Busan's beaches are always busy on holiday weekends, but none more so than this past Kae Chun Jul weekend. In addition to the launch of the 13th Pusan International Film Festival, which opened on Thursday, the seaside community hosted a marathon, the opening of the Korean Navy's International Fleet Review, and the continued production of "Haeundae," a 15-million-dollar disaster movie being shot on-location.
The festival had no difficulty establishing its dominance among all those events however, kicking things off with a burst of fireworks, an operatic performance by soprano Shin Young-ok, and the world premiere of Kazak director Rustem Abdrashev's new film, "The Gift to Stalin." Although thousands of people were at the event, many members of the local press were not in attendance. The tragic news that morning of the suicide of actress Choi Jin-sil, known affectionately as "Korea's Meg Ryan," had kept them working back in Seoul.
The festival began in full force the next day, as ticket buyers began lining up outside the box office before sunrise. With more films on more screens than ever before, the film festival side of Pusan seems to be experiencing a growth spurt, while one of its initiatives, the Asian Film Market, continues to suffer growing pains or, rather, lack-of-growing pains. In its third year, the Asian Film Market is still struggling to find its place in a crowded field that already includes Tokyo's Tiffcom and Santa Monica's American Film Market. Many attendees said they were taking plenty of meetings, but few deals were being finalized, and it could take weeks, if not months, to truly see the value of this year's market.
Indeed, much of the talk around the market's first few days was divided between the general state of the Korean film industry and a film that wasn't even there – Tsui Hark's "All About Women." Scheduled to screen in the festival's Gala section, the film was pulled at the last minute because it had yet to receive a permit from the Chinese Film Bureau and screening without official permission would almost guarantee the film would be banned in China and the filmmakers reprimanded. While the lack of a permit has been used as a cause celebre by some filmmakers, Tsui and his producers decided to play it safe and regretfully withdraw the film, especially since the delay wasn't due to any censorship issues, but rather general bureaucracy compounded by an unfortunately-timed government holiday. Tsui still attended the festival, where he held a master class entitled "My Life, My Cinema" and was honored with a ceremonial hand printing.
As for the Korean film industry, it's still experiencing the downward trends of declining movie attendance and production that began in 2006. At a panel this weekend, Kang Han-sub, the newly appointed chairman of the Korean Film Council, described the situation as a "crisis like a great depression." Unlike the recent concerns about the American film scene however, in Korea the sky is falling mostly on the major players. According Kang's colleague Denise Hwang, this is nothing new for Korean independent filmmakers. "It's been a bad season. In commercial areas, people are having a really hard time, but independent films are always having hard times. This is the usual situation, so filmmakers are continuing to film anyway." Certainly, looking at the festival as an indictation, there's no lack of new Korean films to premiere, and there's definitely an audience for it. Just look at the art house theater circuit, says Hwang. "In 2005, there were only 10 theaters in all of the country, but now there's almost 25. That's still a very small number, but it's growing…"
One of the Korean productions that may eventually make its way to the art house circuit is Roh Gyeong-tae's "Land of Scarecrows," one of the fourteen films premiering in the New Currents competitive section. The story of a transgender woman and his Philippine wife and adopted son touches on issues of gender, race and family while sidestepping conventional storytelling. It's the work of a gifted filmmaker who bravely puts his own cinematic vision above audience expectations, and "Land of Scarecrows" seems likely to follow Roh's previous film, "The Last Dining Table," into the more experimental sections of future film festivals.
Far more commercial, but still as divisive, is Lee Kyoung-mi's buzzed-about comedy "Crush and Blush," about a woman whose high school crush on a teacher develops years later into near obsession and her efforts to entangle herself into the lives of the man's wife, his daughter, and his lover. With an "Ugly Betty"-esque lead performance by Kong Hyo-jin, the film wears its comedic sensibilities on its sleeve, reveling in the neurotic behavior of its anti-heroine while flying the flag high for put-upon outsiders everywhere. Not everyone is in on the joke though; for every admirer of the film, there seems to be a detractor. It has gotten people's attention however, and, at an event as massive as Pusan, there's something to be said for that.
[Doug Jones is Senior programmer for Film Independent's Los Angeles Film Festival.]