Dispatch From Busan: Highlights (and Lowlights) From ‘The Cannes of Asia’

"In Another Country" indeed.
Dispatch From Busan: Highlights From the Cannes of Asia

Every movie in every non-press venue at the Busan International Film Festival — which concluded its 2012 edition last week — has assigned seating. You don’t get to choose your own seat. This tends not to matter a great deal, as relatively few screenings sell out and a plurality of viewers completely ignore their seating assignment, but still: a bit odd, no?

I certainly thought so as I settled in for my first movie just hours after landing in South Korea’s second-largest city, which has now hosted the self-proclaimed “Cannes of Asia” for 17 years running. In addition to the holdovers from Berlin, Cannes, and Venice for which I was most excited — Christian Petzold’s “Barbara,” Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love,” and “The Fifth Season,” to name but a few — I naturally made an effort to see at least a smattering of regional movies that aren’t likely to arrive on U.S. shores anytime soon.

In most cases my choices were based on relatively little information and I wound up disappointed as often as not. (There’s a roulette-like excitement to walking into a festival screening with no prior knowledge of the movie you’re about to watch, and this is the potential downside.) The two main offenders were “Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time,” a watchable-if-generic box-office king in its native Korea whose name is a fairly strong indication of its storyline, and “An End to Killing,” a Mongolian/Chinese almost-epic about Genghis Khan that, were it called generic, would be an insult to off-brand cereal and inexpensive medication.

The most pleasant surprise — as well as the one that elicited the strongest feeling of actual discovery — ended up being Gabriela Pichler’s “Eat Sleep Die,” which premiered under the radar in Toronto a few months ago. An unfortunately titled Swedish film telling the Dardenne-like tale of a laid-off factory worker/Muslim immigrant named Raša, it more than transcends that familiar premise via Nermina Lukač’s engrossing performance and a nearly unforgettable final scene. Also of note was “Blancanieves,” a silent, black-and-white take on “Snow White.” The only shame is that it wasn’t released pre-“The Artist”: Comparisons between the two are inevitable, and while this is the superior — not to mention more authentically silent — film, it’s likely to only receive a fraction of the audience.

And what of those festival holdovers? A mixed bag, of course, but one in which the good (“Paradise: Love,” “In the Fog”) outweighed the bad (“The Last Time I Saw Macao,” “Something in the Air”). Matteo Garrone’s Grand Prix-winning “Reality” was even better than “Gomorrah,” his last Grand Prix-winner; “Lore,” which I accidentally watched without subtitles, was visually sumptuous but gave the impression of being otherwise under-realized; Carlos Reygadas’ “Post Tenebras Lux” continues to baffle me.

My hopes were highest for Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills” and, despite a listless midsection, the followup to “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” did turn out to be one of the stronger films I saw in Busan. It isn’t without its problems — the disconnect between the relationship drama at its center and the religious fervor surrounding it is sometimes sillier than it is mystical — but it’s carried along by expert direction and immersive austerity. Best of all, I’m somewhat surprised to say, was Thomas Vinterberg’s absorbing, ridiculously well-acted “The Hunt.”

The most meta moment, however, had to be watching Hong Sang-soo’s “In Another Country.” Starring Isabelle Huppert as three different incarnations of a French woman visiting a small Korean village, the film featured close to a dozen seemingly prosaic moments of conversation at which the mostly-Korean audience erupted in laughter. I guess a lot really is lost in translation.

As for non-assigned seating, I attended precisely one press screening: Kim Ki-duk’s Golden Lion-winning “Pieta.” In truth, I wouldn’t have even attended that event had the two public screenings that preceded it not both sold out — I was interested in how audiences would react to all the films in Busan, this one in particular.

Kim is often pegged as a misogynist, provocateur, or both; anticipating controversy (and, having only seen a handful of his movies, not possessing a strong opinion on him either way), I wanted to see how many people would walk out. My guess is that a good amount did, but they’d be wrong to: Though enmeshed in ugliness and cruelty for its first hour or so, “Pieta” undergoes a strange transformation in its latter half that sees it redeemed at roughly the same pace as its troubled protagonist. It remains a flawed, problematic picture, but it also provided a thought-provoking start to my final day in its home country.

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