Despite epic misstep, Pusan shone

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Despite epic misstep, Pusan shone

One of the biggest newsmakers at the eighth Pusan International Film Festival was the Korean film “Untold Scandal.” And as the nine-day event closed yesterday, convincing arguments as to why this film has garnered so many accolades remained, well, untold. This year’s festival was, however, regarded as one of the most successful. More than 200,000 people flooded the heart of Busan and the city’s Haeundae Beach to view 265 films.
Back to “Untold.” This film is a retelling of the French novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Choderlos de Laclos. “Untold” is preceded by four other films -- several widely praised -- based on de Laclos’s masterpiece. So, to paraphrase a common saying, it has a big screen to fill.
“Untold Scandal” is set in Joseon Dynasty Korea. It stars Bae Yong-jun as a playboy aristocrat. Although it is a gorgeous costume epic, “Untold Scandal” is something of a disappointment, moving away from the cynicism of the Hollywood “Dangerous Liaisons” for overwrought melodrama. But Bae, awashed in emotions, is just what the handsome actor’s fans love, and they turned out. They came from around Asia, many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the likeness of the star. Others had large banners. One individual even made an ice sculpture of Bae. And that was just the fans who made it into the theater. Many, many, many more crowded the front entrance of the theater.
“Untold Scandal” actually opened a few days earlier all across Korea, setting box office records. But only on Sunday night at the festival could you find 1) English subtitles, and 2) the lead actor Bae Yong-jun.
The “biggest surprise” award of the festival went to North Korea, which entered seven films, announced nearly halfway through the festival. Perhaps another award, for perseverance, should go to the event organizers, who toiled five years to secure the films, and even then they almost did not make it. Seoul officials in charge of enforcing the National Security Law had some serious (if unspecified) problems with the content of two films, “My Hometown” (1949) and “Snow Melts in Spring” (1986).
“My Hometown” at least wore its ideology on its sleeve. But even after viewing “Snow Melts in Spring,” I had and have no idea what was at all ideologically suspect about this Romeo and Juliet-style story set in Japan between Korean-Japanese families. One of the families supports North Korea and one of them supports the South. It was also the only North Korean film anyone I was with ever heard of that featured nudity (not to mention such tunes as the theme sounds from “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” and “Shaft”). Considering that “Snow Melts” won the top prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 1987, maybe the bureaucrats were jealous. In any event, the festival agreed to restrict attendance for these two films to foreign guests and journalists.
The Pusan Promotion Plan, an Asian film market held during the festival, handed out awards and money to several promising projects in progress. Hur Jin-ho’s “Happiness” won the Kodak award, which supplies $20,000 worth of film stock for new Korean projects. Kurosawa Kiyoshi won the $20,000 Busan Metropolitan Award for his unreleased film “The Loft.” The Hubert Bals Fund Award from the Rotterdam International Film Festival, a $10,000 prize, went to the Thai director Aditya Assarat for his project “Hi-So.” And Helen Lee’s “Ventura” won the $10,000 Busan Film Commission award.
This year’s festival, returning to the early fall season in which it began, made good use of the better weather with outdoor evening screenings. As many as 5,000 people flocked to the massive open-air theater at the Busan Yachting Center each night to catch the opening film “Doppelganger,” the closing “Acacia,” and six films in between (sadly, Joel Coen’s “Intolerable Cruelty” was pulled after studio executives decided it needed a re-edit).
The weather was warm and sunny every day and, walking along the beach, I could not believe that Typhoon Maemi, the strongest storm in a century to hit Korea, had swept through Busan just a couple of weeks ago. A few sidewalk stones missing here, a toppled pole there, but for the most part there was little amiss. But the people who live and work along the beach were full of stories of the wreckage and disruption in the days immediately after the typhoon. It is a testament to this city’s spirit that the residents were able to rebuild and patch things up so quickly.
For the first time, the festival awarded a prize for Asian Filmmaker of the Year, which went to the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (“Kandahar,” “The Cyclist”), both for his films and for his humanitarian work in Afghanistan.
In general, both Afghanistan and Iran received much attention at this year’s PIFF. The special section on Afghanistan, especially “Osama,” vividly show the great problems facing the people in that desert region. Making good films in postwar Afghanistan is difficult, as illustrated by the plodding, propagandistic “Barefoot to Herat.” As for Iran, the festival explored the works of Farrukhzad Furugh (1937-1967), the “Big Sister” of New Iranian Cinema.
Canada was also well represented by filmmakers who flew in for a special section. Guy Madden introduced his latest oddity, “The Saddest Music in the World,” and despite its typically Madden style -- 1930s film techniques, oblique dialogue and endless absurdities -- the Korean audience seemed to appreciate the taste of something different, and the Q&A with Mr. Madden lasted more an hour.
Otherwise, the latest Pusan Film Festival was full of the usual suspects and goings-on -- the great parties, the VIPs, the not-so-great parties, the people who just think they are VIPs. The Pusan Promotion Plan in particular gets high marks from filmmakers for providing an invaluable opportunity for them to work on their latest projects and help find some much-needed funding. The audiences were also mostly well taken care of, save for a few ticketing snafus on the first day, and a few misdirections caused by the festival’s move from Nampo-dong to Haeundae Beach. But overall, PIFF was once again a solid success, leaving every reason to be hopeful that next year it will continue to grow and mature, becoming an annual tradition.

by Mark Russell
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