As the 29th Chicago International Film Festival winds into its second week, a good many of its best offerings, including most of my own favorites either are still to come or will receive second screenings. My prime recommendations among those I’ve seen are Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle vague, Chantal Akerman’s From the East, Godard’s Helas pour moi, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite, Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine, Jerry Schatzberg’s Reunion, Ray Muller’s The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Schatzberg’s Scarecrow, Dusan Makavejev’s Gorilla Bathes at Noon, and Chen Kuo-fu’s Treasure Island. The first three qualify as “difficult” films, but who said festival films have to be easy? Treasure Island isn’t always easy to follow in terms of plot, but can be recommended for its beautifully shot, dreamlike evocation of contemporary Taipei.

Farewell, My Concubine, which I caught up with last week, can be described, for better and for worse, as the Gone With the Wind of Chinese cinema, except that its historical canvas, far from being restricted to a single cataclysmic event, covers half a century of upheaval and turmoil, from 1925 to 1977. The version being shown has been trimmed by 14 minutes by Kaige himself for U.S. distribution, apparently under the assumption that American audiences are more prone to fidget than the jury members at Cannes, who awarded the longer version top prize. In any event, the film will open commercially before the end of this month, so you’ll have plenty more chances to see it–unlike all the other recommendations on my list (with the possible exception of the three-hour Riefenstahl documentary, which seems likely to be picked up by some U.S. distributor).

This leads me to a more general consideration of the role of many film festivals, including Chicago’s, as showcases for movies that are slated to open commercially. I neglected to mention last week that this year Chicago has the same opening- and closing-night films as the New York film festival (which is running concurrently)–Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Jane Campion’s The Piano. Yet both films already have distributors, and elaborate publicity campaigns for them are well under way; their festival showings are in effect only previews.

This only dramatizes the fact that contemporary film festivals, far from being rare respites from the totalitarian ad campaigns that dictate our movie choices the rest of the year, are in part marketing tools for the same campaigns. The major reason movies as beautiful as Nouvelle vague, From the East, Helas pour moi, and The Blue Kite–not to mention Hou Hsiao-hsien’s extraordinary Taiwanese masterpiece The Puppetmaster, the greatest Asian film I’ve seen this year, though it’s missing from the Chicago festival–can’t hope to get U.S. distribution is that the big-time studio publicists, our cultural commissars these days, can’t imagine what to say about them. The same thing goes for most of the films at the festival this week, which means you have a rare opportunity to spend a few days second-guessing U.S. distributors and their major hype channels–Entertainment Tonight, Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, the evening news–and making some exciting discoveries on your own.

The festival continues through Sunday, October 24. Screenings are at the Pipers Alley Theatre, 1608 N. Wells, and the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport. Tickets can be purchased at the festival store at Pipers Alley and at the theater box offices an hour before show time; they’re also available by phone (for a service charge) at 559-1212 and 644-3456. General admission to most programs is $7; $6 for students and seniors; $5 for Cinema/Chicago members. Shows before 6 PM at both theaters are $5, $4 for students, seniors, and Cinema/Chicago members. Festival passes are also available. For more information call 644-3456 (644-FILM).

In the reviews that follow, films that our critics especially liked are preceded by a check mark.

Archive note: the check mark has been replaced with an asterisk in the electronic version of the festival listings.