Over the last few years the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) has done much to raise its global profile. Last year, under the new direction of Lee Yong-kwan, who took over from festival founder Kim Dong-ho following the event’s 15th edition, and following the opening of an imposing new structure named the Busan Cinema Center, the festival took a rather big leap. Some have come to hail it as the “Asian Cannes”. Regional labels aside, BIFF has become an enormous event: full of flashy red carpet, gala events, parties and celebrity sightings. But it is also a mecca for new Asian talent, largely due to its main competition section, entitled New Currents, which is reserved for debut or sophomore features from Asian filmmakers.

Fatal

Having only recently moved to Korea (in June of this year), this was my first trip to the celebrated event, not to mention the port city of Busan, Korea’s second-largest metropolis. After attending the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) in July, and the Jecheon International Music and Film Festival and Cinema Digital Seoul (CinDi) in August, it was already my fourth Korean festival but by far and away the largest. After speaking to many of the fest’s veterans, the first sense I got is just how much it has changed over the course of its 17-year existence. It has become bigger, attracted more influential personalities, added a large film market (the Asian Film Market, held at BEXCO) and also completely redistributed its geography, which was previously split between the downtown area of Busan (in Nampo-dong) and Haeundae Beach. Today it is almost all in the Haeundae neighbourhood, itself split between the modern Centum downtown area and the beach. However, there are still a handful of outlying locations that the festival’s organisers hope to look at in time for the next edition in order to further centralise the festival. Furthermore, this year BIFF added an additional day to sate increased ticket demand from the public.

With 304 films from 75 countries on its program, the 17th edition had plenty to choose from. Due to its large section devoted to Asia’s cinematic output and a few specific sections reserved for Korean films, not to mention the New Currents section, one could be forgiven for thinking that BIFF is simply a gigantic showcase for Asian cinema. However, its deep program features a large section on World Cinema and, to complement New Currents, it began a Flashforward competition, now in its fourth year, for first or second features from non-Asian filmmakers.

Many retrospectives also took place and again their scope was very broad. Shin Yong-kyoon, a classic Korean film actor and veteran of some 317 features over 18 years, had his career highlighted in a section entitled The Male Icon of Korean Cinema: From Farmland to King. Another section, The Rise from the Ashes, was dedicated to the Afghanistan National Film Archive. The famed Japanese director Koji Wakamatsu was also celebrated for his work, as screenings of a number of his recent films (including Petrel Hotel Blue from 2011 and this year’s 11/25: The Day Mishima Chose his Own Fate and The Millennial Rapture) took place to coincide with his winning the event’s Asian Filmmaker of the Year award. It was therefore a great shock to hear news of his untimely death, mere days following the festival, especially as his award reflected how active a filmmaker he was.

Once again, looking beyond Asian cinema there was much to choose from, including the retrospective The Great Polish Masters, a look at the work of two influential filmmakers from the former USSR entitled The Eternal Travelers for Freedom: Sergei Parajanov and Mikhail Vartanov, and a short look back on Flashforward Jury head Arturo Ripstein’s career called Four Stories of Captive Minds.

While many large films from around the world were screened during the 10 days of the event, the greatest attention was paid to a number of new films, mostly concentrated in A Window on Asian Cinema, Korean Cinema Today and New Currents sections. In a forward-looking film environment, pundits at large festivals are always keen to discover something new rather than corroborate opinions on previously discovered works. In this regard, especially as the event seeks to raise its international profile, Busan is no exception, although of course many of the year’s most high profile festival hits, such as Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner Amour, Kim Ki-duk’s Golden Lion awarded Pieta and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, ably sold out all of their screenings well in advance.

Following what has been an enormously successful year for Korean cinema in the domestic market (as films like Choi Dong-hoon’s The Thieves and Choo Chang-min’s Masquerade, among a slew of other mid-level hits, rewrite the record books), perhaps it should not come as a surprise that much of the focus landed on local films as people were eager to find out what might be the next big thing from the red hot Korean film industry. Certainly, following the announcement of the lineup, there were a few contenders that threatened to make a mark. While many of these, though not all, were well-received during BIFF, a number of off-the-radar offerings also impressed. The festival has long been a ground for discovery, not just a showcase for established talent in the field. In the last few years alone, international films such as Park Jung-bum’s The Journals of Musan and Yoon Sung-hyun’s Bleak Night debuted in the New Currents section.

National Security

Looking at a few of the bigger names to grace the event’s program, there were some excellent follow-ups and impressive commercial features. Chung Ji-young, hot off the wheels of Unbowed (presented at last year’s BIFF) returned with National Security, an intense work set in the 1980s about torture, which elicited some of the strongest reactions of the festival. While walkouts were reported as a result of the intensity of some of the abuse depicted, the film was praised in many quarters for its gripping portrayal of some of the most nefarious activities carried out during the Chung Doo-hwan administration, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. Chung has stated that he hopes his film, which is due for release in Korea at the end of November, will prompt viewers to take the time to carefully consider their choices regarding the upcoming National elections.

Pluto

Another film that was quickly recognised was Pluto, the sophomore effort of Shin Su-won, following her autobiographical debut Passerby #3 (2010). Earlier this year her short Circle Line was a prize-winner at the Cannes Film Festival, as a result, when her new film was announced on the program, many, including myself, became excited. Pluto didn’t disappoint. A confidently made indictment of the current state of highly competitive education in Korea, the film harnessed a powerful mise-en-scène to bring its pressing story to vivid fruition. Some felt that the film dragged, especially in its latter stages, but, if anything, it serves as a testament to Shin’s brilliant potential as a cineaste.

Perfect Number

On the commercial side of things, a new rendition, following a 2008 Japanese version, of Keigo Higashino’s brilliant crime novel The Devotion of Suspect X screened ahead of its local release a few days after BIFF’s conclusion. Perfect Number, directed by Princess Aurora’s (2005) Bang Eun-jin, is a gorgeous and atmospheric thriller that takes some slight liberties with the content of the book to ramp up its emotional and particularly romantic elements, likely in a bid to make it seem more palatable to local audiences given the dry nature of the original text. As immersive as the film is perhaps the studio could have put a bit more faith in the audience by leaving more of the story’s brilliant procedural elements intact. I admit that my expectations were extremely high and while the film did land below them it is still a very accomplished commercial feature.

For me, one of the highlights of the New Currents section was Fatal, the debut of Lee Don-ku. Grounded in a dark and pressing realism, Lee examines the deleterious consequences of a sexual attack carried out by a group of high schoolers. Low-budget and uncompromising, the film explores the extremities of our moral compass and questions our capacity for forgiveness, for others’ acts as well as our own. Apparently Lee Chang-dong was very impressed and some have compared it to his Poetry (2010). Lofty as this likening may be, there’s no denying the Lee Don-ku could soon become a notable figure on the arthouse circuit.

Mai Ratima

Among other Korean films, heartthrob actor Yu Ji-tae made an impression with Mai Ratima, a beautifully-produced look at immigration in Korea and a far more accomplished directorial debut from the film star than many, including myself, were expecting. E J-yong followed up his Actresses (2009) with another mockumentary about Korea’s entertainment industry. Featuring a bevy of stars, Behind the Camera is another playful addition to E’s filmography as he experiments further with the thin line between fiction and reality. On the other hand, Azooma, a debut feature from Lee Ji-seung, a noted producer, did little to add to the revenge thriller subgenre that Korean filmmakers seem so partial to, though it did sport a pair of great performances from Jang Young-nam and Ma Dong-seok. Other films that were very well-received which I did not have a chance to see included Shin Young-shick’s Russian Novel and O Muel’s Jiseul, which, with its four awards, was this year’s big winner at BIFF.

Filmistaan

Other works that caught the attention of cinephiles at the fest included the Indian Nitin Kakkar film Filmistaan, a very enjoyable black comedy that features an expert blend of light humour and dark subtext highlighting the deep-seated conflicts between India and Pakistan. Zdeněk Jiráský’s Flower Buds, the eventual winner of the Flashforward prize, is a confident family drama that never overplays its hand, but wisely relies on the strength of its cast and the aesthetics of its downtrodden location to relay its familiar story. Also from the Flashforward section is Wolfgang Dinslage’s Für Elise, another intense and well-performed drama that focuses on a young girl supporting her drunken mother, and features many shades of Lolita. Sion Sono’s latest, The Land of Hope, features his unmistakable style but without any of the signature violence and sex that he has become known for. Dare I suggest it, but it is a rather sweet effort about a family trying to support itself in the aftermath of a Fukushima-like nuclear disaster.

The Land of Hope

The Asian Film Market has also grown into its own though it remains a less significant event compared to the neighbouring Hong Kong International Film & TV Market (FILMART) or the Tokyo International Film Festival’s TIFFCOM. The Korean Film Council (KOFIC) was front and centre as you walked into the BEXCO convention centre and a wide array of Asian film companies could be found in the many booths that lined the floor. Aside from the wheeling and dealing taking place there were a number of industry talks going on in a hall set up in the back, including the inaugural KOFIC Industry Forum, which sought to enable smoother and more viable co-productions among Asia’s major filmmaking industries. Many projects were touted, included a new offering from Hur Jin-ho, a period film called The Last Princess, to be set in both Korea and Japan. Hur’s current film, Dangerous Liaisons, is another co-production, this time between Korea and China, and was featured as a glitzy Gala presentation during the week.

Dangerous Liaisons

As China’s film market has skyrocketed over the past few years, South Korea has become increasingly recognised for its sophisticated industry and Japan rests on its proud and lengthy cinematic heritage, it’s no surprise that these giants, among other players in Asia, should aim to combine forces to capitalise on the region’s emerging markets. Despite KOFIC’s significant efforts to promote international co-productions, for the time being they have yet to strike a balance that has translated into commercial viability. Hur’s take on Dangerous Liaisons, his second China-set production following 2009’s A Good Rain Knows, packaged some big name stars, such as Zhang Ziyi and Cecilia Cheung from China and Jang Dong-gun from Korea, with an established property in its extremely popular French source novel, and some very polished production values, yet it failed to make a big splash in China and was an abysmal disaster in Korea at the box office. On the other hand, The Thieves, now Korea’s highest-grossing film, was successful in its incorporation of Hong Kong and Chinese locations and stars. Although it wasn’t a true co-production, as it was financed and produced by Showbox, a major Korean studio and distributor.

Mr. Go 3D

Though crosspollination in Asian cinema has become more fluid, it has yet to hit the sweet spot. Filmmakers still face the reality of having to account for regional differences in culture, customs and tastes. Such a sophisticated engineering of filmmaking inevitably takes time but perhaps we are not too far off. One film that was touted during BIFF, both at the market and at the Showbox party, was the studio’s upcoming CG-heavy Mr. Go 3D, which had a quarter of its hefty budget covered by China and is guaranteed a wide release throughout the Chinese diaspora. It remains to be seen whether this or other projects promoted during KOFIC’s Industry Forum will herald a new era in international co-production but with so much on offer it seems there will ample chance for the right balance to be struck before long.

Of course, like so many festivals, BIFF has a lot more to offer than the contents of its program. Every night there was a wide array of parties (including one featuring a performance from Mr Gangnam Style himself) and as everyone familiar with the festival told me, the nights don’t get started until the clock strikes 12. A few late night jaunts to the Izakayas and other eateries surrounding the Grand Hotel yielded sightings of local arthouse celebrities such as Park Chul-soo and Jeon Soo-il (in town for B.E.D and El Condor Pasa, respectively) not to mention the sight of Hong Sang-soo and Kim Ki-duk sharing a bottle of soju at three in the morning. Busan is also famous for its seafood and any trip to BIFF isn’t complete without visiting the beachside stalls famous for their late-night meetings and exotic dishes, such as live octopus. To be clear it isn’t really alive, just extremely fresh, but as it suckers still latch on to the insides of your cheeks it certainly seems like it hasn’t shuffled off its mortal coil.

With the balance of power slowly beginning to shift eastward in the world’s economies and the increasing potential of Asian film industries and markets recognised, the Busan International Film Festival is in a prime position to become a globally-recognised event. It will need a few years and a couple more high-profile western premieres to achieve that rank but, without a doubt, BIFF is here to stay.

Busan International Film Festival
4-13 October 2012
Festival website: www.biff.kr