Imagine a world in which our knowledge of US cinema came exclusively from the films that play the major festivals. In this strange parallel universe directors such as Gus Van Sant, David Lynch and Harmony Korine would spring to mind at the free-association prompt "American movies!".
They do not, of course - at least not if you are an ordinary human being rather than a film critic. We know that these guys live in a tiny experimental broom cupboard in the Beverly Hills mansion of the US film industry. And we know what most of the other rooms in this swanky pad are like because we have been inside them: the rom-com boudoir, the action-adventure games-room, the horror attic.
It is not this way for most other territories. Take Asian cinema. Unless you actually live in Seoul, Tokyo or Bangkok, it would be easy to assume that most Korean directors are kooky auteurs such as Park Chan-wook or Kim Ki-duk, most Japanese film-makers as out-there as Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike. And if we do get to see some of the region's more commercial output, it is almost always confined to certain 'cult' genres like J-horror, yakuza movies, Hong Kong wuxia titles or cop-and-Triad thrillers.
There are two ways to fill the gap: either you get yourself a multi-region DVD player and trawl the specialist online stores, or you head for the Far East Film Festival (www.fareastfilm.com) in the sleepy north-east Italian town of Udine, which takes place at the end of April each year.
The mandate of the Far East event is to show mainstream Asian cinema. Of course, genre is now sexy, and this year's line-up included cop-and-gangster films such as Eye In The Sky or A Dirty Carnival which had already seen 'serious' festival action. But there were plenty of others that were just too out-of-the-box for Cannes, Sundance or Berlin, from Filipino secret agent spoofs to Korean slimming comedies.
But it was the Chinese entries in particular that demonstrated how arthouse-fed audiences risk misreading the way a territory's cinema is moving. Take The Big Movie - the second feature-length example of a new Chinese genre: the parody film. This screwball comedy sends up around 20 other movies, from The Matrix through In The Mood For Love to House Of Flying Daggers.
Now, The Big Movie is a silly film, and its satire is not even that incisive, despite its running social critique of Shanghai property sharks and the new rich on whom they prey. But it does prove that mainland Chinese audiences are a lot more cine-literate than most armchair analysts give them credit for. And it also shows how new models of movie consumption can generate whole new genres. The Chinese now watch the vast majority of their films on DVDs, which, with their repeat-viewing potential, foster the kind of familiarity that movie parodies rely on.
Another mainland movie at Udine, the stylish, deftly-directed The Matrimony, demonstrates that China can not only do horror, but also get it past the censor (who these days seems to follow the dictum that you can show as much bare flesh or as many reactionary ghosts as you like, as long as you do not mention Tiananmen). While in The Case - directed by one of China's growing brigade of woman directors, Wang Fen - a story that begins with a suitcase full of frozen human remains warps intriguingly into a social comedy that riffs on the modern Chinese man's fear of strong women. Which just goes to show that modern men are the same the world over.
These are useful checks to a view of New Chinese Cinema based on the films of auteurs such as Jia Zhangke, Li Yu and Zhang Yuan. The selection of Asian commercial movies screened at Udine this year proved there is a raw energy outside of the arthouse cupboard. It also suggested that the mainstream cinema of the region is a lot less bogged down by biopics or lamed by literature than much recent European and American production. And, in its sensitivity to social and technological change, more primed for the future.