The Cannes of Asia

in 9th Busan International Film Festival

by Radovan Holub

Pusan is a really big festival. Like in Tokyo, everything works here, screenings start on time, things are organized on a high level of technology. The festival takes place in two remote places: in the luxurious Haeundae and in Nampo-dong with narrow streets and markets. Filmmakers tend to like Nampo-dong more but the festival headquarters is in Haeundae. For a big city with three million inhabitants, it is rather far, at least a one hour ride (by subway or cab). The festival organizers know that and plan to launch a new festival palace, close to the Yachting Centre in Haeundae where the Pusan festival offices are – the other offices are in Seoul. This new building should be built by 2008.

Very probably, the festival will then lose its second location in Nampo-dong. Haeundae is Cannes-like. There is a beach, some beach restaurants, luxury hotels, palms, even hills. So it is very probable that Pusan will really become the Cannes of Asia. Not only were films screened but also debates took place. Many concerns are about film quotas here. The domestic film industry is healthy and respected, and has its big names and great works. The ratio of domestic films on the domestic market climbed up to 63 percent which is twice as much as ten years ago. At least two or three Korean films a year made for some five to ten million Euros attract three times bigger audiences than the biggest American blockbusters.

People love Korean home-grown comedies, thrillers and action movies, mainly on the South-North Korea problem which was banned from showing here till 1997. There are political pressures to lower or abolish the film quotas. A proposed US-Korean commercial treaty which should enable Korean goods to reach American markets will probably not be signed without annulling film quotas in favor of domestic films. Some debates concerned also documentary filmmaking as this is a hot political issue here. Asako Fujioka from the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival stated that politics would becoming more and more important for documentary filmmakers. But, unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer political documentaries in Europe, somebody added.

Sophisticated censorship of political film content on TV was another issue. Interesting enough, one of the most political documentaries in the festival was a film by the British Daniel Gordon about North Korea Mass Games and called State of Mind. Gordon was allowed to shoot the film in 2003 in Pyongyang and even out of the capital and in private families of the two main characters which the film follows. Two revolutionary girls, 13 and 11 years old in the foreground. They are training for the Mass Games, with absolute concentration and discipline. “I was happiest in my life when I could perform three times before the General,” says one. The film tackles another issue: American policy. Mass Games are widely understood as preparation for an American attack against North Korea. Average people blame the lack of goods on the “American economical blockade” and Americans generally. Gordon notes that the sources of this hate lie deep in history, in the Korean war 1950-1953 where Americans were involved and “committed atrocities”. How the Korean-Korean relationship goes further is not clear. The South Koreans want to rebuild and upgrade the Geumgansan recreation mountain area in the Eastearn part pf North Korea which is the only place where they are allowed to travel in the North. North Korea needs aid but is not ready to pay with political “currency” for it. If a more conservative government gets into power in South Korea, maybe even the planned train connection Seoul-Pyongyang will be laid off. As Gordon says in his film: “If a war between both Koreas broke now, it would cost one million dead within 24 hours.”

The most important program sections at PIFF are: A Window on Asian Cinema, New Currents (competitive), Korean Panorama, World Cinema, Wide Angle (documentaries). Korean Panorama cleverly showed not only masterpieces as 3 Iron by Kim Ki-duk but also commercial films and bestsellers as The Big Swindle by Choi Dong-hun. Korean commercial cinema is rather unknown in our countries, we know the Korean masterpieces and upcoming talents from different European festivals. So this is important to know. New Currents and A Window on Asian Cinema (if I can judge because I was far from seeing all films in this section) had some very good films and also low quality pics. For example: the Indian commercial movie The Killing simply does not belong in this section. Commercial, why not, but this was a very bad, violent piece with absolute nothing new in it. From both these sections I would like to point out some films. The Indian American Daylight by Roger Christian, Baober In Love from China made by Li Shao-hong (already shown at the International Forum of Young Cinema in Berlin), The Beautiful Washing Machine from Malaysia (James Lee), The Foliage from China (Lu Yue), So Cute from Korea (Kim Soo-hyun), My Generation from Korea (Noh Dong-seok), Soap Opera from China (Wu Er-shan), The Cat Leaves Home from Japan (Nami Iguchi). Interesting as a formalistic experiment is a film Survive Style 5+ from Japan made by Gen Sekiguchi. Most of the good films concerned the issue of non-communication in the age of communication technologies, indifference in the big city or endeavors to get some money, whichever style and sort. It was a good festival, bad films will be forgotten soon. One drink of “soju” on that!

Radovan Holub