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INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL A REEL WINNER

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Mention "film festival" and people generally think of Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Montreal, or Toronto.

But there are dozens and dozens of respectable and interesting film festivals right here in the United States - and more cropping up all the time.So which of the many film festivals in the United States has the honor of being the most heavily attended? New York's annual September event? Or is it the market-oriented one in Los Angeles or the prestigious one in San Francisco - both in April? Chicago's quirky and strongly political festival held each November? Or even Utah's own showcase of independent films, the Sundance Film Festival, taking place in mid-January each year? None of the above, actually.

It is, in fact, the 20-year-old International Film Festival in Seattle, Wash. And it runs for three weeks during late May and early June.

This year's mammoth event featured 156 feature films from 42 different countries - 17 of which were U.S. premieres, 14 being seen for the first time anywhere in North America, and six actually having their world premieres at the Seattle fest.

The festival opened with the premiere screening of Bernardo Bertolucci's "Little Buddha" and closed with two films - "Barcelona" by Whit Stillman (director of "Metropolitan") and "White," the second film in Krzysztof Kieslowski's acclaimed color trilogy.

Of the three, the French-Polish collaboration "Three Colors: White" came off best, Bertolucci's gentle but rather elementary "Little Buddha" not matching the impact of the director's earlier "Last Emperor," and Stillman's "Barcelona" seeming even more talky than the rather static "Metropolitan" seen three years ago.

"White" is every bit as good as "Blue" (the first in Kieslowski's intriguing color series) and much lighter and more humorous, due not only to a first-rate script but also to a thoroughly winning and touchingly comic performance by Zbigniew Zamachowski. Full of irony and surprises, this black comedy follows the mishaps and victories of a miserable Pole trying to figure out why his beautiful French wife has suddenly divorced him and whether there's a way he might somehow win her back.

But some of the festival's best films were the little gems tucked away here and there throughout the three weeks of screenings.

Definite highlights were films from Sweden, Norway and China.

There's a strong sense of Ingmar Bergman running through the Swedish "Sunday's Children" and for good reason: Bergman wrote it (one more attempt to come to terms with his ambivalent feelings about his parents) and his son Daniel Bergman directed it. It's bittersweet but is an amazingly accom-plished, visually exquisite and superbly acted slice of autobiography worthy to stand alongside "Best Intentions" and "Fanny and Alexander."

From Norway, the very involving and touching "Last Lieutenant," based on a true story, traces the actions of an old war veteran who insists on enlisting when Germany invades Norway in 1941 and refuses to give up even when the military agrees to surrender.

And from China, two noteworthy films - "The Blue Kite" and "Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker," following in the tradition of such recent accomplishments as "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Farewell, my Concubine."

In "The Blue Kite," Tian Zhuangzhuang (director of the Tibetan "Horse Thief") gives us the shattering account of the effect of the Cultural Revolution on one family from the point of view of a young boy. In the heavily atmospheric and visually striking "Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker," director He Ping tells the story of the thwarted love affair between a poor artist and the wealthy daughter of a fireworks manufacturer.

Also memorable were two charming films set in Ireland - "Widows' Peak" (currently playing in Salt Lake City) and John Sayles' whimsical and poignant "Secret of Roan Inish," revealing an affinity for myth and magic rarely seen in the realistic films of the talented Sayles.

Also appealing was Italy's "A Soul Split in Two," providing insight into the relationship between contemporary gypsy life and modern urban society, and Spain's "How to Be Miserable and Enjoy It" with the always wonderful Carmen Maura ("Women on the Verge. . .") learning how to cope with suddenly being a widow and, equally unexpectedly, a grandmother.

More grim, but fascinating nonetheless, were "The Patriots" from France, "Stalingrad" from Germany and the image-filled and provocative "Golden Balls" from Spain.

One of the best blends between the comic and the serious was Japan's "Minbo: the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion," which satirizes the hold the "yakuza" has on present-day Japan. Directed by Juzo Itami ("Tampopo") and starring the brilliant comic actress Nobuko Miyamoto ("A Taxing Woman"), the film expertly blends humor with real social significance. (Making the film all the more significant and relevant is the fact that the director himself was stabbed by three young gangsters and left in critical condition just a few days before "Minbo" premiered in Tokyo.) The most impressive and enlightening documentary proved to be the lengthy but always fascinating "Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl." Caught between the Nazi party and her art, Riefenstahl was - and still is - the greatest woman director of films and we see her today, in her 90's, deep-sea diving and working on an underwater film. In the category of short films, nothing was more impressive than Great Britain's award-winning gem of claymation - "The Wrong Trousers" - which deservedly is winning awards all over.

If there's a drawback to the Seattle festival, it's the overabundance of films dealing with gay and lesbian themes, most of which would be immensely offensive to many. Still, two of this year's favorite films with the audience, both from Australia, proved to deal with gay lifestyles. Most enthusiastically received was the wildly over-the-top "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," a comedy (somewhat on the order of "Strictly Ballroom") about three drag queens on a bus tour in rural Australia. But also strongly liked was the comic but equally touching "The Sum of Us," with Jack Thompson ("Breaker Morant") and Richard Crowe ("Proof") as father and son in one of the best films ever dealing with a gay theme.

Last year the audience-favorite was another film with gay orientation - Ang Lee's "The Wedding Banquet," a comedy (which later became a very popular hit across the nation) dealing with a young man who arranges a marriage in order keep his real sexual preference secret from his family. Taiwan director Ang Lee was back with a new film this year - which again won the highest praises from Seattle audiences yet turned out to be a non-gay film that families could enjoy. "Eat Drink Man Woman" should be perhaps an even bigger hit in the United States. than "The Wedding Banquet" because of its wide appeal. Depicting a contemporary Chinese father's dealing with his three marriagable daughters in Taiwan, it's delightfully funny and heartwarming in the very best sense. Don't miss it when it makes its way into local theaters: "Eat Drink Man Woman" is a real winner - and a fitting end to the United States' most heavily attended film festival.