For the past sixteen years, the Pusan International Film Festival has often featured fireworks on its opening nights. This year, however, was a little different. The multicolored lights flashing over the heads of audience members were still impressive, but they were electronic, a vast LED light-show that ushered in a year of change for Asia's largest film event, which concludes tonight with the world premiere of Harada Masato's "Chronicle of my Mother." While some changes were largely cosmetic, the festival finally decided to adopt the generally accepted Romanized spelling of its host city and officially became the Busan International Film Festival with a "B"-- others were major.
Since its inception, the festival has been personified, both locally and abroad, by its director, the charismatic Kim Dong-ho. For fifteen years, Kim worked with everyone from international movie stars and industry types to unknown filmmakers and teenage volunteers in his unflagging efforts to promote the festival and Asian cinema. Now, in what appears to be a seamless transition, Kim has passed leadership of the organization to Lee Yong-kwan. One of the founders of the festival, Lee has served in a number of staff roles positions over the years, including senior programmer, deputy director and, for the past three years, co-director alongside Kim. With his calm, soft-spoken demeanor, Lee might not be as lively or omnipresent at parties as his predecessor was, but he'll no doubt be just as busy, especially considering his first year coincides with the opening of the $150 million Busan Cinema Center.
With major construction completed just in time for the festival (supposedly the last bit of scaffolding was removed just a few hours before the crowds arrived for opening night), the brand new Busan Cinema Center boasts two interlocked buildings, nine stories, three indoor theaters, one outdoor theater, a lot of office space and the multicolored, football field-sized LED ceiling that entertained those opening night audiences. Similar in purpose to Toronto's Bell Lightbox but more architecturally ambitious with its futuristic lines, swooping electronic ceiling and vast expanses of open space, the Busan Cinema Center will give the festival a year-round home while forever changing the skyline of Busan's Centum City district. And if a bit of sawdust and plaster still lingered in the air as audiences sat down to watch this year's films, nobody seemed to mind.
Considering that the eight-day festival features over 300 films, it was surprising how quickly the critical conscientious anointed Kim Joong-hyun's "Choked" as one of the strongest films of the festival. By the end of the second day, the Korean film seemed to be on everyone's must-see list. Exploring the tensions between financial and familial responsibilities as they come to bear on an estranged mother and her adult son, "Choked" marks an auspicious debut for Kim, who confidently ratchets up the tension as his cast of characters becomes ever more desperate for emotional debt relief.
"Choked" was one of thirteen films in the New Currents competitive section, and many assumed it was a foregone conclusion that it would be recognized with the top honors. Festival juries are inscrutable beasts though, and when the awards were announced this morning, it was Morteza Farshbaf’s “Mourning” and Loy Arcenas "Niño" that got the nods. "Mourning," the story of a deaf couple driving their nephew through the Iranian countryside in the wake of a family tragedy, was one of a number of interesting Iranian production featured throughout the program, examples of the vibrant independent f community in Iran, one worth supporting as the government there becomes increasingly hostile towards them. The film also won the FIPRESCI Award.
"Niño," however, is a more curious choice for the New Current prize. A family melodrama sporting the overly familiar story of a dying patriarch and the family squabbles that ensue, the Philippine film is decently made, but certainly not representative of anything "new" or "current." In their award statement, the jury likened the film to an "aria in an opera," but for many people it was more like a song you hear, maybe hum along to and then immediately forget once it's over.
Another auspicious debut comes from animator Yeon Sang-ho, whose film "The King of Pigs" walked away with three festival awards. In a film that proved divisive amongst festival-goers, two former friends reunite after 15 years apart. Both men are clearly troubled - one has just killed his wife and begun hallucinating - and things do not get any better as they start walking down a particularly disturbing memory lane. Yeon's animation style of bold lines, harsh character designs and a deliberate flatness proved a stumbling block for many viewers, but those who appreciated the look of the film (or managed to look past it) saw an unflinching exploration of the darkness lurking within the Korean male psyche.
Joining the list of Busan's extracurricular activities, which already includes the renamed Asian Project Market (formerly the Pusan Promotional Plan) and the relocated Asian Film Market, was the Busan Cinema Forum. With the heady goal of "enhancing knowledge and support of the film industry and film aesthetics around the world," the Forum was produced in conjunction with Cashiers du Cinema, so it was appropriate that the keynote speech was given by one of Asia's foremost auteurs, Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
In an hour-long speech-cum-slide show entitled "Superabundance," Weerasethakul quoted everyone from Yoda to his 79-year-old mother as he nimbly jumped from topic to topic, sharing his thoughts on his early influences, the future of crowd sourcing, video piracy as an alternative mode of distribution, censorship and the proliferation of the digital image. "My nephew is used to being videotaped since he was born - actually since he popped out of his mother's womb - and his parents trust Sony to remember their son for them," Weerasethakul observed. "We ourselves are also walking cameras...We can shoot video on a whim, so we're part of this giant network of surveillance machines, you and I... With cameras in our hands, we are all directors and actors at the same time," he said to the audience members, many of whom, in true Busan style, were recording his speech on their cameras and smart phones.
The 2011 Busan International Film Festival Award Winners
New Currents Award
Winner: Mourning - Morteza Farshbaf (Iran)
Winner: Niño - Loy Arcenas (Philippines)
Flash Forward Award
Winner: La-Bas. A Criminal Education - Guido Lombardi (Italy)
Sonje Award for Short Films
Winner (Asia): Thug Beram - Venkat Amudhan (India)
Special Mention (Asia): DIY Encouragement - Kohei Yoshino (Japan)
Winner (Korea): See You Tomorrow - Lee Woo-ju (Korea)
Special Mention (Korea): Bugging Heaven; Listen to Her - O Hyun-ju (Korea)
BIFF Mecenat Award for Documentaries
Winner : Sea of Butterfly - Park Bae-il (Korea)
Winner : Shoji & Takao - Yoko Ide (Japan)
KNN Movie Award (Audience Award)
Winner: Watch Indian Circus - Mangesh Hadawale (India)
FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Award
Winner: Mourning – Morteza Farshbaf (Iran)
NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) Award
Winner: The King of Pigs – Yeun Sang Ho (Korea)
Busan Cinephile Award
Winner: The Twin - Gustav Danielsson (Sweden)
Citizen Reviewers’ Award
Blue Pine Tree: Jesus Hospital - Lee Sangcheol and Shin Aga (Korea)
Red Pine Tree: A Fish - Park Hong-Min (Korea)
Yellow: Romance Joe - Lee Kwan (Korea)
Directors Award: The King of Pigs - Yeun Sang Ho (Korea)
Actor: Beautiful Miss Jin - Ha Hyun Kwan (Korea)
Actress: Jesus Hospital - Han Song Hee and Whang Jungmin (Korea)
CGV Movie Collage Award
Winner: The King of Pigs - Yeun Sang Ho (Korea)
[Doug Jones is Associate Director of Programming for Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film festival.]