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A crowded field at Cannes

Special to The Times

A significant Asian presence marks this year’s Cannes Film Festival, as organizers announced the official lineup Wednesday with six of the 18 films in competition coming from China, Japan, Korea and Thailand.

Coming back after last year’s season of discontent -- colored by the political rift between France and the U.S. and the lingering aftermath of the SARS scare -- the festival, now in its 57th year, will include a surprising number of mainstream movies, most notably DreamWorks’ animated sequel “Shrek 2.” Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education” will open the festival on May 12, with the Palme d’Or and other awards conferred on May 22.

Still, a layer of tension will accompany the festival, which opens in the shadow of the recent terrorist bombings in Spain. Striking show business workers have also threatened to disrupt the proceedings.

Among the filmmakers returning to the main drag Croisette will be Joel and Ethan Coen with “The Ladykillers,” Michael Moore with “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Emir Kusturica with “Life Is a Miracle” and Wong Kar Wai with “2046.” Even perennial bad boy Quentin Tarantino will be there -- this time as jury president -- 10 years after “Pulp Fiction” picked up the Palme d’Or for best film.

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As always, Cannes promises to deliver star power with Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Uma Thurman, Naomi Watts, Charlize Theron, Sean Penn, Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Penelope Cruz and Gong Li among those expected to stride up the red carpet to the Palais, where the major events are held.

It will be a leaner battle for the Palme d’Or, with the number of films in the official competition down from 23 last year. In all, a record 1,325 feature films from 85 countries will be screened during the festival and its concurrent market. In total, festival organizers screened 3,562 films for a 42.5% increase in just one year. Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux put this down to digital cinema’s influence and growth, noting, “If someone sends us a VHS tape in the mail, we still watch it.”

Last year’s lineup was plagued by complaints that the films were too obscure and, more pointedly, that they simply weren’t up to snuff. During the news conference, festival President Gilles Jacob pledged, “This year will be different, and one can feel that it is time for a year that makes a mark.”

The U.S. competition selections include “Shrek 2,” the Coen brothers’ film starring Tom Hanks and Moore’s potentially controversial new documentary, which is reported to be an attack on the Bush administration. Out-of-competition films are Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy,” Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa” and Irwin Winkler’s “De-Lovely.” The latter is the festival’s closing-night selection.

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The number of French films in the official lineup is down to three from four in 2003. Those films are Agnes Jaoui’s “Comme Une Image,” Tony Gatlif’s “Exils” and Olivier Assayas’ “Clean.”

In the Asian film contingent are two films each from Korea and Japan, including the animated “Innocence.” With “Shrek 2" in the running as well, this marks the first time two animated films will compete. China and Thailand each have a film in competition too.

Germany is back in the game with Hans Weingartner’s “The Edukators,” the first film in German to be selected since Wim Wenders’ “Faraway, So Close!” in 1993. Britain is represented by Stephen Hopkins’ “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.” Other countries bringing films to the Palais include Argentina, Italy and Brazil. “Central Station’s” Brazilian director, Walter Salles, is offering a Che Guevara film, “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

Among the 18 student filmmakers chosen to screen their films, four are from the U.S.: USC’s Olga Zurawska, “Nebraska"; CalArts’ JJ Villard, “Son of Satan"; UCLA’s Tim McCarthy, “The Rick"; and NYU’s Frederikke Aspock, “Happy Now.”

Jacob, who has run the festival for 26 years, said the idea was to offer “a menu that whets the appetite and whose inventive cuisine is neither too classic nor too pretentious -- a selection that is the world’s most international, open to all genres.”

Indeed, the concentration of genre films -- everything from sci-fi to comedies, thrillers and martial-arts films shows up in the different sections -- is a novelty.

“People are tired of annoying auteur films,” Jacob said. “Films need to be able to capture the audience’s interest from start to finish.”

Addressing the issue of potential terrorist attacks, the festival’s managing director, Veronique Cayla, said, “For the past three years we have had measures in place, and they’ve proven very efficient.”

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A bigger threat may be posed by the striking entertainment industry artists and technicians, who are riled at an increase in the number of hours they must work in order to qualify for benefits. The workers have been responsible in the last year for disrupting festivals and events across France. Most recently they interrupted Monday’s ceremony for the Moliere Awards, France’s version of the Tonys, when workers abandoned their posts, leaving the auditorium without microphones or lighting.

While France’s new culture minister carries on discussions with the workers’ representatives, Cayla is hopeful that a resolution will be found sooner rather than later. For now, festival organizers expect to set up a forum in which the workers may air their grievances.

Cannes has a handful of seminar-style events, including the new “Meeting With the Studios,” at which studio directors from around the world convene to discuss ways to combat piracy. Exiting Motion Picture Assn. of America President Jack Valenti is scheduled to attend. Another new event, “The “Acting Lesson,” will be given by Max von Sydow, who will share his experiences.

A salute to director Jean-Luc Godard is also planned with the screening of his recent work, “Notre Musique.”

Artistic director Fremaux suggests that the 2004 edition is an “opportunity to show that Cannes can move and change ... it’s a chance to renew ourselves a bit and get out of a routine.”

In the case of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” even the festival isn’t entirely sure what it’s getting. “The film we saw is probably not the film we’ll see in Cannes,” Fremaux said.

Presidential hopeful Sen. John F. Kerry can also count on some extra publicity. His daughter Alexandra will go to Cannes as part of a new program that gives young directors a chance to screen their short films and meet with a network of 400 producers.

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Past winners of the Palme d’Or

2003: “Elephant” (Gus Van Sant, director, U.S.)

2002: “The Pianist” (Roman Polanski, France)

2001: “The Son’s Room” (Nanni Moretti, Italy)

2000: “Dancer in the Dark” (Lars von Trier, Denmark)

1999: “Rosetta” (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, France/Belgium)

1998: “Mia Eoniotita Ke Mia Mera” (Theo Angelopoulos, Greece)

1997: “Unagi” (Shohei Imamura, Japan), “Ta’m E Guilass” (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)

1996: “Secrets and Lies” (Mike Leigh, Britain)

1995: “Underground” (Emir Kusturica, Bosnia)

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (Quentin Tarantino, U.S.).


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