Critics and industry watchers were dismayed that only two Chinese-language productions were scheduled for showing at the Cannes Film Festival, which opens on May 14. Chen Kaige's biopic on Peking opera legend Mei Lanfang had long been expected to premiere on the Croisette this year, but it didn't make the festival's cut. Nor did John Woo Yu-sum's historical epic Red Cliff, which is still in post-production. A 10-minute segment will be shown at a press conference in Cannes, but outside the remits of the festival.
Also absent was Gordon Chan Ka-seung's Painted Skin, a mainland-Hong Kong co-production starring Zhou Xun and Donnie Yen Ji-dan. Its exclusion counters press reports of Chan's publicity team saying that the film was 'invited' to the festival.
The mainland's two showings this year are independent productions: 24 City (starring Zhao Tao, above right) by festival darling Jia Zhangke, and Liu Fendou's Ocean Flame, which is produced by its leading actor, Simon Yam Tat-wah, and will compete in the Un Certain Regard competition.
Hong Kong would be absent from Cannes this year if not for the premiere of Ashes of Time Redux, a reworked version of Wong Kar-wai's foray into martial arts in 1993. Taiwan, meanwhile, will be represented by Chung Mong-hung's Parking, which will compete with Liu's film in the festival sidebar.
Slim pickings at an international film festival with an art-house emphasis do not necessarily point to a dip in fortunes for a country's film industry; the dearth of Chinese-language entries this year is partly due to their makers' difficulties in having their finished films approved for screenings - mainland's censors have been ordered to put applications on hold until after the Olympics. But the way Chinese filmmakers are forced to absent themselves from Cannes counters recent predictions the nation's films would take the world by storm.
Such claims seemed viable last year, when Wang Quanan won the Berlin Film Festival's top prize with Tuya's Wedding and Cannes paraded Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights as its opening film, and hosted premieres of Triangle (directed by Johnnie To Kei-fung, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam Ling-tung), Li Yang's Blind Mountain, and Diao Yinan's Night Train.
At the Venice festival, a jury chaired by Zhang Yimou presented the Golden Lion to Ang Lee for Lust, Caution, which was warmly received around the world and catapulted its star, Tang Wei, to a Bafta nomination for best newcomer.
But the failure of Lust, Caution to match the commercial success of his Oscar-nominated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) highlights how western cinema-goers still prefer Chinese films spiced up with the martial arts-driven exotica of The Forbidden Kingdom, the Jet Li Lianje-meets-Jackie Chan fight-fest which opened last month.
The film was criticised for its flimsy storyline and orientalist cliches, yet it rocketed to the top of the US box office charts on its opening weekend. Driven mostly by Yuen Woo-ping's action choreography and the two leads' martial arts skills, The Forbidden Kingdom hardly offers a progressive understanding of the multifarious aspects of Chinese culture as it rehashes the themes of kung
The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which opens in July, also revolves around an evil monarch with an army of terracotta warriors, and a team of heroes facing down curses. One wonders what the mainland's Carrefour-jeering, flag-waving nationalists would think of this.