Making Meaning of What They Think It Means

in 28th Busan International Film Festival

by Sebastian Lindvall

Making Meaning of What They Think It Means. The many mysteries of the festival program were also questioned by an inquisitive audience and Sebastian Lindvall looks deeper into the interaction to unravel the enigmas, paying attention to two particular films. 

“Tell me everything you saw and what you think it means.” At the 28th Busan International Film Festival, once again Grace Kelly’s classic line from Rear Window (1954, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock) came to mind. Not only do these words work as a turning point in the film, but for many film critics (this author included) they serve as a concentrated motivational speech.

There were so many great films this year in Busan, but what exactly do they ‘mean’? At the Q&A’s during the festival, many audience members felt an urge for publicly deciphering what they had just seen. These things can easily get tiresome – especially within the intensive context of a festival. This was never the case in Busan, however, as there was a positively high level of film literacy in the festival audience. Most of their readings were highly observant, often focusing on formal matters – everything from editing patterns to how even the smallest gestures were framed. One audience member wanted to know why a character was dressed in a certain way, another wanted to discuss how eye-contacts were established and broken. 

Naturally, most of these questions were aimed at the directors: What was their intention?

”Many of their arguments can be quite convincing,” a programmer said when she was asked her if this big search for intent is a local phenomenon. Thanks to the audience, there were elaborate interpretations about the meaning of the melting ice cube under the chair leg in Lee Jong-su’s social-worker dramedy Heritage (부모 바보), theories about the social status of the bicycle in Biplob Sarkar’s identity crisis drama The Stranger (আগন্তুক), and thoughts about the stranded whale in Iqbal H. Choudhury’s mythical David vs. Goliath-story The Wrestler (বলী).

The perfect place for blooming auteurs, it seems. Even if the Korean film At the End of the Film (이 영화의 끝에서), from the Jiseok section – established in 2022 as a tribute to the BIFF co-founder and deputy director Kim Jiseok) – tells another story. Here a shy director, driven by a quiet obsession of exorcising his personal demons on the big screen, is depicted as an endangered species.

This is the latest work by Ahn Seon-kyoung, whose feature debut Pascha was awarded best film in the New Currents section back in 2013. Right from the start, the main character in At the End of the Film is surrounded by challenges. Streaming giants, the conventions of web-series, the use of drone cameras – why can’t he just embrace the norms of today’s business landscape? Be a bit more commercial? Maybe even find a way to throw in a little sex scene, even if the story – like in this case – happens to be about a lonely mountain climber.

At the End of the Film is three hours long and doesn’t feel one second shorter, which also seems to be the point. It starts out as a comedy, before the struggling director gradually finds himself in a dreamlike situation that makes the film we’re seeing becoming more like the introverted, slightly pretentious project that he tried to pitch in the beginning.

This shift makes for an interesting balance-act, coming off as both a satire about the soullessness of Korea’s mainstream industry and a self-critical parody of a navel-gazing artiste. Who is the film really for? The audience? The director? No clear answers are given, but Ahn’s fascinating approach shows the strange ways of how life and art can intertwine. It’s cinema as a fever dream, a hallucination, where you catch some fireflies in the dark and wake up wondering – did some of these things really happen?

At the end of the festival, the FIPRESCI Award was given to Sohn Hyun-lok’s coming-of-age story That Summer’s Lie (그 여름날의 거짓말). When a schoolgirl is forced by her teacher to reveal what really happened during the summer, the story of young love takes a dark turn. The schoolgirl finds out that her boyfriend has cheated on her. Her revenge? Have sex with her adult, soon-to-be-a-father maths tutor.

Told in a realistic style, with several long takes and few close-ups, the twists and turns of the rights and wrongs are sometime reminiscent of Éric Rohmer’s moral comedies. A more up-to-date comparison would probably be Sohn’s senior countryman, Hong Sang-soo.

Would a teenage movie by Hong look a little something like That Summer’s Lie? Maybe, but one thing that separates the two is the love and respect that Sohn shows his characters. Even though some scenes are painful to watch, there’s no trace of Hong’s affection for humorous humiliation (which in Hong’s case means making fun of himself, if one considers the auto-fictitious elements of his work).

That Summer’s Lie is at once happy and sad, nostalgic and relieved. It also invokes self-consciousness for those of us who remember a time when we wanted nothing more than life to be like a teenage movie, but are nowadays closer in age to the adult maths tutor than the teenagers.

Can one become the side character of their dream life? And if so, what does ‘that’ mean? However, one thing that does look likely: We’ll hear more about Sohn Hyun-lok in the future.


Sebastian Lindvall
Edited by Steven Yates