Despite sub-zero day time temperatures, the 53rd Berlin Film Festival (6-16 February) was a glamorous affair with over 90 stars present, including George Clooney and Nicole Kidman. The festival is staged around the dazzling Postdamer Platz, a Metropolis-like glass and shining steel city-within-a-city, in an area formerly occupied by the Berlin wall.Giving Cannes a run for its money, there were 10 world premieres in the 22–strong competition programme. It was pleasing to see more Asian and world cinema titles vying for the Golden Bear, demonstrating festival director Dieter Kosslick’s commitment to promoting world cinema.This is only Kosslick’s second year, but already the festival is becoming a showcase for international cinema, although some entries, like Jagoda in the Supermarket, seemed to be chosen simply because it was a film from Serbia. Other highlights included the Berlin Talent Campus, a homage to Anouk Aimee, and two retrospectives on Friedrich Murnau and Yasujiro Ozu.

Underlining Kosslick’s pro-European stance, questions about Iraq dominated the event, with the logos ‘films for peace’ and ‘towards tolerance’ everywhere. Vox Pop interviewers even recorded attitudes towards the prospect of war, to be presented to the White House. Kosslick announced ‘we’re again presenting films on migration, immigration and refugees’, so it was no surprise that Michael Winterbottom’s film on this theme, In This World, won the Golden Bear.

Another strong competition contender was the excellent Chinese film, Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which seemed to be going for the formula that made Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) an international success. By collaborating with a US production company, they were able to mount an unusually big budget Chinese production, use Hong Kong and Chinese stars, to achieve visual effects and gloss normally not possible within the parameters of Chinese film budgets. Starring Jet Li, currently at the height of his success, as a nameless swordsman, Hero tells the story of the unification of china in the third century BC. Although the film contains excellent fighting sequences, it relies as much on plot as action; Jet Li has to tell stories to King of Qin (Chen Daming) after he claims he killed the king’s assasins. This is co-writer/director Yimou’s first martial arts film, and although the pace is slow, it presents a glossier, less martial arts driven direction in comparison to Hong Kong cinema.

One of the most outstanding competition films was the Italian film I’m Not Scared (Io non ho paura) by Oscar winning director, Gabriele Salvatores. Set in summer 1978, the story is told through the eyes of nine- year old Michele and his friends, who make the idyllic cornfields surrounding their village a fantasy land. We quickly enter the privileged coded world of childhood, where crude sexual acts and danger (a ruined house is their playground) are mixed with innocent play. In a moment as terrifying as anything from Ringu (1998), Michele finds what seems to be a ‘live’ corpse, a dirty boy chained up in a hole. He quickly loses his fear and becomes the ‘guardian angel’, giving food and companionship, only to find that his own parents are involved in a ransom case. Featuring sumptuous cinematography and astounding performances from the child actors, Miramax snapped up the rights for $1.75 million.

Continuing the trend for upmarket gothic films, two French films from the market screenings were of note. In Dans Ma Peau (In My Skin), written and directed by Marina de Van, who also appears as the main actor, the petty problems of modern urban life for 30 somethings provides the background for a fatal obsession. Attractive Esther cuts her leg badly at a party, but finds it doesn’t hurt. Soon she is cutting herself whenever she can and even derives pleasure from eating her own flesh. In the meantime, commitment pressures from her boyfriend, and a new job promotion, lead to her losing her precarious grip on reality. De Van’s dark, brooding features and some unnerving scarification scenes makes this an unsettling viewer experience and the audience is forced into the position of voyeur to witness her final debacle.

Francois Hanss’ Body Snatch (Corps a Corps) is more erotic, beginning with a strip tease act from Laura (Seigner) who is pursued by an engimatic rich doctor. She has a car accident, and wakes up months later to find Marco (Torreton) by her bedside. They fall in love, have a son and live in an idyllic mansion. However, what seems to be a mild behavioral problem with her son turns out to be far more sinister. Marco’s first wife and child are in a coma, and Laura and her child have unwittingly become spare parts for him to construct his original family back together. Such a far-fetched idea is hard to pull off, and like Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris (2002), it suffers from a middle section devoted to romantic angst, which should be secondary to such primary emotions as fear.

Park Chan-Wook’s revenge thriller, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance proved to be overloaded with ideas. Asian fans will be familiar with his Korean political drama, JSA, but this time he tells the story of a family whose life falls apart. Ryu is a mute working saving every penny for a kidney transplant for his sister, but black market dealers take both his kidney and his money so he decides to kidnap his boss’s daughter for the ransom money. Meanwhile, his sister commits suicide and the little girl accidently drowns, and the ensuing double revenge violence is inevitable. The plot sounds like a black comedy, but is straight revenge drama, and the interaction between this blighted mute and his girl victim is moving. However, there are too many coincidences and plot twists for it to work.

My surprise favourite was Franz Müller’s low budget debut, Science Fiction. It takes an interesting idea, and makes it the basis for ingenious black comedy. At a motivation seminar, cocky instructor Marius (Stahlberg) tries to show an awkward student Jörg (Birnbaum), from Eastern Germany, how to open a door with the right "mental syntax". Unfortunately, it opens to a parallel universe, where they are forgotten by everybody as soon as a door closes on them. This makes for gleeful shop lifting sprees, but hits a bum note when Jörg tries to court a hotel receptionist, Anja (Marischka), who spends the night with Marius. They try to make amends, but every time a door closes they have to start again. All the dialogue was improvised and succeeds in being fresh and original throughout. A lesson in love and learning, this is gentle German humour at its best, that deals with the more serious process of integrating West and East Germans in daily life.