So it is, then, that Wong Kar-wai couldn't complete his long-gestated martial arts movie The Grandmasters in time for this year's Cannes Film Festival. Yet he remains omnipresent on the Croisette: a still of his 1988 film As Tears Go By is plastered all over town as the key art of this year's Critics' Week sidebar programme, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Depicting Andy Lau Tak-wah and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk locking lips in a climactic scene from the underworld romance drama, the photograph is one of five stills chosen to grace the publicity material of the Critics' Week this year - the others were drawn from Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution (1964), Barbet Schroeder's More (1969), Jacques Audiard's See How They Fall (1994), and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Amores Perros (2000). All these films took their international bow at the Critics' Week, and represented these filmmakers as nascent talents, years before they were to become masters of their craft.
Jean Christophe Berjon, the artistic director of Critics' Week, can still recall watching As Tears Go By in 1988 and being impressed by Wong's 'interesting sense to tell a story and his unique visual universe'. Berjon, who was then a critic 17 years away from taking over the Critics' Week reins, vividly recalls seeing the then 32-year-old Wong appear on stage to introduce his directorial debut: 'He appeared without sunglasses - we could actually see his eyes.' By the time Wong won a best director award at the main competition in 1997 with Happy Together, he no longer allowed anyone to peer into his soul, with his eyewear now as much part of his mythology as his films.
Wong is one of many Critics' Week alumni who have gone on to bigger things: Bertolucci, who was just 24 when he made Before the Revolution, went on to make critically acclaimed films such as Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor; Audiard and Gonzalez Inarritu are now Cannes regulars, with the former's The Prophet winning the Grand Prix in 2009, and the latter's Biutiful securing its lead star Javier Bardem the best actor award last year.
Other prominent filmmakers who screened their early works at the showcase include Ken Loach, Chris Marker, Fernando Solanas and Tran Anh Hung.
Among this year's main competition entries is Bertrand Bonello's House of Tolerance - which will premiere next week exactly a decade after the director's first film, The Pornographer, appeared at the Critics' Week. 'They are who they are - and they would have had the same career they have had anyway,' says Berjon. 'We helped them to do that faster - their appearance at the Critics' Week would see them lose less time in attracting attention and finding producers.'
The Critics' Week had its roots in the screening of Shirley Clarke's The Connection as an out-of-competition entry at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961 - an event initiated by Roger Regent, the president of the French Association of Film Critics. Impressed by the results, the association was invited to organise a week-long showcase as part of the festival the next year - and thus the Critics' Week was born. It has since evolved into an independent entity - and an event that lasts longer than a week now, with this year's edition running from May 12 to 20. Its key policy was, and still is, to provide a platform only for directors making their first or second films.
Berjon says the rule has remained largely in place throughout the past 50 years. 'We try to make this house as professional as possible, but not in the industry, business and competition way that Cannes represents,' he says. 'It's more the family house in which the young can start becoming adults.'
This year, the Critics' Week comprises seven feature-length films and 10 shorts slated for competition, as well as the opening and closing films and the 50th anniversary celebration screening (which is the premiere of Eva Ionesco's My Little Princess).
Among the entries is mainland China's sole representative at Cannes this year: Zou Peng's Sauna on Moon, which is about people managing and owning a brothel in Guangdong province, and is the sophomore effort of the Harbin-born director.
Berjon says the film's main champion in the programme's selection committee is critic and former Cahiers de Cinema editor Charles Tesson, who will succeed Berjon as artistic director after this year's proceedings. 'You can't do this [job] without a total investment of passion - and I'm not so young anymore,' Berjon says. 'After the 50th edition, someone has to take up this challenge.'