Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Pusan Film Festival Diaries
Live from Korea

by Henri Béhar

Pusan, Korea, September 16 , 1996

There is always something intriguing, and touching, in a festival making its debut on the international scene. Something akin to the old MGM musicals where Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney corralled a bunch on kids in a barn to "put on a show!" The scenery may fall down and the stage manager drown backstage, the show goes on, as it must, and becomes a hit.

Despite, understandably, some initial confusion, the Pusan International Film Festival - the first event of its type in the history of Korea - went to town in a major way.

The town itself: a harbor on the South-West coast. Sprawling, dense, lively. "Festival-land": seven screens in the downtown area, plus a 5000-seater open-air venue at the Yacht Club for gala presentations. The programming: 171 films, from 31 countries, all in little more than a week (September 13 to 21)

Of note: the presence of Japanese films - a total of fifteen. It's the first time any film from Japan has been shown since Korea's independence from the Imperial rule.

Of note: the 400 volunteers, most of them students, who work (for free) for the Festival, a sign, perhaps, that the city hungered for such a cultural event.

Of note, finally: the introduction by the Festival organizers of a computerized advance sale system. It's a first in the history of Korean show business. To say that the organizers had cold sweats about it is an understatement. When the Festival opened, only 3000 tickets had been pre-sold. The day after opening night, 8000 tickets were sold for THAT DAY! Needless to say, the organizers were smiling. But that also underlines how eager the citizens of Pusan were for such cultural influx. Forget the "hustling bustling anthill-like Asia" cliche: on Saturday night you could hardly MOVE on what was quickly nicknamed Festival Plaza. You get more elbow space in the New York subway in the midst of the rush hour.

And none of the hassle. For the Koreans are exquisitely polite without being obsequious. In their dealings with you, they give you undivided attention - emphasis on undivided. If you (a Westerner) happen to walk by waving a hello, young or old, businessmen or rock stars, they interrupt their sentence, stand up if they're sitting down, turn to you and bow. You give them your business card - quite an industry here - they face you, take it with both hands, and actually READ it.

And they'll always come up with a present - a token of appreciation. As I was leaving Korea, I offered one of the volunteers who went beyond the call of duty to help me with check-in and stuff a soft drink at the airport cafeteria. A couple of minutes later, she excused herself -- to go to the rest room, I thought - and came back with a key ring adorned with a Korean mask. "That is for you. You smile too," she said.

But back to films. Palme d'Or-winner at the last Cannes Film Festival, Mike Leigh's SECRETS AND LIES kicked off the First Pusan festival. The standing ovation it received bode well - it actually set the tone for screenings to come. The "International Selection" galas showed films about to be released (Walter Hill's Bruce Willis starrer LAST STANDING MAN, which is actually based on Akira Kurosawa's YOJIMBO) and films familiar (or about to be) on the Festival circuit: David Cronenberg's CRASH, Jim Jarmusch's DEAD MAN, with Johnny Depp, Joel (and Ethan) Coen's FARGO, Lars von Trier's BREAKING THE WAVES, Marleen Gorris' ANTONIA'S LINE and Zhang Yimou's SHANGHAI TRIAD.

Better then for the visitor, to focus on the Window on Asian Cinema and the sections dedicated to Korean Cinema, particularly the New Trends. Many surprises, a great deal of maturity, and an unexpected ballsiness.

A loner and a half-wit, Eric Khoo's MEE POK MAN runs a late-night, fish-ball noodle stall in a notorious part of Singapore. Among his clients is a prostitute who's been around the block many a time, and is controlled by a nasty pimp. The Mee Pok man becomes obsessed with the idea of rescuing her. They will connect, but fate sometimes deals a cruel hand... A melodrama, structurally, but as the director and his actors avoid the soggy weepiness of the genre, and the film becomes a fine portrait of two characters and of the society that surrounds them.

A SINGLE SPARK, by Korean director Kwang-Su Park, tackles its subject head-on. While researching for a book, a writer, himself a political fugitive, takes us back (in black and white) to the middle of the 1970s, the "Dark Age" (per the Koreans) of oppression and despair, of sweatshops and total scorn for (unenforced) labor laws. The object of the search: Jeon Tae-Il, an activist who died at the age of 22 by setting himself on fire holding the Labor Law Code. And along with the writer, the film takes us down the path that lead to Jeon Tae's self-immolation. Things may have changed a tad, but as the color segments of the film (today) imply, unionizing in Korea is still difficult if not dangerous.

As Jeon Tae-Il, actor Kyoung-In Hong has a charisma that recalls a (more) juvenile Brando in ON THE WATERFRONT. Yep, that strong.

Korean director Sun-Woo Jang also goes it a one-two punch. Never averting its gaze, however horrible the events it observes, A PETAL follows the harrowing odyssey of an adolescent girl during and immediately after the upheaval that rocked the country in the 1980s and brought about the Kwangja massacre. Her family dead, herself passing off as a corpse, she escapes from the cadavers piled up in an unmarked grave. Destitute, homeless, delirious, she drifts toward Seoul, is given shelter (so to speak) by a construction worker who treats her with both kindness and violence. She has survived guns, and repeated rape, but can any soul recover from so deep a trauma? Alternating between color (today) and black and white (the past) -- a staple in this Festival's movies -- using slow motion but not abusing it, A PETAL, stark and uncompromising, leaves you totally shattered.

The day a man showed his film about three women, Korea's Soon Rye Yim focuses her first opus on three men. THREE FRIENDS describes the relationships amongst a trio of adolescents (one eager to become a hair dresser, another eating himself to obesity) and their different approaches to the prospect of obligatory military service. Small touches, tiny vignettes apparently just strung together, the film reveals a strong narrator and an even more incisive director. THREE FRIENDS was made on a shoe-string budget, the party given it by electronics giant Samsung possibly cost more than the entire movie. But hey!

Huge buzz around a Korean film shown later this week, called THE DAY A PIG FELL INTO THE WELL. Great title. Hope the movie measures up.

Much to my regret, family reasons forced me to leave Korea overnight. Can't wait to go back, though.

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