PIFF starts second decade with panache

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PIFF starts second decade with panache

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BUSAN ― With silver waves rippling beside the sandy beach and a balmy ocean breeze gently caressing the cinephiles strolling around town, Haeundae, the sunny side of South Korea’s second-largest city, proved a perfect setting for Asia’s best-known film festival. The Pusan International Film Festival, or PIFF, which celebrated its 10th anniversary by throwing a big bash last year, is more subdued this year but nevertheless shows an unfaltering spirit.
“This is a new beginning of the next decade to come for the festival, built on a 10-year strong foundation,” said Kim Dong-ho, the globe-trotting director, who was never left alone by the camera-thrusting press whenever he appeared on the seaside lawn of the Paradise Hotel.
The goal for the festival’s second decade is to return to its original mission of promoting Korean films, and such emphasis was evident on the red carpet as well as in the choice of the opening film, “Traces of Love,” a Korean melodrama to be released later this month.
“The Busan festival promotes Asian and Korean films, and based on both the director’s and the three main actors’ previous performances, we decided unanimously to show this film,” Mr. Kim said, adding that the movie’s theme of Korean autumn fits perfectly with the season.
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Over the years, enthusiastic support by local fans has been said to be the vital force in the success of Korean films both at home and abroad, and now they are preparing to reach audiences far beyond Asia. Going local in Korea’s film industry no longer means being unglamorous; the star-studded red carpet moments staged by Lee Jun-ki of “The Royal Jester” (originally released as “King and The Clown”); lead actors Yu Ji-tae, Kim Ji-soo and Eom Ji-won of the opening film; and Ahn Sung-ki and Mun Geun-yeong, who hosted the ceremony; were enough to generate heat that warmed the hearts of cheering fans on a chilly night last Thursday. If star power hiked up the festival’s glamour index, a silent procession by members of the Korean Screen Quota Action Alliance also sent out a ripple of austerity.
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Overlooking the aqua Pacific Ocean, the first official event allowed fans and the media to meet the festival’s two most celebrated actors, Daniel Liu and Ahn Sung-ki. When asked the secret behind his long, successful career, Ahn reminded the audience of an important element in filmmaking ― passion. “It’s about being loyal on a day-to-day basis, and then fame and success will come naturally. Without such a goal, I believe, one’s career might have a limit,” he said, pointing out the favorable climate of the current film industry, even with the screen quota, compared with the hard times it faced in the 1970s. “Back then, making films was so hard that many quit,” he said.
In Busan, not many people wanted to quit the festival, which was full of entertainment ― 245 films to choose from, star-spotting on the streets, a rock concert on the beach and an all-night dance party. In Haeundae during the festival, every sunset is happy hour, followed by nightly industry parties, attracting attention according to their “who-will-be-there” factor.
At the French Night, the French ambassador to Korea, Philippe Thiebaud presented Korean actor Lee Byung-heon of “JSA” (2000), with a medal of honor, the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, in recognition of his role in connecting Korean and French cultures through his films. Lee is also France’s Korean ambassador of the year, in celebration of the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations between France and Korea.
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Those who were not “on the list” to enter invitation-only parties had no cause to become bitter. In Busan, everyone and anyone can have a great time. For French-Korean director Joo Ji-hong, the most important place to meet and connect with people was a bar on the beach. Asked whether the festival was realistically helpful to young Asian directors like himself, he said that when he was planning to come to Korea, he was advised to be sure to visit Busan.
“To me, it’s not really the festival itself, but the industry people I get to meet here in person. Even though I know everyone in Cannes, here in my home country, I’m a stranger. But when I went out to a drinking party, which is what everyone does here all night, I met Lee Seung-jae, the famous president of LJ Film, and the rest is history ― I got a job on the spot,” he said, happily toasting his luck by raising a soju glass.
For most industry professionals and journalists, who travel year-round following the cycle of global film festivals, PIFF has become a not-to-be-missed stopover in Asia. Among the regular guests are festival directors who come from as far as Armenia and Estonia. To them, the Busan festival serves as a one-stop shopping mall for their festivals back home. Tiina Lokk of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia, who arrived on the third day, says she’s here preparing for a Korea Focus program in December.
Long-time supporters of Korean films, such as Jeremy Segay of Cannes and Riccardo Gelli of Korea Filmfest in Florence, Italy, hope to soon show North Korean films in their own festivals. Both attended the state-controlled Pyongyang Film Festival shortly before the nuclear crisis.
Mr. Segay, a committee member of the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, is hopeful his festival will eventually feature North Korean productions. “It might happen even sooner than we expected, who knows? In North Korea, the budget for culture has been greatly reduced, so we saw less quality films.” He recommended watching Daniel Gordon’s “Crossing the Line,” a film on North Korea shot in London.

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In Busan, the next ambitious step to support Asian directors is to create, activate and nurture Asia’s largest film market. On Sunday afternoon at the Grand Hotel, a few blocks from the Paradise Hotel, the Asian Film Market kicked off with a focus on various commercial sectors of the film industry. The challenge for the new Asian market, according to market adviser Paul Yi, is to “define the Asian way ― not Hollywood or European ways ― to collaborate in making a co-production film.”
A recent example of such a co-production is the film “A Battle of Wits,” by executive producers Satoru Iseki of Japan, James Wang of Hong Kong and Lee Joo-ick of Korea. During a two-hour panel discussion, the three detailed their unique production system, including multinational financing, working styles and communication with staff, actors, producers and distributors in the Asian region and beyond. Due to the extreme complexity, both legal and creative, reaching amicable agreements and eventually becoming a global box office hit may sound overwhelmingly like a pie in the sky, but it didn’t seem impossible.
When the Busan festival started in 1996, no one knew nor expected such a small, unknown film festival in an obscure city in Korea to rise to become Asia’s largest independent film festival, or to be compared to the venerable Rotterdam Film Festival, the world’s largest independent film festival.
That doesn’t mean the festival is perfect. Even the best of international film festivals can always find room for improvement. With less than 30 full-time employees on staff, supported by temporary volunteers and part-time workers, the annual festival, attended by hundreds of thousands of visitors, has seen remarkable growth in the past. However, a severe shortage of experienced professionals capable of managing large-scale functions leaves a harsh atmosphere unsuited to a festive occasion catering to both movie fans and professionals. Lack of efficient, well-trained security staff pushed the barricade beside the red carpet to the verge of collapse at several points and allowed fans without any credentials free access to the media-only zone. Important supporters of Korean films and the festival were sometimes mistreated, if not abused, verbally and physically. After being mistaken for a deranged fan, Eunsun Segay, a documentary filmmaker from London, described the experience as “humiliating.”
As the Pusan International Film Festival marches into the future and into the world, it shouldn’t be grand only in regard to visible factors of scale and structure, and even great location, but also in less tangible matters that can touch the heart of people. Perhaps one should look at the festival as one appreciates a movie. When asked about his criteria for judging films, Patrice Leconte, a celebrated French director and jury member of the New Currents Section this year, said, “I look at the overall mis-en-scene, combining all elements. Like a comprehensive work of art, it is important to see how well a director can harmonize everything ― from scenario to actors to visuals ― in his production. I’m waiting for a true director.”


Summer Palace

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Directed by Lou Ye.
This film, which comes from the director of “Suzhou River,” depicts the lives of young college students in Beijing who experienced political unrest in China between 1987 and 2001. Yu Hong leaves her small village to study in Beijing, and there meets Zhou Wei. The two engage in a love-hate relationship spanning a decade. The film parallels their erotic tensions with the country’s political upheavals, overlapping their youthful urge for democracy and freedom with physical and emotional opening up to sex.
The film is an ambitious epic, blending history with a personal tale of the young couple (it includes documentary footage of actual events). The film drew special attention when Lou was banned from making movies for five years for screening his film at Cannes without official approval.


Motherland

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Directed by Dai-sil Kim Gibson.
This documentary chronicles the diaspora experience of two Korean women: one a Marxist philosopher in Cuba and the other a Korean immigrant to America, who is also the narrator and the filmmaker.
Through dialogues with their families and friends, the two explore issues of migration, identity and what “home” means to Koreans overseas. Made by a director who has made several award-winning critical documentaries that delve into serious issues, such as comfort women and Koreans in Sakhalin being neglected by their own country, the film seems to trace a personal journey of the director’s critical background. It taps into some intense scenes, yet the film’s description of identity and history is told in a voice that seems too academically discursive at times.


by Ines Cho
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