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Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2004

Doing the right thing

Pusan film fest goes from strength to strength

Special to The Japan Times

Unafraid to admit that it may be too much of a good thing, the organizers of the ninth annual Pusan International Film Festival, which took place Oct. 7-15 in the South Korean port city, solicited "complaints" from foreign visitors and reported them in Vol. 6 of their daily newsletter.

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"This Charming Girl" from South Korea

problems mentioned -- lack of tickets and difficulties moving between the two festival areas -- are functions of PIFF's ambitions, which are considerable. Like most major festivals, PIFF doubles as a film showcase and a film market, and with the Pusan Promotion Plan, it triples as a place where Asian filmmakers can find potential backers. This economic component explains the reason for the two festival areas: the funky downtown youth mecca of Nampon-dong is used for the fan events because it has more movie theaters, while the Haeundae beach resort is used for the industry and press events because it has more hotels.

PIFF's goal to be Asia's premier film market is why one-fourth of the festival's 400 million yen budget is covered by the Korean government and a third by the city of Pusan itself. PIFF doesn't stress competitions, which are PR gimmicks, anyway. The best Asian movies are encouraged to compete overseas, and this year, at least, Korean movies dominated the big European festivals. The Tokyo International Film Festival, which is offering a Film & Contents Market for the first time this year (thus the 400 million yen government budget increase from 500 yen to 900 million yen) -- and is all about competitions -- costs much more and is eight years older than Pusan, but still isn't considered a mandatory stop on the international film circuit.

Size also has its disadvantages. "Personally, I'd be happier if PIFF reduced the program a bit," said Darcy Paquet, the Korea correspondent for Screen International, over breakfast one morning at the Grand Hotel. With 266 films and 454 screenings, PIFF '04 was overstuffed. While the local press was interested in new films from the West (including those by Richard Linklater, Ken Loach, Jean-Luc Godard, Claire Denis and Emir Kusturica), the foreign press came to see the latest Asian films, which accounted for half the festival fare.

The organizers reported afterward that 84 percent of the seats were filled, with Japanese movies seemingly the most popular among the public. Except for the opening film, Wong Kar-wai's "2046," the screenings that sold out fastest were those for Shunji Iwai's "Hana & Alice" and Mamoru Hoshi's "University of Laughs." (The popularity of the latter may have been due to the fact that SMAP's Goro Inagaki, who co-stars in the film, was scheduled to make a guest appearance at the screening.)

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"Story Undone" from Iran

However, only a handful of Asian films have ever done really well in South Korea, which means the box office is dominated by domestic product and Western blockbusters. The question now is whether or not the country's quota system, which requires theaters to show local films at least 40 percent of the year, can last. Foreign governments have become increasingly vocal about rescinding the system, and even South Korea's Fair Trade Commission recently said it violates competitiveness.

"It's difficult to say what would change if they did away with the quota," says Paquet. "It's the sort of thing where the only way you're going to find out is to actually get rid of it. If I had to guess, I'd say the industry would pull through."

The big question about the quota, however, is what effect it has had on the quality and variety of Korean films.

* * *

This year, director Kim Ki Duk released two movies that received best director awards overseas: "Samaritan Girl" at the Berlin Film Festival and "3 Iron" at Venice.

According to Paquet, "Most people in Korea don't really like Kim's films." Of the 11 features he's made since 1996, only "Bad Guy" has been a commercial hit in his native country.

Like Takeshi Kitano, Kim is more of an envoy, the director who ably represents his country abroad, but whose films aren't appreciated at home. Several years ago, he was given a big budget for "The Coast Guard," but it didn't do well, despite the fact that Korea's biggest star, Jang Dong Kun, played the lead.

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"Tropical Malady" from Thailand

Kim and his trademark baseball cap were all over PIFF '04, and his two movies were must-sees for the foreign press.

"Samaritan Girl" was reportedly made in two weeks -- and it looks like it. Centered on two high school girls who initially engage in prostitution, it's a perfect example of Kim's obsession with lofty themes that ignore how the real world works. Even as allegory, the idea of teenagers giving sex freely to strangers as an act of charity isn't going to sit comfortably with most people.

"3 Iron" is better made but just as flaky. A young man regularly breaks into temporarily unoccupied homes for the night. In one, he rescues a battered wife, but later is caught and sent to jail. The mute protagonist is a misunderstood saint, and while the movie holds together dramatically it has no depth.

Park Chan Wook's "Old Boy," which won the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes, is similarly impressive in execution, but lacking in substance. This complex, very violent tale of revenge is predicated on loopy logic that only makes sense within the framework of the movie.

three of these Eurofest faves were part of the Korean Panorama program. The remainder was mostly light fare, which Korean directors tend to be good at, even if most usually prefer heavy subjects. This paradox was acknowledged by the festival's only competition, the New Currents Award, which honors independent features by young Asian directors.

The jury chose "This Charming Girl," a Korean film about an eccentric young woman who works at a post office. Too slow to be considered mainstream, but accessible nonetheless, the film's style is close to that of Hong Sang Soo, whose fifth feature, "Woman Is the Future of Man," was part of the Korean Panorama.

Hong, whose astringent sex comedies ("Turning Gate," "Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors") are a genre unto themselves, is the poet laureate of post-coital disappointment. In "Woman," he presents two friends who dated the same woman in college and who, during a reunion years later, get drunk and decide to pay her an impromptu visit.

Three Korean films were celebrated for their inventive use of digital video. "My Generation," an aimless youth saga about a budding filmmaker, his dour girlfriend and their neverending debt problems, demonstrated a striking command of black-and-white photography but little else.

The unfortunately titled "The Bad Utterances" earned subtextual points by looking like a sappy Korean TV soap opera, but here the characters were social dropouts living on Seoul's ratty fringe.

"Shin Sung Il Is Missing" was a complete original, a religious farce set in a dilapidated orphanage whose director takes her Christian ideals at face value and believes that if God doesn't eat or defecate, then her charges won't either.

* * *

One of the few recent Korean box-office hits from elsewhere in Asia was "Ong Bak," the Thai martial arts extravaganza. After Korea, Thailand is considered the most promising Asian country in terms of a national cinema.

This promise was borne out by two well-received Thai movies. Nonzee Nimibutr, who has had considerable success with genre films, got more personal with "Baytong," about a Buddhist monk who takes care of his 8-year-old niece after his divorced sister dies in a terrorist bombing. The director calls it a "fish-out-of-water tale," and while the monk's navigation of contemporary life in the predominantly Muslim city of Baytong is played for laughs, it's also affecting in the way it shows how an innocent can be traumatized by his loss of innocence.

More mysterious was "Tropical Malady," the third feature by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who some critics believe is Asia's most original filmmaker. Essentially two movies linked by mood rather than story, "Tropical" is literally hypnotic, especially the second half about a soldier hunting a ghost in the jungle. Utilizing a wondrous black-on-black film technique, Weerasethakul gives entirely new meaning to the term "night vision."

"Tropical Malady" also includes homosexuality, a theme that was explored in many Asian films this year, but not as a hip-cum-cute novelty, which is the way it was handled previously (see "Rice Rhapsody" at the current Tokyo festival for an example). Persistence has paid off for Chinese underground director Cui Zi'en, whose "Night Scene" was his second quasi-documentary video in two years about Beijing-based male same-sex prostitution following a number of highly controversial short subjects. It was reported at the festival that Cui has finally received financial backing to make an honest-to-goodness feature film.

Most of the gay-themed films, however, were straight entertainment fare.

"Formula 17," from Taiwan, was a broad harlequin romance about a country bumpkin who comes to the big city and falls in love with a notorious gay playboy; "When Beckham Met Owen," from Hong Kong, involved two adolescents whose mutual love of soccer leads to romantic longings; and "Spirit Floats," set among a group of Taipei drag queens, explores the nexus of straight and queer in the person of a single character.

* * *

Conspicuous by their near absence were narrative films dealing with current affairs. Inadvertently mirroring PIFF's second annual Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award for Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whose oeuvre is almost completely about memory, several sanctioned Chinese films luxuriated in a glowing nostalgia for the 1960s and '70s.

"The Foliage" was a love story set against a communal forest reclamation project, while the audience-pleasing "Electric Shadows" mourned the passing of the outdoor movie shows that used to be the only source of entertainment in rural Chinese towns.

On the other hand, the documentaries in the Wide Angle program addressed current affairs with striking directness, which may be why some critics cited "Repatriation" as the festival's best Korean film. Though the subject is the past (North Koreans who, after decades of imprisonment and torture in South Korea, still refused to renounce their communist beliefs), the movie is relevant in today's South Korea, which is grappling with national security laws that many feel are outdated.

The directors who looked at their local situation most unflinchingly were Iranians. Hassan Yektapanah's "Story Undone" offered both a harrowing narrative and a courageous work of art. A director making a documentary about a group of illegal immigrants attempting to leave Iran decides to stay with them until they reach the border.

Even more immediate was "Turtles Can Fly," perhaps the first theatrical movie about the Iraq War. Directed by Bahman Ghobadi, a Kurd who made the riveting "Time for Drunken Horses," the film takes place in a refugee enclave near the Iraqi border as the war is about to begin and centers on three teens: a ragtag entrepreneur who deals in satellite dishes and antipersonnel mines, a girl who was raped and seeks death for herself and her blind toddler son, and the girl's armless brother, who is clairvoyant. Obviously filmed while U.S. troops were operating in the region, the movie is often too real for comfort. It's a true vision of hell, made with people who live there full-time.

* * *

Considering the close proximity between the festivals of Pusan and Tokyo -- temporal as well as geographical -- the international film press could easily hop over for TIFF to see movies they missed at PIFF; that is, if TIFF weren't so stuck on its competition, which, because of international rules that say a movie can only compete in one festival, tends to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

Ultimately TIFF should leave the competitions to Cannes, Venice and Berlin. PIFF proves that people just want to see good movies.

"Tropical Malady," "Undone Story" and "Turtles Can Fly" will be shown at Tokyo Filmex in November.

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