Wong Kar Wai martial arts epic opens 63rd Berlinale

The 63rd Berlin film festival opens Thursday with a gala screening of Chinese director Wong Kar Wai's martial arts epic about the mentor of kung fu superstar Bruce Lee.

Wong, who is also leading the Berlinale's jury this year, is using the event as a launch pad for the worldwide release of "The Grandmaster", which has opened in China to rave reviews and a box office bonanza.

The film, whose original two-hours-plus length has been chopped slightly for the world market, stars Hong Kong heart-throb Tony Leung, who starred in Wong's 2000 hit "In the Mood for Love", and Beijing-born actress Zhang Ziyi ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon").

The film spans several decades of Chinese history to tell the story of legendary martial artist Yip Man, who went on to train Lee, and features dazzling battle scenes between rival fighters.

Wong, 54, told reporters in Beijing last month he was confident the movie, which is screening out of competition at the 11-day Berlinale, had global appeal.

"There is no such thing as a Western or Eastern audience... The elements of cinema are the same worldwide, although their expression is different," he said.

The film follows the Grandmaster through some of China's most tumultuous recent history including the Japanese invasion in the 1930s.

It spent nearly a decade in gestation, with extensive re-shooting and injured actors.

Wong, who made his international breakthrough in 1994 with "Chungking Express", will head the panel handing out the Berlinale's Golden and Silver Bear top prizes among 19 contenders on February 16.

He told reporters here Thursday that the Berlinale was traditionally an "intimate" festival which was more about the "true pleasure" of sharing ideas and enjoying cinema than being a place for business.

"We are here to serve the films, we're not here to judge films, we are here to appreciate films, to champion the films that we really find inspiring... and move us," he said.

"This is our goal here and to keep this festival as intimate as possible."

The first major European film festival of the year and traditionally its most politically minded, the Berlinale this year is showcasing pictures about the human impact of the West's economic crisis, two decades of upheaval in eastern Europe as well as fresh releases from US independent directors.

Matt Damon, who won a screenwriting Oscar for Gus Van Sant's 1997 "Good Will Hunting", teams up with the US director again with "Promised Land" as a fracking firm executive pressuring cash-strapped farmers to sell their property.

Steven Soderbergh will enter the running with "Side Effects", billed as his last movie before he heads into semi-retirement, featuring Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones as psychiatrists handing out drugs to stressed-out Americans.

The grandes dames of French cinema Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche will all be unveiling new work.

And Poland's Malgoska Szumowska, one of three women vying for the Golden Bear, will tackle the tale of a gay Roman Catholic priest with the keenly awaited "In the Name of".

Iran's Jafar Panahi, a director who has scooped up international prizes for socially critical movies that are banned at home, will present "Closed Curtain" about two fugitives hiding from the police.

Oscar-winning Bosnian film-maker Danis Tanovic ("No Man's Land") returns with "An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker", exposing the wretched conditions in a poor and isolated Roma community.

Last year the Golden Bear went to Italian veterans Paolo and Vittorio Taviani for the docudrama "Caesar Must Die" about prison inmates staging Shakespeare.

With more than 400 films due to screen at the festival, much of the buzz is expected to come from beyond the race for the key prizes.

"Dark Blood", the last film with River Phoenix, the US rising star who died of a drug overdose at 23 two decades ago, will show out of competition, as will Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's final chapter in their slow-burn romantic trilogy, "Before Midnight" by Richard Linklater.

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