Exploring the world through global cinema

A Question Of Balance, Part II

Previously on World On Film…

The Busan International Film Festival is the largest such event of its type in Korea. We scoured BIFF’s online program 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.

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.

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.

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.

“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. Back to the hotel for a makeshift dinner of supermarket food and irritation at 11PM, knowing that tomorrow would be an early start.

I’m Looking For A Miracle In My Life

I’m frantically trying to wash myself in our hotel bathroom. It’s one of those single-mould, capsule-like bathrooms popular in Japanese tourist hotels where everything is shiny plastic and stiflingly-compact. I could stand in the bathtub and kick the outer door open if I wanted, but I’m too busy cleaning myself for Day 2 of our attempt to enter a cinema at the Busan International Film Festival.

Our breakfast is a pocket of Busan air as we step outside for yet another arduous sightseeing tour of the local subway tunnels. There’s no time to eat and the stairs leading into to the subway smell of urine. With the train crowded with weekend commuters, I feel as if I’m going to work as per usual, which is appropriate given the hell of a job we’re having getting tickets. The journey seems to take even longer because I’m too filled with anticipation over what lies ahead to bury my face in a book.

“Our breakfast is a pocket of Busan air as we step outside for yet another arduous sightseeing tour of the local subway tunnels.”

Who you pretty much had to be to see a film this year.

The sun has passed the 8am mark by the time we crawl out of Centum City station into the crisp air of a film festival gearing up for another day. There are two temporary ticket offices for up-front festival ticket purchases, we’ve been told – one at the Busan Film Center we so enjoyed visiting the night before and the other erected outside the main street entrance Shinsegae, the little department store that overdosed on steroids and leveled a city block.

Presumably, the queue is behind that enormous crowd over there.

No.

Oh god, please tell me that isn’t the ticket queue!

A long and narrow sine wave of a queue slowly oscillates next to the temporary ticket office, filled with enough people to replace all the inhabitants of Svalbard, including the dolphins. We join the outer lane, which  is situated closer to the perfume department than the ticket office, and begin that ultimate testament to social evolution, waiting in line. It’s clearly not as easy as it looks, with frustrated individuals frequently giving up and resigning themselves to alternative arrangements for the day. I love those people. I want them to breed. I want them to spread their impatience throughout the crowd until they all find the idea of cinema utterly repulsive.

Alas, their numbers are too small just enough to build up false hopes. The majority is probably like us –come too far to turn back now.

It quickly becomes apparent however that there is another force to be reckoned with. Dancing around the crowd are the black-shirted festival helpers, the glue that hold BIFF together by doing all the leg work. As if awaiting an arrival on a long-haul flight from Heathrow, they hold up makeshift white signs onto which are hastily scribbled long columns of numbers they’d very much like us to read. Every so often, a new number is called out in Korean, which each volunteer immortalizes by adding it to his tally in black pen, like a massive game of street bingo.

Then the realization dawns upon us that these are the films that have already sold out. In large film festivals such as BIFF, you are provided with a free festival booklet containing daily schedules, featured programs, and film synopses. Next to each entry is the numeric code the film has been assigned for record purposes. Only this year, it has an extra function – to signify that you can’t watch it without mugging someone annoying enough to have secured a ticket.

Excellent, I think to myself; how thoughtful of the staff to give us something to do while we stand here in line. It even has all the major facets of human drama built in: tension, suspense, anticipation, hope, anger, frustration…and despair.

I can feel myself ageing as we study the film schedules for alternatives as every few minutes another movie number is padlocked from the dwindling list of options. It must have been fun for the international visitors to figure out what the whiteboards were all about – the announcements are only made in Korean.

It’s a funny thing standing in a long line with the same people. After a while, you feel you’ve come to know them, especially if you can hear their conversations. You start to wonder who they are and how they came to be here. Look at those jerks up the front. Bet they came here at 6. Probably live in Busan – probably have friends who live across the road or something and crashed at their place. Bastards!

The glacial pace of the line continues, causing scores of people behind us to give up. If they do, their only chance of seeing a film is to put themselves through all this again tomorrow, and every day afterward until the festival ends. But I can’t blame them, being close to erupting myself. By now, anything we were even vaguely interested in seeing has been murdered by a whiteboard marker and we’ll just have to take whatever’s left. Funny, they’ve got a lot of films here.

Finally, after over an hour of waiting, going mad, waiting, conspiring to re-enact Friday The 13th on everyone in front of us, waiting, and going mad, we reach the ticket office. The girl inside the booth helpfully explains that the next available film to watch is at 6.30PM as all the others are sold out. Those remaining start upwards of 8PM. Guess which one we picked?

I look back over the still-waiting crowd as we depart with our tickets. Most of them will get nothing and have to try again tomorrow. If we were even perhaps ten places further back in line, we might have had to join them. I decide then and there that there is no way in hell I’m going through this again. Especially with the knowledge that even after having secured two tickets for Parked, we now have 8 hours to kill.

To Learn As We Grow Old

2011-10-08/9.54AM: Second day in Busan and still haven’t seen any films yet. Things aren’t exactly going according to plan. (cell phone memo)

If the queuing seemed to take forever, getting to 6.00 seems to stretch beyond the concept of time. A lot of eating at various venues takes place to relieve the monotony, including lunch at a very traditional-looking Chinese restaurant famous for a dish that contains enough sugar and starch to simultaneously kill and petrify a diabetic. We also experiment with more café-style options, such as determining how long we can sit in Starbucks before going completely mad, or how much pureed fruit I can get through at Smoothie King before developing violent stomach cramp.

“I decide then and there that there is no way in hell I’m going through this again.”

Naturally, the surrounding area is explored, however Centum City is essentially a quickly redeveloped residential area and once beyond the confines of Shinsegae and the festival spaces, proves about as exciting as an overripe watermelon. Without a major event in town, the area is a soulless concrete garden with a shopping district only urban planners could love. And if you can’t catch any films…

I would like to stress at this point that Busan does have its share of attractions. Ancient temples, bright sandy beaches, island cruises, and seafood markets are just a few such examples. They just aren’t in Centum City, and we’ve seen those within easy reach on previous trips. And we’re tired, annoyed, and didn’t come here to smell burning incense, get our feet wet, or stare at whales.

Still queasy after a dodgy Chinese, we pay a daytime visit to the Busan Film Center to see what it has to offer besides screenings. I’m a sucker for good souvenirs, so am a little disappointed when the offerings include the BIFF logo on a half-hearted collection of stickers, cigarette lighters, and an assortment of apparel I’ve managed to get through several decades of existence without wearing. Certainly there are no films, posters or genuine movie merchandise connected with the event, the only purchasing of anything connected with film being the Asian Film Market, and that’s for buyers and distributors. All of which is simply further proof of whom BIFF is really for.

The center itself is suitably impressive in size, almost like visiting an airport in some places, and filled with theaters – from some of which come the sounds of lectures, discussion panels and indeed films. Here, the huge investment into the festival is readily apparent, and does at least make you feel you’re in a place where cinema is taken seriously. Pity we can’t actually see any of it.

We alight in a crowded foyer somewhere within this great complex, looking very much like people about to catch a film rather than two extremely pissed off out-of-towners bored out of their skulls, when we are approached by a female volunteer armed with clipboards. They do care about what we think, we are told, and would love it if we filled out a survey giving our opinions as to how we’ve enjoyed the new-look festival.

She has to come back three times before I’ve finished filling up every square inch of paper with lead.

Outside, the space near the souvenir stalls and ticket offices are filled with day-trippers enjoying a performance of acrobatics and magic tricks by a group of young street entertainers. Koreans are big fans of this sort of visual entertainment and so the crowd is very appreciative. Aside from this, there seems little else to divert the visitor’s attention, with most of it taking place behind closed doors for the privileged few. There’s nothing else for it – we still have hours to go before Parked and we’ve seen everything else that’s around. It’s time to wander around Shinsegae.

Like most men, I hate department stores. They are little more than shiny, overpriced shrines to the Usurer of Profitable Meaninglessness and mostly geared towards women. Asians understand this well and construct their department stores accordingly. Shinsegae Centum City was simply more of this expensive dreariness writ enormous. I have vague memories of standing at the entrance to various clothing stores while my wife darted about inside them wishing I were her sister, and of a torturous hour inside the stationery department staring at a billion birthday cards and anime figurines.

Trembling On The Brink

2011-10-08/5.08PM: Second day, after 5pm, and still haven’t seen a bloody film. Irritated. (cell phone text)

Colin Morgan and Colm Meaney, the stars of ‘Parked’. Thankfully the only film we wound up seeing was well worth it.

Even she was ready to hang herself by 5, so we spent the final hour or so waiting at the CGV (local cinema chain, and venue for our one-and-only film) where I became so bored I started filming passersby with my cell phone. If I couldn’t see any of their films, I might as well make a few of my own.

“If I couldn’t see any of their films, I might as well make a few of my own.”

Finally, after a stint in a nearby gaming arcade (and actually enjoying myself more than I care to admit – must do that again sometime), the hour finally approached. We were really doing it. Only 36 hours of waiting and we were actually going to see a film as part of the Busan Film Festival!

It had better bloody well be good.

In fact, Parked was a film I’d put on my top ten list weeks earlier when we were hoping to secure online tickets and had forgotten all about it. Produced in 2010, it’s an Irish drama/black comedy about two unconnected people of different ages living at the very fringe of society and who strike up a friendship. Ultimately they have to face their own demons but for one them, it may be too late. Parked was the first feature film directed by one Darragh Byrne and starred Merlin regular Colin Morgan and veteran of Irish and American film and television, Colm Meaney.

And it was brilliant – touching, heartbreaking, funny, and just full of pathos. No stupid Hollywood by-numbers structure, no cowardly happy ending, just a real, down-to-earth drama about two very real people. Everyone involved really stepped up to the plate and Byrne clearly has much to offer the film world. I really ought to give it a full review sometime, but for now at least, simply recommend you go and see it.

If that wasn’t enough, Byrne himself and co-producer Dominic Wright appeared in stage after the credits for a Q&A session. Both were very personable, and very pleased at the positive reception Parked had been given in Asia.

This is why I go to film festivals. This is why I watch international cinema – real films not driven by a marketing department in order to sell products and here, the chance to see some of those genuine artists in the flesh. We left the cinema, for the first time since we’d arrived in Busan, happy. It was time to go back to the hotel, get drunk, and relax.

We weren’t scheduled to depart Busan the next day until late in the afternoon, but I’d absolutely had enough of the whole farce that was BIFF. I had absolutely no intention of standing in line on the off-chance we might be thrown scraps if we behaved like good little proles. Besides which, if yesterday had been anything to go by, the odds of catching something before leaving were close to zero. And after the excellence of last night, there was nowhere to go but down. Better to leave it at that. We’d wasted a lot of time and money, but for 2 ½ hours at least, it had been worth it. So we spent the morning exploring the fish markets and taking lunch close to the station. BIFF was over for us. We probably wouldn’t be coming back.

The Balance

This account was just our experience of BIFF 2011. Maybe we weren’t doing things properly. Perhaps we had unrealistic expectations. Could be that we didn’t get up early enough to buy tickets or click fast enough when they were available online. Maybe there were other options we didn’t know about. To all this I say we studied the official site and acted on the information presented. It didn’t inform us that unlike previous years, we would not be able to buy tickets up-front for subsequent screenings. That to me was the biggest difference and something that ensured PIFF2010 hadn’t been a similar waste of time. We also had little choice but to stay at a hotel far from the venue and as out-of-towners, were not entirely prepared for just how long the commute would take.

Some of the films on sale at the Asian Film Market (click to enlarge).

“We’d wasted a lot of time and money, but for 2 ½ hours at least, it had been worth it.”

We know what to expect now, but it doesn’t seem worth it.

I don’t want to deter anyone from attending BIFF if they want to see it for themselves. If anything, take my experiences and use them to forewarn yourself when planning your trip.

As far as I’m concerned, the Busan International Film Festival has been transformed from a celebration of film that anyone could enjoy into a backslapping event for the industry and the local government, as well as an exhibition for distributors. I think the latter is obviously important for getting Asian cinema out to a broader audience and there is some great local talent deserving of wider recognition. However, by putting all their eggs in one basket and concentrating the festival in a small area, the event has become overcrowded and favors the VIPS, the guests and those able to get tickets more easily than the rest of us. Much of this was already the case prior to 2011, but by spreading the festival out over a wide area and forcing people to queue hours for tickets because the majority have already been sold in blocks to those with connections is hardly the answer. There is always an element of ‘first come, first served’ with any such event, but there are also such things as a bottleneck and personal expenditure.

I hope all of this proves to be simply the growing pains of a film festival now in its teenage years. For now though, I’ll be sticking to the smaller, local events.

*****

Next Time

“When one strips away the brow-beating nursery rhymes and sledgehammer subtlety of certain performances, they will still be confronted by a highly-arresting study of human coping mechanisms and the way in which the vultures circle in those times of weakness.”

A small town is paralysed by disaster when a school bus crash kills many of the local children. As the survivors grieve, and opportunistic lawyer arrives to take advantage of their pain. Atom Egoyan’s Canadian drama The Sweet Hereafter when World On Film returns. Click below for a trailer.

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