Film

Despite controversy, the Busan International Film Festival is as strong as ever

by Philip Brasor

Special to The Japan Times

The 21st edition of Asia’s biggest movie event, the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), which took place from Oct. 6 to 15, almost didn’t happen; or, at least, that’s the story being told. Actually, considering how important the festival is for South Korea’s movie industry, one of the most vital in the world, it’s difficult to imagine anyone would have allowed the festival to not take place.

Problems started two years ago during the 19th edition, when the festival screened a hastily assembled documentary about the sinking of the Sewol ferry, in which hundreds of people, mostly students, died. The tragedy was still fresh in people’s minds and the movie clearly blamed the government for not acting quickly enough to save lives. The mayor of Busan, Suh Byung-soo, was livid, since the president, Park Geun-hye, is a friend of his. When he heard about the documentary he forbade it to be shown. But they screened it anyway, and the city, which is the main sponsor of the festival, said it would pull funding.

Subsequently, the conflict continued to the point where the festival’s director, Lee Yong-kwan, was indicted for “mishandling” festival money. The general opinion in the film industry is that the charges were made up in order to scapegoat Lee, and earlier this year a number of domestic film organizations, including the Korean Film Directors Association, said they would boycott the festival. The esteemed British film scholar, Tony Rayns, made it clear during a forum about the controversy held during this year’s festival, that the persecution of BIFF was purely political.

“Busan is a conservative town with a right-wing city council,” he pointed out. “But the last three presidents of South Korea have been liberals.”

Those administrations coincided with the growth of BIFF as South Korea’s cinematic showcase, but now that the conservative Park is in power, the mayor of Busan “feels emboldened” to pull in the reins on what he obviously considers a left-leaning event.

Over the summer, tempers calmed a bit and the city promised to respect BIFF’s “independence,” but the charges against Lee, as well as several other high-ranking officials connected to the festival, stood. The verdict is expected at the end of the month, conveniently after BIFF 2016 ends.

If you had been to the festival in the past and then attended this year’s without knowing about the “crisis,” as it’s being called, you probably wouldn’t have noticed much that was different. Sure, there were fewer big-name stars on the opening-night red carpet, some prominent directors didn’t show up (the Directors Association boycott was still in effect, but individual members could decide for themselves if they wanted to attend), and there weren’t as many parties.

But more than 300 films were still screened and, perhaps more importantly, a full complement of foreign journalists and film bizzers were in attendance. As a result, the 21st edition was more of an international film festival than it’s probably ever been, even if only because the South Korean component was slightly in eclipse due to the controversy.

As French film historian, Jean-Michel Frodon, said during the above-mentioned forum, “Anyone in the world who cares for cinema cares what happens to BIFF.” Though some Korean film professionals may have boycotted the festival to get back at the city, Frodon thought that the best way to support the festival was to show up and support it. That’s what the international film community did, not to mention local fans, whom the current executive director, Kang Soo-yeon, called during an “I Support BIFF” event “the main people we answer to.”

The irony is that the past two years have been extremely good for Korean cinema, both commercially and creatively. 2015 was the best year ever for homegrown fare, with more than 88 million tickets sold, and so far this year’s numbers have been just as impressive. Unfortunately, two of the biggest box-office hits of 2016 — Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie epic, “Train to Busan,” and Kim Seong-hun’s disaster movie “Tunnel” — were not screened at BIFF because, reportedly, their directors supported the boycott.

Internationally renowned auteur Park Chan-wook (“Old Boy”), whose outrageously lurid period melodrama, “The Handmaiden,” screened at the festival, didn’t show up himself, but supposedly that was because he had to do promotion overseas. Indie superstar Hong Sang-soo, who has had at least one film at the festival every year since I started attending in 2001, didn’t have any showing this year, though he does have a new one out.

Nevertheless, the fiercely independent Kim Ki-duk — who does everything for his quirky movies almost single-handedly, including location scouting and fund-raising — did show up on the red carpet. His newest film, “The Net,” which throws mud at both sides in the North Korea-South Korea standoff, screened at the festival the day it opened in theaters in South Korea, and during a post-screening Q&A he was asked if the “authorities” were upset by his subject matter. He said the movie has enjoyed the widest distribution of any of his works, so obviously the powers-that-be aren’t interfering. But he added ruefully, “I just heard that an average of five people bought tickets to each showing.”

Three of this year’s blockbusters are set during the time when Korea was a colony of Japan, including Park’s “The Handmaiden,” which is about a Korean con man who poses as a Japanese count in order to swindle another Korean who has married into Japanese nobility. The main action is between the latter Korean’s rich niece, whom the con man intends to marry, and the niece’s chambermaid, who is secretly working with him on the scheme.

The other two colonial-era films are more political. Kim Jee-woon’s “The Age of Shadows,” South Korea’s submission for a foreign-language Oscar, focuses on a former Korean resistance fighter who has changed sides and now works with the Japanese police to root out and destroy the independence movement in the 1930s. Like “The Handmaiden” it has been picked up for release in Japan. “The Last Princess,” a rousing espionage thriller-cum-romantic tearjerker about Deokhye, a member of Korea’s royal dynasty, who was shipped off to be married into the Japanese royal family, doesn’t sound like something that would play in Japan, since it deals directly with the Imperial family. A disclaimer at the start of the movie states that while most of the characters existed, the situations are fictional. The Japanese in the movie are stick figures. The only villain is the Korean bureaucrat who does the Japanese government’s bidding in managing the Korean royals. Nonetheless, I heard before leaving the festival that a Japanese distributor was in talks with the producers, so it may end up getting released here.

Another South Korean hit with a dominating Japanese character is Na Hong-jin’s “The Wailing,” which took Cannes by storm when it premiered last May. The main suspect in a series of grisly murders in a rural mountain town is an expatriate Japanese gentleman, who may be causing people to suddenly go insane and kill everyone in their families. Na, who is famous for his relentless pacing, keeps making things more intense for 2½ hours until the movie explodes in supernatural weirdness.

As is often the case, the independent South Korean films covered a lot of social issues, especially “The Bacchus Lady,” which seems to reference every single one of them. The movie focuses on senior-aged women who turn to prostitution to make ends meet, a subject that has been widely covered in the media, but it also touches on prejudices against foreigners, acceptance of LGBT individuals, euthanasia and what can only be termed youthful disrespect for the aged. Kim’s “The Net” follows a hapless North Korean fisherman whose boat inadvertently floats over into South Korean territory, where he gets picked up as a suspected spy, is tortured and eventually released back to the North, only to go through the same awful process. It’s probably the iconoclastic Kim’s most conventional film. “Jane” centers on runaway or orphaned adolescents who form “families” that often exploit them.

The breakout indie of the year, however, is probably Yoon Ga-eun’s “The World of Us,” an intensely frank look at childhood heartbreak. A fourth-grade girl who is bullied in class makes friends during the summer break with a transfer student who has her own problems. Yoon keeps the focus strictly on the children, who pay her back with amazingly naturalistic performances.

Japan had 19 features at the festival this year, including five world premieres, which may be a record: Sabu’s fantastical comedy “Happiness,” Isao Yukisada’s “Aroused by Gymnopedies” and Hideo Nakata’s “White Lily” (both contributions to Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno, “romantic pornographique,” revival), Keishi Otomo’s serial-killer thriller “Museum,” and Megumi Sasaki’s documentary “A Whale of a Tale,” which looks at the situation of the people living in the whaling town of Taiji since “The Cove” (the Oscar-winning doc that depicted Taiji’s dolphin-killing tradition) turned them into international pariahs.

Japanese actors, producers and directors were all over the festival, but none seemed as popular as Makoto Shinkai, the man who made the smash hit anime “Your Name.” During a packed two-hour discussion with local fans of the film, the bookish Shinkai had them rolling in the aisles, despite the attendant lag time for Japanese-to-Korean translation.

“The Net” and “The World of Us” will screen at Tokyo Filmex in November. For more information, visit filmex.net/2016.