The 63rd Berlin International Film Festival has opened with stars on the red carpet, the premier of a martial arts epic, and the opening of an indigenous multi-media show at the Canadian Embassy.

The 11-day Berlinale festival kicked off Thursday night with the international premiere of The Grandmaster, by Chinese director and head of this year’s awards jury, Wong Kar Wai.

"Grandmaster is a film about kung fu. It tells you more than the skill," he told reporters earlier in the day.

"It tells you more about these people, martial artists, the world of martial arts. What is their code of honor? What is their value? What is their philosophy? I hope this film can bring the audience a new perspective about martial arts, kung fu and also Chinese."

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Guests arrive on the red carpet of the opening gala of the 63rd Berlinale film festival, which will run 11 days and see more than 400 screenings. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

The gala marks the official start of more than 400 screenings, photo-calls, news conferences and parties.

Nineteen productions, from big-budget Hollywood movies to independent work are competing for the coveted top award, the Golden Bear. 

For the second year in a row, Canada has an entry in the Competition category — Vic+Flo ont vu un ours (Vic+Flo Saw a Bear) by Denis Côté.

'Fast and turbulent: life is hard and unfair — yet still a lot of fun.'—Dieter Kosslick, Berlinale Director

"Young talents and established film artists will present films in which reality and fiction are bafflingly similar," Berlinale Director Dieter Kosslick said at a news conference.

"Worldwide independent cinema is undergoing a resurgence. Fast and turbulent: life is hard and unfair — yet still a lot of fun."

Star-gazers are watching for Matt Damon, Jude Law, Ethan Hawke, Nicolas Cage, Geoffrey Rush, Jeremy Irons, and three of France’s top screen icons — Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert.

Nominees

Films competing for the Gold and Silver Bears, in order of appearance:

  • In the Name of.../Malgoska Szumowska/Poland.
  • Promised Land/Gus Van Sant/United States.
  • Paradise: Hope/Ulrich Seidl/Austria.
  • A Long and Happy Life/Boris Khlebnikov/Russia.
  • Gold/Thomas Arslan/Germany.
  • The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman/Fredrik Bond/United States.
  • Gloria/Sebastian Lelio/Chile.
  • The Nun/Guillaume Nicloux/France.
  • Vic+Flo Saw a Bear/Denis Côté/Canada.
  • Child's Pose/Calin Peter Netzer/Romania.
  • Layla Fourie/Pia Marais/Germany.
  • Closed Curtain/Jafar Panahi and Kambozia Partovi/Iran.
  • Side Effects/Steven Soderbergh/United States.
  • Camille Claudel 1915/Bruno Dumont/France.
  • An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker/Danis Tanovic/Bosnia.
  • Prince Avalanche/David Gordon Green/United States.
  • Harmony Lessons/Emir Baigazin/Kazakhstan.
  • Nobody's Daughter Haewon/Hong Sangsoo/South Korea.
  • On My Way/Emmanuelle Bercot/France.

Damon teams up with U.S. director Gus Van Sant for the first time since their 1997 Oscar winner Good Will Hunting in Promised Land, about the controversial drilling technique for extracting shale gas known as fracking.

Steven Soderbergh, who has said this may be his last film, reunites with Jude Law from Contagion and Catherine Zeta-Jones from Traffic to present Side Effects, a critique of the pharmaceutical industry in the United States.

One of the most anticipated films is Closed Curtain, co-directed by acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who made it after he was arrested, jailed and banned from film-making for 20 years.

Also of note, Dark Blood is showing out of competition. It is the long-delayed final film starring River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose at 23 nearly two decades ago.

Berlinale is continuing the Cold War tradition of featuring political films that pay special attention to women, indigenous people and life in Eastern Europe, Kosslick told reporters.

"Thematically throughout the program, you have a lot of women at the heart of the stories … and the collateral damage of the (Eurozone debt) crisis on various societies," he said.

Meanwhile, Canadian films are being featured in NATIVe , a new stream focusing on the stories of indigenous people around the world. Atanarjuat The Fast Runner and Richard Cardinal: Cry From A Diary of a Métis Child, are among those being screened.

The Canadian Embassy opened a related multi-media presentation, Perdre et retrouver le Nord (Losing Touch and Coming Home) Thursday night.

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Canadian film maker Marie-Helene Cousineau, left, looks at three Inuit dollhouses, reflecting their life before contact with Europeans, in the 1960s, and today. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Marie-Hélène Cousineau went to Baker Lake, Nunavut, to find the people in photos taken by German-born photojournalist Peter Thomas in the 1960s. She then took new photos of them holding the originals.

She uses their stories, film, sound, photos — even dolls in furnished dollhouses — to show how life in the North has changed over the decades.

"I hope it will give people a glimpse into the North, make people more aware and raise their interest," she said.

CBC in Berlin

Karen Pauls is in Berlin to enhance CBC's European coverage at a time when the continent is struggling through one of the most unpredictable periods in recent history. Germany's prosperity is being closely watched as the ongoing fiscal crisis puts the European Union under great strain.

Pauls has covered national affairs in Canada for CBC Radio, and was previously posted in London, U.K., and Washington, D.C.

Follow her on Twitter @karenpaulscbc.

It is exciting to see Canadian filmmakers get this kind of attention, said Jason Ryle, head of the ImaginNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto and one of the international advisers for Berlinale's NATIVe spotlight.

"Indigenous cinema and Canada and around the world is a movement, a new cinematic wave that’s catching attention," he said.

"Because of its original stories, because of its original voices, and because it has a certain creativity and artistry that people don’t necessarily associate with indigenous people. Having the Berlinale acknowledge the work in this way is incredibly exciting and incredibly motivating …. It’s a validation of sorts."

The awards will be presented at a ceremony on Feb. 16.