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by Brian Brooks
October 15, 2006 2:08 AM
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DISPATCH FROM PUSAN: Protecting Local Voices While Embracing a New Market, Pusan Events Champion Asi

The Korean peninsula was thrown into crisis last week with news of two nuclear tests by North Korea, yet hundreds of miles away in the southern port city of Pusan, fireworks and jubilation were the order of the day for the start of the 11th Pusan International Film Festival. An estimated 5,000 ticket holders crammed an outdoor screening venue at a yacht club for the opening night film, "Traces of Love" by Korean director Kim Daeseung ("Bungee Jumping of Their Own"). The film screened after dozens of Korean stars took to the stage to the loud cheers of fans, via a raised red carpet walkway. Starring Yu Ji-tae, Kim Ji-soo and Uhm Ji-won, the film uses the real-life tragic collapse of a department store in Seoul in the mid-'90s as the backdrop for the fictional story of two lovers whose pending nuptials are interrupted when the woman's life is claimed in the disaster.

"This is my third film. So it is truly an honor for my work to open the established festival," commented Kim in a translation printed by the local English-language newspaper, The Korean Times. "I'm honored now, but on the other hand, I'm sad that the screen quota has been halved. I hope the festival can be a starting point to make an effort for the protection of cultural diversity." The director's comments were the first of many on the topic of quotas here in Pusan. Over the summer, the Korean government reduced the percentage of Korean films reserved for exhibition from 40% to 20% as it negotiates a free trade agreement with the United States.

Protecting "local voices" was the topic of a spirited discussion on keeping Hollywood at bay during a meeting of the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity on Sunday afternoon. The panelists, representing a diverse cross-section of filmmakers, academics and film trade unionists from around the world, were clearly flustered and sometimes angry about the dominance of Hollywood. Mexico's Alfredo Guerda even likened the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the subsequent decline of his country's local film industry to the realization of "Manifest Destiny" in the 19th century. "NAFTA has been the second conquest of Mexico," he said in English. "[The treaty] destroyed an industry that took six decades to build in only a few years." Korean members of the panel said they hoped to persuade the government to continue protecting the local industry as it negotiates with the United States on trade, though the U.S.'s Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is pressuring the American government to include Hollywood on any free trade agreement.

Korean films, however, are not in short supply at this year's PIFF, with about three dozen included in this year's festival line up of 245 films from 63 countries. Bong Joon-ho's acclaimed "The Host," which Magnolia Pictures will release in the United States early next year, joined the roster of local titles screening over the weekend. The feature centers on Seoul's Han River, which harbors a dangerous creature that emerges, terrorizing people enjoying a weekend day along its banks.

Directors Lee Haeyoung and Lee Haejun's "Like a Virgin" are among a number of Korean LGBT-oriented films at the festival. In the film, teenager Oh Dong-goo wishes to fulfill what he believes to be his destiny as a woman, and though only of modest height and pudgy, decides to enter a Ssireum (Korean wrestling) competition in order to win the prize which will finance the sex change operation he longs for. The world debut of Park Ki-Hyung's "Gangster High," meanwhile, centers on a high school student who aspires to follow in the footsteps of his army colonel father. He befriends a group of fellow students on a soccer team, but a hostile mishap with a group of upper classmen results in fellow schoolmates equating the team as a group of gangsters.

PIFF festival director Kim Dong-ho (left), Market director Park Kwang-su (middle) and Pusan Mayor Hur Nam-sik at the ribbon cutting ceremony opening the inaugural Asian Film Market Sunday afternoon. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Among the slew of anticipated titles slated in the coming days is director Daniel Gordon's "Crossing the Line," which many PIFF pass holders were shut out of after the allotted tickets ran out early Sunday morning, one day before the first scheduled screening of the film, and only a very short time after the tickets became available. The film is the true story of "Comrade Joe," a U.S. soldier sent to serve in South Korea in 1962 along the heavily fortified border with nemesis North Korea. While on duty, he deserted his unit and walked across the border to defect. The U.S. never confirmed or denied his disappearance, and he vanished without a trace, though the story of the mysterious American is revealed in the film.

Inaugural Asian Film Market Debuts

Pusan's mayor Hur Nam-sik (who holds the honorary title of festival chairman) as well as PIFF festival director Kim Dong-ho and Market director Park Kwang-su were joined by local celebrities for an elaborate ribbon cutting ceremony at Pusan's Grand Hotel Sunday morning for the opening of the inaugural Asian Film Market, giving the wider Pusan event a decidedly commercial angle designed to promote regional titles. Taking place just ahead of next month's American Film Market in Santa Monica, CA, organizers hope the new market will distinguish itself in promoting primarily Asian content.

"The Asian film industry is growing rapidly and [the festival's] attempt to launch the Asian Film Market is to speed up the process," Park is quoted saying in The Korean Times. "Participants will have opportunities to engage in every aspect of the Asian film business at relatively low costs through the market." For his part, Mayor Hur pledged determination to see the new market succeed. "I believe [the market] will provide a great support for the growth of Asian film, and the city government will give its full support behind [the market's] growth." The Asian Film Market takes place, along side the Pusan International Film Festival, October 15 - 18.

[indieWIRE Associate Editor Brian Brooks is in Pusan for the Pusan International Film Festival and the Asian Film Market. He will have another indieWIRE Dispatch later this week.]

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