Exploring the world through global cinema

A Question Of Balance

In this entry, I take a side-step from the usual reviews and discuss my experiences of last year’s Busan International Film Festival. Writing it has brought back a lot of irritating memories, and so for sanity’s sake, I’m splitting the entry into two parts, the second to be posted later.

Going Nowhere

With a blog like this, it should come as no surprise that I enjoy the odd international film festival. I’m not terribly interested in the light entertainment celebrity side such events inevitably attract. I just want to see some films. Of course, there’s a great atmosphere at a film festival since you’re surrounded by fellow cinemaphiles and seeing people actually involved with the making of a film is a plus. Ultimately though, it’s what is on screen that counts. I have now attended three Korean film festivals: Seoul’s ‘Chungmuro International Film Festival’, the ‘Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival’, and the ‘Busan International Film Festival’. Of those, only one is truly in the big league, and in 2011, it evolved into something bigger still.

That may have been the final year I bother to see it, unless things change there dramatically. BIFF 2011 was a perfect example of when a film festival becomes a purely commercial exercise for the host city and networking opportunity for industry insiders rather than a chance for the locals to experience new and alternative cinema from the world beyond Hollywood. It was the year when the ordinary people would be made to beg for tickets like food scraps, waste inordinate amounts of time trying to enjoy anything the event had to offer, and generally be pushed onto the sidelines. It wasn’t always that way, though.


The Busan International Film Festival (formerly the Pusan International Film Festival) is the largest such event of its type in Korea, and quite significant in Asia overall. It celebrates its 17th anniversary in 2012 and has come a long way since its disorganized, humble beginnings. It has always championed local film-making, and been a critical opportunity for both established and upcoming talent in Korea and the region at large to bring their work into the public sphere. Famous examples of such talent over the years have included Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-Wei, Kitano Takeshi, Kim Kiduk, Hideaki Anno, and Tsui Hark among many others.

“BIFF 2011 was a perfect example of when a film festival becomes a purely commercial exercise for the host city”

Regular screening categories have included A Window On Asian Cinema, which feature entries from both new and established Asian film-makers; Korean Cinema Today and Korean Cinema Retrospective; World Cinema, Open Cinema, where selected new films are introduced; and special focuses on particular countries, such as Kurdish Cinema: The Unconquered Spirit in 2010. Other highlights include the usual opening and closing features, celebrity appearances, and Q&A sessions with cast and crew after screenings.  In more recent years, BIFF has included the Asian Film Market which, as the name suggests, brings together buyers and exhibitors from within the industry.

And of course, there are the parties for those wishing to see and be seen with film’s prime movers.

BIFF 1996 saw the screening of 173 films from 31 countries to an audience totaling 184, 071, with BIFF 2011 screening 307 films from 70 countries to a total audience of 196, 177. The first festival attracted 224 participating guests from 27 countries, the latter attracting 11,268 (including the media). The numbers have inevitably fluctuated over the years, but the general upward trend is clear.

So there is no denying that BIFF has become increasingly more popular and successful with both industry and public alike. Alas, with increased success and profitability comes parochialism and selfishness.

Memories Of Yesterday

Prior to 2011 – PIFF Square and simpler times.

I first attended BIFF in 2010, and the difference between that and its successor could not have been more pronounced. In its smaller manifestation, BIFF was the pride of downtown Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, in the shopping and entertainment district of Nampo, dubbed ‘PIFF Square’. It was literally a few stops away from main transport hub Busan Station, making it easily accessible for out-of-towners like myself arriving by train or bus, and surrounded by various other attractions and eateries to keep one amused in between screenings. My favourite nearby attraction was the Jagalchi Fish Market, literally a couple of minutes walk from the cinemas, where we would stock up on all kinds of sashimi (hoe in Korean), take it back to the hotel with a few drinks and feast on raw fish after a long day. For the more outgoing, the area provided numerous bars and restaurants and though crowded, made being festive relatively easy.

The cinemas themselves were somewhat aged by 2010, having been installed a couple of decades earlier with some designed originally not for film festivals but simply the regular traffic of ordinary citizens. Every BIFF would stretch them to their limits, but their down-to-earth character was their virtue – after all, ordinary cinemas are where most of us watch our films.

Long before 2010 however, the festival had outgrown its spiritual home. Though Nampo was the center of activity, other cinemas across the city had been drafted into service to handle the increased number of screenings, including CGV Centum City, located not far from the still-under-construction Busan Film Center. While this might make the more energetic enthusiast leap about the city, average filmgoers could simply pick one location and expect to see a good handful of films and events. It wasn’t a perfect arrangement, but it meant that people were spread out: PIFF Square alone was a sea of film fans at high tide on weekends, and would have imploded were everything concentrated there.

Another crucial factor in BIFF’s pre-2011 success was the ticketing. The purchasing of tickets online was, like the Olympics, heavily rigged in favour of anyone vaguely connected with the event, leaving everyone else to fight over what remained, the victors being the precision mouse-clickers used to buying something from eBay at 11.59.59PM. If you failed here, a certain percentage of tickets were reserved for on-site purchase, and you could even buy tickets for other screenings taking place on subsequent days from the box office at whichever venue you happened to be in. The only average citizens attending the opening ceremony either knew someone who knew someone, or had managed to move like lightning at the right moment, but there was plenty of everything else to go around – even if you didn’t always get your first choice.

“The purchasing of tickets online was, like the Olympics, heavily rigged in favour of anyone vaguely connected with the event.”

I’ve already documented my experiences of BIFF 2010 and the films I managed to see, which you can read here.

One final aspect of BIFF I’d like to commend before the rant begins is the volunteer staff, typically aspiring college students majoring in film and otherwise-interested youths keen to be part of the experience. While not always well-versed in English, their enthusiasm and welcoming behaviour has always smoothed over the rougher patches of crowded venues or the ordinary problems of being a foreigner in a different country. Without their efforts, no-one would see anything at all.

Two Steps Backward

By 2010, PIFF had become a runaway success and the traditional facilities were struggling to cope. In Centum City, plans were afoot to bring everything under one roof. But what did that really mean for the punter?

So now to 2011, and keen to be more organized than the previous year, we arranged to be in Busan an extra day to avoid arriving exhausted. More important was the concerted effort to join the exalted ranks of People Who Bought Their Tickets Online. We scoured BIFF’s online program with the precision of an archaeologist so that come credit card time, we’d have a big list of ‘Films We Really Wanted To See’, ‘Films We’d Be Reasonably Interested To See’, and ‘Films We’re Choosing Because We’re Begging For Scraps And Could We Just See Some F#@$!&% Films Please?’

It was a narrow window of opportunity: electronic purchasing would be granted to the masses for a specific few days and you’d obviously have to be greener than Kermit The Frog not to know that this essentially meant Day 1 would be a mad frenzy. Memory tells me it was September 26th, though given that the whole setup was a pathetic joke, it may have been April 1st. Tickets were sold out within two hours of being made available, and with the 26th being a weekday, you either had to be unemployed or find time out of your work schedule to brave the crowded digital waters.

We couldn’t help but wonder: had a huge chunk of the available e-tickets been reserved in advance by an uncaring industry elite, interested government officials, their families and friends? Had a small few purchased huge blocks of tickets in that ridiculously-small gap? Was BIFF re-enacting Monty Python’s ‘Cheese Shoppe’ sketch where customer and vendor play a merry verbal dance until it is finally revealed the premises was bare of cheese from the beginning?

Defeated, we took solace in the knowledge that we could still rock up and buy tickets on site like we did last year. The website promised that 20% of the remaining tickets could be purchased up front.  We’d have to make do with what was available, but what the hell: discovery is what an international film festival is all about.

Then came the problem of accommodation.

In 2011, BIFF relocated wholesale to Centum City, an up-market district of Haeundae, famed for the popular beach of the same name. In previous years, a chunk of the festival had already taken place at CGV Shinsegae Centum City, CGV being Korea’s nationwide cinema chain, Shinsegae one of the country’s largest department stores, and this branch was in close proximity to the now-complete Busan Film Center. The Asian Film Market would now be held at the nearby Busan Exhibition & Convention Center, and many industry parties were already Haeundae-based. From now on, Centum City was the epicentre of the whole event – a change of affairs that had forced surrounding hotel owners to chain themselves to the floor lest they leap through the stratosphere and find themselves propelled into the sun, unable to contain their excitement. With the BIFF of previous years so scattered throughout Busan, festival-goers took rooms far and wide secure in the knowledge they’d be near at least one of the venues. Now everything was super-concentrated. Super.

All of which meant that everyone had to stay in the same area, had to book months in advance, and pay double-rates, or whatever the local hoteliers were charging. And they’d have to deal with rooms being blocked for all the invited guests. Which meant the industry insiders, their friends and families. And they’d have to be able to plan a good nine months ahead. Which is nice if you know when you can get time off work that far ahead. Which is likely to be the weekend if you don’t live locally. Which is when everyone else will have time off and want to do the same thing.

Now obviously, this isn’t annoying enough in itself. How else can things be made more difficult?

“Was BIFF re-enacting Monty Python’s ‘Cheese Shoppe’ sketch where customer and vendor play a merry verbal dance until it is finally revealed the premises was bare of cheese from the beginning?”

Ah yes, with us foolishly finding a reasonably-priced hotel further from the venue. Aside from the fact that it wasn’t demanding our future earnings for the next decade, the Toyoda Inn was located literally right next to Busan Station. Getting in was easy, getting out was mercifully painless. Getting anywhere else, on the other hand… Busan Station is several light years away from Centum City, which took 45 minutes to reach via two subway lines for we ordinary proles unable and unwilling to sell our kidneys to the Ramada.

The world’s largest department store – a city within a city, where the cinemas are located on the top floor in between the clouds. For your convenience, of course.

So then, after the Milky Way galaxy had turned a full quarter, we finally staggered out of the subway into Centum, connected directly to the Shinsegae mentioned earlier, and began our search for the aforementioned CGV from where we expect to buy tickets. This is when we discovered that Shinsegae Centum City is today the largest department store in the world – and that the cinemas were located on the top floor. Another half hour passed before we reached the ticket office, to be found at a different latitude from the ground floor, though just beyond the inviting theaters. Are we having fun yet?

Naturally, this is when we were told that the cinemas themselves no longer sold festival tickets and that we’d have to purchase them from the dedicated ticket booths over at the Busan Film Center a quick ten minutes across the road.

We came to know that department store extremely well by the end of our trip. Another half hour passed as we gained escape velocity from Shinsegae’s Jupiter-like gravity and made a slingshot over to the aircraft-hangar like film center, half of which had been cordoned off to make way for some cacophonous K-pop concert populated by a huge crowd of locals desperate to see celebrities unconnected with film face to face. So great was the unseen balladier’s influence that he appeared to have rendered invisible any signs indicating where the ticket booths might be located. Were they on the far side of the building? Of course they were. Funny, this doesn’t seem to have taken a quick ten minutes. We must have been doing it wrong.

At last, nestled in between crimson souvenir stands and sprawling revelers, the ticket offices revealed themselves, where a girl on the volunteer side of the counter explained helpfully that we could no longer purchase tickets for the days in advance. On-site ticket purchases had to be made on the day of the screening – each and every day, from the designated ticket booths both here and next to the department store.

“Did you see any mention of that on the website?”

“No, did you?”

“I’m pretty sure I’d remember something like that.”

Thus was the first day wasted completely. We would see no films and because of the enormous amount of time it took to reach Centum, no anticipated raw fish supper from the local market. Back to the hotel for a makeshift dinner of supermarket food and irritation at 11PM, knowing that tomorrow would be an early start. I had visions of sleeping outside a ticket office somewhere on the freezing concrete in order to be first in line.

Little did we know that’s more or less what we needed to have done.

Next Time

“Please tell me that isn’t the ticket queue!”

Time slows down and tempers become frayed as the story continues when World On Film returns.


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