Rain crashed the party last Thursday at the opening night ceremony of the Pusan International Film Festival. With over 8,000 enthusiastic fans inside and out the open-air venue and a parade of Asian stars on the red carpet, the weather made itself felt for the first time in the festival's twelve-year history. For the pessimists in the crowd in search of a metaphor, the clouds overhead encapsulated the rough time Korean cinema has had this year. (Investment in film production is down from last year, and tickets sales for domestic films are at their lowest levels since 2001.) But for festival organizers, the rain was just a challenge to be meet with smiles, oversized umbrellas for the denizens of the red carpet and disposable plastic raincoats for everyone else.
The festival, which over its ten-day run will screen 275 films from 65 countries, opened with the world premiere of Feng Xiaogang's "Assembly," a World War II picture based on the true story of an Chinese army captain who witnesses his entire company wiped out in battle. Inspired in equal parts by "Saving Private Ryan" and the recent Korean blockbuster "TaeGukGi," "Assembly" boasts the most elaborate battle scenes ever filmed for a Mainland movie, but the spectacle onscreen was easily matched by what had gone on earlier outside the theater, where squadrons of yellow-slickered police officers kept onlookers, who at times whipped themselves up to Beatlemania levels of excitement, at bay while festival guests walked the red carpet.
Royston Tan got the buzz on his film, "881," started early with his and his cast's appearance at opening night. Sporting the over-the-top costumes featured in his film, Tan and company looked as if they had just stepped out of a Baz Luhrmann fever dream. The film, featured in the festival's newly-created Gala section alongside the latest films of Hou Hsiao Hsien, Im Kwon Taek, and Lee Myung-Se, is a candy-coated musical melodrama about the Papaya Sisters, two singers working their way to the top of Singapore's traditional and very theatrical Getai circuit, where each costume change is more outlandish than the last. Those who don't share the film's high sense of camp and nostalgic love for the beloved Sixties-era Singaporean pop songs featured throughout may see it as an exercise of style over substance. Yet others have embraced "881" as fantastic fun including the audience at Friday night's sold out premiere, who were called upon to sing 'Happy Birthday,' in Korean, to Tan, who was presented with two birthday cakes by the festival. Amazingly, Tan had no problems blowing out all the candles on both cakes with just one breath.
Although they didn't come with cake, a few other films have emerged as early festival favorites. From Malaysia comes Seng Tat Liew's "Flower in the Pocket," in which two brothers, left to their own devices by their hard-working dad, get up to all sorts of good natured mischief. Writer/director James Lee, whose own film "Waiting for Love" is playing later in the festival, gives a nicely understated performance as the father, but the film really belongs to its two young stars, who are tons of fun to watch as they run around town, exploring, playing and bringing new life to the old adage that "boys will be boys."
Let me be the first to apply the terms "Altmanesque" to Singing Chen's "God Man Dog." It's not completely appropriate–there's probably more dialogue in the first half hour of "M*A*S*H" than in the entire two-hour running time of Chen's film, but in terms of structuring a multi-character ensemble piece and weaving everyone's story in and out of everyone else's, Chen does it like a pro. From the young hand model suffering from post-partum depression to the alcoholic truck driver trying to stay dry to the handicapped psychic who cares for stray dogs and abandoned statues of the gods, it seems like everyone in Taiwan is experiencing a crisis of faith, and Chen captures it all with a crisp visual style and a sharp sense of rhythm to her editing.
Both "Flower in the Pocket" and "God Man Dog" are in New Currents, a competitive section of the festival. While that winner won't be announced until the end of the festival, a number of honorary awards have already been given out. As part of opening night, Ennio Morricone was supposed have been honored with a ceremonial hand printing, but the inclement weather kept the legendary composer indoors and the presenting ceremony private. On Saturday, at the Asian Cinema Night dinner party, film programmers Sabrina Baracetti from Italy's Udine Far East Film Festival and Jean-Francois Rauger from the Cinematheque Francaise were given the Korean Cinema Award for their ongoing support of Korean films. This was followed by a brief tribute to Taiwanese director Edward Yang, who passed away in June. It was an emotional moment for many in the room, but Yang's seriously jetlagged young son lightened up the mood with his efforts to keep his eyes open while on-stage accepting the honor for his father. Speaking of her husband's legacy, Kaili Peng noted that that evening marked the 100th day since Yang's death, saying, "Edward had a great passion for filmmaking, and I hope his spirit will continue to inspire the next generation of filmmakers."
[Doug Jones is Senior Programmer for Film Independent's Los Angeles Film Festival.]