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Stunning Films From Poor Nations

Developing world's often unrecognized technical skills showcased at New York Film Festival

WHEN moviegoers think of films from the developing world, they generally don't expect the kind of technical polish that's taken for granted in pictures from Western Europe, Japan, or the Hollywood studios. Movies from less wealthy nations may be fascinating and insightful, but even their admirers don't often look for stunning images and eye-dazzling montage. Like most prejudices, this one turns out to be pretty feeble when examined closely, and never more so than today. Several developing-world movies in the current New York Film Festival, including some that were also screened in the Toronto Festival of Festivals last month, are as visually rich as anything from the world's traditional motion-picture capitols. Reasons for this include the increasingly wide availability of first-rate technical training, and the experience that aspiring filmmakers often gain in local TV production. There is also an increase in coproductions with larger and more affluent ones.

Of all the developing-world films I've seen recently, the most flat-out gorgeous is ``Ju Dou,'' a new Chinese movie by Zhang Yimou, whose ``Red Sorghum'' played American theaters a couple of years ago. The film's visual appeal comes largely from its aggressive use of color; the story is set in a Chinese cloth-dying shop, which offers many opportunities for huge color fields to fill the screen, often waving in the air on fabrics or swirling and bubbling in chemical vats. Color is further enhanced by clever cinematography and energetic editing, and complemented by performances of great skill.

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As for the story accompanied by all this richness, it's nothing if not surprising. Set in the 1920s and '30s, it centers on a young woman sold by her family to a nasty old man who wants a pretty wife and a male heir. Before long, she and the old man's nephew are lovers, and the old man is determined to kill either his nephew or the illegitimate baby that's just been born.

These characters skulk around the dye-works, dreaming up ever-more-ingenious ways of tormenting one another, until the baby grows up and joins in the craziness himself. It's not a gentle tale, but it's as suspenseful as anything Hollywood has concocted lately - even David Lynch's fantasies are no more startling - and Mr. Yimou's keen style gives it a sardonic fascination.

Burkina Faso, the African nation formerly known as Upper Volta, has a younger and more modest film industry than China's, but already an internationally celebrated filmmaker has emerged from it: Idrissa Ouedraogo, whose ``Yaaba'' was a critical and popular success in the United States last year. His new film, ``Tilai,'' begins when a young man returns to his village after a long absence, only to find that his father has taken his fianc'ee as a wife. The young couple are still in love, but are also governed by ``tilai,'' or the law of honor, which calls for death when they defy custom and continue their relationship in secret.

This story is more concise and absorbing than that of ``Yaaba,'' and Mr. Ouedraogo tells it through images of great beauty and simplicity; they testify to his mastery of motion-picture craft, as well as his deep-rooted understanding of the people, customs, and landscapes he explores. He is a major talent by any cinematic standard.

``Siddeshwari'' takes its name from Siddeshwari Devi, a singer of great renown in India, where the film was made. Its director is Mani Kaul, a unique cineaste whose work has more in common with certain avant-garde traditions than with the active but highly commercialized Indian film industry.

Exquisitely photographed, the movie weaves together fiction-film and documentary conventions as it probes the life and artistry of the singer, showing how she turned unpleasant life experiences into art that countless admirers found sublime.

The film moves at a leisurely pace that's achingly slow by Hollywood standards but precisely suits the timeless, meditative quality of Indian music. Its imagery is similarly evocative, making for a challenging but rewarding experience in improvisatory cinema.

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