month’s Locarno, Switzerland, meet drew retaliatory action by Peking’s brass, who withdrew their entry, “An Innocent Babbler.” (“Babbler” later popped up in competition at Venice.)

Like Chen Kaige’s Golden Palm co-winner “Farewell My Concubine” (unspooling in Toronto), both “Kite” and “Bastards” were financed with Hong Kong dollars, with post-production abroad, thus putting matters like fest participation beyond Beijing’s reach.

With most quality Mainland pics now funded from offshore, fests are increasingly able to thumb their nose at Beijing’s strong-arm tactics. Toronto’s Chinese lineup contains not a single movie with major state coin. Even Ning Ying’s feisty low budget comedy about opera-mad zannies, “For Fun,” was made with Hong Kong moolah.

Taiwan production, recently revived through state subsidies and the current National Film Year ballyhoo, sails into the Asian Horizons section with no less than six titles. These range from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s majestic meld of fact and fiction, “The Puppetmaster” (minor-laurelled at Cannes), Wang Tung’s locally lauded, three-hour “Hill of No Return,” set during Japanese occupation, and troubled teen dramas “Rebels of the Neon God” and “Treasure Island.”

Hong Kong costume actioners, once again popular in the Colony, are repped by the first of the Jet Li-toplined “Fong Sai Yuk” series and Poon Man-kit’s “Lord of East China Sea.”

Artier fare is showcased with Sylvia Chang’s contempo romantic drama, “Mary from Beijing,” with Zhang Yimou icon Gong Li as a Mainlander making a life for herself in Hong Kong. There’s also the latest from Clara Law (“Autumn Moon”), the costume thriller “Temptation of the Monk,” toplining a shaven-headed Joan Chen as a mysterious Buddhist nun. Latter pic is competing in Venice.

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