Gong Li's pic receives Golden Leopard, 'Joe' woos Aud Award

LOCARNO, Switzerland –Record attendance, the strongest competition lineup in several years and a very public spat between the fest’s director and president marked the 51st Locarno Intl. Film Festival, which closed Saturday after 10 days of blistering, 90-degree weather at the Swiss-Italian lakeside resort town.

The eight-member jury led by director Robert Kramer, a New York native based in France, awarded the top Golden Leopard gong to Chinese relationship dramedy “Mr. Zhao,” a first feature by director of photography Lu Yue, best known for his work with Zhang Yimou.

Runner-up Silver Leopards went to Abolfazl Jalili’s dialogue-less drama “Dance of Dust,” banned for five years in its native Iran, and the Kirgiz-French kid-centered pic “The Adopted Son,” by first-timer Aktan Abdikalikov. Both movies are set to show at the Montreal fest this month.

Spanish actress Rossy de Palma, famous for her work in Pedro Almodovar films, copped the best actress prize for her role in Karim Dridi’s French black comedy, “Foul Play,” also destined for Montreal. The best actor award was shared among the three leads in the German multi-ethnic gangster drama “Short Sharp Shock,” helmed by Fatih Akin.

Other prized movies included Vadim Abdrashitov’s Russian relationship drama “Time of the Dancer” (Special Jury Prize); Catalan director Marc Recha’s “The Tree of Cherries” (Fipresci award); and Roger Michell’s Northern Ireland-set drama “Titanic Town,” starring Julie Walters (Ecumenical Jury Prize).

Audience award to Loach

The Audience Award, voted by spectators at the nightly open-air screenings in the town’s Piazza Grande, went to Ken Loach’s “My Name Is Joe.” Both the film and its director drew an emotive response from the 8,000-plus audience at its screening Aug. 10.

Other notable pics included the Brazilian “Midnight,” by Walter Salles (“Central Station”) and Daniela Thomas, and “Prometheus,” an ambitious meditation in rhyming couplets on 20th-century European history by U.K. poet Tony Harrison. The sole U.S. entry, Bette Gordon’s “Luminous Motion” from Scott Bradfield’s novel, was coolly received by critics. Indie is a Good Machine production.

A-list American guests were notably absent from the popular Piazza screenings, which included “Mulan,” “There’s Something About Mary” and “Halloween: H20.” Joe Dante, in for “Small Soldiers,” accepted an Honorary Leopard award “with humility.” Previous recipients have included Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Luc Godard, Samuel Fuller and Jacques Rivette.

Public row

In addition to the films, the public row between fest director Marco Muller and president Raimondo Rezzonico kept the press and other attendees entertained. In a newspaper interview on the opening day, Muller threatened to resign unless his demands — basically, control of the budget and a new three-year contract — were met. Rezzonico promised discussions after the fest’s end, and the closing night passed off without Muller throwing in the towel. A resolution to the long-simmering tensions is expected within the next two weeks.

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