Flower Island

Festival website: http://www.piff.org

After only six editions, the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) in Korea (the sixth edition took place from November 9-17, 2001) is already one of East Asia’s major film festivals. Under the direction of Mr. Kim Dong-ho, a senior figure in Korean film circles who has led the Festival since its inception, PIFF has entered a mature phase of development, leading the field in showcasing Asian cinemas and spotlighting Korea’s own cinematic achievements. The essence of a film festival is to promote film culture. Pusan has done so with dividends, promoting film culture and also prompting the rise of a new Korean cinema. It is perhaps no coincidence that in the six years of PIFF, a new generation of Korean filmmakers has carried out its own new wave, winning international recognition for Korean cinema through a forum such as PIFF. The Festival gives credence to the idea that local Asian film festivals generate the kind of creative environment that allows the local film industry to reinvigorate itself with new blood.

In this sense, PIFF has built upon the tradition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), which began in 1976, and three years later was featuring the energetic new works of the Hong Kong New Wave. Similarly, the Singapore International Film Festival is playing a regenerating role in pushing forward a new generation of local filmmakers in the small island republic through its competitive programme of local short films. Of these three Asian film festivals, which are the closest in orientation and style, Pusan’s has clearly moved into the front, notching up several degrees of self-confidence, solid support from the community, and independence in programming ideas, while its nearest competitor, the Hong Kong International Film Festival, appears to have self-imploded after 25 editions. HKIFF has lost its bearings, and is now trying to find its way back through a transitional period overseen by an uncertain new administrative regime amid an economic climate of belt-tightening.

The strengths of PIFF lie, firstly, in a regional focus, bolstered by a competition that awards a cash prize to young Asian directors’ first or second features; secondly, a strong commitment to the Korean cinema, encouraging input from the local film industry including independent short films and documentaries (for which cash prizes are also instituted); and finally, a forum for Asian filmmakers to meet with prospective financiers, distributors or producers from the region and elsewhere through the “Pusan Promotion Plan” (PPP) in which Asian filmmakers also compete for cash awards with their next, unrealized projects (the idea being that through the PPP, these projects would be brought to fruition). All these strengths have been institutionalised in PIFF, and it is difficult to see how any other regional festival can compete to become a major festival without adopting the same structures (in particular, instituting competitions with cash awards).

PIFF has played on these strengths to establish itself as the leading Asian film festival in a few short years, but it wouldn’t have done so without the vision and the firm sense of purpose of its programmers responsible for the regional focus and the Korean section: Mr. Kim Ji-seok, the programmer for Asian cinemas, and Mr. Han Sang-jun, the programmer for Korean cinema (the very idea of a programmer for Korean cinema indicates the extent to which PIFF is committed to Korean cinema). The Asian programme curated by Mr. Kim revolves around the main section entitled “A Window on Asian Cinema” featuring 28 new films by Asian directors released in the past year, but Mr. Kim is also responsible for a special focus, which this year is devoted to the resurgent Thai cinema, under the title “Bangkok Express: Close Encounter with New Thai Films”. This special focus presented seven features (including the closing film Suriyothai [2001], a three hour epic by Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol) and four short films. Mr Han, the curator of the Korean cinema programme, chose 11 new Korean films in the “Korean Panorama” section, and he also handles the retrospective section, devoted this year to the veteran director Shin Sang-ok (about whom, more later).

Both Mr. Kim and Mr. Han joined forces in a section called “New Currents”, the main competitive section judged by a panel of international jurors (with a cash award worth US$10, 000 given to a first or second feature film by a young Asian director). This pan-Asian section features the most promising new works (first or second features) of Asian directors from Japan to Iran, and therefore, Korean films, are an integral part of this section. The jury, presided over by Hou Hsiao-hsien, gave the prize to Song Il-gon’s Flower Island (2001), and a “Special Mention” to Jeong Jae-eun’s Take Care of My Cat (2001). Song’s Flower Island proved to be the overall winner of the Festival: receiving both the Audience Award (voted by the audience, and worth 10 million won) presented by the Pusan System of Broadcasting and the Fipresci Award (the Fipresci Jury also presented a second prize to Hur Jin-ho’s excellent One Fine Spring Day [2001]). Thus, it was a clean sweep for Korean cinema in all the competition categories – a sign of how the outburst of new talent in Korean cinema is converging with the aim of the Pusan Film Festival to introduce this talent to the world.

Take Care of My Cat

Flower Island is the first feature film by director Song Il-gon, a graduate of Poland’s Lodz Film School, who had prior to this, made an impact with his short films, one of which, The Picnic (1999), won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Shot on a digital camera and strikingly transposed onto 35mm film, Flower Island tells the tale of three young women, each one carrying her own bed of thorns, embarking on a journey to the eponymous island, which exists as a metaphorical island of happiness. Like many road movies of this kind (marked by wintry landscapes and soulful protagonists), it is the actual journey that counts even when the journey itself proves to be too allegorical. The director’s depictions of characters and situations ultimately gave him the edge over Jeong Jae-eun’s more fragmented look at the lives and friendships of young women in Take Care of My Cat. For all its flaws, I much preferred this as a more honest depiction of female angst. My favourite of the new Korean films was One Fine Spring Day, director Hur Jin-ho’s follow-up to Christmas in August (1998). A masterly study of an amorous relationship in all its complex modulations as a couple falls in and out of love, there was no finer film in the Festival than One Fine Spring Day in which one could indulge in a romance without being sentimental about it and end up with a refreshing view of the pliability of human behaviour. The director etches out in extraordinary detail, the protagonists’ fluctuating emotions as the relationship goes through soft and hard stages, like the changing seasons. The performances, and the subtle tones of Hur Jin-ho’s direction, make One Fine Spring Day, in my opinion, a candidate for the year’s best film.

Flower Island faced strong competition for the New Currents Award, such as Zhu Wen’s Seafood (China, 2001), Toshiaki Toyoda’s Blue Spring (Japan, 2001), Emily Tang’s Conjugation (China, 2001), and Nan Achnas’ Whispering Sands (Indonesia, 2001). Zhu Wen’s Seafood was my contention as a legitimate runner-up to the prizewinner. Like Flower Island, it is a road movie with a wintry setting, shot in digital medium and transferred to film, and featuring a central female protagonist suffering from an affliction of the spirit. In this case, the character is a prostitute who plans to kill herself while staying in a hotel in the seaside resort town of Beidaihe, and who is deterred by a cop investigating a suicide in another room. In the process, the cop (an impressive performance by Cheng Taisheng) becomes a discomforting friend to the prostitute, taking her to restaurants and feeding her seafood (his favourite type of food) while trying to talk her out of killing herself. Soon, he becomes her tormentor, and their unfolding relationship (with more emphasis on the cop’s perverse lifestyle and family life) turns into a succinct metaphor for the relationship between the state and the individual in contemporary China. Zhu Wen’s approach is down-to-earth, sharply reflecting the materialistic concerns of his characters and their loss of spiritual values. The prostitute’s final “salvation” is depicted in a whimsically conceived final segment that functions like an epilogue to the movie, with an abrupt ending that left most viewers confused but which to my mind perfectly captures the irony of the prostitute’s bewildering situation.

Bad Guy

In the Korean Panorama, the director who most deserves attention next to Hur Jin-ho is undoubtedly Kim Ki-duk, whose film The Isle (2000) was one of the most intense and controversial films of last year. A challenging, up-front filmmaker, Kim strikes me as being one of the most original directors to have come out of anywhere, and in Pusan, he was represented by two new works: Address Unknown and Bad Guy (both released 2001, the latter being the most recent work). Of the two, I preferred Bad Guy, a hard-hitting noirish fable (or perhaps a fairy tale) about a pimp and his evolving love for a young college student, whom he has coerced into prostitution. The opening sequence itself is a tour-de-force of direction, which completely stuns the viewer with a startling dénouement, setting the tone for the rest of the film. The performances and Kim’s assured handling of his material make the film a sensation. Bad Guy is set to make an impact on the world (the film may compete at the Berlin Film Festival, and it is already rumoured that Hollywood wants to remake the film, with Kim as director). Address Unknown is no less a provocative work. Its main character is like the pimp in Bad Guy – an outcast with his own distinctive brand of honour. The character, of mixed Korean and African-American blood, is abused by members of the small town community where he lives and is particularly hard-rolled by his boss, a brutish man who slaughters dogs and sells them as meat. The latter is but one of an assortment of odd, harsh characters inhabiting the town. The film tends to be episodic, telling several stories associated with its many characters, including a young woman who is blind in one eye and is desired by an American soldier serving in Korea (he makes it possible to cure her blind eye but demands payment in return). Though compelling, the film is much less satisfactory than Bad Guy. Still, there is no denying that both are the works of a significant new talent, a fabulist of the distinctly hard school who is able to create striking visual narratives.

Other films of note in the Panorama are E J-yong’s Asako in Ruby Shoes (2000), Park Ki-yong’s Camel(s) (2001), Song Hye-sung’s Failan (2001), Kwak Kyung-taek’s Friend (2001), Yim Soon-rye’s Waikiki Brothers (2001), Yoon Jong-chan’s Sorum (2001), and Min Boung-hun’s Let’s Not Cry (2001). Though the quality varies with each movie, what the entries do illustrate is the great diversity and energy of contemporary Korean cinema. Min Boung-hun’s Let’s Not Cry, for example, is entirely set in the ex-Soviet satellite state of Uzbekistan, in central Asia (director Min being a graduate of the Russian film school VGIK in Moscow; his first feature, Bee-Fly [1998] was also set in a Central Asian country). Song Hye-sung’s Failan features Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung as a Mainland Chinese migrant who marries a hoodlum she has never seen in order to stay in Korea. Female director Yim Soon-rye’s Waikiki Brothers is my own choice from this group: it is about a once popular four-piece band which has fallen into bad times, some of whose members drop out and the remaining ones wander the country trying to make a comeback, but more importantly, trying to stay true to their vocations. Foreign critics misunderstood and failed to appreciate Waikiki Brothers because of its distinctively local tones but the Korean critics whom I talked to simply loved this movie, particularly the band’s renditions of local pop tunes from the ’70s which resonate nostalgically to a Korean audience and carry feelings that we can’t hope to fathom as non-Koreans. But this is exactly the kind of movie, well-made and heart-felt to boot, which rightfully fulfils the purpose of a film festival such as Pusan, which is to support the local cinema in all its social-artistic dimensions and diversity.

The retrospective on Shin Sang-ok (born 1926) was a belated tribute to one of the country’s most celebrated, and controversial, veteran directors. Active from the ’50s onwards, Shin is today largely known for a controversial incident in 1978 in which he was kidnapped and brought to North Korea. At the time of his disappearance, it was widely believed the Korean CIA had assassinated him, while others believed that he had defected to the north. After a failed attempt to escape from the country, Shin was imprisoned for five years. Following his release from jail in 1983, Shin made several films for the North Korean regime in 1984-85. His wife, the actress Choi Eun-hee, was abducted a few months before he was, and forced to appear in films for the regime. In 1986, the couple finally escaped by defecting to the United States while on a visit to Eastern Europe (and Shin went on to produce a handful of films in the United States under the name of Simon Sheen).

The retrospective showed only ten of the master’s films, a mere drop in the ocean of Shin’s vast output (he made more than 80 films in Korea and Hong Kong). The films were neatly divided into contemporary realist melodramas and period costume movies set invariably in palace chambers. In the former category were two of Shin’s best works, A Flower in Hell (1958) and The Mother and the Guest (1961). A Flower in Hell is a neo-realist style melodrama, about a prostitute (played by Choi Eun-hee), whose clients are mainly American servicemen, and her affairs with two men, both brothers, the older of whom is a member of a criminal gang which steals merchandise from the U.S. army. The younger brother comes to Seoul from the country in search of his older sibling and is then seduced by his lover, the prostitute. Lacking the facilities of studio sets, Shin was compelled to use locations, which resulted in the remarkable ending set in a muddy marshland. The Mother and the Guest sealed Shin’s reputation when it won the Best Picture Award at the 1962 Asian Film Festival, and it is quite possibly Shin’s best film, both for its accessibility of material and masterly direction. The story is told from the point-of-view of a young girl, the daughter of a widow who takes in a male tenant (the “guest” of the title). The narrative concentrates on the developing love between the guest and the mother in the unspoken style of Confucian traditions, with the daughter essentially playing the matchmaker.

The Phantom Queen

Shin’s historical films are praised for their mise en scène and their allegorical references to modern Korean politics. Yeonsangun (1961), The Phantom Queen (1967), Eunuch (1968), Women of the Yi Dynasty (1969) and One Thousand Year Old Fox (1969) are impressive films on a visual level, but are just as notable for their strong female characters and associated themes of mother complexes (as for example in Yeonsangun, whose central male character, the tyrant Yeonsan, is obsessed with finding out who killed his mother, thus bringing about a reign of terror), matriarchal power (as in One Thousand Year Old Fox, where a queen plots against a general she is sexually attracted to and orders the killing of his wife), and even necrophilia (a king making love to his dead queen in The Phantom Queen). The retrospective left out Shin’s Hong Kong films, most likely due to sourcing reasons. He made several films between 1967-1974, mostly for Shaw Brothers, and it’s more than a curious period of Shin’s career, as claims are now bandied about that Shin had influenced Hong Kong directors, notably Li Hanxiang (whose historical epics share many stylistic similarities with Shin’s). The retrospective therefore is only a preliminary step towards the further discovery of Shin Sang-ok, a director whose life is awash with controversy and legend.

To conclude, while the Pusan International Film Festival functions as a veritable showroom of Korean cinema, it is now the best place in Asia to watch the cinemas of the Asian region. Pusan has generally been quicker to the draw in recognizing new Asian talent (for example, its focus on the rising generation of Thai directors), and at the same time, acknowledging the continuing relevance of established masters (Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo, Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time is It There?, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar, and Zhang Yimou’s The Happy Time, were all featured in the section “A Window on Asian Cinema”). The status of PIFF can only increase each year as it consolidates its two-prong strategy in showcasing Korean and Asian cinemas.