Midway through this year's Pusan International Film Festival, while accepting his honorary title of Asian Filmmaker of the Year, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang gave voice to the sentiments of many festival attendees. "I am honored, but also truly sad, for Kim Dong-ho is retiring after this festival." Festival Director of South Korea's largest film festival since its inception in 1996, the soft-spoken, seemingly tireless Kim is stepping down after fifteen years at the helm. In Pusan, Kim is his own celebrity, with admirers stopping him for autographs along with the local and international celebs attending his festival. Underscoring Kim's importance -- not just to the festival or even Korean cinema but to Asian cinema at large -- at some point nearly every event at this year's festival, which ends today after nine days of movies, project markets and a record number of premieres, became an impromptu tribute to Kim, beginning with the Opening Night ceremony and the unveiling of a festival trailer featuring an animated Kim zipping through the streets of Bussan on the back of a scooter.
Throughout the week, wherever he went (and, as Pusan regulars know, he goes everywhere) Kim was feted, serenaded, presented with plaques and flowers, and, of course, toasted with countless glasses of soju. Reassuring everyone that the beloved festival director will remain in their hearts and minds even after he no longer has that title, Tsai concluded his remarks by saying, "Mr. Kim will not leave us," a sentiment that Kim himself echoes, albeit in more practical terms.
"I believe I have a responsibility to provide whatever type of advice or help I can. As somebody who established and led the festival for the past fifteen years, I'm not in a position where I can just ignore the future of the festival," Kim explained during a brief respite in his busy schedule. His successor will not be officially named until February, but Kim is convinced the transition will be a smooth one. Pointing to Lee Yong-Kwan role as Co-Festival Director, Kim explained, "We began preparing the festival for my possible retirement four years ago." And what is he preparing for himself? "At the moment, I don't have a particular concrete plan. I might like to interview the master directors from all around the world and capture their thoughts on cinema."
If Kim decides to broaden the scope of his documentary to include promising newcomers, he could begin with the winners of this year's New Currents competition--Yoon Sung-hyun and Park Jung-bum.
Running its narrative on parallel tracks, Bleak Night, Yoon Sung-hyun's award-winning feature debut, traces the decay of three high schoolers' friendship, which ultimately leads to the tragic death of one of them, while also following the dead boy's father as he tries to make sense of it all. Yoon shows remarkable restraint in his storytelling, never revealing details other films would highlight and emerging with a film that finds its power in what's left unsaid.
One of three films at this year's festival that dealt with the plight of North Korean immigrant in South Korea, Park Jung-bum's The Journals of Musan, which also won the festival's FIPRESCI Award, follows a downtrodden defector who simply can't get comfortable in his new country. As played by the director himself, the man tries to find solace in work, in church, even in karaoke, but like his factory-issued North Korean jacket, nothing seems to fit. Tempering his character's at times painfully realized awkwardness with a delicate thread of understated humor, Park directs himself into giving one the festival's most memorable performances.
Another exciting debut was that of Sivaroj Kongsakul from Thailand. Beginning with its arresting opening sequence--18 minutes without a word spoken--Kongsakul's Eternity brings a lyrical, leisurely rhythm to its observance of the blossoming romance between a young man and his bride-to-be. Intimate without ever being obtrusive, Kongsakul allows his film to quietly build an emotion resonance that can only fully be appreciated once the entire film is over.
To appreciate the full spectrum of contemporary Thai cinema, a double feature of the decidedly art house Eternity and Waist Sasanatieng's box office fodder The Red Eagle would be required--just not really recommended. A reboot of a popular franchise from the Sixties, The Red Eagle is an action film about a masked vigilante and his one-man war against an evil secret society. Unfortunately, the real battle seems to be raging within the film itself. The audacious style Sasanatieng displayed in earlier films like Tears of the Black Tiger or Citizen Dog can only be glimpsed sporadically throughout Red Eagle, buried beneath a barrage of generic gun play and hilariously blatant product placement.
Sasanatieng fares much better with Iron Pussy: A Kimchi Affair, his episode of Camellia, the Busan-set, international-produced omnibus film that closes this year's festival. Relocating Thai's top cross-dressing, time travelling government assassin from Bangkok (where she was initially conceived by performance artist Michael Shaowanasai and brought to the big screen by Apichatpong Weerasethakul) to Busan, Iron Pussy is a playfully camp amalgamation of visual gags, musical numbers, and kitschy spy vs. spy maneuverings. Far more subdued is Japanese Yukisada Isao's entry Kamome, in which a cinematographer spends a night wandering the streets with a shoeless Japanese girl, as if in a slightly more mysterious version of Before Sunrise. Marking Jang Joon-hwan's first directorial effort since his acclaimed debut Save the Green Planet, Love for Sale, the final bit, follows its hero as he rages through Busan's love underground, determined to bring the illicit trade in stolen memories--particularly his own of his one true love--to a end. There's more style than substance to Joon-hwan's entry--which worked fine for Sasanatieng, who had his tongue planted firmly in his Iron Pussy cheek--but unfortunately the material here is approached with a seriousness that promises poignancy it can't deliver. Although both Yukisada and Joon-hwan's segments have their strengths, ultimately it's Sasanatieng's that will stay with most viewers for its sheer sense of fun and, of course, for the octopus phone. Oh, did I not mention the octopus phone?
A complete list of winners can be found on the next page.
[Doug Jones is Associate Director of Programming for Film Independent's Los Angeles Film Festival.]
Pusan International Film Festival Award Winners
New Currents Award
Winner: The Journals of Musan – Directed by Park Jung-Bum (Korea)
Winner : Bleak Night. Directed by Yoon Sung-Hyun (Korea)
Flash Forward Award
Winner : Pure. Directed by Lisa Lngseth (Sweden)
Special Mention : Erratum. Directed by Marek Lechki (Poland)
Sonje Award for Short Films
Winner : Broken Night. Directed by Yang Hyojoo (Korea)
Winner : Inhalation. Directed by Edmund Yeo (Malaysia / Japan)
Special Mention: Unfunny Game. Directed by Park Jongchul (Korea)
Special Mention: The Journey. Directed by Yim Kyungdong (Korea)
PIFF Mecenat Award for Documentaries
Winner : Miracle on Jongno Street. Directed by Lee Hyuk-sang (Korea)
Winner : New Castle . Directed by Guo Hengqi (China)
FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Award
Winner : The Journals of Musan. Directed by Park Jung-bum (Korea)
NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) Award
Winner : Dooman River. Directed by Zhang Lu (Korea)
KNN Movie Award (Audience Award)
Winner : My Spectacular Theatre. Directed by Lu Yang (China)