PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 March, 2004, 12:00am

THIS YEAR'S BERLIN International Film Festival was a near-perfect mix of glamour and art. The competition section, where festival-goers look for the best new art films, was judged by critics to be the strongest for many years. But that didn't mean the event was short on glam and glitz. More stars than usual braved the city's sleet and snow for the red-carpet treatment outside the Berlinale-Palast, the festival's sparkling modern centrepiece venue.

One thing that was missing this year was political posturing. Last year's festival caught the mood of the times - and the German government - by taking a position against the then impending invasion of Iraq. The festival invented a new motto for itself, 'Towards Tolerance', and stars like Edward Norton took advantage of press conferences to attack the US government's militarism.

This year, the focus was squarely back on the films. But it wasn't exactly entertainment as usual. The posturing had translated into a crop of politically aware films. These included Ken Loach's Muslim/Catholic culture clash, Ae Fond Kiss, and the festival's top prize-winner, Head On, a story of Turkish immigrants in Hamburg. Death In Gaza was a moving documentary about Palestinian kids, made even more tragic when its British director, James Miller, was killed on camera by Israeli troops.

Even so, big politics were noticeably absent from press conferences and discussions. But small politics weren't. Five hundred student demonstrators disrupted the festival's opening, protesting against cuts in education. The same group later stormed the closing ceremony and took their clothes off. Festival head Dieter Kosslick allowed them a minute to make their point, but asked that they put their clothes on while they did it.

As for the glamour, the US seemed to be all over the festival, even though this year's competition section was skewed towards European movies. Jack Nicholson, in town for a screening of Something's Gotta Give, continually beamed his sneaky grin down from the huge video screen outside the Berlinale-Palast, reminding viewers that while Europeans may do filmmaking better, Americans do it bigger. More visitors from Tinseltown followed. After a start marred by cancellations and no-shows, Renee Zellweger and Robin Williams turned up, as did Charlize Theron, Diane Keaton, Cate Blanchett and, arriving late, Jude Law.

Stars are part and parcel of big film festivals these days, even if their commercially orientated films sit a little uneasily with the more serious movies on show. That's because film festivals depend on corporate sponsors, and sponsors like to be associated with stars to ensure maximum publicity. Mercifully, the Hollywood carnival didn't affect the quality of films in Berlin this year. 'On paper, it looked like the strongest Berlinale in years,' wrote Variety critic Derek Elley. 'And in practice, it turned out pretty damn good.'

Nonetheless, Asian films in competition were below par. Kim Ki-duk's Samaria was another piece of vacuous nonsense from the highly overrated Korean director. It was a vague story about personal sainthood. A schoolgirl prostitute is killed on the job, so her friend decides to suffer for her sins by sleeping for free with all the men she had sex with. Her father, a policeman, follows the girl in secret, and attacks the men one by one.

It was a plainly ridiculous film, and it got worse. A finale featuring the heroine trying to learn to drive along a muddy river bank may go down as one of Korean cinema's most boring scenes. Although many Koreans thought it was a clumsy piece of work, the Berlin jury voted Kim best director.

Sylvia Chang's Taiwan-set 20:30:40 was better, although most considered it too light for competition. It would have been better in the festival's international showcase, the Panorama section. In the film, Chang interwove three women's stories: one aged 20, one 30, and one 40. It was an inoffensive film, colourful and kind-hearted, but it lacked bite. The teenage lesbian part of the story had been covered to much greater effect in Murmur Of Youth and Blue Gate Crossing, but it was still nice to see a Taiwanese film made by a woman for women to enjoy.

The festival competition featured some European heavyweights and a few misplaced Americans. The top Golden Bear prize went to young German director Fatih Aiken for the immigrant drama Head On. He was understandably stunned to have beaten French legends Eric Rohmer and Patrice Leconte, British social realist Ken Loach and Greek master Theo Angelopoulos. Head On was the first German film to win top honours at Berlin for almost two decades.

Angelopoulos'170-minute epic Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow was a discussion point. Those familiar with his work know he usually makes long movies about Greek history. The problem with Trilogy - the first in a projected three-film cycle he intends as a summation of his work - was that some felt it was too similar to his earlier films. Technically, though, it was marvellous, and the story of a woman suffering the ravages of both the second world war and the Greek civil war was not without emotion.

Rohmer set his Triple Agent just before the second world war, and told a neat story about a White Russian in France who is finally revealed as a spy for Stalin. It's a clever film that ignores the usual framework for such capers: there are no glamorous femme fatales or sudden surprises, and it simply concentrates on how the spy conceals himself day by day. Based on a true story, it is given extra credence by its use of real newsreel footage.

Loach looked at conflict of a different kind. In Ae Fond Kiss, set in Glasgow, a young Pakistani-Muslim man falls in love with a Catholic schoolteacher. His parents refuse to accept the relationship, saying it will shame the family. Her employers can't accept it, either, and try to move her to a secular school. It's less schematic than Loach's previous Sweet Sixteen, and has drama, edge and a bit of humour. Love triumphs over all - sort of - but not before Loach has made his point about the intransigence of religions.

The course of true love ran a little sweeter in Richard Linklater's Before Sunset, the sequel to his popular 90s romance Before Sunrise. It's 10 years later, and Euro travellers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who shared a single night of passion in the first film, accidentally meet in Paris. The film is pretty much one long, lighthearted conversation, in which they discuss how their lives have changed. At the forefront of the audience's mind is one big question: will they get it on again? It's a charming, affecting film, which nonetheless seems to have taken most of its ideas from something like Cosmopolitan magazine.

Comedy was absent from the competition, although another German entry, Nightsongs, had critics rolling in the aisles. This film about a dead-end relationship was so seriously dull that some thought it might be a parody of a 70s German art-house drama. Alas, it was meant to be taken seriously. At the press conference, director Romuald Karmakar blamed American films and television for people not being able to appreciate his work. The press laughed even louder at this.

Out of competition, two films by well-known Chinese-language female directors screened. Fifth Generation director Li Shaohong (Blush) impressed with the chaotic and inventive surrealist story Baober In Love. Laced with top-notch special effects made in France, this took a surreal look at the psychological effects of China's speedy modernisation. It was so unusual for a mainland film that many viewers left the cinema feeling shell-shocked and confused.

Others were baffled by Hong Kong director Ann Hui's Goddess Of Mercy: Why had she made it? Although Hui has dabbled in standard thrillers before (Zodiac Killer), this story, about a drugs cop on the mainland, was nothing but a souped-up B movie. Some spirited performances failed to disguise the film's tired John Woo heroics and bloodshed. Won't someone please give Hui the money to do what she does best - make incisive social dramas?

The saddest film of all was the British documentary Death In Gaza, which examines how Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip are suffering from attacks by the Israeli army. But during the filming an Israeli tank, manned by Berber Arabs, fired on the camera crew, in spite of the fact they were waving white flags. Director James Miller was killed instantly. His story is incorporated into the finished documentary. After the screening, Miller's widow gave a speech about her late husband, and told how Israeli authorities had avoided giving any explanation for the shooting.

Her speech was anything but political posturing from the Berlin podium. It was a quiet plea from the heart for justice.