The 22nd Busan International Film Festival, which opened Oct. 12 and ends Saturday, seemed to be in better shape this year.

Last year, various South Korean film industry groups boycotted Asia’s biggest film event, which for the past three years has been caught up in a scandal precipitated by the Busan mayor’s objection to BIFF showing a documentary that criticized the government’s handling of the Sewol ferry disaster. The city, which is BIFF’s main sponsor, was accused of throttling free speech, and it retaliated by prosecuting the festival director for embezzlement.

Matters intensified this year when it was reported that the administration of deposed South Korean President Park Geun-hye targeted filmmakers it didn’t like with a blacklist to withhold government funding. Then, in August, after it was rumored there might not be a festival this year, the current director, Kang Soo-youn, and co-founder and chairman Kim Dong-ho both said they would resign after this year’s edition due to criticism that they were too accommodating to the mayor. And this was after Kim Ji-Seok, the festival’s original programmer and its soul and conscience, died suddenly while attending Cannes.

So it was a surprise that the opening ceremony was more packed with big-name Korean celebrities than last year’s, though some industry groups continue the boycott and a few attendees carried signs objecting to the mayor’s appearance on the red carpet, which was met with boos from the audience. But there was another sense that BIFF’s troubles are beside the point, what with the possibility of an armed conflict with North Korea.

The head of the New Currents jury, Oliver Stone, addressed Kim Jong Un’s threat during the same press conference and called on the United States to “accept that North Korea has nuclear weapons” and work from that reality. Stone’s wife is Korean and his in-laws live in Seoul. However, it was another comment on a current affair that got more international press. When asked about the sexual assault charges swirling around Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Stone said, “I won’t comment on gossip” and blasted what he called the “vigilante” tenor of Weinstein’s accusers.

In light of Stone’s poor choice of words, one of the things that distinguished this year’s festival is that both the opening and closing films were directed by women, the first time that has ever happened. Some regulars thought it might have been a PR ploy to distract from the politics, but Shin Su-won, the director of the opening film, “Glass Garden,” doesn’t think so.

“It wasn’t on purpose,” Shin told The Japan Times. “They made a short list and chose mine, and it wasn’t until then that they realized it was the first time they’d selected a film by a woman as the opener. And the same thing happened when they chose the closing film,” she said, which is Taiwanese Sylvia Chang’s “Love Education.”

For the record, the choices were made before the Weinstein story blew up, but “Glass Garden” was appropriate given the news. A disabled scientist withdraws from the world to “become a plant” after her research and lover are stolen by a colleague. The power dynamics at play — the researcher’s lover is also her boss — are undeniable, and the woman’s desire to become a tree is a reaction to her disillusionment with human relations, which she believes lead to death. I told Shin I thought a man could never make such a movie.

“Yes, that’s right,” she said, and when I asked her about the relatively high number of mainstream female directors in South Korea — where male directors have a reputation for imperiousness, and sexual harassment may be just as big a problem as it is in Hollywood — she said that was changing.

“Now, younger directors know that if they demand absolute authority, their crews will leave,” she said. “It’s a small revolution. Communication is the most important thing when making a movie. Before shooting I give the script to all the crew and solicit their opinions.”

In any case, female directors were prominent. “Our Time Will Come,” by Hong Kong veteran filmmaker Ann Hui, who made the first female-directed movie to ever close BIFF, is about the underground resistance movement in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation of the 1940s, and while it’s an action-packed affair, it is centered on filmed interviews with survivors of the movement, which gives the story more human resonance.

The most accomplished woman-helmed feature, however, was E Oni’s “Missing,” which starts out as a child custody drama and then seamlessly incorporates a slew of social issues — the economic plight of single mothers, South Korea’s treatment of immigrant wives, illegal organ donation, women’s lack of job options — into a blood-quickening thriller. It was only fitting that the country’s president, Moon Jae-in, chose “Missing” as the token screening he attended during his visit to voice the new government’s support for the festival.

“Butterfly Sleep” was in the Gala Presentation section, which centers on prestige films. Of the section’s five features, two were Japanese, one was a Japanese co-production, and one was the new John Woo action flick, “Manhunt,” his tribute to the Japanese crime movies that inspired him. Basically a remake of a Ken Takakura classic, the movie is a return for Woo to his “bullet ballet” past, and the only thing more ridiculous than the idea of this many guns existing in Japan was Masaharu Fukuyama’s English language skills.

There were 44 Japanese films and co-productions at the festival, second only to South Korea’s tally, including seven world premieres. The most talked-about was “The Scythian Lamb,” directed by Daihachi Yoshida from a clever script by Masahito Kagawa, about a government program that attempts to “kill two birds with one stone”: rural depopulation and the ever-increasing expense of housing criminals.

But as a subject, Japan was everywhere, and not just because the late Seijun Suzuki was chosen as Asian Filmmaker of the Year. The colonization of Korea was the subtext of two South Korean blockbusters. Lee Joon-ik’s “Anarchist from Colony,” a turgid legal drama, is premised on the massacre of Koreans in Tokyo following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. More effective was the “director’s cut” of Ryoo Seung-wan’s “The Battleship Island,” about Korean forced laborers on the coal-mining island of Hashima during World War II.

Because the Japanese overlords are depicted as cartoon crazies and the film takes in the gratuitous slaughter of Korean workers and appropriating Korean women as sex slaves (including an 11-year-old girl), it’s highly doubtful the movie will ever be shown in Japan, especially since Japan successfully petitioned UNESCO to make Hashima a world heritage site for its role in Japan’s economic development.

Then again, many people at BIFF didn’t think last year’s principal Japan colonization movie, “The Age of Shadows,” would be shown in Japan, but it opens here in November.

The Busan International Film Festival runs until Oct. 21. For more information, visit www.biff.kr.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.