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Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006

Pursuit of more premieres pays off for Pusan film fest

Banned Chinese flick and harrowing Iranian tale are standouts this year at Asia's best showcase of cinema

Special to The Japan Times

BUSAN, South Korea -- During this year's Pusan International Film Festival, which ran from Oct. 12 to 20, the biggest news story in South Korea, not to mention the world, was the nuclear test by North Korea. However, the only talk heard about the North within the festival was in connection with the British documentary "Crossing Over," about the last American defector living in Pyongyang.

Pusan Film Festival: Summer Palace
Highlights from this year's Pusan International Film Festival included "Summer Palace" (above) and "Driving With my Wife's Lover" (below). COURTESY OF PIFF
Pusan Film Festival: Driving With My Wife's Lover

To festivalgoers, the more pertinent news story was an old one: the South Korean government's decision last January to slash the country's screen quota by half. Enacted in 1993, the quota ordered South Korean movie theaters to show domestic films at least 146 days a year. Now it's 73. People protested the reduction outside venues in the beach resort area of Haeundae, where the bulk of the festival took place. Director Kim Dai Seung, whose latest film "Traces of Love," opened PIFF 06, stood outside the PIFF Pavilion with a sign that read, "Korean films are the media in our own language. It is our responsibility to keep them whole for the next generation."

The quota is credited with helping create the so-called Korean Wave. The country now boasts the fifth-largest box office in the world, and South Korean movies do well in other Asian countries, especially Japan. PIFF, which began in 1996 in the funky student enclave of Nampong-dong in the center of the port city of Busan, as it is now known, can be seen as having a stake in the quota, but it's too early to tell what effect the reduction, which went into effect in July, will have.

President Roh Moo Hyun says that the country's film industry is strong enough to compete against foreign movies without a screen quota. However, everybody knows that the quota was gutted at the urging of the United States, which demands greater access for Hollywood product. At a festival conference on the quota, it was mentioned that the reduction was a bone thrown to the Americans before negotiations started on the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement talks, which have since stalled, mainly on the issue of medical supplies.

In fact, many people object to the quota reduction not so much because they think it is a threat to Korean culture but because they don't like the FTA. After seeing the documentary "146 - 73 = Screen Quota + Korea-U.S. FTA," which was shown at the festival, it's easy to get the impression that the public pays attention to the quota only because South Korea's biggest movie stars demonstrate in support of it. They certainly didn't care about the documentary. The world premiere of "146 - 73" was free of charge. Twelve people showed up.

There were 245 films at the 11th PIFF, fewer than in previous years, but the number of new features, 170, set a record. More importantly, as Derek Elley pointed out in industry magazine Variety (which sent 20 people and published a daily edition on the festival, available in Busan and to subscribers), PIFF has become more aggressive in securing world premieres, the true measure of an international film fest. And this year, in addition to the Pusan Promotion Plan, an established event bringing together Asian filmmakers and potential backers, the festival also hosted the first annual Asian Film Market. So even if the future of the South Korean film industry is murky, PIFF is determined to solidify its position as the most indispensable movie event in Asia.

South Korea's two biggest box-office hits, "The Host" and "King and the Clown," were both screened as examples of the country's ability to make quality blockbusters, but big-budget movies don't necessarily add prestige to a festival. Most of the South Korean movies at PIFF were low-budget art films.

Expensive South Korean films tend to be either romantic melodramas, romantic comedies or crime movies, and South Korean independent productions tend to be reactions to these genres. For example, the Korean Cinema Today section contained at least three movies about infidelity. Hong Sang Soo, whose work centers on South Korean men's obsession with sex and women's inability to do anything about it, attracted attention with his most accessible sex comedy to date. Unlike past Hong productions, "Woman on the Beach" contains no explicit sex scenes and no nudity, but it is no less withering in its depiction of male behavior. Even more withering was rookie Kim Tai Sik's "Driving With My Wife's Lover," in which a man hires a taxi driven by his wife's lover to take him from Seoul to his home on the coast, where he hopes to catch the pair in the act.

Pusan Film Festival: Mainline
Other stand-outs at PIFF included ``Mainline'' (above) ``Men at Work'' (below) and ``Half Moon'' (bottom).COURTESY OF PIFF
Pusan Film Festival: Men at Work
Pusan Film Festival: Half Moon

PIFF's commercial-cultural dichotomy was evident in its selection for this year's Asian Filmmaker of the Year award. Hong Kong-based Andy Lau is not only the region's most bankable movie star, he's also cofounder of Focus Films, which is becoming more involved in Asian art films. As a producer, Lau had three movies at PIFF.

The Window on Asian Cinema and New Currents programs attract the most attention since they deal exclusively with new Asian features. Though PIFF has a huge World Cinema section, featuring 52 films, which this year included new works by Manoel de Oliveira, Lars von Trier and Aki Kaurismaki, it is aimed at local film buffs who don't have the chance to see these movies otherwise, since there is no viable market for foreign art films in South Korea. As an exhibition forum, PIFF is peerless. There were special sections on French and Asian auteurs, and a selection of Korean movies made between 1936 and 1943 under Japanese occupation.

In the past, many Chinese-language movies, especially those from the mainland, were like "The Road," a well-made but predictable weepie about a woman bus conductor who loses the object of her desire to the Cultural Revolution. But this year there was also Kelvin Tong's "Love Story," a sophisticated satire on intellectualism, and Wei Tie's "Distance," a documentarylike indictment of new urban attitudes in China. Even the movies that seemed generic, like Patrick Tam's "After This Our Exile," and Leste Chen's coming-of-age drama, "Eternal Summer," transcended their genres. "Exile" featured two of Asia's biggest stars, Charlie Leung and Aaron Kwok, who play a mother and father who, respectively, abandon and corrupt their son. "Summer" added a gay element to a typical high-school love triangle.

The Chinese film that made the biggest impression has already been punished for its boldness. Lou Ye's "Summer Palace" has infuriated the Chinese government, which slapped a 5-year work ban on the director. Whether the reason is the movie's use of news footage from the 1989 Tiananmen massacre or its copious sex scenes is not clear. The movie, which centers on a philosophically erudite, emotionally intense female student, is melodramatic but bracingly idiosyncratic. Lou's first film, "Suzhou River," was also banned.

Southern Asia was also amply represented by Chinese-speaking directors. Like "Exile," "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone," the latest film by Taiwanese Tsai Ming-liang, is set in Malaysia. Lee Kang-sheng plays two parts, a man in a coma and a homeless soul who manages to get two Malaysian women and one Bangladeshi man to fall in love with him. The cowinner of the New Currents Prize (the only jury award given out by the festival itself), the low-key romance "Love Conquers All," is also set among Chinese Malays. It was directed by Tan Chui Mui, a woman. Female directors are finally coming into their own in Asia, and it should be noted that of the 10 nondocumentary live-action features from Japan, four were by women.

Thailand, touted as the next movie powerhouse in Asia, was underrepresented compared to past years, as was Iran. I wondered if Iran's political situation had made it more difficult for filmmakers, but programmer Kim Ji Seok assured me at a breakfast meeting that Iranian cinema is as vital as ever, and he just couldn't secure all the films he wanted. Bahman Ghobadi gave us the tense and riveting "Half Moon," in which a troupe of Kurdish musicians pass through a heartbreaking trial by fire to cross the border into Iraq to play a concert. Mani Haghighi's "Men at Work," based on a story by master filmmaker Abbas Kiaoristami, is a semicomic allegory about a group of men who try to move a big rock just to see if they can. But the most impressive feature, and one of the most shocking movies at the festival, was Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's and Mohsen Abdolvahab's "Mainline," about a well-to-do woman who tries to get her junkie daughter to a clinic to detox in time for her wedding. It is a harrowing depiction of addiction that shines a light on the kind of class and family issues that are rarely addressed in Iranian movies that receive wider distribution. It's the kind of movie you go to film festivals for.

Masako Tsubuku contributed to this article.

"Woman on the Beach" and "After This Our Exile" will be shown today at the Tokyo International Film Festival. "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone," "Half Moon," and "Men at Work" will screen at Tokyo Filmex, Nov. 18-25.

See the related interview with director Im Sang Soo

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