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Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2002

Seeing the big picture in Pusan

Last week, during the 7th Pusan International Film Festival, I was in the lobby of the Daeyoung 2 Cinema, which was about to screen Jang Sun Woo's "Resurrection of the Little Match Girl," and ran into Donald Richie, this year's jury chairman for the New Currents Award. "We're going to watch the movie that almost brought down the Korean film industry," he said jocularly.

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Stand-out films from the Pusan International Film festival include "Too Young to Die" (above) and "Oasis."
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Four years in the making and costing $10 million -- the most expensive Korean movie ever -- Jang's film hasn't done well since it was released domestically in July. Fashioned as a role-playing computer game with "Matrix"-like special effects, the film's subject is the little match girl of the fairy tale who dies of cold and hunger. The object of the game is to guarantee she dies the way she's supposed to, which means fighting off "villains" who want to save her while at the same time making her fall in love with you.

While entertaining, the movie doesn't make much sense, and that may be the point. Jang is the acknowledged bad boy of Korean cinema. His past films include "Timeless, Bottomless Bad Movie" and "Lies," whose graphic scenes of, respectively, teenage drug-taking and sodomy were reportedly not simulated. Jang is happy if people think they were meant as provocations. So it's possible that Jang's purpose in making "Match Girl" was, in fact, the destruction of the Korean film industry.

That won't happen, but if someone with Jang's reputation can attract huge backing for a movie like "Match Girl," then more power to Korea's national film industry, which is acknowledged as Asia's most vital, anyway. "Match Girl" was assisted by the Pusan Promotional Plan, which brings together Asian directors and potential producers. PPP is separate from PIFF, but they're held simultaneously. Past films that have benefited from PPP include international award-winners such as Shunji Iwai's "All About Lily Chou-Chou" and Jafar Panahi's "The Circle."

This year's PPP took place in the beach resort area of Haeundae. Rumors circulated during the week that next year PIFF would also move to the beach, which was extensively developed for the 2002 World Cup and Asian Games. While waiting for the Haeundae shuttle bus in Nampo-dong -- the funky Shibuya-like harbor district that's PIFF's main venue -- a TV reporter asked my opinion of the "problem" of having the festival split between two areas, since some of the screenings this year were also at the beach. I said it was inconvenient, but also that I thought it was a great festival. The reporter was disappointed, as if he didn't understand how a festival with logistical demerits could be good.

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"Unknown Pleasures" (above) and "Resurrection of the Little Match Girl."
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I do think PIFF is a great festival in both scope and purpose; and for that reason I hope it doesn't move to the beach. Nampo-dong may be crowded, cluttered and noisy, but in that regard it's also more typically Asian. It's easy to see why the organizers want to take advantage of the shiny new facilities Haeundae offers, but PIFF, the premier Asian film festival, would lose its identity there. It should be held in a place that reflects the values contained in its films.

Of the 226 movies screened this year, almost two-thirds were Asian. Among the nondocumentary features were 13 world premieres, including the eagerly awaited Japanese movie, Junji Sakamoto's "Bokunchi," and a whopping 69 Asian premieres, including new movies by Atom Egoyan, Claire Denis, Amos Gitai, Patrice Leconte, Aki Kaurismaki, Manoel de Oliveira, Ken Loach, Pedro Almodovar and Michael Winterbottom.

The emerging pan-Asian sensibility was best represented by Taiwan. One of the special programs was a retrospective of Taiwanese cinema since 1982. Through the work of directors like Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, one could trace the gradual development of the Asian art film.

As Hou and Tsai noted at a press conference, Taiwan ignores its domestic cinematic output. Filmmakers there are almost totally dependent on foreign backers. Still, the new product remains impressive. Alex Yang's "The Trigger" and Teng Yung-shing's "Love at 7-11" use the experimental narrative devices developed by Hou to explore melting-pot themes in new ways. The boldest new Taiwanese film was Cheng Wen-tang's "Somewhere Over the Dreamland," a diffuse meditation on identity with two diverging storylines; one about a middle-aged man trying to recapture his aboriginal heritage, and the other about a young Taipei man studying to be a sushi chef.

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A scene from Kim Sik's film "Roadmovie."

If the consistent high quality of Taiwanese cinema is a function of its commercial limitations, the reason for Korean cinema's continuous mainstreaming is its quota system, which dictates that theaters run domestic product for a minimum number of days per year. A hot topic was the Korean government's recent request to the World Trade Organization to liberalize "its cultural sector," in order to make it easier to export Korean films. A group of artists is protesting the request, which will necessitate the abolition of the quota, thus opening the Korean film market to the Hollywood promotional juggernaut. (Tellingly, only one U.S. feature film was screened at this year's PIFF.)

The art-movie directors who benefited from the quota in the '90s have since graduated to the big time, with predictable results. "The Coast Guard," directed by Kim Ki Deok, who received international attention a few years back for his erotic shocker, "The Isle," was the festival's opening film. It's a typical big-budget potboiler disguised as social commentary. Superstar Jang Young Gyu plays a gung-ho soldier who, while on patrol, mistakenly kills a civilian and then descends into guilt-driven madness. Once hailed as a gritty innovator, Kim has turned into Joel Schumacher.

Hong Sang Soo, whose deadpan humor and loose regard for narrative integrity in movies like "The Day the Pig Fell into the Well" pegged him as the peninsula's Jim Jarmusch, moves closer to the middle of the road with "Turning Gate," a study of an unsuccessful actor whose self-image is challenged by a series of romantic encounters. Even Im Kwon Taek, who started in the 1950s, seems ready for the multiplex. Im earned international acclaim for his 2000 film, the epic "Chunhyang." His latest movie, "Chihwaseon," which won the director's prize at Cannes, is just as visually sumptuous, but also hackneyed in the way it presents a real figure, the 19th-century painter Jang Seung Up, as an artist tortured by demons and drink.

The one Korean director who has gone deeper into his art is Lee Chang Dong. His 1999 movie,

"Peppermint Candy," prefigured the reverse-time structure of "Memento," and his new film, "Oasis," which won the director's prize at Venice, is similarly characterized by a formal gimmick. A shaggy-dog love story involving an ex-con with abominable social skills and a severely disabled young woman, the film moves indiscriminately between reality and the woman's visualized thoughts. But the movie's real strength is its bold take on human relations. Like John Cassavetes' best work, the hilarious and appalling "Oasis" maintains a high dramatic pitch and a naturalistic tone. It is an exhausting experience, yet amazingly devoid of sentimentality.

"Oasis" is so successful as drama that it obviates its social agenda. The two most talked-about Korean movies at the festival, Kim In Sik's "Roadmovie" and Park Jin Pyo's "Too Young to Die," were defined for most people by their perceived social agendas. "Roadmovie" was named Best Korean Film by the Asian movie promotion group, NETPAC, for "portraying the social demands on a man who has to face up to issues of homosexuality, career and family." Centered on a homeless saint, the disgraced stockbroker he protects and secretly lusts for, and the prostitute who loves him, it's the kind of overwrought, lower-depths melodrama in which every character attempts suicide at least once.

"Too Young to Die," on the other hand, is willfully modest. Barely exceeding 60 minutes, the film won the FIPRESCI (foreign critics) award and a special mention in the New Currents competition, and has already caused an international sensation with its realistic presentation of elderly sex. The love scenes, shot in all their messy glory with a camera that never moves, are clinical. The docudrama's power is in its depiction of a universe that consists of only two people, both of whom happen to be over 70. The sex would be merely topical if it weren't countervailed by a heated, tear-filled argument that is just as credibly re-created. It's a personal film in the most literal sense; any social inferences the viewer takes away are his affair.

China's best movies transcend their social themes. In "Missing Gun," a small-town policeman loses his pistol, an infraction worthy of severe punishment. More beholden to Guy Ritchie than to Kafka, director Lu Chuan forces the hapless law enforcer to run a gauntlet of bureaucratic and community idiocy before he achieves salvation.

While the impression "Missing Gun" makes is that Chinese films have moved beyond the monocultural platitudes expressed by revered Fifth Generation directors, Jia Zhangke's "Unknown Pleasures" makes it clear there's no turning back. The followup to his Proustian epic, "Platform," "Unknown" is an up-to-the-minute portrait of dispossessed youth. Commenting fearlessly on everything from China's WTO membership to its persecution of religious cults, and developing characters who represent the hopes and fears of the next generation, the movie is staggeringly assured in its visual sweep and narrative drive.

"Platform" was a project of PPP, where Jia connected with Kitano Office, the production company of Takeshi Kitano. "Unknown" was also produced partly by Kitano, whose newest work, "Dolls," was the closing film at this year's PIFF. The benefit of networking is more than financial. It helps create a community in which members encourage other members whose ideas appeal to them. Sometimes, of course, bad ideas get encouraged. Fruit Chan's latest film, "Public Toilet," another PPP project, bounces from Beijing to Pusan to New York to the Ganges in a confusing attempt at globalism. Chan's films were more universal when they were limited to his beloved Hong Kong slums. Like PIFF, he serves his audience best by staying true to his roots.

"Oasis" and "Too Young to Die" will be shown with English subtitles at Tokyo FILMeX, Dec. 1-8. "Unknown Pleasures" will also be screened, but without English subtitles.

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