Chinese gold, Asian glory as Berlin film fest wraps up

Diao’s “Black Coal, Thin Ice” took the Berlinale’s Golden Bear and won its star Liao the Silver Bear for best actor.

BERLIN: The 64th Berlin International Film Festival wrapped up Sunday after a resounding triumph for Asian cinema at its gala awards ceremony, which saw the Golden Bear top prize go to a Chinese noir mystery. “Black Coal, Thin Ice” (“Bai Ri Yan Huo”) by Diao Yinan, about a washed-up ex-cop investigating a series of grisly murders, took the highest honor late Saturday, as well as the Silver Bear best actor award for its star Liao Fan.

“It’s really hard to believe that this dream has come true,” Diao said as he accepted the trophy, fighting back tears.

It was the first Chinese film to win in Berlin since Wang Quan’an’s unconventional love story “Tuya’s Marriage” (“Tuya De Hunshi”) brought home the gold in 2007.

In a remarkably strong showing for Asian contenders, the Berlinale, Europe’s first major film festival of the year, gave its best actress prize to Japan’s Haru Kuroki for her role as a discreet housemaid in wartime Tokyo in Yoji Yamada’s “The Little House” (“Chiisai Ouchi”).

U.S. films shared the glory, with Wes Anderson’s historical caper “The Grand Budapest Hotel” – offering a nostalgic look back at a Europe lost to war – claiming the runner-up Silver Bear grand jury prize.

In his acceptance speech – read by U.S. actress and jury member Greta Gerwig – Anderson noted that this was his first film festival award. The Ralph Fiennes vehicle opened the Berlinale on Feb. 6.

Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater won best director prize. Shot over more than a decade with the same actors, his innovative coming-of-age drama “Boyhood” was widely tipped to take the Golden Bear.

“This says best director,” Linklater said, clutching the trophy, “but I want to think of it as best ensemble.”

Best screenplay went to the German siblings Dietrich and Anna Brueggemann for their wrenching drama “Stations of the Cross” (“Kreuzweg”) about a teenager who makes the ultimate sacrifice for her fundamentalist Catholic family.

Veteran French director Alain Resnais drew the Alfred Bauer Prize for work of particular innovation for his play-within-a-film “Life of Riley” (“Aimer, boire et chanter”).

“Blind Massage” (“Tui Na”), the second of three Chinese films in competition at the Berlinale, which featured a cast made up in part of amateur blind actors, snared cinematographer Zeng Jian a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution.

A nine-member jury led by U.S. producer James Schamus (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) handed out the prizes.

The 11-day festival wrapped Sunday with screenings of its most popular features from a lineup of more than 400 movies. Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick said the event had sold a record 330,000 tickets this year.

British director Ken Loach picked up an honorary Golden Bear Thursday for his life’s work.

“Black Coal, Thin Ice” is set in the late 1990s in the frosty reaches of northern China, and its murder mystery plot is told through enigmatic flashbacks. It is Diao’s third feature film.

Liao said he put on 20 kilograms to play the alcoholic suspended police officer who falls hard for a beautiful murder suspect (Gwei Lun Mei).

Diao said he saw his film as bridging the gap between pure art house cinema and multiplex fare.

“I finally did find the right way to combine a film which has a commercial aspect to it but which is nonetheless art,” he told reporters after the awards ceremony, “so that it’s possible to launch it in these terms.”

He said Chinese films were gaining ground in Western cinemas thanks in part to their exposure at major film festivals.

“Every time that we take our films abroad,” he said, “it seems that there is an ever-greater enthusiasm for Chinese cinema.”

“Black Coal, Thin Ice” divided audiences in Berlin but won over many critics.

Movie news website Indiewire noted that buzz about the picture had been strong before its screening “on the possibility of the film becoming that whitest of whales: a crossover Chinese-language international hit.”

The Hollywood Reporter hailed it as “a salute to the classic Hollywood film noir, an exciting stylistic tour-de-force” but questioned its foreign box-office prospects.

The film is virtually unknown in China as it has yet to be released. A Chinese state media report said the movie had already received a state permit for screening with release possible in April or May.

Some Chinese cinemagoers question whether political sensitivity might block the release of “Black Coal, Thin Ice” at home, or at least result in deep cuts to the original.

China censors films it deems obscene or politically touchy.

“The sensitivity of the theme and content of the film is high,” said a microblog posting under the name Jiade Changle, “so I don’t know whether it can be shown in China.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 17, 2014, on page 16.




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