PIFF: Asia’s magnet for movies


The Pusan International Film Festival, which took place Oct. 6-14, marked its 10th year with its biggest program ever — 307 films from 73 countries. These numbers alone make PIFF the largest annual film-related event in Asia, and with the Pusan Promotion Plan (PPP) taking place in the Korean port city simultaneously, it’s also the core of Asia’s largest film market. Consequently, it came as no surprise when PIFF announced that it was giving its third Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award not to a filmmaker but to NHK for the valuable work it does co-producing film projects throughout Asia.

PIFF provides a one-stop opportunity to not only preview upcoming releases — next week’s Tokyo International Film Festival and next month’s Tokyo FILMeX will feature many movies that premiered at PIFF — but also to review films released all over Asia in the last year. As such, it’s a magnet for South Korea’s famously rabid movie fans, and the festival is split between two locations: the Haeundae resort area, where the industry and press events took place, and the downtown Nampo-dong district, which was given over to fans.

Since Pusan will host the APEC Summit in November, security was more intense than at past festivals. In Haeundae, everyone had to pass through a gauntlet of metal detectors to get into the opening ceremony, and Nampo-dong was constantly under the watchful eye of grim-faced security details, who nevertheless proved to be no match for the fans. Even the usually cool Jackie Chan, who appeared at PIFF Square Oct. 7 to plug his new movie, “The Myth,” seemed intimidated by the compressed hordes of youngsters brandishing cell phones and digital cameras, and obeyed their commands to pose in every possible direction. “It’s nice to be greeted as if I were Korean,” he said.

The NHK honor had special meaning as it spotlighted the higher profile that Japan enjoyed at this year’s festival. Seijun Suzuki became the 25th “film master” to provide his handprint for the sidewalk of PIFF Square. The 82-year-old director, tethered to an oxygen tank and looking frail, joked that his hand would now be more famous than his face. Much more genki, 25-year-old actor Satoshi Tsumabuki, in town with his period romance “Spring Snow,” popped up everywhere. A genuine heartthrob in South Korea thanks to his star turn in 2001’s “Water Boys,” Tsumabuki attracted his own hordes at PIFF Square and participated in this year’s Open Talk with Korean superstar Lee Byung Hee, who did almost all of the talking.

Japan also featured prominently in some of the movies in the Korean Panorama section. “Rikidozan,” the biopic of the Korean man who single-handedly popularized professional wrestling in Japan, features a mostly Japanese cast speaking in Japanese.

It was reportedly received coolly when it was released in South Korea late last year. It should resonate more in Japan, where it’s slated to open next March. With its outsider take on events that Japanese of a certain age remember clearly, it’s a thoroughly revisionist work. The movie claims it was pro wrestling that popularized TV in Japan rather than the wedding of Crown Prince Akihito. And Rikidozan’s strategy to make himself a star was to exploit Japan’s inferiority complex following its defeat at the hands of the Allies by bringing over American wrestlers and beating them up in public. In other words, it was a Korean who helped Japan regain its martial spirit.

A more caustic Japanese element enlivened Im Soo Sang’s “The President’s Last Bang,” a re-enactment of the 1979 assassination of dictator Park Chung Hee by his intelligence chief. Scored to tango music, this farce reduces history to a grudge match between two sets of macho sensibilities informed by comic-book bushido. Park’s inner circle revert to Japanese when they say something pithy or forceful and get all teary-eyed listening to enka. Before delivering the coup de gra^ce into Park’s skull, KCIA director Kim calls him by his Japanese name and lets out a high-pitched samurai yell.

“Rikidozan,” in Japanese with English subtitles, will be screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival on Oct. 30 at 2 p.m. at Orchard Hall.

The latest film by last year’s Asian Filmmaker of the Year, Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien, was given the festival’s opening film slot. Though Hou has re-edited “Three Times” since it was shown at Cannes last spring, PIFF didn’t claim it as a premiere. “My nickname is Hou-who-changes-films-a-hundred-times,” the director said at his news conference.

“Three Times” is a retread of three of Hou’s past successes in chamber-piece form. Set in 1911, 1966 and 2005, the stories center on relationships that are meant to show how the concept of romantic love changes over time. In the 1911 story, love is hidden beneath layers of propriety, while in the 2005 episode, it’s all out in the open, like a festering sore. Though Hou’s leisurely visual style is the same, the short-film structure makes “Three Times” his most accessible movie ever.

Abolfazl Jalili, a likely future recipient of the Asian Filmmaker award, provided a welcome antidote to fellow Iranian and 2003 winner Mohsen Maklmalbaf’s pretentious “Sex & Philosphy.” An avid chronicler of life on Iran’s margins, Jalili presents his most singular hero yet in “Full or Empty.” Seventeen-year-old Navid comes to a seaside town to apply for a job as a teacher and runs up against the kind of bureaucratic wall Jalili is so good at evoking. However, rather than treat Navid’s failure to secure employment as a tragic fact of life, he presents it as black comedy. The audience I saw it with did not pick up on it right away, but once it became clear that Navid was mostly a victim of his own naive self-importance, the laughs came in waves.

“Three Times,” “Sex & Philosophy” and “Full or Empty” will all be screened with English subtitles at Tokyo FILMeX, Nov. 19-27.

Kim Ki Duk probably enjoys the highest profile of any Korean director outside of South Korea, and, in fact, his next movie, “Beautiful,” received the most attention at this year’s Pusan Film Market from overseas distributors. However, Kim’s profile has paled next to that of Park Chan Wook, whose reputation skyrocketed in 2004 when his movie “Oldboy” almost won the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Park’s latest film, “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” completes his “revenge trilogy” in high style. Less overtly violent than “Oldboy” or as socially pertinent as “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Lady” spikes its revenge theme with a dose of atonement, which supposedly makes it a more feminist movie. The heroine takes the fall for the murder of a little boy and, while in prison, ostensibly finds Jesus while hatching an elaborate plan to get back at the real murderer once she gets out.

The real murderer is portrayed as the lowest form of scum, but the message one gets is that this sick man is somehow representative of Korean manhood. Hong Sang Soo, another international festival fave, is the king of Korean misanthropy, and the misfit in his new movie, “A Tale of Cinema,” is a doozy. Though not as offensive as the two sexually challenged jerks who anchored his last film, “Woman is the Future of Man,” the former film student stalking an actress who appeared in his mentor’s most famous movie is clearly a creep. Hong’s clever structure, in which the behavior of the lead character of the movie-within-the-movie mirrors that of the stalker, provides two different examples of arrested development.

It’s a theme Hong plays for laughs, but newcomer Yoon Jong Bin looks at it straight in his debut movie, “The Unforgiven,” which won both foreign press awards for best Korean feature. Taking aim at the culture of intimidation engendered by South Korea’s mandatory military service, Yoon shows clearly how and why so many Korean men cannot form normal, healthy relationships.

“Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” will be shown at TIFF, Oct. 28 at 6 p.m., Orchard Hall, and opens nationwide Nov. 12. Hong Sang Soo’s “Woman Is the Future of Man” opens at Musashinokan in Shinjuku Oct. 29.

The Korean film industry doesn’t showcase its blockbusters at PIFF, though the Korean Panorama section did include “Welcome to Dongmakgol,” a hybrid of “Saving Private Ryan” and “Brigadoon” that was this year’s top domestic box-office hit.

Stanley Kwan’s long-awaited “Everlasting Regret” was being touted as one of the biggest Hong Kong-China joint productions of the year, but the Chinese-language movies that received the most intense buzz were those that got by on much smaller means. The winner of the New Currents award, “Grain in Ear,” arrived at PIFF on the wings of favorable notices from Cannes. The Korean-Chinese production, directed by Chinese newcomer Lu Zhang, is a portrait of a Korean-Chinese single mother living in a dusty Chinese backwater where she sells kimchi and is heartlessly used by two men.

As shocking as the ending to “Grain in Ear” was, it couldn’t compete with “The Wayward Cloud,” the latest Taiwan-China co-production from Tsai Ming-liang. A sequel to his 2001 movie “What Time Is It There?,” “Wayward” features Tsai’s eternal muse, Lee Kang-sheng, as a porno actor who hooks up with a woman he met casually in the previous movie. As in “The Hole,” he uses elaborate lip-synced musical numbers to highlight the gap between the characters’ reality and their sublimated desires, but the greatest disconnect is in the depersonalized sex, which is graphic and relentless. It’s almost too much when Lee starts bonking Lu Yi Ching, who played his mother in three previous Tsai features. “I felt like a sex machine during production,” Lee said in an interview, with an emphasis on “machine.”