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Tuesday, July 25, 2000

Putting Puchon on the cinema radar


South Korea is to Japan what Canada is to the U.S.: a country up north with a similar culture, a smaller population and a way of disappearing from the national mental radar screen (save when North Korea reminds everyone that Japan is a commuter flight away from a potential war zone). There are, of course, more differences between Seoul and Tokyo than there are between, say, Toronto and New York -- one being that, for this writer, the kimchi in Seoul is a lot better than anything I've found at Ito Yokado.

Another is that Korean movie and media types get more pumped about Korean films than their Japanese counterparts do about Japanese films. That fact was brought home to me at this year's edition of the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival or, as its organizers abbreviate it, PiFan.

Granted, this festival is not yet high on many festival junkies' must-see lists. Located a 30-minute train ride from downtown Seoul, Puchon may have spacious parks and wide streets (to better accommodate tanks in the event of a North Korean invasion), but is in the main an unlovely bed town whose faceless high-rise apartment blocks would make a terrific set for a Korean version of "1984." In other words, it's not a city that's going to seduce anyone away from their resort vacation in Bali or even their shopping spree in Seoul.

What PiFan does have, however, is the enthusiastic backing of the city and provincial governments, who contribute a large chunk of its $1.6 million budget. It also has a staff of young organizers who make up in dedication and savvy what they lack in experience. Despite a high burnout rate in its four-year history (only a handful of staffers remain from the first PiFan in 1997), the festival has quickly become a community fixture, as well as a nationally watched media circus. The opening ceremony July 13 attracted hordes of reporters and cameramen, who recorded the procession of Korean and foreign film folk up the red carpet into Puchon City Hall with an awe-inspiring, if somewhat alarming, energy and persistence. By comparison, the Japanese press corps at the usual Tokyo International Film Festival opening could be covering a min'yo recital at a retirement home.

Why the buzz? A program of screenings and events that gives the broadest possible definition to "fantasy," while appealing to every possible segment of the local film-going audience, from parents of toddlers looking for an evening of family entertainment to spiky-haired art students eager to see the kinds of films the local theaters can't -- or don't yet dare -- screen.

"More than our own tastes, we have tried to reflect the likes and dislikes of our audience in the program," says PiFan programmer Cassie Yoo. "If something doesn't work for them, we change it."

Those tastes were more eclectic than Yoo had once imagined when she began working for the first edition of the festival, which took "fantasy" literally to mean large helpings of science-fiction and horror. Those genres were certainly on offer in the fourth edition including, in the Official Competition, artsy shockers such as Glenn Standing's "The Irrefutable Truth About Demons" and Lionel Delplanque's "Deep in the Woods." Meanwhile, the Japanese horror boom of the past two years was well represented by the "Ring" trilogy and Takeo Nitta's "Uzumaki (The Spiral)," whose twisted hero has a thing for whirlpools.

In addition to the expected chills, the festival gave us Djordje Milosavljevic's "Wheels," a hilarious black comedy about an innocent man who is mistaken for a serial killer and ends up "accidentally" offing his accusers, and the New Millennial noir of Les Bernstein's "Night Train," which mixes Welles, Bunuel and a dozen other influences into a stylish, if slow-moving, tale of Tijuanan low-life that may not find a U.S. distributor -- black-and-white films by new American directors are about as easy a sell as debut novels by new Yiddish writers -- but is sure to entertain Hollywood trivia experts for years to come.

Among the Korean "fantastic" definition-stretchers was "The Foul King," a zero-to-hero comedy about a hapless salaryman (Song Kang-ho) who dreams of besting his sadistic boss and finds the key to victory -- and absurd self-actualization -- in pro wrestling. After starring in the 1999 megahit "Shuri" as a coolly competent counterintelligence agent, Song Kang-ho reverses direction in "The Foul King," but his wimpish hero, whose escape from his hellish job is to clown as a dirty tricks specialist in a tiger mask, also displays some amazing moves that have nothing to do with computer wizardry. How many other stars, in Hollywood or elsewhere, could do a reverse back flip from atop the ropes and land on their feet with a look of idiot triumph at once risible and rousing? The list begins and ends with Jackie Chan.

There was also far more on the program menu than movies. One cool July evening, in front of a huge inflated screen at a city park, thousands of the aforementioned parents and kids enjoyed a free rock concert by a local group with a madly explosive drummer and an acrobatically ululating female vocalist. The musical equivalent of a fireworks display, perhaps, but not the usual prelim to a screening of "Animal Farm."

"We don't want to be a buffet, with no character," explains Yoo. "Still, we know that our audiences want variety. A lot of festivals are just films, but this festival has to please a lot of different people, so we offer not just films but cultural events. Our slogan is 'freedom, resistance and rebellion.' It doesn't mean we want to go to war or anything political. It does mean that we are not bound by conventions or stereotypes."

Quite true, I thought, after a close scan of the festival events calendar. How many programmers in the Federation of European Fantasy Film Festivals, which PiFan recently joined, would schedule a mime and magic show? Free consultations with practitioners of traditional Oriental medicine? Or a city hall event titled, intriguingly if ambiguously, "Korean Traditional Mating Ritual"?

There's a lot more to Puchon than concrete cracker boxes.



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