Debra DiPaoloWHAT DEFINES AN ESTABLISHED DIRECTOR? WHAT does it mean to be an emerging director? In the case of foreign filmmakers — whether veterans or newcomers — is it even possible anymore to meaningfully follow the trajectory of a career, given the vagaries and neglect that pass for foreign-film distribution in the United States? Is the term “foreign film” even relevant in the age of globalization? Or is it an anachronism held in place not by national styles or voices, but by our own moribund expectations of the art house? And what the hell does all this have to do with Alfred Hitchcock and Universal Studios? These are just a few of the questions that should be swirling through the renovated air of the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theater when the inaugural Universal Studios Hitchcock International Director Series kicks off Tuesday. Only the last question comes with an easy answer.

You might suspect that by attaching its name to a program of international films the studio wouldn't otherwise go near — and committing to put up a big chunk of the series' budget this year and the next two — Universal is playing an angle. But here cynicism seems misplaced. Even if you can hear the corporate synergy crackling between Universal and co-sponsor Absolut Vodka (both stand under the Seagram's umbrella), this week-long series of 10 films — five by established directors, five by emerging filmmakers — is still a first-rate, living centennial tribute from the studio to its beloved Hitchcock. For the Cinematheque, the series is an exemplary chance to further cultivate a communal film culture at the Egyptian. Along with the screenings, all of the directors will be on hand to discuss their work, and there's even a panel, “National vs. Global Filmmaking in the New Millennium.”

To get an inkling of the intimate international dialogue Cinematheque director Barbara Zicka Smith hopes to foster, listen to her lament: “I only wish our restaurant could be ready in time.”

Restaurant or no, the Hitchcock series represents a singular opportunity for anyone who hasn't spent the '90s jetting off to Berlin, Toronto, Venice and Cannes. While the names of the directors in the established program (Ken Loach, Claire Denis, Idrissa Ouédraogo, Kinju Fukasaku, Arturo Ripstein) may not be any more recognizable than some of the newer names in the emerging category (Deepa Mehta, Garin Nugroho, Lynne Ramsay, Tsai Ming-Liang, Eric Mendelsohn), the work being highlighted stands as some of the most vigorous and exciting cinema being made today. As samplers go, the series is a chance to play catch-up with foreign film, as well as to get in on the ground floor.

Although Universal seems to have hung the series' international focus solely on Hitchcock's British background, the Cinematheque's programming choices deepen the connection. As Hitchcock told Truffaut, “If you've designed a picture correctly, in terms of its emotional impact, the Japanese audience should scream at the same time as the Indian audience. To a filmmaker, this is always the challenge.” The master director's faith in a universal cinematic language — absent, for the most part, the screaming — is here retooled and sustained across a diverse array of films.

In the press notes for his haunted samurai epic Crest of Betrayal (1994), veteran Japanese studio director Fukasaku says that he never expected the film to play outside Japan. Had he known it might reach foreign audiences, he would have re-cut it to fill in the details of the traditional ronin tale known so well at home. He needn't have worried. â Set in the late 1700s but soaked in garish neon light, Crest is all virtuosic action and dark melodrama as a wandering samurai betrays his fellows and himself, only to sink into madness. Then there's Denis' French thriller I Can't Sleep (1994), the deeply meditative And the Moon Dances (1995), by Indonesian director Nugroho, and the stark, stunning The River, by Taiwan's Tsai. In these films — along with Ouédraogo's deceptively simple African folktale Tilai (1990) — action unfolds, meaning is produced and emotions explode across the screen not so much from what the characters say but through the ebb, flow and crash of powerful compositions.

In the virtually wordless And the Moon Dances, Nugroho cocoons the film's two would-be lovers, apprentice musicians studying under a demanding master, in a timeless, otherworldly contemplation of memory and barely restrained passion. When a pay phone suddenly intrudes on this dream, it appears as the most alien of objects, suffused with menacing change and death. In The River, Tsai only gradually reveals that the three seemingly unrelated characters we've been following through empty, alienated days are actually a family living in the same apartment. As piercing as the emotional and physical distance that lies between these people can be, it culminates in a devastating intimacy between father and son. Relying largely on an expert play of light, the fluctuating space between people and the silences between words, the filmmakers in this series draw us into interior worlds and — by way of their own specific cultural positions — into intense confrontations with modernity. “The tragedy is that the public accepts modernity without being awed by it,” Hitchcock once said. Many of these films, each in its own distinct manner, restore awe in surprising, provocative ways.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HITCHCOCK INTERNATIONAL DIRECTORS SERIES AT THE AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE 10 feature films at 6712 Hollywood Blvd. | For information and tickets, call 323-466-FILM | July 27 through August 2

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