The award-giving began early at this year's Pusan International Film Festival, which closed on Friday with a gala screening of Yoon Jong-Chan's "I Am Happy" and the announcement of jury and audience awards. A few days prior to the closing night festivities however, a private ceremony was held honoring Kim Dong-ho, the director of the festival and this year's recipient of the Nielson Impact Award. "If there were an United Nations for world cinema," Eric Mika, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, said as he presented the award to Kim, "Mr. Kim would not just be the representative from Korea. He would be the Secretary-General."
A career official who has worked for a number of cultural and government entities, including the Ministry of Culture, Kim has been at the helm of Pusan since its inception in 1996. Widely respected in the international community, Kim has glowing reputation as a skilled administrator and a charming spokesperson. Now, even as others worry about the state of the local industry, Kim is launching the festival's most ambitious project to date, the construction of a mutli-million dollar film center in Busan. Dubbed Dureraum, which means together in Korean, the center will feature six theaters, a museum, exhibition halls and office space. The center is currently slated to open in 2011, just in time for the 16th edition of the festival.
Shortly after being presented with his own award, Kim found himself presenting others with theirs. At another ceremony in a different hotel on the same night, Richard Pena, program director of New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center, was honored with the Korean Film Award for his ongoing efforts to introduce Korean film to New York audiences. (Incidentally, if you can catch any of Infernal Machines, Pena's upcoming series of films by the late Kim Ki-Young, affectionately known to his fans as "Mr. Monster," do it.) Moments later, Gulnara Sarsenova became the first woman and the first Central Asian to be named the Asian Filmmaker of the Year. One of the producers of Sergei Bodrov's "Mongol," Sarsenova is seen as one of the driving forces behind the film industry of Central Asia, especially in her native Kazakhstan. "Being a producer is like fighting a war. For the last four years, I was a soldier with the title of producer," said Sarsenova as she accepted her award. "But on this occasion, I'm a filmmaker and a general."
This evening of awards marked the halfway point of the festival and saw a slight shift in the feel of the festival. This year organizers moved the Asian Film Market and the Pusan Promotion Plan to the first weekend of the festival, guaranteeing a critical mass of filmmakers and industry would be on hand to kick the festival off. But when the AFM and PPP ended, the meetings, nightly ceremonies and various receptions came to an end and many of the Korean industry representatives headed back to Seoul. The remaining guests refocused their attention onscreen, delving deeper into the program and finding some undiscovered delights.
A thuggish debt collector comes to question his life choices in the surprisingly touching "Breathless." Actor Yang Ik June wrote, directed, and stars in the film, which begins like so many other portraits of Korean machismo–within the first twenty minute of the film, the lead character has beat up a half dozen people, cussed out his boss and oldest friend and sucker punched a high school girl. Treading ground that could have gone so wrong so easily, Yang explores the troubled heart and soul of a character coming to terms with his violent past, violent present and what looks to be an inescapably violent future.
"Nightmare Detective 2," Shinya Tsukamoto's highly anticipated follow-up to his 2006 hit, finds its moody psychic hero in "Whispering Corridors" territory as he reluctantly helps a school girl haunted in her dreams by a vengeful schoolmate while, at the same time, he is struggling with visions of his own. Far less aggro than the first entry in the series (or, for that matter, than much of Tsukamoto's filmography), "Nightmare Detective 2" employs some familiar J-horror images–water, distorted faces, ghosts with long, dark hair–but its dark perspective and circular logic casts them in a new light.
Tsukamoto's film was a favorite among the late-night crown, but when the votes of the entire festival audience was tallied up at the end, Chris Martinez's "100" emerged as the audience favorite, walking away with the KNN Movie Award. At a festival where the audience tends to skew towards college students, "100" drew an older audience. With tears in their eyes, they embraced this Filipino melodrama about a young woman, dying of cancer, who gives herself 100 tasks to do before it's too late.
In New Currents, the festival's main competitive section, which focuses on emerging Asian cinema, Roh Gyeong-tae's "Land of Scarecrows" and Masahide Ichii's "Naked of Defenses" were chosen as the jury's favorites. Already the winner of the top prizes at the PIA Film Festival, "Naked of Defenses" is an unabashed "women's picture" about two women– one very pregnant and the other struggling to come to terms with a recent miscarriage–who work side-by-side in a plastics manufacturing plant. With its working class milieu and female focus, "Naked of Defenses" recalls Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River," but where Hunt's film takes some unexpected turns along the way, Ichii's hews closely to time-honored conventions and audience expectations. This is in stark contrast to fellow winner "Land of Scarecrows," a multilayered look at cultural identities that will be a challenge to future audiences, which I wrote about in my previous report. The two films could not be more different and stand as a testament to the breadth of the festival's programming. There's to be a little something for everyone in Pusan.
Complete List of Pusan 2008 Award Winners
New Currents Award
"Land of Scarecrows"; directed by Roh Gyeong-tae (South Korea)
"Naked of Defenses"; directed by Ichii Masahide (Japan)
Special Mentions for "Members of the Funeral"; directed by Baek Seung-bin (South Korea) and "Er Dong"; directed by Yang Jin (China)
"Andong"; directed by Rommel Tolentino Milo (Philippines)
"Girl"; directed by Hong Sunghoon (South Korea)
PIFF Mecenat Award
"Mental"; directed by Soda Kazuhiro (Japan)
"Old Partner"; directed by Lee Chung-ryoul (South Korea)
"Jalainur"; directed by Ye Zhao (China)
"Members of the Funeral"; directed by Baek Seung-bin (South Korea)
"Treeless Mountain"; directed by Kim So-young (South Korea/U.S.)
KNN Movie Award (Audience Award)
"100", directed by Chris Martinez (Philippines)
[Doug Jones is Senior Programmer at Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival.]