Busan festival takes a bold step, but is Asian cinema ready?


Special To The Japan Times

“Change” was the key word at this year’s Busan International Film Festival, and not just because the organizers finally succumbed to the host South Korean port city’s request to change the name from “Pusan.” Lee Yong Kwan took over as festival director from founder Kim Dong Ho, who is credited with turning BIFF into Asia’s biggest and most important film festival. But the main news was the opening of the Busan Cinema Center, a huge facility that has been in the works for more than a decade.

The imposing structure, located in Centum City, an upscale retail and office district on the edge of Busan’s resort area, received mixed reviews from festival-goers. Though its primary function is as a film exhibition venue and the festival’s home, it will be used year-round as a local multi-cultural center, with opera and concert halls in addition to large cinemas. A number of foreign festival organizers expressed envy that the city would fund such a facility, though Alice Yoo, of the rival Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, told the Hollywood Reporter that, at 30,000 sq. meters, “it’s just too big for Asia.”

Asia’s pretty big. What Yoo meant was that Asia’s film industry is still developing. South Korea’s is one of the most advanced and forward-looking in the world, and one of the primary aims of BIFF is to make sure the world knows it. That may explain why BIFF’s ambitions have always seemed larger than its ability to deliver on them. There were more than 300 films at this year’s festival comprising 16 sections in addition to a three-day film forum for scholars, not to mention the biggest film market in Asia. It’s impossible to take it all in. Like the labyrinthine new cinema center, BIFF defies anyone to make sense of it.

The most prestigious Asian films tend to get premiered at the major Western festivals, so BIFF opened its 2011 edition with “Always,” which is set for wide release in Korea later this month. A lavish romantic tearjerker about a washed-up boxer and woman who is going blind, it features two of Korea’s biggest stars, So Ji Sub and Han Hyo Joo, and was directed by Song Il Gon, in what is being called his graduation from art house “auteur” to “popular director,” with predictable results. Even the catalogue admits that fans of Song’s past work may be “disappointed.”

Another world premiere set for a big domestic release, “A Reason to Live,” marks the first film in nine years by Lee Jung Hyang, whose 1998 debut feature, “Art Museum By the Zoo,” is considered one of the most influential Korean films of the last two decades. “Reason” focuses on two women: one whose fiancee was murdered by a teenager, and another who is beaten regularly by her father “for her own good.” Presented in the form of a conventional commercial melodrama with cardboard characters and overcooked situations, the movie tries to say everything there is to say about forgiveness, remorse and Korea’s unusual criminal justice system. It’s a major social statement tricked out as a glorious soap opera.

Forgiveness and remorse are perennial themes of modern Korean cinema. “The King of Pigs,” an animated feature about the nature of bullying and how it destroys the soul, was one of the most talked-about films at the festival. Animation gives director Yeun Sang Ho license to be even more graphic with the violence, which is saying a lot since no national cinema is more self-critical than Korea’s. Forgiveness is also the theme of veteran art house director Kim Ki Duk’s latest, a docudrama shot on-the-fly during a trip to Europe. The story involves a Korean tourist who is drugged, raped and robbed in a railroad sleeping car. The gas-mask sporting perpetrator then stalks the victim all over the continent, begging for forgiveness. Reportedly, Kim has instructed his distributor not to sell the movie overseas, perhaps thinking that Westerners just won’t understand.

In Kim’s last movie, “Arirang,” he trained his camera on himself, something that Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi does in “This Is Not a Film,” which looks at Panahi’s daily life after the government banned him from making films for 20 years. Kim used his screen time to settle scores, while Panahi worries about the “truth” of what he’s depicting, even as he discusses his case with his lawyer, who tells him in plain language that he’s looking at a prison sentence. Ironically, Panahi remains free while his co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, is now in jail.

So is Mohammed Rasoulof, whose taut, powerful “Goodbye” chronicles the clandestine efforts of a human rights lawyer to leave Iran. The movie’s oppressive spareness has the same effect of those moments in horror movies have just before a scary jolt, only there are no jolts. Less politically charged but no less emotionally resonant was “Mourning,” a formally imposing film by Morteza Farshbaf about a deaf couple who are driving their young nephew back to Teheran from a vacation, all the while struggling with the effort of how to tell him his parents have died in an accident. Farshbaf’s use of point-of-view, especially in terms of sound design, is unique and stunning. It won the grand prize in the New Currents section, the most important competition at BIFF.

Iran’s cinema is so stylistically diverse that it’s become impossible to pigeonhole. This isn’t the case with cinema of the Philippines, and that is the point of Marlon Rivera’s “The Woman in the Septic Tank,” which lampoons the idea of middle-class Filipinos making all these art films about slum-dwellers and then dragging them around the international film festival circuit. After seeing “Septic Tank” it’s easier to become jaded toward a slick production like Jan Hie’s “Mr. Tree,” about a mentally challenged man trying to get by in a provincial Chinese mining town; or Aktan Arym-Kubat’s “Mother’s Paradise,” a misery tale of a prostitute and her two little boys that transplants a story by Iranian master Mohsen Makhmalbaf to rural Kazakhstan. These are typical Asian film festival movies: Very well-made, with strong local color, but probably unsellable outside the festival world.

So what does that make “Inseparable,” which the catalogue described as “the first fully Chinese-funded film with a Hollywood star in the lead”? Kevin Spacey plays the spiritual mentor to a young Chinese salaryman (Daniel Wu) whose struggle to come to terms with his country’s rapid development has turned him into an emotional wreck. Though wildly uneven in tone, “Inseparable” is obviously a commercial effort, but it’s unlikely that even Spacey will guarantee it a release outside of China since its “conflict” and humor are so locally situated.

Peter Chan’s ambitious kung fu detective epic, “Wu Xia,” has a better chance of doing that if promoted properly. Western action movie fans who normally don’t take in Asian martial arts movies may appreciate the attention to narrative detail. Though not the “masterpiece” the programmers claimed it to be, it’s an extremely accomplished film that extends the stylistic reach of kung fu movies beyond the merely visceral. It’s definitely violent, but that’s not its only appeal.

Other films that created buzz at this year’s festival included “Seediq Bale,” Wei Te Sheng’s 4.5-hour depiction of one of the most infamous incidents in Taiwanese history, when 300 warriors from the aboriginal Seediq tribe attacked 300 Japanese soldiers during the latter’s occupation of the island; “Yulu,” an omnibus documentary produced by sixth-generation director Jia Zhangke that profiles a dozen Chinese professionals from different fields; Sion Sono’s “Himizu,” a prize-winner at Venice and the first Japanese dramatic film to incorporate the March 11 disaster into its storyline, which, in the usual Sono style, is violent and extreme, though in this case it’s supposed to extend some sort of hope; and two Korean 3D movies, “A Fish” and “Persimmon,” that use the over-hyped technology for subtle and nuanced dramatic effects.

Buried under the onslaught was the latest comedy from Hong Sang Soo, “The Day He Arrived.” There’s always at least one Hong movie at BIFF, and this is one of his best: A semi-retired movie director visits an old friend in Seoul and nothing much happens except the usual bouts of drinking and soul-searching that goes on in Hong films. However, the soul-searching is presented in a kind of theme-and-variations form that’s quite hilarious, though not in the same way for every viewer. The movie’s star, Yu Jun Sang, told the audience before the screening that when the movie was shown at Cannes he heard a lot of laughter, and later when it was shown to preview audiences in Korea there was a lot of laughter too, but in different places. Obviously, that’s a movie you can sell anywhere, and I heard from a publicist that “The Day He Arrived” was picked up by a Japanese distributor, along with three other Hong films.

“Mourning” and “The Woman in the Septic Tank” will be shown with English subtitles at the Tokyo International Film Festival (Oct. 22-30)
“Arirang,” “This Is Not a Film,” “Yulu,” “Goodbye,” and “Mr. Tree” will be shown with English subtitles at Tokyo Filmex (Nov. 19-27)