'WHICH FILM?' was the near-unanimous refrain in the crowded press room of the Venice Film Festival as the Golden Lion for Best Picture was awarded to the Chinese movie Still Life (Sanxia Haoren) last Saturday night. Few of the attending critics had seen Jia Zhangke's winner, which screened at midnight as a surprise entry just as the festival was winding down. Last year's surprise movie, Takeshi Kitano's Takeshis' hadn't made much impact either - as is often the case with unheralded entries. So the top award came as a shock. At a post-awards press conference, jury head Catherine Deneuve said they had been impressed by 'the beauty of the cinematography and the quality of the story, which, without getting political, said a lot about China and its people.' Shot documentary-style, Still Life tells the story of a man and a woman (played by Jia's partner, Zhao Tao, a dancer who's been in his three previous features) searching for their partners as villages and towns are submerged by the Yangtze River to make way for the giant Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project. Started in 1993, the project, the biggest in the world, involves relocating more than 1.2 million people. 'I'm trying to show the changes in daily life in China through my film, and I want to continue to explore the problems of the weaker social class,' Jia says. 'I will continue to make films for the next 10 to 20 years with the same actors and crew.' Not that the film has won over its critics. Variety critic Derek Elley says it 'has almost zero plot, but molto mood. It will appeal to the most faithful of the director's camp-followers and no one else'. As for its festival win, Eric J. Lyman of the Hollywood Reporter says: 'Art house films like Still Life seem to be in the festival's DNA and so it's not a surprise to me that it won. I don't think it'll have wide appeal in the west, though. First, because Asian films rarely do, and also because this kind of story isn't designed to be anything but a work of art.' Dong, also directed by 36-year-old Jia, screened in the Horizons sidebar. He's a popular choice at the Venice Festival, where his films Platform (Zhantai) and The World (Shijie) screened in competition in 2000 and 2004, respectively. Another Chinese film, Liu Jie's Courthouse on the Horseback (Mabei shang de fating), won the best film prize in the Horizons section. A story of a magistrate travelling the Chinese countryside dispensing justice, it boasts a traditional narrative, and deals with aspects of modern China that aren't well known abroad. 'I was worried to take the film to an international festival,' Liu says. 'But now I understand there are no barriers to the rest of the world - audiences everywhere can appreciate it.' Many critics regarded Tsai Ming-liang's contemporary drama I Don't Want to Sleep Alone as the best Asian film at the festival, and Johnnie To Kei-fung's Exiled received much the same fanfare as his previous films. Benny Chan Muk-sing's action comedy Rob-B-Hood created little interest as well - as is the norm with Jackie Chan action films. However, Chan made more of an impact off screen. During the stifling Venetian heat he was seen hamming up his martial arts moves in the pool of the posh Hotel des Bains on Friday. At the awards ceremony the next evening he turned up on stage in his typically chic style. 'It's an honour to be here, but I don't know what I'm doing here,' he said. 'I'm the presenter?' He went on to give the best young actor award to Isild Le Besco for her risque work in L'Intouchable. With the exception of Helen Mirren's win for her sublime performance as Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears' The Queen, the assembled critics didn't approve of the major prizes. When Ben Affleck's name was read out as best actor for his portrayal of Superman television star George Reeves in Hollywoodland, the decision was booed, and that Emanuele Crialese's Golden Door should receive only an exceptional revelation prize seemed like a missed opportunity to commend a truly exceptional Italian film. Tullio Kezich, from the leading Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, even suggests that the jury has maligned Venice's reputation at a time when the new Rome Festival is looming. From all reports, however, it will be difficult to instil a festival feel into a bustling city such as the Italian capital, because the venues are so far apart. The programme will be announced on Saturday, but it's doubtful that the event will attract the industry confidence of Venice artistic director Marco Mueller, who two years ago had half of Hollywood at his inaugural Venice event. Meryl Streep, in town to promote The Devil Wears Prada, commended him for 'turning the festival around' in the past two years. Certainly Mueller has programmed quality films. This year, he managed to come up with 22 world premieres in his competition - a first for any film festival. Still, the Roma Festa del Cinema will boast some big Hollywood names: Nicole Kidman for the opening film, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, and Russell Crowe reportedly coming for Ridley Scott's A Good Year. And things might hot up if the rumour is correct that The Departed, Martin Scorsese's re-working of Infernal Affairs will be in Rome. Back in Venice, the screenplay prize, awarded to Peter Morgan for The Queen, was well deserved. The film focuses on the squabbles between the British monarch and Tony Blair in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death and recreates the private events that propelled her to make a public appearance at Princess Diana's funeral. Morgan was dryly humorous in his acceptance speech. 'I'd like to thank Stephen Frears, Helen Mirren, Andy Harries our producer and Tony Blair for timing your political disintegration with the release of our film.' Mirren was the belle of the ball collecting her prize for best actress wearing a sexy, sapphire-blue, floor-length dress. She later said she wanted to look as different from the Queen as possible. She certainly succeeded. Less of a success was Alain Resnais, the revered 84-year-old French auteur, who won the directing award for the stilted Private Fears in Public Places. And, somewhat ironically, David Lynch received his lifetime achievement award at the festival earlier in the week while presenting Inland Empire, the worst movie he has done. Spike Lee came up with the goods. His emotional Hurricane Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts won the best film prize in the Horizons documentary section. The highly emotional film left some audience members in tears.