I spent a good deal of 2008 living in Seoul, where my wife had taken a twelve-month work contract -- a great, defining year for us both. Though Australian, she feels a deep connection with the country. She knows its history, its culture; she speaks the language. My own perspective was strictly that of an outsider, alternately baffled and beguiled. Even so, it was almost impossible, even for a comparative naif like myself, not to sense at virtually every moment the nation's deeply ambivalent relationship with the United States, the superpower which serves as its ally, protector, colonizer and rival.
South Koreans have adopted American and European popular culture -- fashion, music, social media -- with greater enthusiasm than their Chinese neighbors. And increasingly, their language, and their cities, are filled with transliterated words: a shop might be signposted with, say, HAPPY MORNING, written phonetically in Hangul -- even though those words are meaningless in Korean, presumably because English is a gold-standard to which to aspire.
For nationalists, this is a sign of capitulation to a colonial (some would say, an occupying) power; for most young people, though, it's simple modernity, a welcome symbol of engagement in a country which, for decades, remained almost as locked-down as its angry sibling in the north. (It wasn't until 1988, after the successive tyrannies of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, that most South Koreans could obtain a passport.)
Either way, I was thinking a lot about this at this year's Busan International Film Festival, which for some reason seemed slightly quieter this year. Regular attendees complained of a decline in numbers and a lack of buzz, though given the cavernous vastness of the BEXCO Convention Centre and the newly-constructed Busan Film Center, it was sometimes hard to tell.
The actual cinemas were pretty full, with a large number of sessions sold out, and the festival's audience -- as ever, more or less evenly split between old and young -- displayed the same admirable adventurousness, the willingness to engage with works on their own terms, that I'd noticed on previous visits. Even something as intransigent, as superficially "difficult," as Benny Vandendriessche and Dirk Hendrikx's "Drift," enjoyed good attendance and sustained attention. No one walked out; at the end, there was applause and some thoughtful, well-considered questions.
That film, incidentally, proved one of the discoveries of the festival: Based on a series of performance pieces by artist-dancer Hendrikx, it related the final days in the marriage of a man and his terminally-ill wife, who have come to a hotel high in the Carpathians, to prepare for her approaching death. Interspersed with their scenes together were a series of increasingly bizarre tableaux, set months afterward, in which the unnamed protagonist -- played by Hendrikx himself -- subjected himself to certain ritualistic torments: Attempting to walk while carrying a large, flat stone on his upturned face, burying his head in the earth.
It sounds risible in summary, but the film offered a powerful meditation on grief, on how unmoored one can become, physically as well as psychically, with the loss of a beloved, and as such, boasted an extraordinary, accumulative emotive force. And its coda -- a sequence showing Hendrikx and his co-star Lieve Meeussen dancing together, apparently filmed years earlier -- proved devastating. Like Philippe Grandrieux's astonishing "White Epilepsy," the result showed how rich cinema can be when it mines other artistic disciplines for inspiration.
The other big news of the festival was the unexpected arrival of Quentin Tarantino -- apparently to support his buddy Bong Joon-ho, whose "Snowpiecer" had already opened commercially across the country, but which featured in the festival nonetheless, in a cut as-yet unmolested by the none-too-tender ministrations of Harvey Weinstein.
Rumor had it that, having now seen the original, QT would intervene, and tell Harvey to back off -- a scenario which sounded to me rather more hopeful than likely. Nevertheless, his visit inspired almost as much media attention as did the typhoon that almost laid waste to Hyundae Beach earlier this week.