KARLOVY VARY, CZECH REPUBLIC—Most of the year, the oldest spa town in Bohemia, nestled in a picturesque valley 80 miles west of Prague, attracts busloads of senior citizens who come to sip and bathe in the curative mineral waters. In early July, however, beer and Becherovka (the allegedly medicinal local liqueur) flow even more freely than the sulfurous hot springs, and Karlovy Vary takes on the atmosphere of an open-air youth hostel, as backpacking movie fans descend on the most accessible of world-class film festivals. Tickets are inexpensive ($2.50 apiece), standby admission is free, and the program typically imports many titles that premiered on the Croisette a mere month ago. This year, nearly half the Cannes competition was accounted for, along with Berlin must-sees like Alexander Sokurov’s Hirohito meditation The Sun and Tsai Ming-liang’s artcore provocation The Wayward Cloud.

Turning 40 this month (59 years after it was first held, the discrepancy a legacy of a Communist-era mandate to alternate with the Moscow Film Festival), the KVIFF supplemented a big-tent program (which included a survey of recent Canadian cinema and a Liv Ullmann retro) with red-carpet glitz. This edition’s headliners: Robert Redford, secured with the help of Czech-born Madeleine Albright, and Sharon Stone, who made a show of getting down with the people, declaring that “Czechoslovakia [sic] has for me great and profound meaning because of your Velvet Revolution.” Unavoidably for a festival sandwiched between Cannes and Venice, Karlovy Vary’s competitive section offers fewer discoveries than curios. High points this year: Lost Domain, a minor but pleasurable Raul Ruiz M strip; Ali Mosaffa’s Portrait of a Lady Faraway, an Iranian After Hours that detours into Tehran’s contemporary art underworld; and Japanese director Sion Sono’s Noriko’s Dinner Table, an eerie elaboration of his cult hit Suicide Club. The jury awarded the top prize to Krzysztof Krauze’s My Nikifor, a portrait of a Polish outsider artist, conventional in all respects except the casting of an 85-year-old actress (Krystyna Feldman) as the male title character.

In the “East of the West” Central and Eastern European showcase, a focal point for the assembled journalists and programmers, the winner was also a safe one: Ragin, an adaptation of Chekhov’s loony-bin short story “Ward 6.” More convincingly unhinged were the nightmare nuptials in the manic Polish farce
The Wedding, though based on Slovenia’s trio of entries, Ljubljana is the emerging Euro capital of family dysfunction (best of the lot: the excitable backstage melodrama The Ruins). Slovak director Martin Sulik’s The City of the Sun tackles a fraught subject—post-’89 economic upheaval—within the familiar confines of the unemployment ensemble dramedy (Full Monty, Mondays in the Sun). More poignant and considerably funnier, Petr Zelenka’s Wrong Side Up details the sadsack frustrations of a forklift operator at the Prague airport. The most resonant political statements could be found in Gauder’s scattershot animation District, billed as “a post-Communist South Park” and set in a run-down, multiracial section of the Hungarian capital, where the street kids strike oil beneath the cobblestones. The ‘hood avoids annihilation only because Bush confuses Budapest with Bucharest.