Watching "Avatar" in Busan

in 17th Busan International Film Festival

by Melis Behlil

James Cameron’s blockbuster may not be the first film that comes to mind when one is talking about Asia’s largest film festival. Yet Avatar was a subtle yet recurrent presence across several films at the 17th Busan International Film Festival. 

Within the New Currents section, comprising ten first or second films by directors from across Asia, Avatar made its appearance in two films. In 111 Girls, an Iraqi production by Nahid Ghobadi and Bijan Zmanpira, a presidential representative is travelling across Iranian Kurdistan to find the 111 girls who have sent a letter to the president, threatening to commit mass suicide if the government does not find them husbands. The film oscillates between the comic and the tragic, as well as between reality and fantasy. In one scene where the representative enters a maze-like coffeeshop to receive information about the girls’ whereabouts, one of the many mysterious doors in the basement opens into a makeshift cinema, where a small but dedicated group of viewers is engrossed in Cameron’s tale of blue aliens on planet Pandora. 

In Nittin Kakkar’s Filmistaan from India, love of movies, particularly for Bollywood, is what brings together a kidnapped Indian and his unwitting Pakistani hosts. At one point Aftab, one of the townspeople who makes his living by selling pirate DVDs along the border, reveals the contents of his treasure chest: a suitcase full of Bollywood and Western films, mainstream and porn alike. Despite ubiquitous references to Bollywood throughout the film, Aftab’s most popular and prized possession is a copy of Avatar, which he uses as a bargaining tool with the border patrol. 

Cameron’s film is revealed once again in Wang Toon’s The Ritual, the opening short for the 10+10 collection of 20 shorts commissioned to commemorate the centennial of Taiwan. Here, two men’s journey to a shrine in the hills concludes with their screening a film on a makeshift screen to appease the spirits – the film, predictably, is Avatar again.

It seems Avatar has become the shorthand for a globally popular film. But why is it Avatar and not any other picture? Clearly, the fact that it has reached over 2.5 billion dollars at the global box office (with over 70% of those revenues coming from overseas markets) and remains the highest-grossing movie of all times is an explanation. But that in itself is not enough. Avatar is stylistically very lavish; with its grand vistas of Pandora and intricate art direction, it creates a whole new universe. Hence it symbolizes and represents the extravagant filmmaking Hollywood has stood for since the beginning of the studio era, taking it to an unprecedented level. It is also easily identifiable: like Chaplin’s Tramp or Disney’s Mickey Mouse, two icons that have reached similar recognition, a mere glimpse of Avatar in any of the abovementioned films is enough for the audiences to know which film it is. Yet another attraction of Avatar is its narrative. While it is debatable whether the film actually succeeds in it, on the surface, it tells the story of resistance to invading powers. In this sense, watching Avatar becomes not merely a submission to the invading powers of Hollywood – which it ultimately is – but almost an act of defiance. 

Whatever the underlying reasons, it was evident in Busan that Avatar is now the manifestation of popular cinema’s imagery. It remains to be seen how much longer this stronghold will remain in the global consciousness. 

Edited by Jake Wilson