The gem is China's In Expectation, also known by the much better, more ambiguous, title Rainclouds Over Wushan. In Expectation is about exactly that -- people waiting, dreading, hoping ... for something, anything. Taking place in a quiet jumble of a town on the Yangtze River (soon to disappear along with hundreds of others under the deluge of water created by the controversial 3 Gorges Dam), In Expectation plumbs the mysteries of ordinary lives with subtle, elusive grace. Though demanding and enigmatic, it's full of privileged moments -- an image of a woman bathing behind a sheer curtain in early evening light while her young son looks on from the dark is alone worth the price of admission for its ineluctable melancholy.
Edward Yang's spirited Mahjong is the most assured film in the bunch. Mahjong is almost epic in its blackly comic screwball sensibility, as it digs into some deep, dark stuff about Chinese fathers and sons, the Westernization of the East, and the steely greed of apparently everyone in Taipei at the expense of everything, especially love. A huge cast of characters bounces off one another in a million Altman-esque ways. It's a cool, kaleidoscopic look at modern Taipei.
Nothing else in the series is nearly as good. Unusual because it's directed by a woman (almost unheard of in Korea), Three Friends follows a trio of mopey teen-age boys just out of high school. They've failed their college entrance exams; in Korea, this means they're practically doomed to live small, struggling lives just like their parents. It also means compulsory military service, and the boys spend a considerable amount of time figuring out how to avoid it. It's a dour little film about going nowhere that doesn't really go anywhere.
From Sri Lanka, Dark Night of the Soul sports most of the earmarks of a film from an "emerging cinema" -- poor sound recording, primitive technique, awkward composition, clunky melodrama, spotty subtitling, and a slow pace. Of interest mainly as a rarity (what's the last Sri Lankan film you've seen?) it is, in spite of its shortcomings, a sincere attempt to confront some of the country's recent conflict, and ends on a surprisingly powerful note.
Tokyo Skin is a trendy portrait of lowlife Tokyo as a crazily multicultural melting pot of young people scrabbling for money, friendship, and a little dignity. The characters are either repellent or rather stupid, and it's hard to drum up much sympathy for their fates.
I didn't get to see Sunset at Chaopraya, a World War II-set epic described in the press kit as "Thailand's own Gone With the Wind."
-- Tod Booth
"New Asian Cinema" plays Thursday through Tuesday, June 5-10, at the Four Star, 2200 Clement (at 23rd Street). Tickets are $7.50; call 666-3488. For a complete schedule of films and times, see Reps Etc., Page 77.