BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA – Prior to the opening of the 24th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) — considered the most important annual cinema event in Asia, with 303 films this year from 85 countries — there was concern over whether the current diplomatic tensions between Japan and South Korea would have an adverse effect on the event, which took place from Oct. 3 to 12 in the South Korean port city.
Japan usually has a strong presence in the festival in terms of films shown and guests attending, and over the summer a grassroots boycott of Japanese products has gained traction in South Korea due to a tit-for-tat trade war. So it was significant that the festival not only chose a Japanese co-production for its opening film, but that it also selected director Hirokazu Kore-eda as this year’s recipient of its Asian filmmaker of the year award, the second year in a row the honor has gone to a Japanese person; and particularly significant in light of the fact that Korean cinema is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
It was inevitable that Kore-eda would address the Japan-South Korea situation at some point, and he got his chance during the news conference for his film “The Truth,” which was screened in the Gala section.
A South Korean reporter asked if he felt any pressure to not attend BIFF from right-wing elements in Japan. The news conference moderator, festival director Jay Jeon, told Kore-eda that he didn’t have to answer if he didn’t want to, obviously remembering the controversy that erupted last year when Japanese actor Jun Kunimura made a comment about Japan-South Korean relations that received backlash in the Japanese press. However, Kore-eda seemed happy to answer.
Recalling how BIFF itself had been almost destroyed by political turmoil stirred up by a conservative Busan mayor who objected to an anti-government documentary shown at the festival in 2014, Kore-eda said BIFF was saved by “international film people who pulled together for it, and I was one of them.” He identified strongly with this sense of “solidarity,” since he linked the rise of his own career with the fortunes of the festival.
“BIFF was meant to endure,” he said. “United, we can overcome our problems, and that’s why I come.”
The Japan-South Korea standoff had little impact on this year’s festival. There were 13 Japanese productions and co-productions screened, including six world premieres.
Because of the boycott, Korean film distributors have been cautious about buying new Japanese films, but the festival is opposed to any boycott on principle, having been the victim of one due to the aforementioned political dustup. Japanese film representatives seemed to resist pressure to avoid BIFF in the belief that their membership in the international community of cinema transcends any nationalist impulses.
In this vein, the festival is reasserting its position, and not just with regards to Asia, but globally as well. The new Icons section was established to highlight new films by master directors whose previous works were scattered throughout other sections. With the rise of Asian cinema over the past several decades, world premieres of major Asian films tend to take place at the big European and North American festivals, so the Icons section gives BIFF a chance to showcase these films in a special way.
The inaugural selection included Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Uzbekistan-set “To the Ends of the Earth;” Bong Joon-Ho’s Cannes winner, “Parasite;” Werner Herzog’s wry take on rental families in Japan, “Family Romance, LLC;” and two world premieres: Iranian veteran Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Italian-language film, “Marghe and Her Mother” and Philippine bad boy Brillante Mendoza’s harrowing “Mindanao.”
The festival also needed to reinforce its ties to Asia. When Kim Ji-seok, one of the founders of the festival, died suddenly in 2017, he left a programming hole, since he had developed the festival’s unique relationship with Asian filmmakers, mainly through the force of his personality. Asia’s most celebrated filmmakers, who participated in a moving video tribute screened during the Filmmakers Night reception, credited Kim’s advice and assistance with their success in the industry.
“It was difficult to fill his shoes,” Park Sun-young, one of the new programmers hired this year, said. Kim did everything himself, but Park, along with another new programmer, handles most of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, while separate programmers cover Southeast Asia and China.
“I used to manage the Asia Film Academy, so I already knew many Asian filmmakers,” Park said. “Through them I found new filmmakers, which we spotlight in the New Currents section. All these connections have been very kind to me and we work together to find good films.”
This year, she thinks the Indian contingent was particularly strong, epitomized by Lijo Jose Pellissery’s “Jallikattu,” one of the most talked-about films at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Formally an action movie about a water buffalo running amok in a small village, the movie’s relentless forward motion and cacophonous sound design make it a truly dizzying experience.
Park also thinks Philippine filmmakers are coming into their own. One of the most talked about films in the New Currents section was Arden Rod Condez’s “John Denver Trending,” which has already won awards in the Philippines. A conventional story about cyber-bullying is made site-specific in a rural stretch of the Philippines when a 14-year-old boy is accused of stealing a classmate’s iPad. Mendoza’s “Mindanao” also made a deep, disturbing impression by juxtaposing gory battle scenes with a young girl’s graphically presented fight against cancer.
Another region Park says is gaining attention is the bloc of former Soviet republics in Central Asia known as the “stans.” “The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time,” was selected as the opening film because of its exceptional festival pedigree: Its Kazakh director, Yerlan Nurmukhambetov, won the New Currents competition in 2015 for his first feature, and the film’s star, Samal Yesleyamova, won the Best Actress prize at Cannes in 2018. The film’s Japanese co-director, Lisa Takeba, won the Grand Prix at the Yubari Fantastic Film Festival.
Many of the Japanese films at BIFF have already been released in Japan, but there was a number of world premieres that sparked interest. Ryutaro Nakagawa’s second feature of 2019, the romantic drama “It Stopped Raining,” and Takuya Misawa’s mystery “The Murders of Oiso,” were screened in the A Window on Asian Cinema section, and two very personal Japanese documentaries had their world premieres in the Wide Angle section: Yoshifumi Tsubota’s “What Can You Do About It,” about the director bonding with another chronically ill person, and Nanako Hirose’s “book-paper-scissors,” about a traditional book designer.
Though movies are a prime medium for social investigation, Korean films in particular often zoom in on specific social problems. Another world premiere, Shin Suwon’s “Light for the Youth,” in the Korean Cinema Today section, used a creepy mystery to look at the desperate employment situation of young Koreans. One of the New Currents contenders, Lim Sun-ae’s “An Old Lady,” looks squarely at the issue of elder rape. Independent journalist-provocateur Lee Sang-ho, who directed a documentary about the Sewol Ferry sinking in 2014, presented his latest, “President’s 7 Hours,” which again questions disgraced President Park Geun-hye’s actions surrounding the disaster, specifically the “missing” seven hours when news of the sinking was breaking.
Lee’s film didn’t seem to spark much discussion this time, probably owing to the fact that Park is in jail. The one movie that did gain some notoriety was Tran Thanh Huy’s “Rom,” which ended up winning the New Currents prize and was sent to BIFF before Vietnamese authorities could approve it. When approval was withheld, producers tried to halt screenings, but BIFF defied them. Ostensibly, the government objected to the fact that the film was produced by foreigners, though some think they didn’t like its depiction of poverty in Ho Chi Minh City. The titular character is a numbers runner who facilitates lottery purchases among the residents of a doomed apartment complex.
All proof that, at BIFF, there’s always something to get excited about.
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