When one first visits the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), it is neither the films nor the red carpet that make the strongest impression. Rather, something else immediately catches one’s attention: a deconstructionist building that, amidst high-rise apartments and department stores, stands out like James Franco among festival crowds, for lack of a better metaphor. A futuristic architectural mammoth more fitting for an MIT campus than a breeze-blowing harbour city, this building, the Busan Cinema Center, leads a double-life: a haven for local cinephiles during the year, and a welcoming venue for BIFF each October.

With the full support of both the Korean government and the film industry, Busan is rapidly becoming the epicentre for Korean cinema. The city has big ambitions, starting with the Center, which was designed by an Austrian architectural firm and currently holds the Guinness Record for having the longest cantilever double-roof with 127,800 LED lights installed underneath (providing visitors with a magnificent sight in the evening). The growing importance of Busan for Korean cinema is becoming ever more apparent, as both the Korean Film Council and the Korean Rating Board completed their moves from Seoul to Busan in October this year. Indeed, Busan is well on its way in becoming a hot spot not for its local fish cakes and harbours but for its prospering film industry.

It goes without saying that the Festival plays a central role in building the city’s reputation as a cine-metropolis. For this year’s edition, 299 films from 70 countries were screened. Some general, if not uncommon, trends were immediately visible while perusing the program: the prevalence of international co-productions and adaptations. Two of the festival’s most highly anticipated films, Snowpiercer and Vara: A Blessing, were international co-productions, and many selected films were adaptations of either literary or non-literary works (Vara: A Blessing, Backwater, Blue Is the Warmest Color, The Sea, Snowpiercer). The festival made noticeable efforts to organise events that foregrounded these trends. During the first few days of the festival, the Motion Picture Association and the festival copresented two events: a seminar workshop for students aspiring to write cross-cultural screenplays, and a book-to-film pitching event which selected ten modern Korean literature works for consideration. Other efforts, such as Open Talks and music concerts, gave emphasis to the festival’s friendly and accessible atmosphere, which made a strong impression upon myself and other festival attendees I talked with.

Vara: A Blessing

Vara: A Blessing

According to Kim Ji-seok, BIFF’s executive programmer, choosing Bhutanese Khyentse Norbu’s film, Vara: A Blessing, as an opener was somewhat risky as it featured a relatively unknown cast and a less well-known filmmaker (though Norbu did find international success with his film The Cup, some 14 years earlier). Fortunately, Kim’s decision paid off by rewarding audiences with a memorable cinematic experience. Following the tragic romance between Lila, a dancer of low social class, and Shyam, a local sculptor with an ambition to move to the city, it is filled with small and fleeting physical gestures, leaving a strong tactile impression. Norbu, a practicing monk himself who could not attend the opening ceremony due to his meditation training, imbues quotidian scenes with a sense of spirituality that pulsates throughout. Beauty is observed at a distance, and acts of cruelty, including a devastating scene in which villagers destroy Shyam’s sculpture, often occur off-screen. Such portrayal of cruelty evokes Kenji Mizoguchi’s seemingly indifferent and indirect depiction of life’s inexpressible moments, an aesthetic virtue which the French film critic Serge Daney praised in his writing. Like Mizoguchi, Norbu understands that the emotional complexity of life’s happiest and cruelest moments calls for a more subtle visual representation.

Concrete Clouds

Concrete Clouds

The festival’s competitive section, New Currents, awards prizes to two (out of 12) features in world and international premiere. Lee Chatametikool’s Concrete Clouds, selected for this year’s New Currents, is a calmly paced story about a financial analyst, Mutt, who comes back to his hometown in Thailand after receiving news that his father has committed suicide. Set against the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the quasi-romantic narrative begins with a suitably melancholic Milan Kundera quote: “The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.” At the centre of the film is a sense of longing for the lost past in an era of uncertainty and false happiness, and it is this palpably forlorn atmosphere that distinguishes Chatametikool’s film from other similar prodigal son narrative films. The director, who worked as an editor on four films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, conveys such an atmosphere by contrasting the macroscopic events of the state and the microscopic personal stories of the characters. As if to emphasise that these events unfold on different temporal levels, the director makes deliberate use of a cheap karaoke video aesthetic and construction footage to hint at larger events unfolding around the characters. Moreover, the contrast of events on a different scale serves to emphasise the increasing alienation of wandering individuals amidst a society that greatly values national prosperity. In one memorable video clip that seems to have been taken from ‘90s television advertisements, people eat red apples, a symbol of prosperity, and a baby cheerfully toddles along with an umbrella. While the state relentlessly looks towards the future with undying optimism, the film’s characters linger in the past, unsure of what to do with themselves and others.

Another notable characteristic of the film is its unexpected forms in telling the romantic stories themselves. The director again employs karaoke video aesthetic, providing the audience with sing-along subtitles and a cheesy song, for an extended scene between Nic, Mutt’s younger brother, and his girlfriend Poupee. In the scene, Nic is horrified to discover Poupee in a bathtub smudged with blood, apparently having committed suicide in her apartment – but this whole drama turns out to have been only a fantasy belonging to no particular individual. Hence the video aesthetic becomes not only a marker of a different temporality, but also a creative way of exploring the characters’ anxieties and memories. As in a Kundera novel, it is the work’s imaginative quality and its permeating sense of uncertainty, not the development of characters per se, that leaves a lasting impression.

Toilet Blues

Toilet Blues

Alexey Gorlov’s The Story of an Old Woman observes how the Ruslan family takes in and mistreats Anna, the grandmother figure of the family. As much as the film strives to deliver a tragedy with Shakespearean gravitas, it only ends up weighed down by overly dramatic acting and uninspired usage of soundtrack, leaving the film devoid of subtlety and imagination. Even its one long take feels a familiar arthouse trope now. Like Gorlov’s film, Ahn Seonkyoung’s Pascha depicts acts of cruelty against its main protagonists in unflinching ways that did not work for me. The film, which received the New Currents award along with Byamba Sakhya’s Remote Control, follows the tragic relationship between a writer in her 40s and a high school student. It is anchored in the performance of Kim So-hee, who plays her forty-something character with an intensity often glimpsed in experienced theatre actors. A crucial moment in Ahn’s film, which inevitably produced gasps in the audience for its show-it-all daringness and its graphic nature, left me completely unimpressed. Meanwhile, Dirmawan Hatta more convincingly explores ethical dilemmas and acts of cruelty in Toilet Blues, a road-trip film that follows two individuals of different temperaments and backgrounds. Anggahli, in his early 20s and aspiring to become a priest, looks toward the future and tries to stay true to his religious faith, while Anjani, harbouring feelings for Anggahli, lingers in the present and lets her immediate desires guide her way. With steady camerawork, Hatta explores the moral complications of these two characters’ situations without turning the film into a conventional fable.

The X

The X

Selected among this year’s Gala Presentation section, Kim Ji-woon’s highly anticipated short film, The X, uses a new multimedia format called ScreenX, which utilises 15 projectors: one for the front, and seven for each side of the room. The inherent value of this new system, championed by Korea’s largest cinema chain CGV (owned by the CJ Group), is quite apparent — a complete visual and aural immersion that envelopes the viewers. I walked into the screening room filled with skepticism, and my initial response was one of dismay rather than awe. A few minutes into the film, I scorned this new format as it took away that utmost essential characteristic of the cinematic experience – the viewer’s concentrated study and experience of the world unfolding on the screen. With ScreenX, too many things happen at once, and I was almost always bound to miss something as I hurriedly looked around the screening room to figure out what was really going on.

But the truth is that ScreenX, despite its initially distracting quality, can be a very effective medium when used properly, and Kim is undoubtedly creative in exploring the potentials of this new medium in his otherwise straightforward chase movie. ScreenX is used not only to expand space for spectacular effect, but also to emphasise certain emotions taking place within scenes. For instance, the level of tension towards the film’s climax is heightened as each screen shows a character’s anxiety-ridden face. A director using a regular screening format could create a similar effect by employing a split-screen, but the achieved degree of tension is much higher in ScreenX. As for the film itself, The X marks a return to form for Kim despite the initial wooziness. One can see glimpses of his previous efforts in the film – his eye for stylised action (Bittersweet Life, 2005), gritty and grimy decor hinting at the underbelly world (I Saw the Devil, 2010), and his penchance for quirky humour (The Quiet Family, 1998; The Foul King, 2000). Like the internet, smart phones and most new digital technologies, one can marvel at the technical prowess yet still be unnerved by such overstimulation and ScreenX is no different. Whether ScreenX will become available in other countries any time soon is moot, but Kim’s film is engaging and exciting enough to watch it in a regular theatre.

Backwater

Backwater

Shinji Aoyama’s Tomogui (Backwater), screened as part of A Window on Asian Cinema, is an adaptation of the Akutagawa Award-winning novel by Shinya Tanaka. It tells the coming-of-age story of a teenager, Tomo, whose sexual desires becomes uncomfortably interconnected with his fraught family relations. Tomo secretly harbours a suppressed sexual desire for his stepmother, and an equally suppressed contempt for his seemingly good-humored father who, it turns out, has a thing for cruelly beating women while having sexual intercourse. On the surface, Aoyama’s 1980s-set film, structurally rigorous and evocative with its visual language, seems to follow a fairly typical Freudian psychosexual drama. But the drama is only a veil under which lies a far more substantial story – the postwar generation’s desperate attempt to escape the hold of its parent generation. The frequent use of brooding music suggests a grim outcome, but expectations are thwarted at the end of the film. That said, Aoyama’s treatment of the Freudian element of his narrative is at times too blunt. In a sequence showing Tomo having sexual intercourse with his girlfriend, an image of his stepmother overlaps with his girlfriend (a similarly unsubtle moment occurs in the highly self-conscious Stoker by Park Chan-wook). But ultimately, Aoyama’s provocative and inventive way of dealing with a previously taboo topic is something to be lauded.

Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer

Every year in Korea, the release of one blockbuster film becomes a nationwide cultural phenomenon, surpassing all else in the box office. This year that phenomenon was Snowpiercer (Seolgukyeolcha), Bong Joon-ho’s adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige about a perpetually moving train that carries the last people alive on earth after a global-warming related apocalypse. The screening of Snowpiercer at the Cinema Center’s Haneulyeon Theater was a special occasion for two reasons. First, it marked the film’s first screening at a major international film festival. And second, the event turned out to be a rare opportunity for foreign reporters and journalists to watch Bong’s approved cut of the film on the big screen (The Weinstein Company plans to release a re-edited version of the film in the U.S. and possibly other English-speaking territories – a decision Bong is reportedly not happy about). Snowpiercer has received mixed responses among Korean critics and cinephiles alike, but this much is true – the film is as rich and complex as his previous work. With his new film, Bong wisely decides not to spend too much screen time on tedious explanations about the apocalypse. Instead, he places the viewer at the foothold of an impending revolution brooding with excitement and uncertainty. Despite the film’s large production scale, Bong distinguishes his film with his characteristic humour and meticulous mise-en-scene, something that Cahiers du Cinéma described as “L’art du piksari”, an aesthetic that creates unintended humour out of unexpected events (the term piksari is Korean slang indicating the comic situation of a singer unintentionally making a shrieking sound in the middle of a performance; in fact, many Koreans refer to Bong’s films as having a “piksari humour”). The film’s Ondrej Nekvasil-designed train is a fascinating piece of work, a world in which the poorest live in a grimy ghetto-like compartment and the wealthiest live in a vibrantly colourful and artificial wonderland. There is another important element that makes Bong’s film special: Tilda Swinton’s electrifying performance as Mason, a dictatorial figure who reveres the “sacred engine” of the train. One of those rare actresses whose very physical presence lends a special aura to each film she appears in, Swinton, who reportedly relished the opportunity of working with Bong, brings a much needed dash of panache and imagination to her performance. Without a doubt, Bong’s train-ride was one of the unforgettable highlights of the festival.

1001 Apples

1001 Apples

In the documentary section Wide Angle, Taha Karimi’s 1001 Apples (Hazar u yak siwe) is a direct plea to remember the 1988 Kurdish genocide in Iraq called Operation Anfar. In order to commemorate the deaths of 18,200 Kurdish people who perished, Faraj, a Kurdish survivor, hands out red apples to relatives of the dead. The relatives then perforate these apples and put coloured cloves in them. In the film’s climactic scene, the apples are given back to Faraj who puts them in glass jars with photographs of the dead and sends them up a river to Baghdad. Recurring images – the spinning of a clove-decorated apple, the writing of an e-mail that laments the world’s negligence of the massacre, a boat that crosses over a river – suggest that something truly remarkable is taking place even as the world turns its gaze the other way. Towards the film’s end, a sentence from an e-mail exchange forms word by word on the screen that a responsible filmgoer cannot help but follow: “Please look up Anfar on the Internet.”

Im Kwon-taek

Im Kwon-taek

There’s no question about it, the festival’s most ambitious section was the retrospective titled Fly High, Run Far: The Making of Korean Master Im Kwon-taek. Commencing one week prior to the actual festival, the retrospective screened around 70 works. A veteran filmmaker who now also runs his own film school located right next to the Cinema Center, Im has famously made over 100 films, and is now well into making his 102nd film Hwajang. Needless to say, approaching Im’s oeuvre takes a certain amount of dedication. But even this opportunity is difficult to come by as screening all of Im’s films presents a formidable challenge for cinémathèques and theatres around the world. In fact, watching all of Im’s films is impossible as prints of his early films have been lost or destroyed. But fortunately, the festival’s retrospective allowed both cinephiles and newcomers to (re)discover Im’s surviving films in their original prints.

Seopyeonje

Seopyeonje

Seopyeonje (1993), a love letter to the Korean traditional music pansori and an exploration of han, a complex Korean sentiment that involves internal grief, follows the story of a wandering pansori singer who takes in two apprentices, a girl and a boy living in the streets, in order to pass down his music. But Seopyeonje need not be narrowly read as a textual example of ‘90s Korean cinema, as its narrative of wandering musicians, isolated from a modernised society and coping with their solitude, deals with universal themes. The unwatched performances in the film, including a famous long take shot in which the singer and his two apprentices walk down a winding road while performing pansori, are searingly intimate and moving. Ticket (1986), taking place in Busan’s harbour area, follows the story of women struggling to make a living in a dabang, a teahouse that also serves as a brothel. Although Ticket is disappointing in its stranded plotlines and its overly dramatic acting, its firm rootedness in time and place succeeds in convincingly portraying the thriving dabang culture of the 1980s.

Fly High, Run Far

Fly High, Run Far

Im’s 1991 film Fly High, Run Far (Kaebyeok) is an unconventional historical saga, whose translated title was chosen by the Korean film critic and filmmaker Jeong Seong-il. Chronicling the rise and fall of Donghak during the mid-19th century Joseon Dynasty, the film makes use of many of the director’s trademark techniques, such as long take shots and slow zoom-ins on characters’ faces. But it is also an atypical work in his oeuvre as it employs a fast editing technique that emphasises the psychological anxiety of Haewol, Donghak’s de-facto religious leader on the run from the government’s religious oppression. Another striking characteristic is the film’s reliance on subtitles to describe historical events. This device acts as a temporal marker, not only taking note of larger historical events but also slowing down the film’s pace in a decrescendo effect. On the surface, Im’s film is a historical epic centered on a charismatic religious figure who could not rekindle the dying flame of his religion. But at a deeper level, it works as an engaging portrait of a man trying to become free from the grasp of time, a futile attempt for which he pays a fatal price.

With an eclectic and diverse selection of films, the 18th Busan film festival offered much to everyone, cinephiles and non-cinephiles alike, all in an open and relaxed atmosphere, a more utopian alternative to most major film festivals whose exclusivity and competitive environment can seem brutal to first-time visitors. A festival, by definition, is meant to be for everyone, and Busan will most likely keep it that way.

Busan International Film Festival
3-12 October 2013
Festival website: http://www.biff.kr/intro/default.asp