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Pusan Fest Expands; But Few Films Break Out

Pusan Fest Expands; But Few Films Break Out

A massive banner hangs on the side of the Shinsegae Department Store, proudly announcing the store’s status as the largest department store in the world, as officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s also one of the new homes to the Pusan International Film Festival, as evidenced by the red carpet outside, the filmmakers loitering in the lobby, and, of course, the storewide “Festival Sale.” As if taking a cue from its new surroundings, the fourteenth edition of the eight-day festival, which closed on Friday, broke some records of its own, screening more films in more venues than ever before.

Despite the increase of films to choose from, there were no real breakout titles this year. Where last year saw near unanimous support emerge for titles like Yang Ik-june’s “Breathless” and Lee Chung-ryoul’s “Old Partner,” this year few could agree on what the top films were. For example, going into the final days of the festival, there was no clear frontrunner in the New Currents competitive section. For every person who favored Park Chan Ok’s “Paju,” there was another who preferred Anocha Suwichakornpong’s “Mundane History.” When the jury’s decision was announced, however, it was Shawkat Amin Korki’s “Kick Off” and So Sang-min’s “I’m in Trouble” walking off with the top honors, demonstrating that it was anyone’s game right up until the end.

Set in Kirkuk, Iraq, “Kick Off” follows two men’s efforts to mount a soccer tournament between displaced Kurds, Arabs, Turks, and Assyrians. As you can imagine, their best efforts are thwarted. Writer-director Korki explores the human cost of war in fairly predictable ways, and the few stylistic touches he allows himself–images of a horse running wild through the soccer stadium, some fractured editing to indicate a character’s inner turmoil–don’t do much to distinguish this from countless other well-intentioned “human” dramas.

In So Sang-min’s “I’m in Trouble,” a self-absorbed wannabe poet drifts through life, alienating his friends and exasperating his on-again, off-again girlfriend. So displays an amused affection for his not-so-loveable protagonist, and the film is not without its charms. Unfortunately, the film’s repeated scenes of drunken nights and awkward encounters between men and women take “I’m in Trouble” directly into Hong Sang-soo territory, a problem shared by a handful of Korean films on display this year.

One of the few able to deal with the relationships between men and women without coming off as a Hong derivative was Jung Sung-il’s “Cafe Noir.” One of South Korea’s most respected film critics and a film festival programmer, Jung makes an audacious filmmaking debut with this three-hour-plus loose combination of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werner” and Dostoevsky’s “White Nights.” As daunting as that sounds, the film is actually a wry delight, as a music teacher pines for his former lover while also dealing with another woman’s peculiar take on love. Jung’s visuals, lensed by cinematographer Kim Jun-woung, are immaculate, and his use of mise-en-scene (sorry to go all film school on you, but the director is a film critic, after all) is dead on. At times challenging, often quite funny, and sprinkled with sly nods to other films, “Cafe Noir” is tailor made for a discerning cinephile audience.

A scene from Amin Korki’s “Kick Off.” Image courtesy of the Pusan International Film Festival.

Promoting the idea of a Malaysian New Wave, Pusan programmed seven features and one omnibus film of 15 shorts from the Southeastern Asian country. (Although to give credit where credit is due, the Rotterdam Film Festival has been cheerleading for the Malaysia team since 2005.) Whether this is a cohesive new esthetic with staying power or simply a group of very active, young filmmakers remains to be seen, but what is irrefutable is that Woo Ming Jin is one of the strongest voices of the movement in question. His third feature, “Woman on Fire Looks for Water,” follows two men, father and son, each lovelorn in their own way, as they each try to reconcile what they think they want and what life is willing to give them. With the same economical, yet emotionally evocative filmmaking that marked his earlier work, Woo finds delicate ways to make the parallels in his story–parallels that could have come off as obvious and simply convenient–resonant with surprising depth.

Outside of the cinemas, Pusan continued in its efforts to be the self-proclaimed “hub of Asian cinema,” once again overwhelming industry attendees with a myriad of ancillary programs: PIFF Academy, Asian Film Academy, Mini EAVE, KPIF 2009, PGK in Busan 2009 International Conference, BIFCOM, and the grandfather of them all, the Pusan Promotion Plan, the festival’s renowned project market. There was also the Asian Film Market, which in its fourth year continues to face the same problems that have plagued it since the beginning. There were no major sales, and few European sales agents or American distributors attended. Yet while most people readily described the market as “slow,” they also said the mood was good and even cautiously optimistic. Homegrown blockbusters like Yoon Je-kyoon’s disaster movie “Haeundae” or Kim Yong-hwa’s sports comedy “Take Off” have bolstered recent box office, and the indie sector is still riding high on the success of documentary “Old Partner.”

Hopefully this positive attitude will continue for the festival, which has set some big challenges for itself. Over the new few years, construction on the Pusan Film Center will be completed, and with it the festival will shift its home base from the beachside Haeundae neighborhood to the business and commerce district of Centum City, a move that is already underway and already has some longtime attendees grumbling. Moving a majority of the screenings into new venues within newly-constricted shopping centers, including the aforementioned Shinsegae Department Store, the festival gave filmgoers a glimpse of festivals to come.

Not everything is going to get bigger though. Asked at one of Pusan’s numerous parties if he has any plans to break this year’s record number of films–355 from over 70 countries–in the near future, the director of the festival, Kim Dong-ho, simply smiled. “No,” he answered, slightly shaking his head. “No.”

-For a complete list of the festival’s winners, please see the next page of this article-

Complete List of Pusan 2009 Award Winners

New Currents Awards
“Kick Off”; directed by Shawkat Amin Korki (Iraq/Japan)
“I’m in Trouble”; directed by So Sang-Min (Korea)
Special Mention for “Squalor”; directed by Giuseppe Bede Sampedro (Philippines)

Flash Forward Award
“Last Cowboy Standing”; directed by Zaida Bergroth (Finland/Germany)
Special Mention for “Miss Kicki”; directed by Hakon LIU (Sweden/Taiwan)

Sonje Award for Short Films
“Somewhere Unreached”; directed by Kim Jae-won (Korea)
“Rare Fish”; directed by Basil Vassili Mironer (Singapore/Indonesia)

PIFF Mecenat Award for Documentaries
“Earth Woman”; directed by Kwon WooJung (Korea)
“The Other Song”; directed by Saba Dewan (India)

FIPRESCI Award
“Kick Off”; directed by Shawkat Amin Korki (Iraq/Japan)

NETPAC Award
“Paju”; directed by Park Chan Ok (Korea)

KNN Movie Award (Audience Award)
“Lan”; directed by Jiang Wenli (China)

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