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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2003

On a roll in Pusan

Asia's premier film fest just keeps getting better Special to The Japan Times Though it is the biggest cinema event in Asia, the Pusan International Film Festival rarely receives the kind of international news coverage that Cannes or Toronto do.

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"Goodbye Dragon Inn" (above) and "Acacia"
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This year's eighth installment, however, drew attention from the newswire services on account of a political incident. In the middle of the festival, which took place Oct. 2-10, the organizers announced they would screen seven North Korean films. The South Korean government immediately told the festival that they couldn't show two of them for "ideological" reasons. In response, the organizers threatened to cancel the whole program and the government met them halfway: The two films were shown only to press and guests.

Obviously, PIFF wields clout, but one has to understand the status of cinema in Korea to understand why. The Korean movie industry is the most vital in Asia. The acknowledged reason is that the Korean government indirectly subsidizes the industry with theater quotas for Korean films. Local filmmakers have to compete in terms of quality and originality not only with foreign filmmakers, but with each another. PIFF is held simultaneously with the Pusan Promotion Plan (PPP), a film-industry convention that brings together Asian producers and potential backers. And so PIFF has not only significant cultural influence in Korea, but also significant economic importance.

Change of scenery

This year, the festival proper shifted from the funky Shibuya-like Nampongdong district to the slightly more antiseptic beach resort area of Haeundae, where the PPP convenes. Practically speaking, the change meant that tickets were harder to secure, since the bulk of the 408 public screenings of the 245 films (including shorts and documentaries) were held at the Megabox multiplex, whose 10 theaters are smaller than the ones in Nampongdong.

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"At Five in the Afternoon"

The overall atmosphere had definitely changed, since the industry and press events were all out at the beach, separated from the fan events, which were at Nampongdong. Although the festival hardly suffered, it did weaken one of PIFF's main strengths, namely, the feeling that the festival is mainly for movie lovers.

Unlike, say, the Tokyo International Film Festival, PIFF doesn't emphasize competitions, which, as Swedish director Jan Troell told The Korea Times, are included in festivals to attract media coverage. Troell was the head of the jury for the New Currents competition (13 films), which introduces new Asian filmmakers and is the only award PIFF sponsors. "At least for the filmmakers [PIFF] is sort of a relief," he said, "because you can just watch the films and not think about any pressure."

PIFF channels its creative knowhow into programming. The regular programs include World Cinema (49 films), which presents non-Asian films, A Window on Asian Cinema (30 films), Korean Panorama (12), and the various documentary, animation and short film sections. Among the special programs featured this year were retrospective tributes to Chung Chang Wha, the father of Korean action movies, and Forugh Farrokhzad, the "Big Sister of New Iranian Cinema"; as well as a Spotlight on Canada.

Family business

Two special programs -- one on new films about Afghanistan, the other a retrospective of Chinese independent films -- were very timely. Half of the movies about Afghanistan were made by Iranians, and, not coincidentally, Mohsen Makhmalbaf was selected to receive PIFF's first annual Asia Filmmaker of the Year award. Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar" is probably the most well-known movie about Afghanistan, and while he himself did not have a film in the festival this year, two of his daughters dominated the Afghanistan program.

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Samira Makhmalbaf's "At Five in the Afternoon" is about a young woman who attends secular classes following the fall of the Taliban. The movie juxtaposes a recurring rhetorical question, "What if a woman became the president of Afghanistan?," with current day-to-day realities. However, 15-year-old Hana Makhmalbaf's "Joy of Madness" presents a much starker and more human portrait of the day-to-day situation. Essentially a "making of" documentary about the casting of her sister's feature, the 60-minute video shows the imperiously self-confident Samira offering people she finds on the streets the chance for immortality -- and not having an easy time of it.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf also had a hand in the NHK-produced "Osama," which received attention for being the first feature film made by an Afghan director since the fall of the Taliban. Sedigh Barmak's bleak tale focuses on a 12-year-old girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to gain work to feed her widowed mother and grandmother, neither of whom can work since the Taliban banned women from going outside alone. The movie is as much a condemnation of male attitudes as it is an indictment of fundamentalist cruelty.

Generally speaking, the Iranian films made a deeper impression than any national cinema save Korea's, mainly because they covered such a wide range of social issues. Jafar Panahi's "Crimson Gold," based on a script by Abbas Kiorastami, alone seemed to cover every social evil prevalent in Iran at the moment. It opens with a jewelry store robbery that goes terribly wrong and then backs up to show what led to it. Panahi presents several layers of Tehran society simultaneously and conveys how this separation leads to frustration and moral corruption.

For years, Iranian filmmakers addressed social problems indirectly (usually by focusing on children), but Panahi, who is already on bad terms with the authorities for his scathing feminist film, "The Circle," tackles his themes head-on. The underground filmmakers showcased in Chinese Independent Films, understanding that there's no way their government will give approval to their themes, don't even bother asking for it.

Chinese rebels

This section was a retrospective, but many of the new Chinese movies in the other sections have also been banned by the government. Li Yang's "Blind Shaft" is representative of the paradox of underground Chinese movies, which tend to attack the runaway capitalism of present-day China rather than government authority. In this classically structured morality tale, two men go from one illegal mine to another, killing innocent workers in bogus accidents in order to extort payoffs from the operators.

More direct though less accomplished was "Feeding Boys Ayaya," a semi-documentary about rent boys in Beijing made by Cui Zi'en, whom Asian film scholar Tony Rayns calls the "doyen of Queer Chinese Cinema." Queer isn't the half of it. Between ribald scenes of young men getting it on and technical explanations of the life of a hustler, there are staged, somewhat confounding discussions about the meaning of selling one's body and whether or not hustling serves a social purpose.

The most talked-about Chinese film was a genuine allegory, though that hasn't prevented it from being banned and its director, Yu Likwai, from being officially prohibited from working in China. "All Tomorrow's Parties" depicts a pan-Asian society controlled by a "post-capitalist" authoritarian religious sect that operates in much the same way the Communists operated during the Cultural Revolution. Yu is famous as the cinematographer for Jia Zhangke ("Platform"), and like Jia, Yu favors long, real-time takes and situations stripped of all artifice. Set in decrepit apartment complexes and abandoned factories that no Hollywood set-designer could imagine in his wildest dreams, Yu's methods make for a weirdly hypnotic film: apocalypse as deja vu.

Another hot ticket was Tsai Ming-liang's relatively lightweight "Goodbye Dragon Inn." Tsai's existential urban comedies strike many moviegoers as lightweight anyway, but he usually ties them to concrete themes about alienation and the breakdown of the family. "Dragon Inn" is mainly for cinephiles who can appreciate Tsai's affectionate references to Taiwanese movie history in his portrait of the odd goings-on in an old Taipei movie palace during its last night of operation.

However, it was Lee Kang-sheng, the star of all of Tsai's movies, who walked away with the New Currents prize for his directorial debut, "The Missing." Lee's debt to his mentor is obvious in his long static takes, but unlike Tsai, Lee is also interested in action. The movie's tour de force is an excruciating 15-minute scene of a woman running around a park looking in vain for her 3-year-old grandson. Lee describes the movie as being about people who are so isolated by present urban realities that they "can't see" one another, but the movie's main strength is its cumulative dramatic power, which is delivered almost single-handedly by actress Lu Chih-yi.

Pride of Korea

Another actress singled out for praise was Moon So Ri in the Korean film "A Good Lawyer's Wife." Last year, Moon won an award at the Venice Film Festival for her portrayal of a severely disabled woman in "Oasis" (which will be released in Japan sometime after New Year's), but her role in "Lawyer" -- a frustrated housewife whose husband is having an affair -- couldn't be more different. Director Im Sang Soo's previous two films were famous for being sexually explicit, and "Lawyer" is too, but the sex is incorporated seamlessly into the story of a dysfunctional family whose members get by with makeshift emotional maintenance. Funny and at times quite shocking, it is that rare film -- Asian or otherwise -- that looks squarely at family values without any sentimentality.

In fact, frustrated housewives seemed to be a motif among the Korean films. As in "Lawyer," the lead character of "Acacia" is a woman who gives up a career for homemaking and is forced to adopt when she can't conceive. But "Acacia" is a high-concept horror movie, which may be why it was chosen as the festival's Closing Film (the Opening Film was "Doppelganger" by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a festival fave who had two movies at this year's PIFF [see review on Page 10]). At a press conference, director Park Ki Hyung called himself a horror director but added, cryptically, that he "wasn't trying to think up ways to scare people."

"Acacia" is the kind of Korean film that will make a lot of money abroad, and Park's bizarre refusal to be pinned down (there's also "no social commentary," he said to a journalist who asked how the movie expressed his feelings about adoption and domestic violence) reflected the ambiguities of many of the Korean Panorama films, which were clearly genre exercises that tried to avoid looking like genre exercises.

What was touted as the festival's most controversial movie, "My Right to Ravage Myself," was nothing more than an attempt at provocative style. A mysterious dilettante helps people realize their wish for a beautiful suicide, but the movie's argument for the right to self-annihilation doesn't make an impression because director Jeon Soo Il is more interested in striking tableaux than dramatic coherence.

Nevertheless, this ambiguity may have something to do with the Korean film industry's continuing good health, which is not exemplified by the export-ready blockbusters or the risky art films, but rather by the gray area that exists between them. The country's biggest box-office hit so far this year -- foreign or domestic -- is "Memories of Murder," a detective procedural about a series of unsolved killings that took place in 1986. Director Bong Joon Hoo downplays the mystery and emphasizes the social changes that were taking place in Korea at the time.

The fact that Korean audiences demand this kind of thoughtful filmmaking is the best proof that you can't make a great national cinema with just subsidies and film schools.

"Goodbye Dragon Inn," "The Missing" and "Memories of Murder" will be shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival (Nov. 1-9); "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "Joy of Madness" will be shown at TOKYO FILMeX (Nov. 22-30); and "Osama" will be part of NHK's Asian Film Festival in December.

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