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
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
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.