Asian cinema lights up Cannes but Star Wars gets the fireworks

There was plenty of Hollywood bling – and anger – at this year’s festival but new movies from Hirokazu Kore-eda and Ryusuke Hamaguchi were quieter highlights

As far as the outside world was concerned, Star Wars got Cannes 2018 back to the noisy prominence it so craves. Fireworks burst over the Croisette on Tuesday night. Stars of the indestructible franchise elbowed each other on the red carpet. Hollywood bling was back.

That's not quite how it seems when you're here. Every film in the main competition gets the same sort of red carpet bash that was put the way of Solo: A Star Wars Story (well, minus the fireworks). The Chinese stars of Lee Chang-dong's insidious, tricky Burning were also magnified on giant screens as they progressed along the red carpet. Vincent Lindon, star of Stéphane Brizé's tough social realist drama At War, was greeted with music that blared as loudly as the Star Wars theme.

For all the sense that Cannes is edging away from mainstream flash, the debates about which auteur has let us down, which Young Turk is on the way up and who is going to win the Palme d’Or seem as furious as ever. Indeed, the oddness of the 2018 programme has made those fights more robust than ever. No old master looks to have the prize by rights.

Even if Lars von Trier's The House that Jack Built had received better reviews, it could not, as an out of competition selection, have taken the Palme d'Or. It is believed that some board members wanted it in the race, but others felt it was just too provocative. They were probably right to tend towards discretion rather than worse classes of valour. Though packed with many of von Trier's blackly funny comic outrages, the serial killer drama feels almost like a merciless troll of #metoo and related movements. The most shocking moment saw Matt Dillon, as a literally monotonous obsessive, marking a dotted line around Riley Keough's breast and then severing it brutally. The sequence that saw him gun down a young boy in front of his increasingly numb mother was equally appalling. The issue was whether von Trier's unquestionable desire to investigate misogyny could justify the apparent relish in his graphic imagery. Few were brave enough to argue that case.


Drab blather

Though less graphic, David Robert Mitchell's monumentally terrible Under the Silver Lake couldn't really make that argument to rationalise the camera's leering shots of bottoms and its depiction of the female characters as prostitutes and corpses. A sprawling neo-noir set around the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, Mitchell's follow-up to his brilliant horror It Follows casts Andrew Garfield as a drifter who, while investigating the disappearance of his neighbour, gets drawn into a world of conspiracies, paranoia and drab blather about pop culture. Imagine something conceived by a dim teenager who'd half-listened to a talking book of Thomas Pynchon while playing too much Super Mario and you're nearly there. Riley Keough gets it in the neck again (what did she do to deserve this?). At one stage, Garfield's hand gets stuck to a Spider-Man comic with bubble gum. Get it? Oh, go away.

In the olden days of last year, Mitchell and his cast would have been forced to travel the red carpet already aware that the film was a critical bomb. The new scheme of playing press screenings simultaneously meant they were spared.

Happily for the management, few other competition titles will have profited from similar delayed appointments with the gallows. The race for the Palme d'Or is taken up with mostly well-received titles. Lee's Burning takes Burning Barns, a 16-page story by Haruki Murakami, and expands it (maybe a tad too much) into a sprawling tale of suppression and jealousy in contemporary Korea. The picture settles in the brain and festers – even if, in a key plot nub, it asks us to believe in the fidelity of household cats. Not buying it, Lee.

Good cat

It was a particularly strong year for Asian cinema in the official selection and Ryusuke Hamaguchi, a Japanese director who has yet to reach 40, made his mark with a fascinating, gentle, deceptively light-hearted romance concerning a girl who falls for one man and then his doppelganger. The picture allowed real emotional purchase as it invited the viewer to make sense of a deliberately unlikely plot. The prominent cat behaved more like a real cat here. Well done, Ryusuke.

The master Hirokazu Kore-eda, a frequent visitor to Cannes, was also elevating the reputation of Asian cinema with the fine Shoplifters. Concerning a troubled family who take in a young, abused girl and decide to train her in the ways of shoplifting, the picture is, perhaps, the most (among many) touching study of Japanese family life that this film-maker has made in a busy two decades. There is a very real chance that Kore-eda could take home the Palme d'Or. He's due. The film is among his best. It will play well in all territories.

It seems less likely that the jury will go for Spike Lee's BlacKkKklansman – the film is perhaps too mainstream – but this is a blistering, noisy, messy return to form for the director who scored an early success here with Do The Right Thing in 1989. Featuring a breakthrough turn by John David Washington (son of Denzel) as a black cop who ran intelligence on the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, the picture manages the tricky feat of being as angry as it is funny. Spike exhibited more anger than humour at the press conference. "That motherf**ker did not denounce the motherf**king Klan, the alt-right, and those Nazi motherfu**ers," he said of the current president.

No special treatment?

Calm could be found in Wim Wenders's hagiographic study of Pope Francis. Playing out of competition, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word allowed the Holy Father to impress with his cautious radicalism, but failed to properly interrogate him on clerical abuse and allowed abortion to be ignored altogether. Devotional tools are like that.

Back at the race for the Palme d'Or, chatter continued as to whether we might finally see a second winner of the most distinguished prize awarded by any film festival. In this year of all years, that would be a cause for celebration. Cate Blanchett, the jury president, has made it very clear that there will be no special treatment, but that may not be necessary.

Alice Rohrwacher's Happy as Lazzaro has proved among the best reviewed films of the festival to date. The magic realist tale of a young man who survives exploitation and an apparently fatal fall to bring quiet joy to an industrial wasteland currently looks to be in pole position. At time of writing there are, however, pictures by Nadine Labacki, Matteo Garrone and former winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan still to come.

As the finishing line looms, the feeling remains that this year's Cannes – though of a high standard – is in something of a holding-pattern mode. The relationship with Netflix is still not resolved. Nobody seems sure of Hollywood's attitude to the event. Yet, the battle for critical hearts and minds on the Croisette is of much the same nature as it always was. When the awards are announced on Saturday night, somebody will, for a year, become boss of that rarefied world.

Our odds on the Palme d’Or

Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher) 4/1: Well-reviewed magic realist piece. Admired young female director.

Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda) 7/1: Another persuasive film from a Japanese Cannes regular.

Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski) 8/1: Our choice for the prize, Pawlikowski's period romance might be a little cool for the jury.

3 Faces (Jafar Panahi) 9/1: Currently banned from travelling by the Iranian government, Panahi tells another deceptively simple, politically rich story.

Burning (Lee Chang-dong) 9/1: Might be a little recherché. But Lee is a respected figure .

And the mule at the back…

Under the Silver Lake (250/1): If you have some inside knowledge and you know a bookie who'll take the bet…