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For the second year in a row a Chinese director stepped into the spotlight, proving that at the Venice Film Festival lighting can strike twice. Haloed by acclaim, Ang Lee took the Golden Lion for Lust, Caution, a film no critic had tipped but whose victory few begrudged.

Champions of France’s The Grain and the Mullet, the reviewers’ favourite, rested content with a shared Special Jury Prize for Abdellatif Kechiche’s epic family drama – winning ex aequo with Todd Haynes’s biopic-fantasia about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There – while the other strong contender, Brian De Palma’s Iraq war film Redacted, took the runner-up Silver Lion.

Since Ang Lee won Venice’s top prize for Brokeback Mountain in 2004, directors of Chinese origin must be starting to think they own the mostra del cinema. Jia Zhang-ke, last year’s victor with Still Life, returned to win Best Documentary for his fashion-industry essay Wuyong.

Did it help Lust, Caution (reviewed here last week) that top Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou headed the jury? Perhaps. Or perhaps the richness of the film’s texture, clothing its Mata Hari-style tale of espionage in wartime Shanghai and Hong Kong, wowed the panel. The film’s sex scenes have already wowed the world’s media gossip mills.

Best of the rest? Britain’s Paul Laverty won Best Screenwriter for the Ken Loach film It’s a Free World. Cate Blanchett was named Best Actress in the gender-bending role of Bob Dylan (one of I’m Not There’s six incarnations of the singer). And Brad Pitt was honoured in absentia as Best Actor in the outlaw role of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Finest of the late-screened competition films was Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12, which helped its director to a Silver Lion for career achievement. A Russian cinema veteran who won the Golden Lion for Urga in 1992, Mikhalkov has chosen, rather startlingly, to remake 12 Angry Men. Here are the murder trial jurors hoping to go home after a quick show of hands for “guilty”. Here is the lone dissenter (Sergei Makovetsky in the Henry Fonda role). And here is the unravelling of haste and prejudice by truth, logic and insight.

The difference? Mikhalkov’s film takes two and a half hours and lets every juror spill his life story. Those stories reveal fresh facets of life in modern Russia. There is powerful acting; there are clever plot twists; and there is Mikhalkov himself as the jury foreman, appropriating the film’s subtlest dialogue zinger. Asked if his status as an ex-army officer influenced his vote, in this case about a Russian military man’s killing by a Chechen boy, he says: “There is no such thing as an ex-officer.” Maybe, the film hints, there is no such thing as an ex-Soviet Union either.

Another new film by a veteran, Eric Rohmer’s The Loves of Astrée and Céladon, impressed less. Draped in neoclassical robes in Arcadian landscapes, in a plot about love, fate and chance, Rohmer’s cast of newcomers recite dialogue culled from the little-known French author Honoré d’Urfé. I found the film’s insipid acting and tableaux vivants hard to take. Some others sang the movie’s praises. For hardened Rohmer loyalists, perhaps, there is no such thing as an ex-genius.

Disappointments were the exception, not the rule, this year. Cheerful discoveries abounded, such as Johnnie To’s Mad Detective, a racy crime romp about a multiple-personality Hong Kong cop. By the festival’s end we were hoping there was no such thing as a retired Marco Müller. Müller has done sterling service as festival director for four years. Forget about a change of management. It is time for a contract renewal.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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