Busan is still Asia’s film-fest gem, but its sparkle is fading

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

During the Q&A session after the screening of his new film “Stray Dogs” at the 18th Busan International Film Festival, which ran Oct. 3-12, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang mentioned that not only was his previous film not distributed in South Korea, it wasn’t even shown at BIFF. Tsai was one of the pioneering Asian film artists of the 1990s, and his gregarious personality used to be a fixture at the festival. He wasn’t being critical of BIFF for ignoring him, just acknowledging how different the situation is now.

Though BIFF is still the most important annual film event in Asia, its status as the world’s main venue for Asian cinema is not as assured as it once was. Ninety-five of this year’s 301 offerings were world premieres, but most were Korean and none were by world-renowned Asian filmmakers from other countries. Those directors all want to debut new work at major festivals in the West, a desire those festivals are happy to accommodate, but it has increasingly left BIFF with fewer high-profile premieres.

This year’s opening film was “Vara: A Blessing,” from Bhutan, directed by Khyentse Norbu, a Buddhist priest. The festival could say it’s Norbu’s first feature in 10 years, but it’s not as if the film community was wondering what happened to him. Some said the choice was in keeping with BIFF’s championing of smaller markets, but “Vara” was also an international production, even if it had limited global appeal with its love story set in a rural village against a backdrop of traditional Bharatanatyam dance. The movie was shot in India with local cast and crew and one of the producers is American. All the dialogue is in English.

BIFF’s mission is not so much sending Asian films out into the world as bringing the world to Asian films. The desired outcome would be an erasure of commercial distinctions, but where would that leave BIFF? Though it has already opened wide in South Korea, the sci-fi epic “Snowpiercer” was the most sought-after ticket by foreign press. Directed by Bong Joon-ho (“Memories of Murder,” “The Host”), it is the first earnest Korean attempt to make an international blockbuster. Though it features Bong regular Song Kang-ho and popular actress Ko Ah-sung, the cast also includes Chris Evans, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer and Tilda Swinton. But the real star is the moving train that contains the last human survivors after a man-made ice age has killed off all life. The train makes horizontal the usual vertical structure of social Darwinism — the poor in the back, the rich in front.

The biggest scandal at the festival was the news that Harvey Weinstein, whose company will distribute “Snowpiercer” in the United States, is demanding that Bong cut 20 minutes. The hope is that Quentin Tarantino, who made his first-ever appearance at BIFF to participate in a stage conversation with Bong, will convince Weinstein otherwise, since he distributes Tarantino’s films as well.

The quality of “Snowpiercer” attests to Korea’s cinematic comeback after its late-2000s slump. “From Korea alone, we had 400 short and 150 feature submissions,” says Nam Dong Chul, one of the festival’s programmers. The Korean Wave of the 90s and early 00s was credited to a government quota that forced Korean movie houses to show domestic product up to 146 days out of the year. After the U.S. government charged “protectionism,” the quota was eventually rescinded and the industry sank. But 58 percent of the screenings in Korean theaters last year were of Korean films. Box office receipts totaled $1.3 billion, an increase of 17.7 percent over 2011. Admissions rose by 22 percent.

Japan’s share of the Korean market slipped to 1.4 percent, even though Japanese stars are still popular there. Japan had the most movies in the Window on Asian Cinema (WoAC) section, but the only notable premiere was “Moratorium Tamako (Tamako in Moratorium),” Nobuhiro Yamashita’s low-key comedy with former AKB48 idol Atsuko Maeda playing against type as a layabout college graduate. But there was no concerted push of Japanese films. Japan was probably the only participating country that didn’t sponsor a promotional party this year.

In contrast, the Philippines’ tourism team aggressively pushed the archipelago as a prime location for shooting and postproduction, and two of the most talked-about movies at the festival were about Filipino migrant workers. “Transit,” the debut feature of Hannah Espia, is about Filipinos who live in Israel, constantly fearful that their children will be deported. The movie has structural drawbacks, but the milieu it describes is rich in detail and the difficult situation is treated with sensitivity and intelligence. Similarly, a Singapore film, “Ilo Ilo,” centers on a Filipino maid hired by a middle-class family. It addresses the plight of foreign maids unsentimentally, but also treats their employers with understanding. It has already won awards at several festivals.

China has also made a comeback, what with its proactive push-pull relationship with Hollywood and the prospects of a huge new film studio in Qingdao. A confident example of this reemergence is Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin.” The most interesting mainland director of the past 15 years, Jia has pursued a more documentary approach in his last few movies. “Sin” is not only a return to narrative filmmaking, it’s a crowd-pleaser. Revolving through four loosely connected stories, it shows how China’s economic success has upset its moral equilibrium, with violent results.

At the other end of the commercial spectrum but addressing the same issue is Wang Bing’s documentary ” ‘Til Madness Do Us Part,” a harrowing 3-hour-50-minute immersion into a mental hospital in Yunnan. It has little box-office potential but reaffirms Wang’s reputation as the world’s most uncompromising documentarian. Also, since it was co-produced by a Japanese distributor, it will likely be released in Japan.

Iran also had a strong lineup at the festival, though the two most pointed offerings were by veterans working outside the system. Jafar Panahi’s “Closed Curtain” continues on the subject of internal exile he explored with “This is Not a Film.” An uncharacteristically allegorical work, it addresses Panahi’s government ban from filmmaking by showing how a movie conceived in the head can be realized in a limited space. Though Asghar Farhadi has more dispensation thanks to his Oscar for “A Separation,” his followup, “The Past,” is a French production. The story of an Iranian man who flies to Paris to finalize his divorce from a French woman, and in the process becomes involved in her affair with a new lover, it is even stronger than “A Separation” and confirms Farhadi’s reputation as the poet laureate of marital discord. Though it is in French and the backgrounds of its Middle Eastern characters are not central to the plot, it was screened in the WoAC section because of its director’s nationality — the perfect sort of synthesis in BIFF’s eyes.

“Stray Dogs,” “A Touch of Sin,” “Closed Curtain” and “Ilo Ilo” will be shown with English subtitles at Tokyo Filmex in November.

Other notable films at BIFF 2013

“Moebius”: The latest by independent Korean director Kim Ki Duk is purposely provocative in the Kim style. Incensed by her husband’s infidelity a woman cuts off the penis of her teenage son. The father tries to help him regain the experience of sexual pleasure, but through pain. Some of the more quease-inducing scenes approach slapstick levels worthy of the Three Stooges. Kim was forced to cut two-and-a-half minutes by Korean censors for local distribution. Chances of being released in Japan: High

“Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” and “Our Sunhi”: Two by Hong Sang Soo, whose sex comedies are so distinctive as to constitute a genre of their own. Both movies involve love affairs between young female film students and older, irresponsible professors, and are almost indistinguishable, but the Korean audience I saw them with laughed harder than any audience I’d been with since…well, the last time I saw a Hong movie at BIFF. Chances of being released in Japan: Fairly high.

“Sapi”: Philippine director Brillante Mendoza continues to explore new genres and styles with this documentary-like feature about rival TV stations covering end-of-days-like conditions in Manila: storms, floods and widespread demonic possession. Though it incorporates horror-film elements, it’s mainly a comment on the mind-numbing conventions of mass media news reporting. Chances of being released in Japan: 50-50.

“Ceylon”: Indian director Santosh Sivan made “Malli,” probably the best narrative film ever made about the mind of a terrorist, and has trod a more conventional path ever since. “Ceylon” takes place on a Sri Lankan island where children made orphans by the recent civil war are raised by a kindly middle aged woman, until the war comes to them. A powerful story weakened by commercial exigencies, such as musical numbers and comic diversions supplied by a developmentally disabled character. Chances of being released in Japan: Low.

“Nagima”: The latest by Kazakh director-producer Zhanna Issabayeva is also about orphans who are set free into the world at the age of 18 with no useful knowledge to survive in it. The titular young woman is catatonic to the point of caricature, but the movie still has the power to make you believe this situation is real in Kazakhstan. Chances of being released in Japan: Depends on international reception, which has been positive so far.

“Kadal”: The biggest Bollywood production at this year’s BIFF, Mani Ratnam’s melodrama about an ex-Catholic priest who swears revenge against another priest for getting him excommunicated is expertly constructed for maximum emotional release, though A.R. Rahman’s songs aren’t as lively as they usually are. Chances of being released in Japan: Better than even.

“Death March”: Philippine director Alfonso Alix Jr.’s stylized study of the Bataan Death March of 1942, when Japanese troops forced captured American and Filipino soldiers to walk to a faraway prison camp, makes its evil Japanese oppressors even more cartoonish with painted backgrounds and fake decor. Chances of being released in Japan: Nil.