Film

Politics and cinema intermingle at Busan International Film Festival

by Philip Brasor

Contributing writer

The 23rd edition of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) opened Oct. 4 as Typhoon Kong-rey approached the South Korean port city. When the storm peaked on Saturday morning, some public events were cancelled, but the screenings continued and were still packed with press, industry people and, most importantly, film fans — the core reason for BIFF’s reputation as the most vital film festival in Asia.

The typhoon also provided a fitting metaphor, with Variety magazine saying that in 2018 BIFF has returned to “normality” after three years of being “buffeted by a political storm.” Many people doubted that the festival would survive calls by the city’s former mayor to get rid of its top brass because of BIFF’s liberal leanings. But that mayor is gone, along with the equally conservative president, Park Geun-hye. The festival is back in the hands of two founders — Jay Jeon and Lee Yong-kwan — and sponsors who were spooked by the political turmoil have returned.

At first, the cautious rapprochement between North and South Korea seemed to overshadow the festival, but it also offered up a theme. The opening film — Jero Yun’s “Beautiful Days” — is about a family of refugees from the North living in China and South Korea. Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don did not attend the opening ceremony, but sent a video message from Pyongyang, where he was part of South Korea’s diplomatic mission. He suggested that in the future there should be an “inter-Korea film festival.”

There were few significant world premieres, as all the big Asian movies of the year had debuted at the European festivals, including Lee Chang-dong’s eagerly awaited “Burning,” an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami story and Lee’s first feature film as a director in eight years.

BIFF also showed the director’s cut of Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s gangster flick “Ash Is the Purest White.” Zhang Yimou’s ambitious battle epic, “Shadow,” featured a striking monochromatic production design interrupted only by the colors of flesh and blood.

The Japanese presence was even more prominent this year than usual, with Ryuichi Sakamoto receiving the Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award for his soundtrack work. He played piano at BIFF’s opening ceremony and attended the world premiere of the Japan-Korea-China children’s animated feature, “My Tyrano: Together, Forever,” for which he wrote the score. During the press conference for the film, Sakamoto admitted that the film’s world premiere, which had occurred the previous night, was the first time he had seen it in its finished form. It was an outdoor screening, however, and the approaching typhoon made for a wet and windy venue. “It was like a virtual reality presentation,” Sakamoto said.

Another Japanese person who made news was actor Jun Kunimura, a member of the New Currents Award jury. Kunimura became a star in Korea when he played the actual devil in the 2016 Korean thriller “The Wailing.” At the jury press conference, a local reporter asked Kunimura’s opinion about the controversy surrounding the Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force’s use of the rising sun flag, which reminds many Koreans of their painful colonial past. His answer was equivocal and some Korean media played it up, causing Kunimura considerable anguish. The festival director issued a formal apology to Kunimura, saying that political viewpoints were inevitable at press events but that the media’s treatment of the Japanese actor, an honored guest, was beyond the pale.

The incident only proved how, again, politics has always been part and parcel of the BIFF experience.

For instance, Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto, discussing his first samurai movie, “Killing,” was assertive about the movie’s anti-violence theme, which some found odd considering how violent it is. “Young people don’t know about the danger of war,” he said, presumably in reference to Japanese youth, during his press conference. “I thought I had to be cautious and prudent in depicting (violence).”

At a panel discussion to open the 100th year of Philippine cinema, several prominent Philippine filmmakers, including firebrand director Brillante Ma Mendoza, who will helm the competition jury at the Tokyo International Film Festival this year, talked about their country’s “journey from colonialism to nationhood” through the medium of movies. Though the talk was free form, a streak of national pride came through, which was in sharp contrast to the sentiment of most filmmakers at the festival who tend to always promote personal vision above all else.

Even the addressing of LGBT issues, which has become a leitmotif at BIFF in recent years, if not at film festivals in general, was colored with politics. At the press conference for the backstage drama “First Night Nerves,” which features several LGBT characters, Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan veered off topic to talk positively about the ascendancy of the mainland movie industry. However, when a reporter asked him to comment on the recent tax scandal involving movie star Fan Bingbing, he avoided the question by implying it wasn’t something that affected him.

As far as that other internationally prominent topic — the problems still faced by women in the film industry — probably the most insightful comment came from New Currents jury member Labina Mitevska, a Macedonian actor and producer, who said during the jury press conference that women artists are well-received at film festivals but she would like to see more female programmers, since it seems only men’s tastes are represented. She also took the opportunity to blast “macho Balkan culture” by describing how, years ago, when making a movie with her sister, the all-male crew often refused to take orders from them simply because they were women. Fellow jury member Nansun Shi, a Hong Kong producer, sympathized with Mitevska but was quick to point out that, “In Hong Kong and China we are less prejudiced than other parts of the world.”


BIFF standouts in a nutshell

‘Ash Is the Purest White’

“Ash Is the Purest White”
Jia Zhangke is considered the most representative director of Chinese art cinema for the past two decades, and his latest is his most conventional work, sublimating Jia’s usual jaundiced view of China’s socioeconomic changes below a visceral take on the evolution of gang culture over the past 17 years. Jia’s muse, Zhao Tao, rises above an unexceptional script as the local mob boss’s girlfriend who takes the rap for him.
To be screened with English subtitles at Tokyo Filmex


‘‘Lakbayan’

“Lakbayan” (“Journey”)
(World Premiere) An omnibus Philippine production featuring three of the country’s leading filmmakers on the theme of where their country has come from and where it’s going. Lav Dias’s “Hugaw” depicts three manual laborers traveling through unknown territory filled with physical and mythical dangers. “Desfocado,” Brillante Mendoza’s docudrama, is about displaced farmers marching to Manila to win back their land from a developer. And Kidlat Tahimik’s “Lakaran Ni Kabunyan” is a personal, spiritual journey.
To be screened with English subtitles at the Tokyo International Film Festival.


‘Our Departures’

“Our Departures”
(World Premiere) A Canadian festival programmer described this Japanese film to me as “typical Shochiku fare,” referring to the Japanese studio famous for sentimental stories. Directed by Yasuhiro Yoshida, it is basically another tale about how unrelated people can form a family against all odds, and was produced with the help of a Kagoshima train line, which features prominently. The Korean audience I saw it with wept happily.


‘3 Faces’

“3 Faces”
Jafar Panahi is still banned from making films by the Iranian authorities, and this time he seems to get around it by filming in a remote, Turkish-speaking mountain village. Playing himself, the director accompanies actress Behnaz Jafari to find a girl who sent Jafari a video depicting the girl’s supposed suicide. Cultures clash and accommodations are made, and there’s a lot of emotional violence on display, as well as a little physical violence. One of Panahi’s richest movies.


‘Grass’

“Grass”
Hong Sang-soo sidesteps sex in his latest work, a delightfully droll, 66-minute meditation on eavesdropping. A woman sits in a cafe typing in her computer while listening to the conversations of others, forming opinions and drawing conclusions. Though not as funny as Hong’s sex comedies, the characters still manage to display the kind of silly self-absorption the creative class is famous for (everyone is an actor), and which Hong has become very good at describing.
To be screened with English subtitles at Tokyo Filmex.


‘Alpha, the Right to Kill’

“Alpha, the Right to Kill”
As the title suggests, this Philippine police thriller addresses President Rodrigo Duterte’s alleged policy of killing drug dealers rather than arresting them. Director Brillante Mendoza confounds the issue by depicting a raid in which a lot of armed, evil drug dealers are killed, and then putting the onus on police not for the killings, but for pocketing the drugs. It’s both a gritty procedural and a disingenuous dig at media who would question Duterte’s reasoning.
To be screened with English subtitles at Tokyo Filmex.


‘Dead Souls’

“Dead Souls”
Wang Bing depicted the Chinese re-education camps of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s in his harrowing film “The Ditch,” his only fiction feature to date. “Dead Souls” is his documentary study of the same topic. At 8 hours it retains even more power to fascinate than The Ditch did, composed mostly of individual interviews conducted since 2005. The elderly survivors poignantly and ironically recount their arrests on arbitrary charges — there was a quota in force based on Mao’s theory about troublemakers — and their days at the camps in northern China, where the vast majority of “rightists” died of starvation. The film’s value to history is immeasurable.


‘House of Hummingbird’

“House of Hummingbird”
(World Premiere) Koreans seem adept at coming-of-age stories, and this one about a year in the life of a 14-year-old girl appealingly attends to its subject’s spiky personality as well as to the cultural signifiers of 1994, when it takes place. Eunhee’s (Park Jihu) parents are really no more negligent or selfish than most grownups, and her brother’s violence toward her is taken for granted, but she attaches herself to a sympathetic cram school teacher (Kim Sae-byuk) out of desperation and with more emotional force than she can handle.


‘First Night Nerves’

“First Night Nerves”
(World Premiere) Set in the glamorous world of Hong Kong show biz, Stanley Kwan’s purplish soap opera involves two rival actresses (Sammi Cheng, Gigi Leung) co-starring in a new play written and directed by a transsexual woman, who isn’t the only LGBT character in the film, though Kwan doesn’t do much with this attribute except exploit it for its topicality.
To be screened with English subtitles at Tokyo Filmex.


‘His Lost Name’

“His Lost Name”
(World Premiere) Japan’s sole entry in the New Currents section for emerging filmmakers, His Lost Name was directed by Nanako Hirose, a Hirokazu Kore-eda acolyte, and Kore-eda’s obsession with how families form is in evidence. A middle-aged woodworker (Kaoru Kobayashi) finds a young man (Yuya Yagira) floating in a river and nurses him back to health, virtually adopting the younger man without wanting to know why he was floating in the river. The latter accommodates this wish for as long as he can. Standard stuff told well enough but Yagira’s reticence act becomes old really quickly.
To be screened with English subtitles at Tokyo Filmex.


‘Between the Seasons’

“Between the Seasons”
(World Premiere) Another LGBT movie, and a bit too on-the-nose as such. A woman (Rie Young-zin) opens a coffee shop in a regional town and hires a inquisitive high school girl (Yoon Hyen) who frequents the place. They form a bond that necessitates the revelation of secrets that director Kim Jun-sik goes to excessive lengths to hide from the audience, though we can guess what they are. The film earns points for depicting a straight guy who doesn’t have preconceptions about people with gender identity issues.


‘Ten Years Japan’

“Ten Years Japan”
(World Premiere) Japan’s contribution to the Ten Years Project launched at BIFF by Hong Kong producers in 2015, which asks directors to project what their country will be like 10 years into the future, is centered on technology and its commercial possibilities, though there is a clever consideration of where the current regime’s right wing ideology could take Japan. Omnibuses are always a risk and the dystopian tenor of the themes is predictable, but of the five shorts only the one about nuclear contamination is a dud.


‘Our Body’

“Our Body”
(World Premiere) Han Ka-ram’s debut feature is about 31-year-old Ja-young (Choi Moon), a former model student who skips the civil service exam she’s studied for and falls into a deep funk. Eventually, she takes up running and seems to be on the road to salvation, but Han’s script takes a few unexpected detours that steer the movie away from its sports-themed premise. It’s mainly a bitter comment on competition.


‘Manto’

Interview with Nandita Das, director of “Manto”

Nandita Das’s “Manto” is the second feature ever made about the writer Saadat Hasan Manto. The first was a Pakistani movie released in 2015, which Das says she hasn’t seen, though she caught a trailer once.

“It seemed like a traditional writer’s biopic,” she says during an interview at the Busan International Film Festival, where “Manto” was screened. “And it included his last years, when he was dying.” Manto, a serious alcoholic, died at the age of 42. “I wasn’t concerned with that part of his life.”

What Das was concerned with was how Manto’s story reflected on the partition of 1947, when millions of Muslims left their Indian homeland to live in the new country of Pakistan. Manto, a cosmopolitan who thought of Bombay — now Mumbai — as his home was considered by many Pakistanis to be a “bad Muslim.”

“He drank and smoked. He was not religious,” Das said. “But after Manto was rediscovered, both in India and Pakistan after the centennial of his birth in 2012, he became newly celebrated in both countries.” Since then, both have laid claim to the writer’s legacy, which is a bit problematic, as the film shows.

Manto, who mainly wrote in Urdu, was interested in normal people, especially those at the margins of society. The film opens with a reenactment of one of his stories, about a child prostitute being pimped out to three men in a car, which thrills the girl to no end because she has never ridden in a car. There is no judgment on anyone’s actions in the story. It is a story about a transaction.

For this and other writings, Manto was prosecuted in India for obscenity. Later, after moving to Pakistan, mainly against his will, he was prosecuted for offending morals again. It drove him to be even more antisocial, which aggravated his drinking problem.

“He was a proud man,” says Das, “but not arrogant. He longed for Bombay, rather than India. His politics were more personal than ideological.” Das, a successful Indian actress who has directed two feature films so far, was particularly interested in how Manto portrayed women in his stories. “He was very open-minded in terms of depicting problems specific to women,” she says.

Since she didn’t have access to the Pakistani city of Lahore, where Manto lived after partition, Das had to re-create it in India. “It was difficult to find all the right locations,” she says, which is why it took almost six years to finish the film.

“I started thinking about doing a movie about Manto after the centennial. I think his story is very relevant for our times right now.”