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Hung and Chen.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

MARCH 2, 1998: 

In Hollywood, you're an artist if your movies make money. That's why mainstream film critics can talk with a straight face about Joel Schumacher's "body of work" or the Paul Verhoeven "oeuvre." This elevation of technicians to the rank of auteurs doesn't have much to do with anything except directors' egos. It's not enough that, say, James Cameron will make gobs of money off of Titanic; he wants to be taken seriously, too.

To see how much of a self-indulgent pretense that is, consider recent films from two directors who are far from household names: Hung Tran Anh and Chen Kaige.

Hung is a Vietnamese director who fled Saigon for Paris while he was an adolescent in the 1970s. His first movie, The Scent of Green Papaya (1993, NR), is a lovely and evocative film about pre-war Vietnam. Although its plot is minimal—a young girl comes of age while working as a maid for a well-to-do family—Hung's fluid cinematography and experimentation with visual framing make it a quiet but absorbing study of post-colonial tension. It's just a prelude, though, to Cyclo (1995, R), which just came out on video and is one of the most shockingly imaginative films of the decade (yes, I said decade). It's nightmarish and poetic, brutal and beautiful, gritty and hallucinatory at the same time (when Radiohead pops up on the soundtrack at one point, the jarring music is as perfect as it is unexpected). The story of a young bicycle taxi driver, his prostitute sister, and the brooding thug they both work for is a jolting view of modern Southeast Asia. More episodic than linear—sometimes excessively so— the film is structured to disorient you. The lashes of violence are painful and hard to watch, as they're meant to be. Cyclo is a cry of moral loss in the global village, and it confirms Hung's stature as not just an artist but a visionary.

Chen Kaige's talents are more conventional. The Chinese director makes big dramas about tragic heroes and doomed romances. His American breakthrough came with Farewell, My Concubine (1993, R), a bisexual love triangle played out against a half-century of modern Chinese history. It is an unreservedly great film, one that puts almost all recent Hollywood "epics" to shame. Chen's latest release, Temptress Moon (1997, R) is more problematic. It has the amazing visual texture of the earlier film but lacks interesting or sympathetic characters (even though it has the same two leads, Gong Li and Leslie Cheung, as Farewell, My Concubine). The stew of incest, opium addiction, jealousy, and sexual warfare seems a bit overheated—more Judith Krantz than Shakespeare. Still, it's an ambitious work by a spectacularly talented director. Stick that in your Oscar and smoke it, Mr. Cameron.

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