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Posts tagged “Korea

Are You Sitting Comfortably? Part II

July 2012 saw the 16th edition of Pifan, or the Puchon International Film Festival, held annually in Bucheon, South Korea.  I was there and you can read about the first half of my experiences in the previous post. Here, then, is the second half.

I’m sure it would surprise precisely no-one that a Korean international film festival is principally for Koreans. Even the Busan International Film Festival, the largest event of its kind in Asia, makes little more than a perfunctory effort to provide English to international visitors most of the time. I still haven’t forgotten the debacular mockery inflicted upon non-industry ticket purchasers at BIFF 2011, forced, thanks to the virtual impossibility it was to purchase online, to be herded like sheep along a rubber-ribboned maze toward a hastily-erected festival ticket booth outside the world’s largest department store only to be told the tickets had already been snapped up by everyone who’d arrived 30 minutes earlier.  “Wow, thank you BIFF for selling 80% of the tickets online to everyone in the film industry and local government officials who probably won’t even turn up – not to mention relocating the festival to one single city block so this ocean of human slave puppets can fight like dogs for jacked-up hotel prices before standing in a queue on the street full of frustration and broken promises. This couldn’t be any more awesome even if I painted my nose red and let you pelt me with wet sponges – which, by the way, I completely deserve at this point.” Meanwhile, darting around the line of disillusioned faces like bright red sheepdogs, barked a zig-zagging group of festival volunteers wielding portable whiteboards onto which were scribbled a bizarre series of numbers possibly denoting how many dumb suckers were letting themselves be robbed of their dignity, but were in fact a rapidly-growing list of number codes for all the films selling out before you reached the booth. None of which was explained in English, and so became a time experiment wherein one determines how long it takes each mystified member of the cattle run for the penny to drop.

“This couldn’t be any more awesome even if I painted my nose red and let you pelt me with wet sponges – which, by the way, I completely deserve at this point.”

And again, this is the biggest film festival in Asia. It’s meant to be a big-name brand event designed to attract niche tourism. The more diminutive and less-funded Pifan, meanwhile, can be forgiven for lacking many of the needed resources, not least the ability to pave the streets next to the venues. Not only can the regular masses actually purchase tickets online, but also the staff is actually trying to make it possible for them to enjoy themselves. How else to explain BIFF’s red-shirted counterparts actually walking around with bilingual signage, or the fact that I was at one point assigned a personal interpreter so that I could enjoy a post-screening Q&A session?

Pifan is also trying to make a big name for itself, evidenced by the foreign film-makers and press I met there, and needs to be properly bilingual if only to draw that kind of crowd. I apparently cut an incongruous figure, being asked three times if I were “industry or press”, as though those were the only two options. Sure, there’s this blog, and I did act in a short film recently, but that wasn’t the point. I was there as an enthusiast. I can’t have been the only one. To me, international film festivals are an incredibly important service, offering average citizens a (relatively) rare chance to see something beyond the strong-armed monopoly of mainstream cinema. For half the price of a normal ticket.

Ironically, the mainstream played a much larger role in the rest of my Pifan experience, to mixed results.

The Shining

(1980) Written & Directed by Stanley Kubrick

“When something happens, it can leave a trace of itself behind. I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel over the years. And not all of ’em was good.”

Seriously – could *you* tell this guy was going to go nuts by the end?

Yes, I know – surely Stephen King wrote The Shining? Not this version he didn’t. King’s celebrated novel tells the story of a recovering alcoholic with anger management issues trying desperately to do the right thing and hold on to his damaged family by accepting the winter caretaker’s job at remote Colorado mountain lodge, the Overlook, as a last-ditch chance to avoid poverty. However, his efforts to stay on the straight and narrow are completely disrupted by the hotel’s evil spirit, its power accentuated by his telepathic son. The story is a strong blend of the supernatural and King’s usual exploration of blue-collar family relationships put to the test by forces beyond their control.

Contrast this with The Shining, a story about a barely-under-control malcontent seemingly saddled with a family he doesn’t especially want taking a job at the Overlook in order to gain the peace and quiet he needs to write a novel. Quick to begin losing his sanity long before the hotel asserts its malign influence, this version of the character is the principle catalyst for the Amityville Horror-style rampage that follows, with the Overlook simply tapping into a pre-existing madness. While wrapped in similar packaging, the two stories could not be more different – and the above comparison barely scratches the surface of their asymmetry. Stephen King clearly agreed with this assessment, overseeing a televised adaptation of his book in 1997, which is, aside from the story’s climax, about as faithful as a four-hour miniseries can be.

“This is a man who could have made a film about the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it.”

And yet while The Shining both largely dismisses and tramples upon the source material, it has the kind of unsettling and claustrophobic atmosphere coupled with the trademark eye-catching cinematography and editing that make anything Stanley Kubrick does so compelling. This is a man who could have made a film about the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it. Add to this yet another force of nature in front of the lens in the form of Jack Nicholson, very much at the top of his game and with the kind of presence that superglues your eyes to the screen, almost afraid to see what he’ll do next. Jack Nicholson could perform the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it. Those of us still clinging to the remaining tatters of King’s original story have little choice but to declare him completely miscast as Jack Torrance – not because of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (I for one haven’t even seen it) – but because every nuance of his performance, every arched eyebrow, every glint in his eye and every cynical tone drawling from his lips telegraphs Torrance’s impending madness like flashing, ten-foot-high neon. Yet none of those people would actually say what he was doing on screen wasn’t interesting.

Then there’s that softly-disconcerting soundtrack by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind intermingled with various classic found tracks of a different lifetime, the imposingly-dark brown visage of the Timberline Lodge-as-Overlook, the threatening majesty of Mt. Hood, and a whole raft of elements that make this psychological base-under-siege melodrama work so well. For King fans, it is an exercise in doublethink, where they must put aside the author’s middle American melodrama and enter Kubrick’s realm without any preconceptions. Imagine if King’s version of ‘The Shining’ was a true account of events, and The Shining is the fast-paced Hollywood thriller based on those events. Except that Kubrick was clearly seeing the story through an entirely different lens.

Room 237

(2012) Directed by Rodney Ascher

If you thought ‘The Shining’ ought to consist mostly of this opening shot over and over again, ‘Room 237’ is the documentary for you.

So imagine that you’re a fan of The Shining, and you’ve watched it over and over again in the 32 years since it was released. You know every line of dialogue, you’ve consciously studied every one of the set props, you’ve been struck by the symmetry of cross-fading shots, and you’ve stared at that opening shot of a helicopter flight across Lake St. Mary until the idea of it being just a helicopter flight across Lake St. Mary is patently absurd. Because you know Stanley Kubrick. Stanley Kubrick the perfectionist auteur who once made Shelley Duvall swing a baseball bat over and over again until she lost her mind. Stanley Kubrick the obsessive-compulsive director who turned a 17-week shoot into a 46-week shoot and had Jack Nicholson demolish 60 doors for the “Here’s Johnny!” scene.  This is not a man who does anything by accident. Every one of those Spherical 35mm frames has been planned to the Nth degree.

All of which you know, of course. Now imagine someone decided to shoot a documentary where uber-fans like yourself get to discuss all the hidden meanings and themes you know are what Kubrick was aiming for.

This is Room 237, a brand-new celebration to deconstruction peopled by individuals who know The Shining better than you do and possibly Kubrick himself. Some of the theories aren’t new: there is long-debated good evidence to suggest The Shining is in part recreating the destruction of the Native Americans by the “weak” white interloper, likewise the Holocaust allegory has been around equally as long, and ‘everyone’ knows the film is one massive allegory for Kubrick’s tension-filled assignment to fake footage of the Moon Landing for NASA. The ‘Obvious When Pointed Out’ file is well-explored also, in particular Kubrick’s tendency to mess with a passive movie-going audience with visual non-sequiturs and provocative props just outside the first-time viewer’s field of vision. The suggestion that Kubrick’s face has been superimposed into the clouds in the opening sequence however, that a standing ladder is meant to mirror part of the hotel’s exterior architecture, or that if you play the film forwards and backwards simultaneously, you’ll see all kinds of intentional thematic symmetry, definitely belongs at the speculative end of the pool. However, the various attempts to reach beyond reasonable lengths at the film’s discourse are welcomingly absurd interludes between the more serious – and in all likelihood more accurate – interpretations of Kubrick’s work. Ascher neither wants nor expects us to take all of Room 237 seriously, and in so doing ensures his documentary doesn’t bear all the stomach-tightening hallmarks of an Alex Jones conspiracy piece.

Consequently, what you won’t find in this film are musings from cast and crew, or indeed what they thought The Shining was about. For that, Vivian Kubrick’s 35-minute on-set short is still the best bet. Room 237 is a light academic paean to the film which spawned it, and for fans, is definitely worth a look. Everyone else will probably wonder what the fuss is all about.

3-2-1…Frankie Go Boom

(2012) Written & Directed by Jordan Roberts

The Pifan Daily, freely available during the festival. Apparently I missed the meeting where the word ‘daily’ was redefined to mean ‘twice-only’.

Time now to unzip our parachutes and float down to Dick Joke Island, where relative newcomer to film Jordan Roberts, perhaps in a bid to prove our species really did evolve from primates, clearly believed the market needed another 90 minutes of genital-related humour, now that Harold & Kumar have annoyingly grown up. The infantile Frankie Go Boom also inflicts upon the viewer that other ‘essential’ element of frat-boy comedy, the intensely annoying main character one is supposed to find loveable and hilarious. Twenty years ago, it was the disturbing mental case brought to life by Bill Murray in What About Bob?; today, it’s Chris O’Dowd donning an American accent to play the sociopathic Bruce, a young man oblivious to the lifelong psychological trauma he has inflicted upon his younger brother Frankie by filming every one of his most compromising moments and screening them to a giggling public – a practice all the more destructive in the age of file-swapping and broadband. Add the obligatory ‘touching’ romance, ‘crazy’ and unsympathetic family and Ron Perlman sacrificing the last vestige of his dignity, and presto: another tedious trek through the teen mire. You know, maybe we could get Scorsese interested in that Yellow Pages idea.

Puchon Choice Short 1

Another collection of short films, of which the quality averaged slightly lower than last time. Things get off to an uneven start with the Korean black comedy, The Bad Earth, where office employee Seung Bum puts himself at odds with his co-workers by refusing to clap along during company presentations and after-hours reverie. Clapping, as Seung Bum, firmly believes, is in fact an insidious form of alien virus that makes the human race ripe for the plucking. I will credit film-maker Yoo Seung Jo for adding to the shallow waters of sci-fi in Korea, a genre the country has historically had little reason to explore. However, the story’s premise is a little too ludicrous to be taken seriously, even if Seung Bum just might have good reason for believing it.

Very little credit, meanwhile, should be afforded Han Ji Hye, who in The Birth Of A Hero quite shamelessly takes the ‘Rabbit of Caerbannog’ scene from Monty Python & The Holy Grail and transposes it onto a rooftop in downtown Seoul. The idea that he might possibly be ignorant of this hallowed source material evaporated once the otherwise docile white rabbit began flying through air towards its victims and gouging out their necks in precisely the same manner. If Han is lauded as a master of surrealist cinema after this unbelievable cribbing, he deserves to be fed to the Legendary Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh!

Quality began to reassert itself at this point to the unusual Korean stop-motion animated short, Giant Room, in which a man rents out a space in a strange, colourless building. Told explicitly by the landlord not to enter the room marked “Do not enter this door”, the newcomer ignores the warning to his great peril. It’s always hard not to be impressed by the work put into old-style animation – just getting 10 minutes of useable material must have taken months. The claustrophobic miniature sets are also well-designed, and the decision to abstain from dialogue a good complement. Hopefully this is not the only feature we will see from Kim Si Jin.

“I will credit film-maker Yoo Seung Jo for adding to the shallow waters of sci-fi in Korea, a genre the country has historically had little reason to explore.”

The drama finally moved overseas at this point for the dystopian US horror, Meat Me In Pleasantville. It is the near future, where overpopulation has finally used up all of the world’s meat reserves, causing the federal government to make cannibalism legal. Inevitably, some citizens agree with this decision more than others, particularly dependent upon who is at the other end of a meat cleaver at any given time. As the Pleasantville population’s taste for human flesh turns them all into murderous zombies, a father and his daughter fight to escape, though they too are only human. Fans of slasher horror will not be swayed too much by the gore of Greg Hanson and Casey Regan’s half-hour kill-fest, though the real-world basis for the story would, I think, amuse George Romero. It’s a little difficult to imagine a government making cannibalism legal, or that a population would ever go through with it, but anyone who thinks that humans couldn’t acquire a taste for their own flesh – or want to keep eating it after that first bite – ought to read the real-world story of one Alexander Pearce. Unfortunately, both acting and dialogue fail to match the worthiness of the concept, making Meat Me In Pleasantville a little hard to digest.

Pifan Ticket office at one of the many festival venues.

The theme of vampirism returns in fellow US horror short, The Local’s Bite, where a young woman traveling home via ski lift after a night out with friends tries to evade a stalker. Film-maker Scott Upshur puts the unusual transport system common to his local town to good use in this suspenseful drama, which squanders its build-up at the last moment for unrealistic fantasy in the name of plot twists and humour. And again, the acting is highly variable, with the horribly wooden appearance of a clearly real-world ski lift operator struggling like mad to deliver a single line. However, Upshur’s talent for rising tension, good location choices and decent editing cannot be ignored, and those are the areas he should focus upon in the future.

It was the final entry in the collection, Antoine & The Heroes, that proved most enjoyable. In the French comedy-pastiche, B-grade film obsessive Antoine is forced to choose between two simultaneously-screening films at his local cinema complex, each showing his two favourite screen stars and each on their final showing. Unable to decide, Antoine decides to watch both, dashing back and forth between cinemas to catch the highlights. Hailing from the days when kung-fu couldn’t be achieved without a funky disco track and heroines screamed and screamed without ever needing Vicks Vapodrops, cool cat Jim Kelly beats up the baddies without messing up his bouffant in his latest piece of kung-fu cinema, while long blonde silver screen star Angela Steele dodges groping zombies in her new horror blockbuster. At first, Antoine manages to alternate between the two spectaculars with ease, but a small accident results in the blending of realities, films and genres to comedic effect. The best thing about this film is Patrick Bagot’s excellent pastiche of 70’s style kung-fu and B-grade horror – both very much in-vogue during that hirsute decade – realized by some great acting, costumes, sets, and appropriate period soundtracks. Anyone with childhood memories of 70s pop culture will feel more than a little nostalgic by the end of Antoine & The Heroes, reminded of why it was all so much fun – even if it does look ridiculous four decades on.

*****

Next Time

“From all directions They come, caring nothing for demarcation lines between man and motor. On every pavement, in every street, across every veranda, and through every backyard, they cover the town in a scuttling sea of red.”

World On Film pays a visit to Christmas Island and comes face to face with its most colourful inhabitants – a sidestep from the usual film fare, next time.

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Are You Sitting Comfortably? Part I

In this edition of World On Film, I look back over my visit to the recent Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (Pifan), and give quick takes on the screenings I managed to catch.

I’d been wanting to catch Pifan for a few years now, but always somehow managed to forget when it was on. However, after the complete debacle that was BIFF 2011, it was time to get serious about it. For those wondering, Pifan takes place in Bucheon, a city in the Korean province of Gyeonggi, located roughly halfway between Seoul and Incheon. There are eight categories, including World Fantastic Cinema, Ani-Fanta, and Fantastic Short Films. Only one category, Puchon Choice, is competitive, with the winners being screened on the final weekend of the festival. This is Pifan’s 16th year, making it almost as long as its counterpart in Busan.

Physically-speaking, Pifan is smaller than BIFF, and organised much the way BIFF used to be, ie – with screenings sanely distributed across in a number of cinemas throughout downtown Bucheon with one particular venue, Puchon Square, at the centre. It has yet to become the almost industry-only event that is BIFF today, which in practical terms means the average joe can actually get tickets for this thing both online or by simply turning up to the ticket offices in timely fashion. There’s no insane queuing for hours, no giant department store you have to trek through with huskies just to reach a screening, nor the feeling that if you aren’t press or industry, you’re getting in everyone’s way.

On the flipside of this, Bucheon is hardly the most exciting city to hold a festival, the main street seems to be in a permanent state of construction, and the more modest department stores in which the cinemas are located don’t have the greatest selection of cuisine. On balance however, I had a very positive experience, so I aim to make the best of Pifan until it inevitably becomes so successful that getting tickets for screenings will become as difficult as convincing Adam Sandler to stop making movies.

I managed to catch something from most of the categories mentioned during my visit. Here is what I saw:

Hard Labor

(Brazil, 2011)         Written & Directed by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas

Sao Paolo housewife Helena is about to realise her dream of starting her own business in the form of a neighborhood supermarket. Yet just as she is about to sign the papers for the property lease, her husband, Otavio, is fired from his job as an insurance executive after ten years’ faithful service. However, the couple decides to risk the investment and the store opens, though for some reason, business just doesn’t seem to be taking off, seemingly in direct proportion with Otavio’s failure to find work and mounting alienation from the family. As an increasingly-stressed Helena struggles to hold everything together, she finds her attention drawn to a crumbling supermarket wall and wonders whether it might hold the answers to her problems.

“There’s no insane queuing for hours, no giant department store you have to trek through with huskies just to reach a screening, nor the feeling that if you aren’t press or industry, you’re getting in everyone’s way.”

For much of its screen time, Hard Labor is more a drama about family breakdown than it is a horror movie, which is especially important for horror fans to bear in mind when going into it. Although there are definitely supernatural elements to the story, they are there to be allegorical, to act as a catalyst for the primarily human conflict which takes place. The problem for me at least is that neither of these elements quite reach the crescendo they could have had and there is a little too much stillness throughout. It isn’t really until the final scene that I felt the two strands really came together, but that does mean that Hard Labor has a satisfying ending. Anyone who’s ever had to face long-term unemployment through no fault of their own will appreciate the film’s central message that to get by in this ultra-competitive world, you sometimes have to unleash the inner animal. Good casting choices, lighting, and set construction also help to push Hard Labor over the line, along with the occasional dash of dark humour.

The Heineken Kidnapping

(Netherlands, 2011)           Directed by Maarten Treurniet                 Written by Kees van Beijnum & Maarten Treurniet

Rutger Hauer stars in Maarten Treurniet’s interpretation of ‘The Heineken Kidnapping’ (image: Pifan Daily)

As its title suggests, The Heineken Kidnapping retells the true-life incident when in 1982, Alfred Heineken, then-president of the family business, was kidnapped by four individuals for the ransom money. Based loosely on the events as reported by Peter R. de Vries, the film focuses on the careful planning, abduction, and aftermath of the event, in which the traumatised Heineken struggles to cope with his imprisonment as well as fight various legal loopholes in order to bring the criminals to justice.

Since its release, the film has been criticised for playing fast and loose with the facts of the case, as well as glossing over the highly meticulous planning the four young men undertook before making their move. I therefore probably had the advantage of ignorance, in that I had never heard of the kidnapping before, and simply took what I saw at face value. To me, The Heineken Kidnapping was a fairly compelling crime drama with a strong cast, most notably in the form of Reinout Scholten van Aschat as the psychopathic young Rem Humbrechts, for whom the operation is as much for sadistic pleasure as it is for financial gain. Meanwhile Rutger Hauer turns in a strong and sympathetic performance as Alfred Heineken himself, which, given that the audience is being asked to care about the plight of an extremely wealthy adulterer, is a testament to the actor’s longstanding talent. Those more familiar with the source material may feel differently, but for me at least, The Heineken Kidnapping was an enjoyable example of Dutch cinema, and proved to be one of the more talked-about entries at Pifan – at least going by some of the people I met during my visit.

 

Extraterrestrial

(Spain, 2011)         Written & Directed by Nacho Vigolondo

When a series of flying saucers begin hovering over the cities of Spain, most of the population takes to the hills. However, for Julio, a young advertising artist in Cantabria, the more pressing concern is to stay as close to Julia, the girl of his dreams, in whose apartment he has just spent a passionate evening. Unfortunately, matters are complicated by the presence of Julia’s nosy next-door neighbour and the return of her longtime boyfriend. But Julio will do anything to be with the girl he loves – even if that means making up a convoluted series of lies about an alien invasion – just to stay on the premises.

“At its core, Extraterrestrial is really a pretty conventional romance-comedy that hits all the usual notes its well-worn formula demands.”

With dramatic shots of a saucer hovering above urban skyscrapers and dire warnings by the authorities to stay out of harm’s way, one could be forgiven for thinking that Extraterrestrial might be another District 9. However, as with Hard Labor, the fantastical elements of the script serve merely to push a group of individuals together into a confined space and add colour to the background. At its core, Extraterrestrial is really a pretty conventional romance-comedy that hits all the usual notes its well-worn formula demands, and the unusual setting little more than an elaborate misdirection. That said, it is a pleasing enough 90 minutes with some enjoyable humour, and Julian Villagran makes for an unconventional romantic lead. Nonetheless, would-be viewers are advised to set their phasers on ‘low expectations’ for the best result.

Spellbound (aka Chilling Romance)

(South Korea, 2011)        Written & Directed by Hwang In-ho

Ballot card that ‘Extraterrestrial’ viewers were asked to submit. Guess which score I gave it.

Yuri, a shy young woman living in Seoul, is haunted by the ghost of her dead schoolfriend who lost her life during an ill-fated class excursion. Desperate for human company, Yuri has resigned herself to the fact that she will never enjoy close friendships or romance as long as a malignant ghost frightens away anyone who comes near. Hope comes in the form of Jogu, a wealthy stage magician who becomes intrigued by Yuri after he hires her for his illusionist act. With everyone else running from her in fear, will Jogu’s affection for his star performer be strong enough to overcome resistance from the Other Side?

I’d been warned before the screening began that Spellbound was something of a corn-fest, and by the end credits, felt so overdosed on saccharine, I nearly checked myself into a medical clinic for a diabetes test. In a country where clichéd melodrama is so popular it’s a major international export, Spellbound does not stand out from the crowd. With every passing minute came cliché after tired cliché about ill-fated romance, and every stomach-churning line about love and dreams meticulously welded to a truly nauseatingly-twee soundtrack had me twisting in my seat and groaning like an old man putting Viagra to use for the first time. If Extraterrestrial was formulaic, Spellbound was the formula, right down to the wise-cracking but experienced friends and sidekicks of the lead characters. All of which was so overwhelming that the horror element to the story, and raison d’etre for the whole situation was never adequately built up to be anything especially convincing and had me longing for the Dementors to float in on special dispensation from Azkaban and suck everyone’s souls into oblivion. Son Yeji gave a creditably agonised performance as the long-persecuted female lead, but frankly, the entire cast could have simply sat in a pool filled with corn syrup and elicited the same drippy performance. That, at least, would have been more honest.

Fantastic Short Films 7

Postcard for the Korean short film ‘The Metamorphosis’, handed out to patrons as they entered the cinema for the ‘Fantastic Short Films 7’ collection.

The great thing about short film collections is that if one film proves awful, you don’t have to wait long for the next one. FSF7 however started strong, with the Korean entry Delayed, in which a young middle-aged woman waits patiently at a near-deserted train station for her husband to arrive. Yet as she strikes up a conversation with an inquisitive man claiming also be expecting an arrival, nothing seems to be quite as it appears. Cast and crew of this very moving short appeared live on stage at the end, where director Kim Dong-han explained his desire to connect lost souls with lost train stations. My thanks to the Pifan personal interpreter who sat with me during this unexpected bonus event!

Next up, the Japanese parody-pastiche Encounters, wherein two very good friends look for adventure in the countryside and find more than they bargain for with giant monsters roaming the streets thanks to the machinations of an evil professor. Shot entirely using plastic action figures and some deliberately wonky props and sets, Encounters is a tongue-in-cheek Godzilla-like comedy, complete with lame action sequences and bad dialogue. I’d like to think the English subtitles weren’t meant to be quite as poor as they were, but if so, mission accomplished!

“The quality then takes a serious nosedive with the unpleasant and forgettable Italian horror mish-mash, I’m Dead, and I certainly wished I’d been dead during the 17 minutes it screened.”

The quality then takes a serious nosedive with the unpleasant and forgettable Italian horror mish-mash, I’m Dead, and I certainly wished I’d been dead during the 17 minutes it screened. Two long-time friends out hiking in the forest suddenly find themselves kidnapped by a crazed religious fanatic who begins torturing them in his secret underground lair, replete with bad lighting, corpses and handy tunnel system. The pointless and gruesome tale offers no depth in terms of the reasons behind the mad psychopath, nor indeed the ridiculous twist at the end. Which is an interesting coincidence, because I can offer no reason why anyone should watch it.

The macabre continues – though in a very different style – in the form of the Korean silent film, The Metamorphosis, a shadowy sepia affair with the disconcerting performances of Eraserhead and the visual echoes of Nosferatu. Claustrophobic static shots combine with heavy industrial clanking and retro white-on-black dialogue text inserts to tell the story of a family beset by vampirism. In truth, it’s a great example of style over substance that adds little storywise to the genre and comes close at one point to mobs with burning torches. Yet it’s the style that proves the most compelling here, so that while I’m not entirely sure what I saw, it was impossible to take my eyes off the screen. There are plenty of music videos like that.

Rounding out the collection was the light-hearted martial arts/crime spectacular, Pandora, in which taekwondo trainee Jeong Hun arrives in the city of Chungju for a performance, only to accidentally switch his cell phone with that of a man on the run from a gang intent on seizing the secrets the identical device contains. The film is a fairly unremarkable, reasonably-paced runaround that could not possibly satisfy fans of martial arts films, offering nothing new by way of story or visuals. When a story is full of clichés that have been done better elsewhere, you have to wonder who the intended audience really is. As a 30-minute romp in a film festival, Pandora is sufficient eye candy, but on its own, it swims in crowded waters.

*****

Next Time

The second half of my Pifan retrospective. I finally get to see Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining on the big screen, watch the over-reaching new documentary about the very same, entitled Room 237, find myself underwhelmed by the new Harold & Kumar-style American feature, 3-2-1…Frankie Go Boom and sit through another short film collection with mixed results. That’s World On Film next time.


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.


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.

Opportunities

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.


Close To The Edge

This week: isolation, abuse, and vengeance in Yang Chul-soo’s provocative horror-thriller, Bedevilled. World On Film is currently on break from its main series of film reviews, but having watched this recently, I couldn’t resist throwing in my two cents’ worth. Fans of Korean cinema can also read my brief account of my time at the 2010 Pusan Film Festival.

Bedevilled

(2010) Written by Choi Kwang-young                     Directed by Yang Chul-soo

“There are kind people?”

Turning point: a woman tortured by an uncaring world reaches the end of her patience in 'Bedevilled'.

When Hae-won, a highly-strung and unsympathetic young woman, is forced to take sick leave from her high-pressure job as a clerk in a busy Seoul bank, she decides to recuperate on Moo-do, the remote southern island of her birth. There, she is reunited with childhood friend Bok-nam, who unlike Hae-won, never left the island in search of greater fortunes, and lives with a violent wife-beating husband, a brother-in-law who routinely rapes her, and village elders who despise her for being a woman. Matters reach breaking point when her husband turns his lecherous attentions to their young daughter, and Bok-nam can finally endure her abuse no longer. However, her friend even now may not be on her side.

Script-writer Choi Kwang-young quickly earned a name for himself in 2010 with the release of two crime-thrillers, the first being Secret Reunion, which I reviewed last year. While it fell far more into typical odd-couple comedy territory, Secret Reunion did nonetheless contain some quite brutal murder scenes, suggesting that Choi might well have intended his tale of a North Korean assassin infiltrating the South to be far darker. Bedevilled, therefore, feels like the next logical step.

The film takes a character trapped in a loveless marriage and a cycle of endless abuse and asks what would happen if she were pushed over the brink.

Meanwhile actress Seo Yeong-hie had by this time already proved herself a veteran of grim, blood-splattered thrillers, having played one of the lead roles in The Chaser, in which police struggle to catch a twisted serial killer who preys on young women in a downtown suburb of Seoul. There, Seo gives a memorable performance as one of his prey, and in going on to play the tortured character of Bok-nam in Bedevilled, has seemingly become the go-to performer when casting abuse victims. Hardly surprising, since in Choi’s uncompromising melodrama, the female protagonist is put through the wringer akin to those in Pascal Laugier’s squirmfest, Martyrs, with Seo providing a painfully incredible, and indeed real, performance.

Some viewers may have trouble agreeing with this verisimilitude, given that the island is populated by a series of characters so horribly sadistic and sociopathic that it may be hard to accept the idea of anyone in real life being so horrible. However, Choi draws his characters from the cultural wellspring of what is still one of the most patriarchal societies in the world, where historically man was the undisputed ruler of his domain and woman was his property, there only to tend to his needs. Since it was the traditional male role to look after the parents in their dotage, men were valued far higher than women, who would inevitably marry into another family, and daughters-in-law were therefore little better than indentured servants. This attitude is compounded still further in the rural setting we see here, where only men are deemed capable of the endless physical labour required for survival. Korea’s gender imbalance is testament to the enduring nature of the long-held Confucian belief, and only beginning to dissipate in more modern times. Bedevilled’s cast sits at the extreme end of the scale, which Choi has taken to its logical conclusion: a remote island populated by characters uneducated, far from modern social attitudes and driven to antisocial behaviour due to their isolation, and the almost Wrong Turn-like devolution is the result. However, it is not a cheap shot commentary on the isolated community of hillbillies, but the effect they have on their unwitting servant that sits at the heart of the film.

Young daughter Yeon-hee, already corrupted by her lecherous father and doomed to follow the path of her mother unless both escape their island prison.

Bedevilled is something of a catharsis for every woman who has ever suffered the indignities of male-dominated social imprisonment. That same society teaches such women that suffering is part of existence, and something they must bear with fortitude, no matter how great or for how long it may be inflicted upon them. Kim Bok-nam however, is taken over the edge, and when the moment comes, Bedevilled rapidly begins to earn its slasher-horror stripes. On the one hand, it plays like a very typical Korean melodrama, with abuse and indignity piled upon the tortured lead until you begin to wonder how anyone could possibly endure any more. This is contrasted with the character of Hae-won, played by Ji Seong-won. She too is a victim of a male-dominated world, but is both too afraid to confront it and lashes out the wrong people because of it. Yet her abuse is inflicted in stages rather than as dramatically as Bok-nam’s, pushing her into self-absorbed narcissism rather than sympathetic compassion, depriving Bok-nam of her one remaining lifeline to sanity. This is of course is necessary if Bok-nam’s eventual descent into madness and quest for swift revenge is to be believable, and not simply the cheap contrivance of B-grade horror. Precisely because it is done properly is why Bedevilled is so powerful, and in a cast of such thoroughly unlikable characters (again, necessary to justify what is to come), it is the murderer with whom we ultimately have the most sympathy.

Bedevilled is something of a catharsis for every woman who has ever suffered the indignities of male-dominated social imprisonment.”

For all this, the script is unburdened by heavy-handed morality. There is a complete lack of “This behaviour is wrong because…” or “That’s what you get for being a rapist!”-type dialogue throughout. Bok-nam, who had known no-one else but the unsympathetic islands her whole life, has no basis for comparison for most of the film, thus her judgement is based purely on her experiences, allowing for an organic rather than didactic tale despite its pro-feminist overtones. It would be hard to imagine the inevitable Hollywood remake treating its viewers in such an intelligent fashion.

Unsympathetic family and friends find themselves the target of a vengeance they are too selfish to understand.

Shot on location on Geum-o Island in Korea’s south, Bedevilled has the perfect visuals to create its prison-like setting, contrasting them with Seoul’s concrete wilderness, which is not necessarily seen in a much better light, where misogyny is no less rife. Full credit to cinematographer Kim Gi-tae for simultaneously bringing out the stark contrast between these two locales yet showing their dark similarities.

The film does suffer from certain issues, firstly a tremendous jump in the action at the climax, presumably done for reasons of time, but standing out a mile. It raises questions about how certain characters manage to end up from one location to another given their predicament, and is something that director Yang Chul-soo cannot have failed to miss. Also, while the gore scenes are for the most part handled as realistically as one could imagine them being, Bedevilled does suffer a little from Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees syndrome, where antagonists cannot possibly have managed to survive the death blows inflicted upon them so unharmed, forcing the audience to put the superhuman endurance down to masses of adrenaline caused by madness. Still, noticeable though they are, the discrepancies do not undermine the story’s principal aims, and one way or another, Bedevilled burns its mark into the psyche – or should that be ‘slashes’?

Point of no return: the perpetual victim finds herself pushed into a corner.

Full marks finally for the subtitles on my copy, which being the official release, should be the same for you as well. You know a film is being translated well when the subtitler works hard to capture dialect and slang in another language. In Moo-do’s grotesque denizens, it manages to heighten their inhumanity, while in Bok-nam, it brings out the simple, country girl who yearns for both affection and to see Seoul, which through Hae-won, she has equated with the entire world beyond.

Ironically, I have yet to meet any Koreans who have seen Bedevilled, although that’s clearly just the people around me, and they all knew it by reputation. Its dark, unsubtle character study and melodramatic brutality, not to mention blood-splattering second act will not endear it to many, but when viewed in the right context, which I have hopefully established for the reader above, it functions as an extremely powerful film and comes highly recommended.

In case you’re wondering, the original Korean title, which rather gives everything away roughly translates to ‘The Circumstances Surrounding Kim Bok-nam’s Homicidal Episode’. Then again, subtlety is not the point of the exercise here.

*****

Next Time

And now, for something completely different. Several months ago, I had fun writing about two of my favourite soundtracks to films I hadn’t actually seen before. While a good score should arguably be inconspicuous, it takes on a whole new meaning when heard in isolation. On this occasion, I look at two soundtracks to films that I would go on to see and attempt to put what I at least can hear into words – a possibly foolhardy and ill-advised effort that may make counting sheep an adrenaline-filled rush by comparison. The two scores thus afflicted are Neil Diamond’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and Victoria Kelly’s Under The Mountain next, when World On Film returns.


Scenes From A Festival

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.

Secret Reunion

(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.

Director Zhang Yimou's hand-print in PIFF Square. Yimou's new film, 'Under The Hawthorn Tree', headlined this year's festival.

Voice Over (International Premiere)

(2010) Directed by Svetoslav Todorov Ovtcharov

(Couldn’t find a trailer, I’m afraid)

Kasiel Noah Asher co-stars in the Soviet-Era absurdist drama, 'Voice Over'.

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.

Street entertainment takes the festivities outside of the theatres.

Honey

(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.

The weekend crowd gathers.

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.


Grand Canyon

Atom Egoyan: writer, director and star of this week's film, 'Calendar'.

I normally start a post by relating some of the other things I’ve watched during the week. On this occasion, however, it’s quite a long story, dealing as it does with my attending the closing night of the Chungmuro International Film Festival in Seoul. I’ve therefore placed that section below and instead will jump straight into this week’s entry. Representing Armenia therefore is the Armenia-Canada-Germany co-production:

Calendar

(1993) Written and Directed by Atom Egoyan

Calendar is a slightly unusual film offering, written, filmed, directed, performed and possibly even fixed together with Scotch tape by Atom Egoyan, with this being my first trip into his cinematic world. It is a film that builds subtly, almost voyeuristically, so that the viewer finds themselves delving into the lives of its subjects to a level of prolonged discomfort, which reaches its crescendo as their true nature unfolds, all the while within some wonderful Armenian landscapes.

“It is a film that builds subtly, almost voyeuristically, so that the viewer finds themselves delving into the lives of its subjects to a level of prolonged discomfort”

Ashot Adamyan, left and Arsinée Khanjian, right, complete the eternal triangle.

The plot concerns a Canadian-Armenian photographer returned to the land of his ancestors with the job of photographing his homeland’s most picturesque churches for a forthcoming calendar. He is accompanied by his Armenian wife, acting as translator for the local driver and guide they have hired to provide them with background information on all the sites visited. The unassuming beginning suggests that this is more or less the sum-total of the film, but with every new location, we slowly learn of the deeply fragmented relationship present between the married couple and the cause of the ensuing distance between them. The way in which the film is shot helps to underscore this gulf, with the photographer never seen with his wife in the same place at the same time. Indeed, we only see him some time after the calendar has been printed, while we only see her during the photoshoot, very tellingly only in the company of the driver.

In some ways, Calendar is rather difficult to watch, with the characters becoming more and more grotesque as the narrative progresses, especially that of the photographer, whose mounting jealousy (which could itself be described as a grotesque emotion) is exacerbated further by his unpleasant personality, particularly evident throughout scenes occurring in the present where, still emotionally in orbit around his estranged wife, he ‘auditions’ a long line of potential replacements (something that is not explicitly stated, so other viewers may have a different interpretation). Yet the film is shot in a very simple and effective way, which captures the claustrophobic mood of the piece while highlighting the wonderful natural backdrop. The camera is locked off in every scene, perhaps to mimic the still photography of the calendar itself, forcing the viewer to pay close attention to the tense and unspoken decay of the relationship. The still frame, accompanied by the subjects frequently in mid to long shot, further symbolize the distance felt by the man behind the camera and only serve to heighten his sense of isolation. These sequences are intercut with handicam footage of the characters’ journey through Armenia, and yet despite providing the opportunity for motion, it is no more comforting, with the bluish tint and frequent lack of sound simply another form of isolation.

Marvellous scenery provides the backdrop for the unsettling drama.

Egoyan is clearly a skilled photographer, and he lovingly captures the churches with the warmth and texture you would expect to see on a professional calendar. This only serves to heighten the contrasting coldness and unease created by the characters themselves, which Egoyan as the photographer and Arsinee Khanjian as the wife expertly create. It’s certainly not a pleasant cinematic adventure, but anyone who has experienced that phase of a relationship will at least know the horrible awkwardness created between two people who were once close, and the helpless feeling of loss as a result. Unfortunately, drawn as he is, it is well-nigh impossible to sympathize with the protagonist’s predicament, though his wife is by no means a victim.

“[The wonderful back drop] only serves to heighten the contrasting coldness and unease created by the characters themselves “

The deeply personal discomfort, while real, does perhaps ensure Calendar is probably not something I could sit through too often, but the effective minimalist approach on the production side and the jarring juxtaposition of cold, reserved knife-edge drama against the ultimately inconsequential polychromatic background has imbued a strong sense of the Atom Egoyan style. Certainly not a crowd-pleaser, but a director guaranteed to provoke thought. I’m certainly curious enough to explore some of his back catalogue some day.

Sugar Bullets

The official festival logo. The large black characters spell out 'Chung-mu-ro.'

Last Friday evening, I managed to catch the tail end of the Chungmuro International Film Festival in Seoul. The largest such event in Korea is hands down the Pusan International Film Festival, but CHIFFS is undoubtedly the second-largest, having run this year from September 2-11. Chungmuro was the seat of the local film industry as far back as the early 1960s, and although the major studios have since expanded and relocated to the now wealthier southern district of Gangnam (herein one finds the headquarters of the nation’s conglomerates and the city’s major convention centres), it still symbolizes all things cinema to many. Running since 2007, CHIFFS has been an attempt to keep its legacy alive by screening the festival’s large selection of features at venues in and around the area.

Rain-soaked skies bookended the finale, but the crowd assembled were of a respectable size. Cameramen were falling over themselves to document the arrival of the many self-important political entities, but otherwise, the atmosphere was fairly relaxed. The aged venue was a far cry from the modern, cookie-cutter multiplex behemoths, with absolutely no neon lighting or overpriced snack bar (although having skipped dinner to reach Seoul, this would have been a welcome sight). A high stage that could easily double for the other definition of theatre held the large screen on which we would see the final hurrah for CHIFFS 2010. I had travelled a long way to see this film and was eager to see it begin.

“Cameramen were falling over themselves to document the arrival of the many self-important political entities, but otherwise, the atmosphere was fairly relaxed.”

When the dithering crowd made little effort to actually sit down, a helpful announcer reminded them that everyone was keen to get the evening’s entertainment underway. This seemed to prompt people into action, and they at last managed to settle into their high-backed cushioned wooden seats – volunteers would excitedly relocate anyone who had unhelpfully chosen the side aisles to the centre, so as to help maintain the illusion of a full house. At last, the lights dimmed and a video retrospective hurriedly skimmed through the highlights of the last week-and-a-half. The helpful alacrity was then halted, as the house once again lit up and a glittering woman took the stage –our host for the evening.

One of the criticisms of many Korean events that purport to be international is the lazy lack of proper bilingualism. Even as I write, the English version of the CHIFFS website (http://www.chiffs.kr/eng/main.asp) is still yet to be finished and contains only about 10% of the information found on the Korean site – much of that information crucial, such as a schedule of events and explanations as to precisely how one can buy tickets. This half-hearted approach was in evidence that final evening, as the host would very helpfully give a cursory translation of her far more animated Korean pronouncements, as though having to relate her words in another language was an unnecessary evil. She would then, in English, introduce one of the aforementioned dignitaries to the stage, who would then proceed to give what could have been a brief history of the Sydney Mardis Gras, for it was not translated. This continued through several speech-makers: introduction in English, speech in Korean. I dutifully clapped at the appropriate moment, beginning to wonder if the film had actually been subtitled as advertised.

'What's that, Sooty? You want to make a film about people passing out from the heat because you're cold?'

The film of course, was not in any danger of starting anytime soon. Next to appear on stage, director Tony Chan, who, in muted tones, explained the thinking behind his brand new epic, Hot Summer Days – a U.S-China-Hong Kong extravaganza. In the story, Hong Kong, thanks to global warming, is experiencing its hottest summer ever, with citizens regularly collapsing to the ground in exhaustion and ice-cream available only to the highest bidder. Anyone familiar with interviews conducted on local television with someone who only speaks English would have recognised the odd spectacle now before us: the host confidently asked her questions in Korean, an interpreter would quickly whisper a translation into Chan’s ear, he would then address the crowd in English, followed by the host providing a summary in Korean. It was difficult not to think of the Sooty Show during the exchange. “What’s that, Sooty? Why did I make a film about the hottest summer ever? Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy?”

Chan’s answer to this question, meanwhile, seemed to sum up the amount of intellectualising he had put into the script. “Well, uh, I wrote the film in the middle of Winter, and it was really cold. So I didn’t want to write a film about Winter and it just came to me. Of course, we didn’t actually have 100 days of Summer to shoot, and that was the most difficult part.” The warning bells were ringing, but it was too late. I was committed by this point no matter what happened. Nonetheless, I was still upbeat about the whole thing, and with the silliness of the interview over, I sat back in anticipation. Then the singers arrived.

“I was still upbeat about the whole thing, and with the silliness of the interview over, I sat back in anticipation. Then the singers arrived.”

Although I couldn’t see any obvious connection to the festival with Josh Groban’s motivational ‘You Raise Me Up’, the opera-capable male quartet who brought it to life certainly delivered a very capable rendition. It was upbeat, after all, and that at least was the intended spirit of the event. Which doesn’t explain the next two barbershop quartet showtunes, mercifully sang in Korean, thus obscuring their saccharine lyrics. Finally, the mystifying musical entertainment was over and an intermission was called – presumably to give people time to check that they’d come to the right place. A resigned 10 minutes passed and then, mercifully, Hot Summer Days finally rolled.

Quick capsule review: hot summer dreck.

And it was one of the most awful, syrupy pieces of cinematic mush I’ve ever been forced to endure. A romance-comedy, it featured the courtship and mishaps of a series of couples across Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. Romance comedies typically rely on a string of improbable coincidences to ensure both conflict and happy endings, but Tony Chan clearly felt that these alone were enough to construct a film – that and the presence of the usual HK film stars, such as Nicholas Tse and Jacky Cheung. I won’t even bother to relate the involvement of the talking goldfish. It was like the worst excesses of the genre, only super-concentrated, and I was not the only viewer present to writhe in my seat as, with every passing minute, Chan blew raspberries at improbability, laying down track after track of cliché and cornball nonsense until the credits rolled – 90 minutes after the debacle had begun. If you weren’t diabetic going in, you certainly were going out.

Several minutes later, one of my companions was heard to wonder in hushed tones how something like this had ever been selected for the closing ceremony. The indifferent rain continued to hurl itself at the ground as he puffed away thoughtfully on a cigarette. Nonetheless, we all agreed that it had been worth coming. Exploration is what film festivals are all about. Hopefully the next adventure will be a little more savoury. And without a barbershop quartet.

“It was one of the most awful, syrupy pieces of cinematic mush I’ve ever been forced to endure.”

*****

Next Time

Hell on earth: imprisoned in the wilds of 19th Century Tasmania, a group of repeat-offenders make a desperate bid for escape across one of the world’s most unforgiving landscapes – a realm where even the Aboriginal natives can’t survive. A true story from Australia’s dark convict past unfolds in the uncompromising 2009 epic, Van Diemen’s Land. The official trailer appears below: