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BUSAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Territorial disputes don’t rain on Asia’s largest parade of cinema

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

There was very little talk at the 17th Busan International Film Festival, Asia’s biggest movie event of the year, of the ongoing conflict between Japan and South Korea over ownership of those rocks in the Japan Sea. It so happens that the festival’s Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award was being given to veteran Japanese director Koji Wakamatsu and the the Korean Cinema Award to Kanako Hayashi, the director of Tokyo Filmex, for promoting Korean films. These honors were decided months before President Lee Myung Bak visited Takeshima/Dokdo, thus setting off the whole ruckus, but despite Koreans’ reputation for demonstrating strong feelings in public, no nationalist yahoos spoiled BIFF’s storied ecumenical atmosphere.

As an international event BIFF is a source of national pride, and its organizers have usually had more trouble with the authorities than with grudge-carrying civilians, since they assertively program films considered to be politically sensitive, like this year’s most talked-about Korean premiere, Chung Ji Young’s grueling “National Security,” a movie based on a memoir by a former democracy activist who, during the country’s autocratic period in the 1980s, was tortured for 22 days. In fact, it’s a movie about torture, since that’s almost all there is. For those Koreans who hope the country forgets this ugly period in their history, and that includes at least one person running for president this December, Chung is doing his best to make sure they don’t.

“Japanese premieres are always sold out here,” a Korea-based American writer told me in the press lounge one day when I asked him how the cross-Japan Sea friction was playing out among average Koreans. What he meant was that even if a lot of Koreans feel possessive about the islands they see the matter as a purely political one, and movie love is a completely different thing.

BIFF has always been a fan’s festival. It attends to the desires of the movie-going public at least as diligently as it does to the needs of the industry, which is what the major Western festivals like Cannes, Berlin and Toronto do.

Some people see this aspect as one of the festival’s weak points. Another American writer told me that BIFF’s obsession with world premieres means it features too many second-rate films, since top-class Asian productions tend to debut at European and North American festivals. But with more than 300 films to choose from that sounds like a specious argument. And while BIFF’s fan-friendly policy annoys press and industry folks by reducing the number of tickets available for screenings, it results in delightful encounters. More than 50 percent of movie tickets sold in Korea are bought by people in their 20s, whereas in Japan the bulk of tickets are sold to the middle aged.

The Q&As at BIFF are always lively and thought-provoking, and while I almost expected somebody in the audience at the world premiere of Masahiro Kobayashi’s “Japan’s Tragedy” to get up with a “Dokdo is Korean” sign during the post-screening discussion with the director and his star Tatsuya Nakadai, the queries revealed the young audience’s wide familiarity with and appreciation for Kobayashi’s body of work. I thought the movie, about a family destroyed by clinical depression and the March 11 disaster, was relentlessly dark and pointlessly pessimistic, but those aspects apparently appealed to the audience. The director looked much more at ease than he has when I’ve seen him at similar events in Japan.

Despite the lack of a blockbuster world premiere — the closest thing was opening Hong Kong actioner “Cold War,” which received a tepid response — the mood was more upbeat than it has been for years owing to a number of factors, including the full completion of the massive Busan Cinema Center complex and surrounding venues, where most of the festivities took place. However, the most significant contributor to the upbeat mood was the strong comeback for the Korean film industry following hard times in the middle of the last decade.

Just days before the festival started on Oct. 11 distributor Showbox announced that “The Thieves,” featured in the Korean Cinema Today section, had broken the previous box office record for admissions to a domestic film, which had stood for six years. The crime caper thriller has sold more than 13 million tickets in the relatively short span of 70 days. The news was especially auspicious because the movie is about to open in the United States and Canada, thus spearheading a new, more concerted effort to draw Western audiences to slick Korean productions. Some players at the festival were predicting that “The Thieves” could conceivably ride the unexpected pop tidal wave generated by the YouTube hit “Gangnam Style,” whose author, electro-rapper PSY, gave a surprise concert at a downtown hotel during the festival.

On the artistic side, the festival provided an opportunity to celebrate “Pieta,” the first Korean movie to win the Golden Lion at Venice, and a strong return to form for Korea’s most iconoclastic director Kim Ki Duk after a long spell of creative stagnation. Shot through with Kim’s patented purplish Christian redemption themes, “Pieta” focuses on the bizarre relationship between a sadistic debt collector and a dazed, but beautiful woman claiming to be the mother who abandoned him as a baby. As with all Kim’s films, the melodramatics and stark symbolism strain credibility, but it’s a remarkably assured work from someone who had been written off, even by himself, and became even more impressive in retrospect during the Q&A attended by the two stars, Cho Min Soo and Lee Jung Jin.

Both actors are superstars who gladly took pay cuts to work with the infamously moody director, and they described to a rapt audience how Kim had shot the film in 12 days and edited it in 20. Because he refuses to work for major producers, Kim has learned how to make polished films on limited budgets. He not only told the actors exactly what to do, but commandeered locations as he went along by knocking on people’s doors and asking if he could film on their properties.

If any island dispute got attention during the festival it was the one between Japan and China, mainly because a bunch of famous film people made public comments. Though Tom Yoda, chairman of Japanese distributor Gaga, told the Hollywood Reporter that the dispute of the Senkakus has “nothing to do” with business dealings, superstar Jackie Chan, a great friend of Japan, came out vocally on China’s side, and Chinese actress Li Bing Bing, who has a fan base in Japan, said she will not visit the country until the dispute is resolved.

Hong Kong-based director Yim Ho also told THR that, contrary to Yoda’s sentiment, movie people are not necessarily above politics, which is presumably why he yanked his latest film, “The Floating City,” from the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Perhaps inadvertently, China’s case was bolstered by Japanese producer Satoru Iseki, who was at the festival promoting the historical epic “An End to Killing,” about a Taoist priest who tries to convert Genghis Khan to a life of nonviolence. In another interview with THR Iseki blamed “nasty politicians in Japan” for the dispute in an obvious bid to cover his back since he does much of his business in China.

Wakamatsu, whose unabashedly political films have managed to get him banned from the U.S., characteristically had the last word when he told a reporter that they should just blow the Senkakus up and be done with it.

Nevertheless, the controversy was a sideshow, and for the record, the Japanese seemed to win more hearts and minds with their films than did the Chinese, whose offerings this year generated scant buzz. “Dangerous Liaisons,” Hur Jin Ho’s Shanghai-set adaptation of the oft-filmed French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, was noted for its gorgeous cast (Zhang Ziyi, Cecilia Cheung, Jang Dong Gun) and 1930s production design and little else.

Zhang Yang’s “Full Circle,” a mawkish tale about a band of elderly people who “escape” from their nursing home to perform at a variety show in a distant city, was a rote and shameless crowd-pleaser that betrayed none of the imagination and verve of the director’s early, ground-breaking work, in particular his 2001 masterpiece “Quitting.”

Lou Ye, the banned director of such controversial films as “Summer Palace” and “Suzhou River,” failed to bring off the thriller elements in his latest work, “Mystery”; while “Beijing Flickers,” the newest by multiple award-winner Zhang Yuan about a group of young losers trying to retain some measure of self-esteem in the capital’s go-go environment, was all craft and no soul.

All the money being pumped into Chinese cinema now is apparent in the polished look of the product, but it seems to be sapping the directors of originality and ideas. Japan, on the other hand, has almost no money, but the roster of J-movies at BIFF this year was appealing in its range of personality, from Nobutera Uchida’s powerfully understated 311 drama “Odayaka” to Naomi Kawase’s emotionally affecting 45-minute documentary “Chiri.” I’ve always found Kawase’s Nara-based, nature-obsessed movies pretentious and insubstantial, so I was shocked at how moved I was by her coverage of her grandmother’s recent death, and a lot of people I talked to felt the same way.

Southeast Asia had more to offer in terms of variety and surprise. Since Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or at Cannes he’s been the standard bearer for the region despite the fact that he is unique. His latest curiosity, “Mekong Hotel,” is little more than a 60-minute preview of his next feature, a thriller about a legendary man-eating ghost. That said, Weerasethakul avoids all film conventions and “Mekong Hotel,” with its startling clear images, role-shifting characters and funny little naturalistic conversations, is anything but dull. Even the closing 15-minute shot of the Mekong River has a hypnotic appeal.

Compatriot Ninzee Nimibutr returns after a long directing sabbatical with the thriller “Distortion,” which takes on the loaded subject of implanted memories in a story about a serial killer and the psychiatrist who tries to outwit him. The convoluted plot and calculated gore are perfectly suitable for a Hollywood remake, but they’ll probably have to change the subplot about a group of gay men who prey on children.

Myanmar was represented at BIFF by the second film of Midi Z, a young filmmaker who trained in Taiwan. “Poor Folk” is a fine example of a mini-genre that thrives at BIFF, the border melodrama. In this case we follow the exploits of a group of people who smuggle Myanmarese into Thailand where they are exploited to varying degrees. At an event for Taiwan filmmakers the director told me there will be more opportunity for him to work in his native country now that Myanmar is enjoying political reform. He’s definitely a talent to watch.

The Southeast Asian country that made the biggest impression this year was definitely the Philippines, which had about a dozen good movies at the festival, including two by Brillante Mendoza, the controversial director who is better known at BIFF and European film festivals than he is at home. “Thy Womb” is a disarming romantic drama about a Muslim couple who belong to the nomadic Bajau tribe of the southern islands. Unable to give his beloved husband a child, Shahela, played by the Philippine star Nora Aunor, decides to find him a second bride with unforeseen and heartbreaking consequences.

The much more expensive multinational collaboration “Captive” chronicles the real-life kidnapping of a group of Philippines and Westerners by Islamic separatists in early 2001. Mendoza manages to avoid any hint of an agenda by showing how both the militants and the Philippine army sacrifice moral integrity by taking part in what amounts to the business of ransom, all the while focusing on the travails of the hostages, who are forced to live out in the open in the jungle.

The movie’s commercial hook is its star, French actress Isabelle Huppert, who is becoming the Western face of Asian cinema. She also stars in what was probably the festival’s funniest film, Hong Sang Soo’s “In Another Country,” where she plays three different French women whom Hong’s typically sex-addled Korean men react to in embarrassing ways. Stereotypes abound, but it’s a hoot, especially Yu Jun Sang as a lifeguard who doesn’t let his poor command of English get in the way of his horny predilections.

If there was a sub-theme to this year’s festival it was exile, especially for the Iranian contingent. In addition to Iranian master Abbas Kiorastami’s second non-Iran-set movie, “Like Someone in Love,” which seems to be winding up its tour of the festival circuit and has already opened theatrically in Japan, there was the world premiere of past Asian Filmmaker of the Year Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s latest, “The Gardener.” Makhmalbaf and his family — a cottage industry unto itself since every member is a filmmaker — now live in London, and during a press conference the famously nonsectarian director talked about being targeted by assassins presumably sent abroad by the current Iranian regime. “The Gardener” is a discussion “with video cameras” between Makhmalbaf and his son Maysam as they explore the grounds of the governing authority of the Baha’i faith in Haifa, Israel. >The Baha’i religion was founded 170 years ago in Iran and then expelled. Its tenets stress peaceful coexistence of all religions.

In the conversation, the younger Makhmalbaf takes the position that religions are the root cause of all the conflict in the world, while the elder Makhmalbaf thinks religion, if reduced to its moral essence, can solve these problems, too. It says something about the limits of the film’s thesis that I learned more at the press conference than I did watching the movie, which doesn’t interrogate its positions aggressively enough.

In any case, Makhmalbaf’s polite intellectualism couldn’t hold a candle to the florid emotionalism of Bahman Ghobadi’s “Rhino Season.” Exile seems to agree with the Kurdish director, who left Iran in 2009 when his last film, “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” purposely provoked the government. “Presented” by Martin Scorsese, “Rhino Season” is more visually opulent and narratively sophisticated than anything Ghobadi’s done before, including the nightmarish “Turtles Can Fly.”

Based on the experience of Kurdish-Iranian poet Sadegh Kamangar, who was imprisoned by the Islamic Revolution, the movie interweaves, dream, memory, and heightened, desaturated reality. A poet played by Behrouz Vossoughi, who was a popular Iranian actor before himself going into exile after the revolution, is released from jail after thirty years. He attempts to reconnect with his wife (Monica Bellucci), who believes him dead. Ghobadi’s inherent sentimentalism comes out in the plotting, but there is no mistaking that this is meant to be a movie, not a re-creation of reality, and as such it provides that most precious of cinematic experiences: a totally enveloping aesthetic.

Reportedly, Ghobadi and Scorsese are now collaborating on a movie set in New York and Iran. It definitely should be interesting.

“Full Circle” will be screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival (Oct. 20-28); “Odayaka,” “In Another Country,” “Rhino Season,” “The Gardener,” and “Pieta” will screen at Tokyo Filmex (Nov. 23-Dec. 2). All films will have English subtitles.