Acknowledged as the most important annual film event in Asia, Korea’s Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) opened its 13th edition on Oct. 2 under several clouds. The glittery opening ceremony, stuffed to the rafters with Korean celebrities, was more subdued this year owing to the same-day suicide of popular actress Choi Jin Shil — “Korea’s Meg Ryan,” as she was called. At the very least, Choi’s death robbed the festival of many of its Korean entertainment journalists, who hurried back to Seoul from the southern port city in order to cover the tragedy.
However, the bigger cloud was the general poor state of Korea’s own film industry, not to mention its economy. Once the miracle of Asian cinema, the Korean Wave has “crested,” as The Hollywood Reporter put it. Years of production over-runs and a glut of films, not to mention the end of the government film quota that produced the miracle in the first place by requiring theaters to show domestically made movies for a minimum number of days per year, thus guaranteeing ticket sales, have taken their toll. The Asian Film Market, which is held in conjunction with PIFF, was attended by fewer buyers than in previous years and sales were reportedly sluggish.
Foreign journalists had mixed opinions about the quality of the selections. With more than 300 films representing 60 countries, there was certainly something for everyone, but PIFF’s claim to global attention is its rich cross-section of new Asian films, and at least two reporters who’ve been coming to PIFF every year since it started in 1996 told me they felt there was too much focus on independent cinema and not enough on mainstream commercial fare.
It probably depends on your definition of “commercial.” Asian-film programmer Kim Ji Seok paid special attention to movies from Central Asia this year. The opening movie was “The Gift to Stalin,” a sentimental tale from Kazakhstan about one of the most harrowing periods of Soviet history, when Stalin relocated millions of citizens to Central Asia where they died of starvation or worse (the “gift” of the title refers to a nuclear test). Its subject matter and country of origin will condemn it to art houses in the West, but in terms of storytelling and production values it’s a mainstream commercial film all the way. In addition, PIFF gave its Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award to Gulnara Sarsenova, the flamboyant producer who has done more than anyone to make Kazakhstan’s the most vibrant film culture of all the ex-Soviet states’. Gulnara was responsible for the international hit “Mongol,” the first in a proposed trilogy about Genghis Khan directed by Russian master Sergei Bodrov and starring Japanese heartthrob Tadanobu Asano.
Another well-received Kazakh film at PIFF was “Native Dancer,” an entertaining mix of gangster melodrama and regional occultism directed by Guka Omarova, whose previous film, “Schizo,” was a critical success at Cannes. It should probably be noted that both Sarsenova and Omarova are women.
Those two reporters who bemoaned the lack of commercial output were probably talking about East Asian cinema, which was definitely over-represented by digital video studies of ennui and desperate youth — short on narrative, long on atmosphere. Superstar Hong Kong action director Tsui Hark’s “All About Women” was pulled from the festival at the last minute because it had not yet received approval from the Chinese Film Bureau, leaving little in terms of mainstream Chinese-language movies. Consequently, sixth-generation standby Zhang Yuan’s “Dada’s Dance” received more attention than it probably should have and didn’t really stand up to it. Though beautifully photographed and framed, the story about a rebellious girl and the disaffected boy who falls in love with her felt overly familiar.
Taiwan, however, seems to be making a comeback after the death of its great populist director Edward Yang and the absence of its most influential filmmaker, Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose recent works have been set in Tokyo and France. The biggest buzz at PIFF was for the romantic comedy “Cape No. 7,” a decidedly commercial offering that has single-handedly brought the Taiwanese box office out of the doldrums, outgrossing even “Red Cliff,” the Chinese blockbuster directed by John Woo. “Cape” is set in a picturesque seaside town whose political boss is dismayed that the local festival will be dominated by a Japanese pop singer and puts together a band of local musicians. The cross-cultural love story at the heart of the film should guarantee ticket sales in Japan, where it’s slated to open sometime next year.
Another Taiwanese hit was “Orz Boyz!,” about the misadventures of two preternaturally mischievous elementary schoolboys. It will be shown at NHK’s Asian Film Festival, which will take place in Tokyo in November.
One of the main reasons to go to PIFF is to take in Korea’s current output, but except for Hong Sang Soo’s latest sex comedy, “Night and Day,” nothing stood out this year. Ever since his 1996 debut, “The Pig that Fell into the Well,” Hong’s films have become festival faves and fixtures in art houses in the West. “Night,” which centers on a listless Korean painter who hightails it to Paris to avoid a drug rap, is one of his funniest but, unfortunately, also one of his longest and most protracted. It will be screened at Tokyo Filmex in November.
The one thing that almost everybody at PIFF could agree on, however, was the high quality of Japanese films. Three movies in particular, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Aruitemo Aruitemo (Still Walking),” Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s “Gururi no Koto (All Around Us)” and Yojiro Takita’s “Okuribito (Departures)” — all already released in Japan — were cited by many of the people I met as being the best things they saw at PIFF. More importantly, they are mainstream, commercial fare, i.e., something that can travel overseas more easily. Every year, PIFF regulars predict that this or that Asian country’s films are set to outshine Korea’s, and this year that country seems to be Japan.
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