The biggest event of the year for South Korea’s film industry is the opening night of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), which marked its 19th year Oct. 2 to 11. Whether or not they have films screening at the festival, almost all the major Korean movie stars show up and strut the red carpet to the screams of fans lucky enough to get tickets. But there was one notable absence this year.

Lee Byung Hun, probably South Korea’s biggest actor thanks to his successful crossover to Hollywood, did not appear due to a recent blackmail scandal. Though police confirmed that Lee was the victim, someone deemed it best he not show his face.

Lee’s predicament highlights one of the paradoxes of BIFF. Undoubtedly the most important film festival in Asia by any standard — 312 films from 79 countries screened this year, 96 of them world premieres — BIFF represents Asian cinema regardless of content or style but itself avoids controversy as much as possible.

This year’s festival was forced to address controversy right from the start when the new mayor of Busan, Seo Byung Soo, who is also the festival chairman, opposed the screening of a documentary about April’s Sewol ferry disaster and threatened to withhold funding for next year’s festival if it was shown.

Filmmakers at BIFF demand that the government investigate the response to last April
Filmmakers at BIFF demand that the government investigate the response to the Sewol ferry disaster in April. | PHILIP BRASOR

The film, “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol,” is highly critical of the government’s response to the disaster, in which 304 passengers and crew died, as well as of the country’s mass media, whom the filmmakers accuse of conspiring with the government to cover up the ineptitude of the rescue operation. The festival’s director, Lee Yong-kwan, refused to answer questions about the film at the press conference for the opening film, Taiwan’s “Paradise in Service,” though a group of prominent Korean filmmakers held an unofficial news conference on the sidewalk outside the festival press center to demand the government allow for a high-level investigation into the disaster.

“The festival doesn’t want that kind of controversy,” says Pierce Conran, a South Korea-based film writer. “It’s one thing to screen political works, which BIFF regularly does, but this one is very sensitive.”

Nevertheless, the documentary was screened twice and, thanks to the publicity, was probably the hottest ticket at the festival. A huge media contingent showed up for the Q&A session after the premiere screening, which took place under tight security. Lee Sang Ho, the investigative reporter who made the film and appears throughout it badgering government officials, led the session, which became very emotional. One woman, who said she was given a ticket, started weeping as she described how she had “believed the media reports” and now that she realized they were all a lie felt devastated at the thought of the authorities’ subterfuge.

Ann Hui, winner of the festival
Ann Hui, winner of the festival’s prestigious Asian Filmmaker of the Year award. | PHILIP BRASOR

A similar sense of unease hung over any mention of the pro-democracy demonstrations taking place in Hong Kong. Ann Hui, who won the festival’s prestigious Asian Filmmaker of the Year award, was asked her opinion of the demonstrations at the press conference for her new epic, “The Golden Era,” and she curtly told the questioner that she was there only to talk about her film. Many journalists were disappointed, since, as a veteran Hong Kong art-house director, her work often tackles social themes.

Coming Home
‘Coming Home’

For that matter, mainland master Zhang Yimou’s latest film, “Coming Home,” which reunites him with his original muse, Gong Li, received a tepid response from the press, not so much because of the quality of the filmmaking, which was as impeccable as always, but due to its treatment of the Cultural Revolution. Taking place in the 70s and centered on a family torn apart when the father is sent to a reeducation camp, the movie merely makes the Cultural Revolution a melodramatic plot point. Zhang defended this treatment at the film’s press conference when he said the Cultural Revolution “brings out sentiments that are universal to all human beings.”

‘Red Amnesia’

Zhang’s response was notable when compared to Wang Xiaoshuai’s “Red Amnesia,” a more straightforward depiction of the influence of the Cultural Revolution. An elderly woman, played by the great Lu Zhong, is pestered by an unknown stalker, who inadvertently reminds her that she once spread a damaging rumor about a neighbor for her own benefit. Unlike Zhang’s movie, “Red Amnesia” shows how the uses of paranoia during the Mao era affected the entire social fabric.

China, in fact, had a bigger than usual presence at this year’s festival. Both the opening and closing features were Chinese language films. “There is a huge delegation from the Chinese film industry that was sent to the Asian Film Market,” Conran says. “It’s the first time they’ve done that. And there are a lot of (South Korea-China) coproductions coming together. So, yes, definitely the festival doesn’t want anyone talking about the demonstrations right now.”

It’s probably an overreaction. South Korea rules Asian film, though the industry has become top-heavy. Box-office revenues were up 30 percent in both 2012 and 2013, with almost 60 percent of sales from domestic product, but the field is dominated by four companies. At BIFF, Korean blockbusters such as the year’s biggest hit, “Roaring Currents,” about a historic naval battle between Korea and Japan, sit side-by-side with cutting-edge indie features, a situation that doesn’t reflect the market. Many of the most acclaimed Korean films at the festival may never be released in theaters, which is a shame, since Korean production values are top-notch, regardless of budget.

But many commercial films still retain an indie regard for detailed storytelling and complex characters. July Jung’s “A Girl at My Door,” produced by South Korea’s greatest director, Lee Chang-dong, is a gripping police procedural that addresses domestic violence, child abuse and homophobia in a credible mix, while Shim Sung-bo’s “Haemoo,” about a fishing boat crew that attempts to smuggle illegal workers into Korea, is a fascinating, though depressing, tale with a clear-eyed look at a major social issue.

Press conference for
Press conference for ‘One on One’

However, the latest by Korea’s indie enfant terrible, Kim Ki Duk, was generally thought to be a disappointment. In “One on One,” Kim addresses what he sees as the “murder of democracy” in South Korea, but in a ham-fisted way. His protagonist is an underground vigilante who tortures members of the intelligence community into confessing their crimes. Lacking Kim’s usual sense of black humor, the movie is politically muddled and dramatically inert.

Despite the fact that actor Ken Watanabe co-hosted the opening ceremony and that Japan had more movies at the festival than any other Asian country except South Korea and China, the Japanese presence at BIFF was muted. Japanese movies are popular in Korea, but there was only one world premiere — “Taksu,” an Indonesian coproduction directed by Kiki Sugino — and most of the films shown are already in general release in Japan. One that isn’t is Shinya Tsukamoto’s extremely visceral adaptation of Shohei Ooka’s classic war novel, “Fires on the Plain,” also a remake of a 1959 film of the same name, which was one of festival’s most eagerly anticipated films.

Japan made a bigger impression with actors in Korean films. In Hong Sang Soo’s latest sex comedy, Ryo Kase plays a Japanese man who comes to Seoul to see an old female friend but, unable to locate her, hooks up with a coffee shop owner played by Moon Sori. In addition to being one of Hong’s funniest and most accessible movies, it’s also his first in English.

Seeing eye to eye: Ryo Iwase with South Korean actress Kim Sae-byuk in Jang Kun-jae
Seeing eye to eye: Ryo Iwase with South Korean actress Kim Sae-byuk in Jang Kun-jae’s ‘A Midsummer’s Fantasia.’ | BIFF

Another Ryo, Iwase, plays two parts in Jang Kun Jae’s “A Midsummer’s Fantasia,” bankrolled by the Nara Film Festival, about a Korean director who goes to a small Japanese town to do research and then makes a film based on the research. The viewer sees both the research and the resulting film, a romantic drama involving a Japanese farmer and a Korean tourist. Modest to a fault, it ends up in a surprisingly poignant place and proves that, whatever their differences in public, when it comes to matters of the heart Koreans and Japanese see eye-to-eye.

“Hill of Freedom” opens Dec. 13. at Cinemart Shinjuku in Tokyo, and “Fires on the Plain” will be the opening film of Tokyo FILMeX (Nov. 22-30), which will also screen “A Girl at My Door.” For more information, visit filmex.net/2014

Other notable films

“The Look of Silence”: American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to his Oscar-nominated doc “The Act of Killing” returns to the anti-Communist genocide of 1960s Indonesia, but instead of the surviving killers themselves, who are still in power today, the movie focuses on one man whose brother was butchered during that terrible time, and his face-to-face confrontations with the murderers. It may be even more powerful than “Killing,” and the audience at the screening I attended was so moved that Oppenheimer took the Q&A out into the lobby after the 30-minute time limit was exhausted. It went on for another intense 45 minutes.

Press conference for
Press conference for ‘The President’

“The President”: Exiled Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s most action-packed movie is no less allegorical than his usual fare. Filmed in Georgia and set in a fictional country, the story centers on the country’s authoritarian head, who is forced to hide among the populace with his grandson after his government is toppled. During the press conference for the film, Makhmalbaf, who now lives in London and says he has had at least two attempts made on his life by the current Iranian regime, says the movie was inspired by the Arab Spring, which he says is in danger of replacing tyrants with leaders just as intolerant. “Why is it that when we achieve power,” he said, “we become violent to our own people? That is the question I wanted to eplore.” The film will be shown at Tokyo FILMeX in November.

“Revivre”: Im Kwon Taek’s 102nd feature is a change of pace from his usual historical films. A high-ranking executive of a large Seoul-based cosmetics firm juggles the pressures of his job with caring for his terminally ill wife, all the while nursing a desire for a younger female colleague. Shockingly direct in its depiction of slow death from brain cancer, the movie’s sentiments are totally justified and should earn Im new fans.

“A Matter of Interpretation”: The second film of Lee Kwang Kuk reflects the influence of his mentor Hong Sang Soo in its unconventional structure. After a stage actress quits her troupe when nobody shows up for a performance she goes to a local park to get drunk, sparing a series of scenes that could either be real or imaginary, but which, in any case, reveal the woman’s confusion over where her life is going and where it came from. One of the most talked about films at the festival.

“Black Coal, Thin Ice”: The 2014 winner of Berlin’s Golden Bear, this Chinese mystery set in a mining town has the femme fatale and the emotionally scarred police detective commonly found in Hollywood crime thrillers, but the violence is more unpredictable and the underlying indictment of China’s “new materialism” strikingly assured in its presentation. The ending may be a let down to people who are used to Hollywood’s way with a crime thriller, but it makes more sense in its own unique way. Japanese theatrical release set for January.

“Gyeongju”: The newest film by Zhang Lu, a Chinese-Korean director, also shows the influence of Hong Sang Soo: A Korean professor who lives and works in Beijing returns to his native country to attend the funeral of an old friend and finds himself caught up in a nostalgic revisit to old haunts. Zhang’s comedy of discomfort is too long by 45 minutes but also heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure.

“Journey to the West”: Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang has reportedly retired from feature filmmaking, so this 56-minute curiosity feels like a lark, though it retains the narrative distinctiveness of his longer works. Tsai’s muse, Lee Kang Sheng, plays a Buddhist monk who is seen walking very slowly through the streets of Marseilles in real time, while Denis Lavant, in extreme closeup, sleeps, and then encounters the monk. The movie forces you to live in the moment, literally. Also on the program at FILMeX.

“2030”: A science fiction film from Vietnam’s Nghiem-Ming Nguyen-vo. In 2030, the coastal areas of Vietnam are inundated, forcing the inhabitants to shift from farming to fishing. Basically a romantic triangle in which a young woman tries to find out if a former boyfriend murdered her husband, the film has an unsettling dreamy quality but is undone by the over-determined complications of the plot. Amazing production values, though.

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