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North by Northwest

"That's where I first met William S. Burroughs, many years ago, right up there in the Crying Room," announced William Gibson, the Ichabod Crane of cyber-lit, pointing to the soundproof chamber over the sold-out crowd at the Ridge Theater in Vancouver, British Columbia. "And I'd like to think that if he were here tonight to see this movie, he might just pronounce it the latest word on heterosexuality and global capitalism."

The audience roared, basking in this "from beyond" and purely speculative endorsement; it was just the sort of thing they've come to expect from their hometown boy and the movies in their midst. The evening's entertainment: Abel Ferrara's apparently still-in-progress New Rose Hotel, based on one of Gibson's stories and featuring Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and plush (Dario-daughter) Asia Argento, channeling Ferrara's every grunt and nod. The occasion: the 17th Vancouver International Film Festival - North America's most ambitious, art-smart and industry-aloof convocation of movies and their lovers, makers and minders. The outcome? The movie sucked, Walken's nth-generation thug-shtick more nauseating than ever.

Burroughs is still dead, but VIFF, which ended just two weeks ago, felt alive with mysteries of every caliber. Free of Toronto's Cannes-in-Cronenberg-country marketplace atmosphere, Vancouver's is the sort of easygoing festival where crowds clamor for advance-sales tickets for Maborosi director Kore-eda Hirokazu's unpredictably comic After Life, or a program of daft comedies and yakuza capers by Japanese genre-jiggler Miike Takahashi, while ignoring Robert Towne's Without Limits altogether. Mobs even collect just to catch the opening shorts, and who can blame them, with choices like Wong Kar-wai's five-minute promo for Motorola, featuring Faye Wong's first screen appearance since Chungking Express, or Takeshi Kitano's music video for his daughter's not-too-bad debut single?

How do these things come about? Blessings - or blame - belong largely to polyglot Tony Rayns, the English critic and consummate inside player who, over the past two decades, has done more to introduce Asian filmmaking to the West than anyone else alive. For the past 10 years, Rayns has programmed VIFF's "Dragons and Tigers," the festival's annual roundup of Asian cinema new and rediscovered. Rayns got the ball rolling on the Seijun Suzuki revival many moons ago, helped put everyone from Hou Hsiao-hsien to Stanley Kwan on the world-cinema map, and oversees the juried selection of first- or second-time directors that shares the series' name. This year's winner, Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke - whose Xiao Wu, a grimy portrait of a pickpocket's downward spiral, has been accruing awards from Berlin to Pusan - joins a list of world-class filmmakers still, as far as American distributors are concerned, too far on the dark side of Kipling's famous divide.

Since Miramax ain't likely to bring it to you, you do the better thing: You spend a week in the shade of Grouse Mountain. Where else to find the latest in South Korean schoolgirl shockers and Taiwanese incest dramas, or to marvel at a film like Wang Guangli's delirious Maiden Work, in which Red Guard propaganda meets Beijing's underground art scene, and a group of bathhouse sages discuss Spielberg's putative "work unit of socialists and philosophers"? Folks used to tell me that heaven's someplace up north, too, but until someone finds a friendlier, more vibrantly programmed film festival than Vancouver's, I'm sticking with the assumption that they just got those two venues confused.


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