Chinese best at Venice fest

'Not' wins Golden Lion

VENICE — East beat West as the 56th Venice Intl. Film Festival wrapped Saturday, with Asian features staging a clean sweep of top awards and Chinese director Zhang Yimou taking home his third major prize at the Italian event for “Not One Less.”

The true story of a rural village schoolteacher, barely older than her pupils, who risks everything to bring back a tyke sent to the city to work, Zhang’s film is the first feature from Columbia’s Asian production division. It will be distributed worldwide by Columbia TriStar Intl.

Zhang previously won the Golden Lion at Venice in 1992 for “The Story of Qiu Ju” and the Silver Lion in 1991 for “Raise the Red Lantern.”

As “Not One Less” was reportedly turned down for official competition at Cannes this year but offered a slot in the Certain Regard sidebar (the director refused it), the pic’s Golden Lion now raises questions about the selection criteria at the French fest and the general quality of competition entries in Venice this year.

Also from mainland China, independent director Zhang Yuan was the first recipient of Venice’s newly established Special Prize for Direction for “Seventeen Years,” a melodrama about a young woman’s troubled reunion with her family after a prison sentence for killing her stepsister.

While “Not One Less” has the Chinese government’s stamp of approval and was accompanied by an official delegation, “Seventeen Years” is an underground production from a director with a history of tackling controversial themes. Yuan’s films have never been given censorship clearance in China.

Since the film did not receive official permission to compete in the fest, producers had to enter it under an Italian banner. This was possible due to funding from Fabrica, the Benneton group’s arts support foundation, based in Treviso, Italy, where post-production was carried out.

The jury’s decision to honor both national features heightened the diplomatic friction that had been simmering throughout the event.

‘Wind’ wins

In keeping with jury president Emir Kusturica’s push to place humanistic concerns over commercial ones at awards time, the Grand Jury Prize went to Abbas Kiarostami’s elliptical drama “The Wind Will Carry Us,” which also landed the Fipresci international critics prize. (The Fipresci nod for best film out of competition went to Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich.”)

Accepting the main award, Kiarostami, who won the 1997 Palme d’Or in Cannes for “Taste of Cherry,” announced this would be his final entry in a fest competition.

European productions scored all three acting prizes. Jim Broadbent was named best actor for his role as operetta composer W.S. Gilbert in Mike Leigh’s musical period piece “Topsy-Turvy,” which USA Films will release in the U.S. Best actress went to French thesp Nathalie Baye as a woman involved in an intense sexual relationship that falls apart when an emotional attachment develops in Belgian helmer Frederic Fonteyne’s “A Pornographic Affair.”

In a year when acquisitions activity took a very low profile at Venice, Fine Line was believed to be closing in on the romantic drama. It’s expected to finalize a deal for North American rights following screenings in Toronto.

The Marcello Mastroianni Award for best new actor or actress went to Nina Proll for her work in debuting Austrian director Barbara Albert’s youth drama “Northern Skirts.” Marion Vernoux’s French production “Empty Days” won the Gold Medal of the Italian Senate, awarded for themes of social and civil commitment and human solidarity.

U.S. goes home alone

All four U.S. productions went away empty-handed. These were Col’s “Crazy in Alabama” by Antonio Banderas; Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Cider House Rules” and Jane Campion’s “Holy Smoke,” both from Miramax; and Alison Maclean’s “Jesus’ Son,” recently picked up for international by Alliance Atlantis and by Lions Gate in the U.S. Maclean’s film did, however, win the youth jury award and the ecumenical prize.

The Venezia Opera Prima Luigi De Laurentiis Award for best first feature of the fest went to Italian Giovanni Davide Maderna’s “This Is the Garden.” The Cult Network Italia prize for best film of the Intl. Critics Week was awarded to Argentine newcomer Pablo Trapero’s “Mundo Grua.”

In the Corto-Cortissimo short film competition, main prize went to South African Teboho Mahlatsi’s “Portrait of a Young Man Drowning,” with a special mention to Heng Tang’s “Se-Tong,” from Australia.

Martin Scorsese presented Jerry Lewis with the Golden Lion for career achievement.

Scorsese’s ongoing docu project “Il Dolce Cinema,” about the Italian films and filmmakers that helped shape his career, was chosen to close the Venice fest, though it is still incomplete.

Scorsese confirmed that he will return to Italy in February to begin shooting “The Gangs of New York” at Cinecitta studios in Rome, where production designer Dante Ferretti is reconstructing Gotham in the 1800s. Cast will include Leonardo DiCaprio.

Plagued by more than the usual share of snafus, including a blackout, the televised closing ceremony was an austere affair that capped off a fest many found lethargic and low on luster.

While Alberto Barbera has implemented significant organizational improvements, especially in screening access and information flow, fest regulars are generally hoping for more dynamic programming next year.