People walk past the Busan International Film Festival logo. Photo: Reuters
People walk past the Busan International Film Festival logo. Photo: Reuters

Chances are it wasn’t audible but there had to be a sigh of relief from Kang Soo-Yeon at some stage on Saturday as the curtain came down on the Busan International Film Festival.

As festival director, Kang had kept her emotions pretty much in check over the previous 10 days — in public at least — as the 21st edition of Asia’s pre-eminent film event played out.

“We have been through some hard times but we are also happy as well,” was how Kang greeted the final news conference on Saturday morning.
“We were forced to go through these hardships but we realized how much affection we have for the festival and what an important role it plays. Trust has been shown to us from the international film world and we have a responsibility to the Asian cinema industry. We should never stop supporting this festival.”

The actress-turned administrator has helped BIFF weather the storm of a politically charged past two years, as allegations of outside interference swirled and as two of BIFF’s most senior — now former — leaders face criminal charges over their conduct while in office.

It all started back in 2014 when the BIFF boss Lee Yong-Kwan stood his ground against Busan mayor and former festival organizing committee chairman Suh Byung-Soo, who had wanted to pull a controversial documentary about the sinking of the Sewol ferry — an event which claimed more than 300 lives, most of them school children, and one which has left deep emotional scars across the nation.

Lee stuck to his guns, the film played, and the ramifications followed.
Lee and former festival deputy director Jay Jeon were charged with embezzlement and fraud, respectively, and BIFF’s budget was cut by between a third and 50 percent, depending on which reports you believe.

As recently as six months before BIFF’s October 5 launch doubts were still being aired throughout the film industry about whether it might even continue, and so it was with some trepidation that guests and film lovers started to arrive in this southern port city. That Typhoon Chaba had, on the eve of the event, laid waste to the Haeundae beach venues usually so popular with fans simply added to a sense that the fates were in conspiracy.

In a mark of solidarity with Lee — and in the hope that it might sound out a warning to politicians not to meddle — a number of local film bodies, including the Directors’ Guild of Korea, stayed away, along with a number of regular stars from the big studios.

That rubbed some of the sheen from BIFF’s usually glittering gala opening night — but that’s about all.

Filmmaking passion shines through

What impressed most was that even with its coffers drained, BIFF was able to produce a lineup of around 300 features, and to maintain its mission of identifying emerging talent and celebrating independent Asian cinema.

The main New Currents award — two prizes of US$30,000 given for first- or second-time Asian filmmakers — was a case in point.
The jury gave the nod to two Chinese films from first-time directors — flying in the face of rising recent tensions between that nation and South Korea over plans here to build a missile defense system, with America’s help.

All forms of Korean entertainment seem to have mysteriously vanished from the Chinese landscape in the past few months — but the BIFF jury said they simply went for Wang Xuebo’s The Knife In The Clear Water, an atmospheric look at life in the mountains, and for the organ transplant-themed high drama of The Donor, from Zang Qiwu, because both films were “incredible”.

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“They were very ambitions and out of the ordinary,” said veteran African director Souleymane Cisse, the New Currents jury head. “We could really feel the passion of the directors.”

The theme of “refugees” was explored throughout BIFF’s various programs — as it should be, given current events across the globe and the fact many of the filmmakers here come from communities being directly affected.

There were wildly divergent takes on the issue. First-time helmer Navid Mahmoudi’s Parting — given a special mention in the New Currents award — is a gripping, tense journey that places its audience alongside an Afghan couple trying to flee their strife torn-nation. Meanwhile, the reflective take Tamara Stephanyan presents in Those From The Shore allows Armenian families trapped between countries to voice their hopes and fears.

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Those From The Shore was in the running for the major documentary prize that went to Korean director Sung Seung-Taek’s Neighborhood, which looks at the filmmaker’s relationship with the psychologically troubled individuals who live next to his home, and to Philippine production The Crescent Rising, director Sheron Davoc’s pry into the often forgotten religious conflicts that have marred the recent history of Mindanao.

But BIFF wasn’t all about being worthy. South Korea loves the glamour — and pure entertainment — of movies as much, if not more, than any other market. Hollywood was represented by Miles Teller (Whiplash) and Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight), who were in town with Ben Younger’s gripping boxing biopic Bleed For This — and at an outdoor meet-and-greet sent fans into delirium.

There was also a celebration of the hits that continue to help the Korean break box office records — 2015 saw US$1.4 billion collected, the most ever, and 2016 looks likely to rake in even more. Non-Koreans got a peek at why, exactly, things are going so well: Na Hong-Jin’s nasty thriller The Wailing, where a foreigner is blamed for a series of brutal murders in a small town, is among a number of films sure to travel to cinemas overseas.

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As ever, Japan was well represented, upping the perv quotient with evidence of the rebirth of the nation’s “Roman porno” genre — in the shape of sometime horror King Hideo Nakata’s twisted White Lilly and Isao Yukisada’s strangely beguiling Aroused by Gymnopedies. Norihiro Niwatsukino matched those films for skin, and added flourishes of humor and even animation, in the wonderfully diverse Suffering Of Ninko — about a monk who’s irresistible to women. It starts like a soft porn romp and turns deliciously dark.

For anyone wondering where modern Korean cinema gets its quirks from, there was a retrospective of the work of director Lee Doo-Yong, including a rare screening of his epic The Last Witness. The tale of a desperate cop looking into the dark side of postwar society, it’s remarkable both for its raw emotion and the fact it was made at all, given the country’s restrictive politics at the time of shooting (1980).

And there’s that word again — politics. As the curtain came down late on Saturday — with the world premiere of Iraqi director Hussein Hassan’s fraught family drama The Dark Wind — the hope was that the issues that have plagued BIFF might finally be put to bed.

Crowds by the end were down, year on year, a reflection perhaps on fewer screenings, budget cuts, and new anti-corruption laws in South Korea that mean festivals can offer fewer incentives for film industry freeloaders.

But hope in Busan springs eternal, and Kang told the press she thought it a miracle this year’s edition happened at all.

Japanese director Nobuhiro Yamashita, meanwhile, summed up the general feeling as the festival played out. In town with his quirky romance (of sorts), Over The Fence — along with heartthrobs Joe Odagiri and Aoi Yu — Yamashita took to the stage on Friday, and made his thoughts known in no uncertain terms.

“Every film has a right to find an audience and Busan has always ensured for Asian filmmakers that this happens,” he said. “The festival will ensure this continues, and Asian filmmakers will continue to support them.”