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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2001

Firmly on the map

Everyone's a winner at Pusan Film Festival


The Sixth Pusan International Film Festival proved to the rest of the film world that it means business, both figuratively and literally. Attendance was down by about 40,000 from last year, but PIFF still managed to fill 143,103 seats over nine days (Nov. 9-17), during which 201 films from 60 countries were shown at 320 screenings.

News photo
Fruit Chen's "Hollywood, Hong Kong"

The festival's importance, however, goes beyond size. Three years ago, it became the meeting point for the Pusan Promotion Plan, which connects Asian filmmakers to financiers. PPP is an example of why the Korean film industry is currently the most successful national cinema in Asia.

Korea's most prominent movie successes have been blockbusters like "Shuri" and "JSA," which are seen as mounting a credible challenge to Hollywood, but the country strengthened its film industry the old-fashioned way, through protectionism. Korean movie houses are required to show domestic films at least 106 days a year. Usually, quotas result in a complacent national cinema, since filmmakers don't have to be as competitive. In Korea, however, the result has been improved standards and more opportunity for directors to focus on personal themes.

The two big winners at PIFF were Korean films about young female trios. "Flower Island," a digital road movie about three desperate women, won the New Currents Award for first-time directors, the Foreign Press Award and the Audience Award. "Take Care of My Cat," about three women in their 20s who dream of breaking out of the cloistered immigrant enclave of Incheon, won the NETPAC Award for best Korean film and was cited by the organizers as "the film most representative of the festival's mood."

Actually, "Cat" was more representative of the festival's demographic. It was clear from firsthand observation that females in their 20s made up the bulk of ticket-holders. The film most representative of the festival's mood was probably Yim Soon Rye's "Waikiki Brothers," which is already a box-office hit. A dour comedy about a once successful rock band that's been whittled down to almost nothing by the recession, "Waikiki" epitomized the sardonic fatalism that infected so many of the new Korean films on display.

"Waikiki" is slick and smart and conventional to a fault. A more interesting recent hit was Kwak Kyung Teuk's "Friend," which covers the same thematic territory but looks completely different. Set in Pusan, the movie charts the friendship of four boys from their childhood in the early '70s to their troubled adulthood in the '90s. The first half is a classic coming-of-age story, and the second an equally classic gangster melodrama. The film is extremely violent and contains several scenes that are so daring in execution that you overlook the hackneyed plot devices. In one amazing set piece, boys from rival high schools engage in a brawl that literally tears apart a movie theater.

The largest program was the World Cinema section, which included 67 films from 45 non-Asian countries, but it was the premieres of Asian films that attracted the most attention. A special section called Bangkok Express included seven new features from Thailand, which boasts Asia's most vital national cinema after Korea's.

PIFF's closing film was the historical epic "Suriyothai," which brought together the best filmmaking talents in the country to promote Thai culture to the world. It is also butt-numbingly long (185 minutes) and complicated to the point of incoherence. One needs a score card to keep track of the intrigues that fuel this tale of a 16th-century queen who went into battle against an army of Burmese invaders to save her king.

The hottest ticket at the festival was Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Millennium Mambo." Having finally gotten over his history fixation, Hou set "Mambo" in 2001. Dreamy and melancholy, the story involves an aimless young woman trapped in a relationship with a possessive drug addict in Taipei. At a press conference, Hou brushed off concerns that young people might not have the patience to sit through his leisurely narrative, while older fans might find the story trivial when compared to his past work.

Fruit Chan continues to explore the ramifications of his hometown's return to China in his fifth feature, "Hollywood, Hong Kong," the festival's most interesting Cantonese-language offering. The central character, a prostitute from Shanghai, seduces and blackmails an Internet pimp, as well as the obese owner of a barbecue shop and his two equally rotund sons, in a H.K. shantytown that lies in the shadow of a luxury apartment complex. The movie's central image is two hands chopped off of different victims by young thugs and then reattached to the wrong owners.

The mainland itself provided the festival with plenty of food for thought. Following a screening of "I Love Beijing," director Ning Ying admitted that the changes taking place in her native city are so overwhelming that she can't imagine tackling any other theme. Many other Chinese films were equally obsessed with these changes, but "I Love Beijing" is more definitive since it centers around a cynical, womanizing cab driver who gets to witness these changes from an uncomfortably close proximity.

"Happy Time," the new film by Zhang Yimou, shows that the populist sentiments expressed in his last two films, "Not One Less" and "The Road Home," were not passing fancies. A conflation of Chaplin's "City Lights" and Capra's "Pocketful of Miracles," "Happy Time" is about an incompetent bachelor named Lao who tells a prospective bride that he owns a hotel. As he becomes mired in his lie, the woman asks Lao to give her blind stepdaughter a job as a masseuse, a request that necessitates the construction of a massage room in an abandoned factory.

As impressive as these films were, they all betrayed a self-conscious attempt to grapple with the historical moment. "Quitting," directed by Zhang Yang ("Spicy Love Soup," "Shower"), transcended self-consciousness with a story that focused squarely on character. "Quitting" is the true story of Jia Hongsheng, a young film actor who suffered a mental breakdown in the mid-'90s. The movie begins when Jia's family moves from their home in the countryside to his apartment in Beijing to help him recover. The fact that Jia and his family all play themselves is only one of the film's remarkable points. Equal parts documentary, dramatic recreation and theater piece, the movie juggles its various narrative styles dexterously, presenting a portrait of madness that is totally believable. More than a movie about change in China, "Quitting" is about one man's struggle to come to terms with his identity in a culture that suddenly seems to be without one.

As part of FILMeX in Yurakucho, "Waikiki Brothers" screens this afternoon and Nov. 24 at 1 p.m.; "Flower Island" Nov. 23 at 4 p.m. and Nov. 25 at 10 a.m.; "I Love Beijing" tonight at 7 p.m.; and "Millennium Mambo" Nov. 25 at 7 p.m. All have English subtitles. For more information, call (03) 3560-6393 or visit the festival Web site ( www.filmex.net).


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