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.”
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.
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)
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
“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.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Pusan International Film Festival for the very first time – PIFF being South Korea’s largest cinematic celebration, now in its 15th year. I say ‘attend’, though it was more of a whirlwind 24 hour flirtation, given that Busan, as it’s now spelled, is in the south-east of the country, and I live in the north-west. As such, I saw no celebrities, attended no special screenings, nor partook in any seminars. At the end of the day though, it’s all about films, and I did manage to catch three fairly decent efforts – one of which saw its world premier here – and generally soak in at least some of the atmosphere that any cinephile would enjoy, as well as walk away with a souvenir or two.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about films”
The action was spread across several cinemas and venues in downtown Busan, most notably Haeundae, the nation’s most popular beach. With time pressing heavily however, I confined myself to one area, that being Nampo-dong, a district famous for film and fish, with raw piscines unwittingly sacrificing themselves to provide the evening’s dinner. With the visit crossing over Friday and Saturday, it was a chance to experience both the weekend throng and the quieter weekday crowd of dedicated flicker-fans. It was little more than a snapshot, a cross-section of the full experience, but it was highly enjoyable when it wasn’t utterly exhausting and hopefully this won’t be my last time there.
As such, I don’t feel qualified to launch into a full account of PIFF 2010, so I’ll concentrate on the films I caught instead.
(2010) Directed by Jang Hun
Click below to view the trailer, which contains English subtitles.
Even if one’s knowledge of film is similar in depth to Boris Johnson’s expertise on lucid discourse, everyone is aware of the concept of ‘national character’ – the cultural zeitgeist of a people that is easy money in cinematic terms. Films portraying the ‘Aussie battler’ champion the loveable struggles of the Australian working class in stereotyped but well-crafted epics such as Gallipoli, however also guarantee bums on seats even with the most formulaic of efforts, such as the more recent Charlie & Boots.
Elsewhere, the British self image of tolerance, restraint and humility has given rise to another genre of guaranteed money-spinners, typically infested with Hugh Grant’s bumbling, self-effacing celebration of failure in the face of eventual triumph. Whether or not anyone in either country actually identifies closely with these social ciphers, they clearly appeal to the collective national psyche.
In Korea’s highly familial and patriarchal culture, no film touches the hearts of the locals quite like the concept of brotherhood: the deep and unbreakable bond forged between two men (who may or may not be actual brothers) by blood, sweat, and above all, tears. The human ties that bind define one’s entire outlook in Korean society, with friendship an optional extra. Yet Koreans are powerfully sentimental, and no true brotherhood can last without genuine love.
The last decade alone has produced a glut of films mining the genre all the way to the Earth’s core safe in the knowledge that it will sell like cheap reality tv aspirations. Stand-outs include Joint Security Area, where soldiers from both sides of Korea’s demilitarized zone find friendship easy once duty and politics are pushed aside, and Shiri, a 2000 drama-thriller produced during the time former Korean president Kim Dae-jung actively pursued his Sunshine Policy with the North. In this film, a group of North Korean sleeper agents are pursued by South Korean special agents as they attempt to set off a series of explosives around Seoul so as to weaken the ‘puppet’ American stronghold for reunification DPRK-style.
“In Korea’s highly familial and patriarchal culture, no film touches the hearts of the locals quite like the concept of brotherhood”
2010’s Secret Reunion sits somewhere between the two in terms of plot, dealing as it does with North Koreans infiltrating the South and men of both countries forming a close bond when the seemingly-impenetrable clash of two incompatible ideologies are put aside. In the film, Shadow, a North Korean assassin has been dispatched to the South to obliterate a defected countryman, however Jiwon, his young partner and protege, a product of the North Korean military elite, is not so cold-blooded, needing reasoning deeper than simple political revenge to justify death. When Hangyu, a local National Intelligence agent fails to capture them after a bloody massacre in a residential area, he is forced into civilian life. Six years later however, he inadvertently runs into Jiwon and realizes he once again has a chance to bag the elusive assassin – still somewhere at large in South Korea. As he comes to know his new acquaintance, Hangyu finds a man of depth and compassion, and so turning him in becomes ever more difficult.
Unsurprisingly, PIFF hails this latest Korean effort as a sea change in local cinema. I however found it highly derivative, a local version of a typical Odd Couple outing, with a very standard and formulaic Hollywood happy ending little different from that one would expect from Midnight Run or 48 Hours. However, the film’s unoriginality and cornball moments are offset to a fair degree by some excellent direction from Jang Hun alongside a very competent cast. Jeon Guk-hwan plays the North Korean assassin Shadow with merciless revolutionary zeal. Jeon is more familiar to locals for his stage work, and the elder statesman’s theatrical experience is on full display here – there is absolutely nothing pantomime in his villain and he really comes across as a credible threat. Song Kang-ho is one of Korea’s biggest film stars and indeed my personal favourite. There is nothing especially groundbreaking about the character he inhabits, but it’s somewhat akin to having Tom Baker read the Yellow Pages, with the highly-talented Kang able to elevate even the most pedestrian of scripts. Equally capable is Kang Dong-won as Jiwon, the inwardly-anguished North Korean soldier. Where Song is all wonderful bluster, Kang is a study in tightly-controlled conflict and unsurprisingly, the foundations for the odd-couple pairing.
With this new chance to re-explore the brotherhood leitmotif as though it were for the very first time in cinema, writers Kim Ju-ho and Jang Min-seok go to great pains to build up this seemingly incompatible relationship, and of course, they’re onto a winner. Secret Reunion delivers the typical mix of two-hander conflict and humour we would expect from such a venture and away from the occasional ventures into Saccharine Alley, succeeds. Punctuated moments of high drama are the really memorable moments however, and the first venture into graphic violence is a surprise to the viewer. It’s even more effective when one learns that the script derives from a true story, with a Shadow-like killer penetrating the border and engaging in urban executions for the glorious Democratic Republic. In a way, it’s a shame that the producers felt they had to dumb down reality to the level of a tired buddy film, taking much of the wind out of history’s sails.
“There is nothing especially groundbreaking about the character [Song Kang-ho] inhabits, but it’s somewhat akin to having Tom Baker read the Yellow Pages”
Jang Hun nonetheless can be praised for being capable of bringing both elements to the screen with equal directorial affinity, clearly understanding the pacing required to bring out both comedy and thriller. The multitalented relative newcomer will hopefully attach himself to genuine innovation in the future and give himself a chance to show what he’s really capable of.
Those new to Korean cinema will be blissfully unaware of Secret Reunion’s recycled nature. Even Song Kang-ho must surely be feeling the déjà-vu, starring as he did in the similarly-themed JSA. For the most part though, it’s a well-produced adventure put together by a skilled production team. If only I hadn’t seen it all before.
Voice Over (International Premiere)
(2010) Directed by Svetoslav Todorov Ovtcharov
(Couldn’t find a trailer, I’m afraid)
Official program description: The story of a persecuted man who loses his son. Anton Krustev is a famous cinematographer. He makes a film about his own life. But those who now direct the film are the very same people who once persecuted him.
A while ago, I reviewed the Albanian feature film Slogans, which demonstrated the way in which that society, now free of the rigidly-controlled Soviet-style paranoia that once powered it 30 years ago, was finally able to laugh at the insanity of its past. Voice Over is a new Bulgarian entry in very much the same vein, though whereas Slogans showed the way in which people had become more concerned with parroting revolutionary Communist slogans than actually understanding and implementing the ideology behind them, Voice Over focuses more on the absurd Chinese Whispers-fuelled paranoia inevitably rife in a society kept under close scrutiny by its rulers, more terrified by imagined threats than real enemies. The film uses black humour to similar effect and similar in theme, the human tragedy of a wasted generation is just as poignant.
As with Secret Reunion, Voice Over is a true story, and to make matters even more intertextual with lead character Anton Krustev attempting to make a film of his own life – of a time in the late 1970s when he became separated from his wife and son by the Iron Curtain, they having fled to West Germany ostensibly for health reasons, but equally because they know which way the wind is blowing. This flashback is the film’s principal tale, and the way in which the State Security Services kept Krustev and his German-born wife under surveillance convinced that one or both were traitors attempting to defect to the decadent West. Innocent phone calls and mail are re-interpreted by the authorities as subversive while the wife herself, entreating Krustev to join her in Berlin, is seen as a malign influence trying to undermine one of Bulgaria’s then-most celebrated directors of photography. Krustev, meanwhile, must deal with the separation and loss of his family all the while succumbing to the influence of national ideologies: he is a patriot torn between personal feelings and national sentiment. If there is a happy ending, it can only be found by future generations free of the irrational forces pinning these unfortunates to the sacrificial altars of their country’s Communist past.
Slogans would also demonstrate how, in times of a Cultural Revolution, the family unit and love itself could be destroyed by the demands of the state, though Voice Over, with genuine humour, suggests that those on the ‘right’ side could be exempt from such disruption. Great rewards are promised to those in the service of their country, and if the misguided are talented, they are not beyond redemption with a certain amount of encouragement.
“Voice Over focuses more on the absurd Chinese Whispers-fuelled paranoia inevitably rife in a society kept under close scrutiny by its rulers, more terrified by imagined threats than real enemies”
Writer/director Ovtcharov goes right to the heart of the madness of Soviet paranoia in Voice Over, with even those not well-versed in Eastern European culture or history having no trouble whatsoever in understanding the message being delivered. His story is filled with realistically-drawn characters struggling to cast their voices into an arena interested only in the party line. Chief among them is Ivan Barnev as beleaguered film maker Anton Krustev, who conveys the ever-evolving emotions of love, loneliness, anger and hatred across a rapidly-stretching long-distance relationship with believability. Knowing as we do that the film deals with a dark chapter of Bulgarian history bookended by hopelessness, it is the journey, not the ending that really resonates. However, as much as Voice Over is a story of tragedy and a warning from the past about the dangers of extremism, it is not ultimately about hopelessness, but rather the struggle against insurmountable odds.
Where the viewer may struggle with it however is the slightly-protracted final edit. Perhaps reveling a little too much in the unfolding story, Ovtcharov neglects the pacing of the narrative as well as providing the film with several possible endings that fail to signal the finale. The overall effect renders dry what should be more emotionally-wrenching than it actually is: impatience in a viewer is never a good sign.
Those who can stomach the slower pacing however will be rewarded by Voice Over’s aims and be privy to the very human struggle for normality in extremism’s shadow. The last decade shows that with the parting of Iron Curtain, many Eastern Europeans have interesting stories to tell that they now do in film, finally gaining a voice of freedom away from state-sponsored cinema.
(2010) Directed by Semih Kaplanoglu
Click to watch the trailer below:
Official program description: Yusuf’s father is a beekeeper whose father hangs his beehives at the top of tall trees. One day, his father travels to a faraway forest on a risky mission, and later Yusuf must enter the forest alone in search of him.
Writer/director Semih Kaplanoglu delivers the third and final entry in the ‘Yusuf’ trilogy, this time focusing on the principal character’s childhood. Admittedly, I was entirely unaware until afterward that I’d just seen the final installment, though since they are told in reverse chronological order, one can enter Yusuf’s world through Honey knowing even less. Quick research revealed that the minimalistic Kaplanoglu style involving long, silent sequences and locked-off cameras is very much his trademark, and certainly the antithesis of mainstream cinema. Indeed, I was reminded very much of the equally simple but beautiful Korean epic Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left For The East? of a decade earlier. In both instances, the deep, impenetrable and imposing natural world is deliberately silent and overpowering so as to show the true place of nature in the human narrative.
Nothing could be more suited to the character of Yusuf, the deeply sensitive young boy who is himself so chronically-shy that speech for him is rare. Deep within the Turkish forests, he is heard to speak only with two characters throughout: his father, whom he idolizes, and even then can only communicate in whispers, and his schoolteacher, with whom he is desperate to impress with his reading comprehension skills. Yet in silence, he is fascinated by the world around him while at the same time almost too afraid to touch it. That he will grow into a poet (as seen in the two prequels) is in no way hard to believe.
“The minimalistic Kaplanoglu style involving long, silent sequences and locked-off cameras is very much his trademark, and certainly the antithesis of mainstream cinema.”
Obviously, much of the success of Honey therefore hangs on the child actor selected to play the lead role, but in Bora Atlas, Kaplanoglu has struck gold. Whether or not the young star intrinsically understood what was being asked of him, he imbues Yusuf with wonderful naivete and innocence enshrouded by his fear and awe of the world so well that one can’t imagine anyone else playing the part better. In the absence of dialogue for the most part, Atlas must convey his character entirely through his facial expressions and body language, which he does with the conviction of a young boy who very probably didn’t really know what was going on and for Yusuf, this is in character.
It’s easy to criticise the so-called ADHD generation for having the attention span of a bee and therefore unlikely to find Honey ideal viewing. However, given the director’s Philip Glass-like approach to film-making and the paucity of dialogue, the film is a challenge to even fans of art house cinema at 103 minutes in length. While the point is to really capture the unshakeable silence of Yusuf’s world, it could easily lose at least 20 minutes and still deliver the same message without feeling at all rushed. Yet I also feel compelled somewhere down the line to watch predecessors Milk and Egg to see if this is a shortcoming of the Kaplanglu approach or whether this time around, those self-same elements don’t hold together. It is nonetheless the mark of a confident director not compelled to hide a multitude of sins through post-production.
Ultimately, Honey is a fine piece of cinema that just falls short of greatness perhaps for being too one-note in its approach. I still find plenty in it to recommend however and its refreshing simplicity is the perfect antidote to formulaic claptrap.
Coming Up Next
It’s Iceland, 1973, and the inhabitants of a small, sleepy island find their lives disrupted by the very ground beneath their feet. The true story of Eldfell captured on camera for all to see when World On Film returns.