Earlier this year, Kim Dong Ho announced that the 15th Pusan International Film Festival, which ran from Oct. 7 to 15, would be his final one as the event’s director. Kim launched PIFF in 1986 and quickly made it the most important Asian film event of the annual calendar. As a farewell gesture, the traditional trailer that precedes every screening was this year a cartoon showing how Kim used to cut through Busan’s notorious traffic jams to get from one end of the festival to another on the back of a delivery scooter.
Kim is retiring due to age, and indeed the festival seems to need new blood. Though the South Korean film market is doing better after a mid-decade slump, PIFF faces budgetary problems and an apathetic central government. PIFF was once the pride of Korea, a festival that represented to the world Asia’s most vibrant movie industry, and even this year it offered a record 101 world premieres out of 308 films from 67 countries. But the government in Seoul is said to be no longer sympathetic to PIFF’s needs. Busan is traditionally a leftwing town, and the government of President Lee Myung Bak leans heavily to the right.
Consequently, the choice of Zhang Yimou’s “Under the Hawthorn Tree” to open the festival sent mixed signals. Zhang is the most successful director to emerge from the so-called Fifth Generation of filmmakers who dominated Chinese cinema in the 1980s. “Hawthorn” is a return to the simple narrative style of Zhang’s earlier films after a string of historical blockbusters and directing the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It’s a love story between two young city people sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, but as Zhang said at the film’s press conference, “I put the political element as much in the background as possible.”
The political element was in your face in the other hotly anticipated Chinese movie, “The Ditch,” which marked the feature-film debut of documentarian Wang Bing, who 10 years ago made a nine-hour movie about the dismantling of the city-scale Tie Xi industrial complex in Shenyang. “The Ditch” focuses on a reeducation camp in the Gobi Desert where intellectuals and other “reactionaries” were sent in the 1950s to work the land. However, due to famine, all they did was starve to death. Though Wang still needs to work on his dramatic pacing, the film is harrowingly realistic. Needless to say, it was not produced with Chinese money.
“The Ditch” questions the common sense of leadership beholden to political dogma, and many films at the festival were cynical about leadership of any kind. Kyrgyzstan’s “The Light Thief” depicts Central Asia’s descent into corrupt capitalism with the tale of an electrician who provides fellow villagers with light when government and companies can’t and, in the end, is punished for his ethical integrity. The Kafkaesque comedy “Virgin Goat,” by Indian director Murali Nair, tells the story of a farmer who takes his beloved goat to town to have her mated, but is frustrated by security surrounding a visit by a big-shot whose identity and position are never stated. Though funny, it ends in abject misery.
Some directors tried to lighten their social criticism. Zhang Yang, who made a string of diverse, stimulating indie films in the 2000s, entered the big leagues with “Driverless,” a slick, multiplotted romance centered on Beijing’s burgeoning car culture that said nothing interesting about cars or romance. The big-budget superhero movie “The Red Eagle,” directed by one of Thailand’s most original filmmakers, Wisit Sasanatieng, was a formless, gory mess even as it took aim at the political corruption tearing Thailand apart. A more successful attempt at coming to terms with political shortcomings was “Sandcastle,” a quiet story set in Singapore about a teenager who discovers that the father he never knew was exiled by the government for refusing to renounce his views as a student leader.
PIFF’s main rival for Asian premieres isn’t other Asian festivals but ones in Europe. Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a perennial PIFF favorite, but his Cannes Grand Prix winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” wasn’t screened at PIFF because it had already been shown at a festival in Seoul.
However, two other Cannes winners were. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who was on hand to teach a master class, brought his first film set outside Iran, “Certified Copy,” along with its lead, Juliette Binoche, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her portrayal of an emotionally wrought woman taking an English scholar on a tour of southern Tuscany. But it was no match for “Poetry,” former Korean Cultural Minister Lee Chang Dong’s story of a grandmother’s late-life discovery of literature as she faces a personal crisis of stunning moral impact. It won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, and deserved it.
Though many of PIFF’s films are small and obscure, crowd pleasers are welcomed enthusiastically. And while this year’s edition made room for new movies by John Woo and Oliver Stone, the most talked-about big-budget movies were a pair of productions by Bollywood veteran Mani Ratnam. “Raavan” and “Raavanan” share the same story and some of the same actors, but the first is in Hindi and the second in Tamil. It is a breathless tale of kidnapping, pursuit and betrayal, augmented with songs by Oscar-winner A.R. Rahman. If the Tamil version has a slight edge in popular consensus, it’s because superstar Vikram is better at playing a murderous bandit than he is at playing an obsessed policeman.
Another PIFF regular is Taiwanese director Tsai Ming Liang, who received this year’s Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award. During his acceptance speech, Tsai ruefully observed that this was the first year he didn’t actually have a film at the festival. However, Taiwanese art cinema seems to be experiencing a renaissance, exemplified by Chang Tso Chi’s “When Love Comes,” a superb example of what could be considered a unique Asian genre: the dysfunctional extended-family portrait. Unabashedly manipulative and fiercely acted, the movie kept the audience I saw it with in a constant state of emotional flux. It’s why we go to the movies.
“Raavan” will play at the Tokyo International Film Festival (Oct. 23-30). “The Ditch,” “Certified Copy,” “Poetry,” “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and “When Love Comes” will be shown at Tokyo FILMeX (Nov. 20-28). All will have English subtitles.