Film

Asia’s most important film festival reasserts its independence

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Celebrating its 20th year, the 2015 edition of the Busan International Film Festival, held in South Korea’s southern port city from Oct. 1 to 10, has a lot to brag about, as it has definitely become the most important film festival in Asia in terms of the quality of its programming, the size and reach of its market activities and the variety of its educational events.

And yet, for a brief moment earlier this year, it almost seemed as if BIFF 2015 wasn’t going to happen. Last year, the festival screened a controversial documentary, “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol,” about the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster despite the objections of Busan’s mayor, who later threatened to pull funding if festival director Lee Yong-kwan didn’t resign. It would have been difficult to hold the event without the city’s support, but Lee refused to step down. Fortunately, the powerful Korean film industry backed the director and a compromise was reached that allowed BIFF to retain its storied independence. As Lee told Variety, the face-off “inspired us to overcome such crises and work even harder for a better future.”

Part of that reassessment has involved an emphasis on Korean independent cinema. Domestic blockbusters have no trouble finding audiences in South Korea and other Asian markets, but art house films, which have always constituted the bulk of BIFF’s presentations, still have a tough time securing distribution despite excellent reviews from the international press. This year the number of screening slots for Korean independent productions has been boosted considerably. Each of the 11 films in the Korean Cinema Today: Vision section, which features world premieres of local indie films, were screened as many as nine times during the week.

After Korea, the countries that submitted the most films were China and India.

“Indian films are changing,” says Kyoko Dan, a Kobe-based publicist who works with many Asian filmmakers. “And that’s because the audience is changing.” Middle-class movie lovers tend to prefer foreign films, and local product is beginning to reflect that preference.

Many of the Indian films at BIFF were more personal and tackled social concerns with more candor than in the past. Festival-opener “Zubaan,” which its first-time director, Mozez Singh, described as “Bollywood without the cliches,” was notable for its human scale and relatable characters. Many were surprised that BIFF chose such a movie for its opening night, but Dan says the film’s producer, Guneet Monga, has become one of the most powerful figures in the Indian movie industry and, by extension, world cinema. And she’s only 31.

Japan’s Studio Ghibli, producer of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films, won BIFF’s Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award, and of the 10 films screened in Asia Cinema 100 — a special selection taken from the 100 best Asian films chosen by a panel of experts and filmmakers — three were Japanese. Most of the newer Japanese films at the festival, such as Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Umimachi Diary” (“Our Little Sister”) and Sion Sono’s “Eiga: Minna! Esupa da Yo!” (“The Virgin Psychics”), have already been released in Japan. Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s “Three Stories of Love” (“Koibitotachi”) has not, and it was one of the most anticipated films at BIFF despite having already been shown at some other festivals.

The most popular of the three Japanese world premieres was “Pink & Gray,” an adaptation of a best-selling novel about a movie star whose suicide helps his friend, a struggling actor, achieve fame. Hundreds of young women showed up at the first screening to see Yuto Nakajima, of boy band Hey! Say! Jump, in his first starring movie role. Though they squealed and swooned when Nakajima came out after the screening, they also asked more pointed questions than you usually get from Japanese journalists. One girl even suggested that the movie, which is about manufactured stardom, could be about Nakajima’s own talent agency, the powerful idol-making machine Johnny & Associates.

“Zen and Bones,” a documentary about the zen priest Henry Mittwer, also made its world premiere at BIFF. Directed by Takayuki Nakamura, the film is long, messy and sprawling — like the life of its subject. Mittwer was born in 1918 to a Japanese mother and an American father, and never quite squared his feelings about his dual heritage. Despite his deep understanding of Buddhist philosophy, he was cantankerous and willful. In his dotage he even fights with Nakamura on camera.

Another world premiere, Takuro Nakamura’s (no relation) “West North West,” was included in BIFF’s main competition section, New Currents. It stars Japan resident Sahel Rosa as an Iranian exchange student who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a gloomy female bartender that sparks jealousy in her lover, a girl named Ai. At a festival function, Nakamura told me he had yet to find a distributor for the film in Japan and seemed to think it had less to do with the subject matter than the way he uses that material to explore more intimate concerns.

But “West North West” will probably be easier to sell in Japan than “Stop,” the latest provocation from Korean bad boy Kim Ki-duk, even though the movie is set in Japan with Japanese actors and dialogue. It focuses on a young couple who are evacuated from their Fukushima home after the 2011 nuclear accident. The wife believes her unborn child will have birth defects and wants to abort it, while her husband — convinced there’s nothing to be afraid of because “such a thing couldn’t happen in Japan” — tries to change her mind. Purposely simplistic, the movie is an interesting analog to the current argument between pro- and anti-nuclear forces, but Kim’s wry point is that there’s nothing you can do about nuclear power if you use as much electricity as Japan does.

Kim filmed “Stop” in guerrilla style, shooting clandestinely in restricted areas on the fly over two weeks. He did almost everything himself, and while Variety called the film “inept,” it was — true to BIFF’s mission — a genuinely independent effort.