The 15th edition of the Pusan (now Busan) International Film Festival, the largest film festival in Asia, was a transitional year in many senses. First, Kim Dong-ho, the long-time founder of the festival who was the face of the festival, his avuncular, gregarious presence a ubiquitous fixture, decided to retire from the festival, handing the reins to his co-director Lee Yong-kwan. Second, it was announced sometime before the festival that it would at long last have its own home, the Busan Cinema Center in Haeundae, rather than the assortment of multiplexes it inhabited in past editions. Lastly, well after the end of the festival, its very name changed. Hereafter, the “Pusan” would change to “Busan,” to conform to the recent change of Korean romanization that affected the name of its namesake city; now the festival would transform its branding to reflect this.
As usual, the festival was a cinematic feast of challenging, emotional, innovative, and provocative films. This year, there were a total of 306 films from 67 countries, slightly less than last year, but still a staggering number; it’s impossible to sample much more tan a tiny fraction. In addition to the press conferences, parties, and other festival events – the most memorable being an outdoor talk with actress Juliette Binoche, and two of her directors who were visiting the festival, Abbas Kiarostami (“Certified Copy”) and Hou Hsiao-hsien (“Flight of the Red Balloon”) – I managed to see 30 films in total. Below are the ones that stood out the most for me.
My PIFF 2010 Top 10
- “The Ditch” (Wang Bing, China/France/Belgium)
No other film at PIFF devastated and shook me to the core as much as documentary filmmaker Wang Bing’s first dramatic feature, an intensely visceral evocation of the true story of Chinese labor camps in the Gobi Desert, set in 1960. It was here that so-called “rightists,” who for various reasons earned the ire of Communist Party authorities, were sent for “re-education,” digging ditches for construction projects. Wang based his film on Yang Xianhui’s novel “Goodbye, Jiabiangou”(named for one of the camps) and testimony by the survivors. Wang’s stark, digitally-shot landscapes and unadorned style lends a nearly unbearable “you-are-there” immediacy to the images he puts in front of us. As the men starve to death in the dead of winter, dysentery ravages the camps, the bodies pile up, and the unmarked graves accumulate, what emerges is a devastating indictment of the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution. For obvious reasons, including the fact that this remains a taboo subject in Chinese public discourse, this film will most likely never be officially released in its home country. Nevertheless, this is a harsh but essential and masterful work. And even though Wang makes full use of the skills he gained as a documentarian (especially in his masterpiece, the nine-hour “West of the Tracks”), this is no documentary. Wang elicits beautifully rendered performances by his cast of nonprofessionals, most notably Xu Cenzi, the film’s sole female presence, as a woman searching for her husband in the latter scenes. And if your heart doesn’t break as you watch her scour the graves of the windswept desert, then you have none.
- “Dance Town” (Jeon Kyu-hwan, South Korea)
The third film in Jeon’s “Town” trilogy (after “Mozart Town”and “Animal Town”), “Dance Town”is an unremittingly bleak portrait of Seoul seen, as in the other two films, through the eyes of the marginalized, isolated, and exploited. Here, the central figure is Jeong-nim (Ra Mi-ran), a North Korean woman who has defected to South Korea, and in the process is separated from her husband. Jeong-nim escaped the political fear and spying neighbors she endured in the North, but she finds that life is just as harsh on the other side of the 38th parallel. Jeong-nim isn’t the only lonely soul here; we also meet a policeman who despises his station in life, a pregnant high-school girl, and a depressed, divorced disabled man, among others. Jeon presents it all with a detached, analytical eye, refusing to indulge in melodrama or other kinds of emotional manipulation of the audience; he very consciously creates his films in opposition to the mainstream and the commercial. In his precise framing and editing, and in his use of actors as intellectual vessels rather than “performers,” Jeon is no less than Korea’s answer to Robert Bresson.
- “Hahaha” (Hong Sangsoo, South Korea)
Two old friends, a film director and a film critic, reminisce over drinks. Out of this very simple premise, Hong spins his funniest film to date, making the title of the film perfectly apropos. The familiar themes of Hong’s films, involving pathetic men and their long-suffering female companions, remain intact, as well as the narrative games Hong plays with his characters and situations. I like to see Hong’s oeuvre as one long film, an ongoing exploration of filmic narrative in which he finds seemingly endless variations on a specific, limited set of character types and milieus. What’s new here, as well as in his subsequent feature “Oki’s Movie,” is the lightness of touch he brings to this material, while being no less penetrating in its examination of human behavior. Also, his women characters have become ever more assertive and combative, and his actresses lately have given some of the best performances we’ve seen in the Hong canon. Moon So-ri, for example, contributes one of her finest turns in “Hahaha” as a passionate tour guide.
- “Anti Gas Skin” (Kim Gok and Kim Sun, South Korea)
For a decade now, twin brothers Kim Gok and Kim Sun have been creating intellectually, aesthetically, and politically challenging works as “Anti-Dialectic”(2001), “Time Consciousness”(2002), “Capitalist Manifesto: Working Men of All Countries, Accumulate!” (2003), and “Geo-Lobotomy”(2005). Their latest provocation concerns a gas-mask clad serial killer terrorizing Seoul, and the killer’s intersections with four characters: “Wolf Girl,” a schoolgirl who leads a death cult hoping to be caught by the killer; a Seoul mayoral candidate threatened by the killer; a parking-lot attendant who wishes to be a hero (complete with super-hero cape) by catching the killer; and a US soldier seeking revenge for his girlfriend’s death at the hands of the killer. I’d be lying if I claimed to understand it all, but what comes through clearly is the breathtaking invention and audacity these filmmakers possess, making the experience of viewing this film something that still remains with me. The Kim brothers tackle Korean politics, Korea-US relations, and other issues, injecting their subversive socio-political stance with a gonzo freakiness. To give you a bit of an idea of what kind of film Anti Gas Skin is, this is a movie in which a schoolgirl sporting a full beard is the most beautiful and desired woman around. And thanks to the Kim brothers’ brilliant execution, and the wonderful, instantly memorable performance of Jang Ri-woo, who plays “Wolf Girl,” you’ll completely believe it.
- “Dooman River” (Zhang Lu, South Korea/France)
The plight of North Korean refugees was the subject of a few films that played at PIFF, including “Dance Town”(see above) and Park Jung-bum’s “The Journals of Musan,” this year’s New Currents Award co-winner. One of the most affecting, and certainly the most visually stunning, was “Dooman River,” the latest by Zhang Lu (“Grain In Ear,” “Desert Dream,” “Chongqing,” “Iri”). Set in a wintry Chinese village inhabited by ethnic Koreans situated near the border with North Korea – the first stop for refugees escaping their oppressive regime and crossing the titular river – “Dooman River”focuses on the friendship between two boys. A young village boy living with his mute older sister and grandfather befriends a North Korean boy who makes the crossing to get medicine for his sick younger sister. The refugees are a hardscrabble lot, braving the freezing cold and dodging border guards, to live a precarious existence in the village, always in danger of being caught and returned. The villagers are initially indulgent of people they consider their brothers and sisters (one of the villagers helps to smuggle people across the border), but the refugees’ desperate (and eventually violent) acts create suspicion and growing hostility. Life for the villagers turns out to be only slightly less penurious than that of the refugees, as they live far from the industrial centers of China. Zhang depicts these often somber circumstances with an austere yet breathtaking style, leavened with flashes of humor. Telling details such as snow-covered frozen corpses, and memorable characters such as two men who spend their whole days getting drunk and leaning against buildings, are built into a rich narrative and visual tapestry. The film’s most heartbreaking image is that of an elderly, dementia-stricken woman quixotically, ceaselessly trying to return to her childhood North Korean home, the national division elided in her mind by her sickness.
- “13 Assassins” (Takashi Miike, Japan)
I deliberately chose Miike’s take on the chanbara (samurai) film as my first screening (at 10am) on the first day of regular festival screenings, hoping it would shake me out of my jet-lagged stupor. That it accomplished greatly, and then some. Takashi Miike is known to most as the purveyor of such “extreme” works as “Audition,” “Ichi the Killer,” the “Dead or Alive”trilogy, “Visitor Q,” “Gozu,” and others. But those truly familiar with Miike’s filmography know that the variety of his work is as vast as the number of films he has made, encompassing many genres: comedy, horror, and such unclassifiable works as “Izo” and “Big Bang Love: Juvenile A.” But even hardcore Miike enthusiasts may not be prepared for “Thirteen Assassins,” a samurai movie that plays it utterly straight, a classically composed, meticulously constructed remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 classic of the same name. Rather lengthy, at 140 minutes, the film takes its time carefully setting up its plot, which involves Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho, charismatic and commanding), a retired samurai who is called upon to undertake a secret mission in the waning days of the Tokugawa shogunate, immediately prior to the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Shinzaemon is called upon to assassinate Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki, chilling), the brother of the shogun, a sadistic sociopath whom the shogunate fears will destroy Japan if he is allowed to succeed the current Shogun. Shinzaemon gathers his thirteen warriors – including a non-samurai mountain man, the film’s comic relief – to ambush the lord and his retinue. The film’s extended set-up which vividly details the characters and the historical setting, as well-wrought as it is, is but a prelude to the incredibly thrilling final sequence, an expertly staged and choreographed 40 minute battle sequence in which this small band of warriors must fight hundreds of the lord’s men. This sequence contains some of the greatest, most compelling filmmaking Miike has created to date. This and many other factors make Thirteen Assassins worthy of placement among Takashi Miike’s finest works.
- “Villain” (Lee Sang-il, Japan)
The finest film to date from Japanese-Korean director Lee Sang-il (“69,” “Scrap Heaven,” “Hula Girls”) is this tale of murder (based on a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, who also penned the screenplay) rendered in complex shades of gray. Villain gains its tremendous power from both its excellent performances (not only by the leads Satoshi Tsumabuki and Eri Fukatsu, but the stellar supporting cast), and its intriguingly ambiguous scenario, which challenges easy moral and character judgments. The “villain” of the title would at first appear to be Yuichi (Tsumabuki), who commits murder during one terrible night in a fit of rage. But as the circumstances of night are slowly teased out during the course of the film, and the context surrounding the murder is gradually revealed, we come to learn than Yuichi isn’t the only one worthy of being tagged with that titular appellation. Two other possible candidates are the flighty, superficial Yoshino (Hikari Mitsushima), whom Yuichi pines for initially, but who herself pursues the rich playboy Masuo (Masaki Okada), who is contemptuous of anyone he considers beneath his station. All three of them figure into the murder at the center of the story. Yuichi is eventually forced to go on the lam, where he encounters Mitsuyo (Fukatsu), a shy and lonely woman who impulsively joins this fugitive, determined at all costs to see the goodness that exists at Yuichi’s core, convinced that his act of murder is not in his nature, but forced upon him by circumstance. The film itself appears to endorse Mitsuyo’s point of view, until an occurrence very close to the end seems to turn that completely on its head. Lee Sang-il throughout demonstrates an assured, compelling command of visuals and narrative flow, staging the chaotic maelstrom of events with a masterful hand. Fukatsu won a well-deserved best-actress prize at the Montreal World Festival; her performance is extraordinary, and her role proves to be the film’s most crucial one.
- “Aftershock” (Feng Xiaogang, China)
Feng Xiaogang is, bar none, the most successful director working today in China. Think Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Jerry Bruckheimer rolled into one person, and you have an idea of how huge he is there. In such smash films as “Assembly,” “The Banquet,” and “If You Are the One”(both the original and the sequel), Feng demonstrated both a highly developed commercial sense and adeptness at both large-scale spectacle and small-scale subtlety and humor. “Aftershock” is his biggest film to date, and is currently the number two all-time box-office success in China. (“Avatar”is #1.) The film begins as an intensely visceral recreation of the devastating 1976 earthquake in Tangshan, China. This sequence has all the scenes of spectacle you would expect: shaking buildings, fleeing people, fires, all elements familiar from any number of disaster films, rendered here with impressive technical skill. But Feng approaches this in a very interesting way, basically dispensing with all of this in the first twenty minutes or so, and spends the rest of the film detailing how this earthquake affects the fortunes of a single family. As the title indicates, “Aftershock”is less about the natural disaster itself, and more about the aftermath of the disaster on the film’s central family. This is what makes Feng’s film such a moving, and often wrenching work. Most pertinently, it explores the consequences of the actions of a mother (played by Xu Fan in a wonderful, often heart-breaking performance), who is faced with a terrible Sophie’s choice in which she must determine which of her children to save from the rubble. Her decision in one sense is understandable, given the gender priority that to this day sadly remains in place in Chinese society, but it causes the mother considerable grief and tears her family apart in devastating ways. “Aftershock”also touches upon the 2008 Chengdu earthquake as well in its latter scenes, but Feng is very careful to not be exploitative or sensationalistic in the way he handles these disasters. Rather, it becomes a moving memorial to both those who perished and those who struggled to survive afterward. Feng has been quoted as saying that he thinks only Chinese can really relate to his story, but he is so, so wrong. The tears he elicited from the audience at the screening I attended (myself included), proves this decisively. “Aftershock”is big-budget filmmaking at its finest, never losing its sense of humanity to its special effects.
- (tie) “The Tiger Factory” (Woo Ming Jin, Malaysia/Japan)
Woo Ming Jin’s previous films “The Elephant and the Sea”and “Woman On Fire Looks for Water”were lovely, languorous films with an impeccable compositional eye. “The Tiger Factory,” his fifth feature, is no less visually interesting, but this time he marries his style with a larger dose of social realism. Based on an actual news story of a baby-selling ring in Southeast Asia, “The Tiger Factory”follows – literally, with nervy stalking camerawork – Ping Ping (Lai Fooi Mun), who works a number of rather humiliating odd jobs in order to achieve her goal of leaving Malaysia to work in Japan at an auto parts factory. Ping Ping’s friend Mei (Susan Lee), in a similar situation, plans to accompany Ping Ping. One Ping Ping’s jobs is on a pig farm, where she is tasked with collecting semen from the studs; she earns extra money on the side by stealing some of the semen specimens to sell to other farmers. Ping Ping chafes under the dominance and supervision of her aunt Madame Tien (Pearlly Chua), who runs a baby-trafficking operation in which she hires migrant workers to impregnate women in order to breed babies which she sells on the black market. The parallels between the pig farm and the illegal baby factory are immediately apparent. When Ping Ping’s financial situation worsens, and her desire to leave her depressing, impoverished environment becomes more overwhelming, she is compelled to become a surrogate for Madame Tien’s operation. Woo depicts a pitiless environment, in which all we see is ruled by the brutal calculus of situation where everyone and everything is a commodity. “The Tiger Factory”often recalls the films of the Dardenne brothers, especially “Rosetta,” in its intense focus on its impassive protagonist, who struggles to retain at least a shred of her humanity in a world that seems determined to rob it from her.
“Inhalation” (short film) (Edmund Yeo, Malaysia/Japan)
The co-winner of this year’s Sonje Award for best short film, Yeo’s quietly poignant spin-off of “The Tiger Factory”focuses on Mei (Susan Lee), who at the outset is about to leave for Japan. She is seen off by her boyfriend Seng (Ernest Chong), who has lent her the money to make the trip to enter Japan illegally, presumably to work there. Thirty-eight days later – this time is marked in the film by a single camera pan across the same scene – Mei is back in Malaysia, having been caught and subsequently deported from Japan. Seng has returned to pick her up, and she sullenly gets in the car with him. She later blows up at him, angry that he is now seeing her friend, even though she encouraged him to do so before she left for Japan. She laments her failure and her wistful desire to be back in Japan and to escape her constricted existence. Yeo was a major creative force in the making of Woo Ming Jin’s “The Tiger Factory,” in which Mei is a supporting character; he co-wrote, co-produced, and co-edited that feature. “Inhalation” contains the same gifts of subtle observation exhibited in “The Tiger Factory” in miniature form. “Everything is inevitable,” Seng tells Mei as he recites a number of tragic, violent episodes of Malaysia’s past. The idea that one can escape misery and fate may be illusory, but the film’s final image of floating cherry blossoms represents the hope that those trapped in existential despair nevertheless stubbornly cling to.
“Year Without a Summer” (Tan Chui Mui, Malaysia)
Tan’s second feature is a major artistic leap over her already impressive debut “Love Conquers All,” and is full of powerful visual poetry. Set in Sungai Ular, a Malaysian fishing village which is Tan’s birthplace, “Year Without a Summer”is made up of two distinct, related halves. The first half of the film, with astonishing moonlit images and underwater shots, concerns the return of Azam (Nam Ron) to his village hometown, having left there many years earlier to pursue a singing career in Kuala Lumpur. He reconnects with his childhood friend Ali (Azman Hassan), who remained in the village and continues to live there with his wife Minah (Mislina Mustaffa), a childhood friend of both men. This half beautifully captures the gentle, lazy rhythms of the camaraderie between this trio, as they wax nostalgic for their pasts, and spin stories and folklore. However, there are some disturbing undercurrents beneath this serene surface that become more apparent as the night wears on, and they take a boat ride to a deserted island. The film’s first shot is of Ali emerging from the ocean; a reversal of this act sets up the film’s second half. This latter section is an extended flashback to the village back in the days of the character’s childhoods. In contrast to the nighttime environs of the present-day section, this part takes place in the daylight hours, and reveals the more painful truths of the past that the three have bathed with a rosy, nostalgic glow in their memories. Azam in his younger incarnation emerges as a more tragic figure, as someone who spends his life escaping from wherever he is, always restless and never content. Tan Chui Mui demonstrates impressive formal control of every element of her work, which is obviously deeply personal, but in a way that generously involves and intrigues the viewer; this is the clear emergence of a major talent.
- “Hi-So” (Aditya Assarat, Thailand)
The title of Assarat’s gorgeous, Antonioni-esque second feature is a pejorative Thai slang term, a contraction of the English phrase “high society,” which describes those of a certain privileged class, who are seem by others as putting on airs of being above ordinary folk. The film contains many images of characters framed through glass windows, these windows superimposed with the mirrored scenes they look out upon, while they are trapped in isolation. This recurring image metaphorically reflects the psychological states of its principal characters, people who are in a constant state of displacement, in various environments, but never quite belonging; Assarat often remarks in interviews that quite a number of autobiographical elements are embedded here. Largely dispensing with conventional plot in favor of ethereal moodiness, “Hi-So”follows Ananda (Ananda Everingham), an actor who returns to Thailand from the US to star in a film (perhaps not dissimilar to the actual film that surrounds it) in which he plays a man who has lost his memory following the 2004 tsunami which devastated parts of Thailand, returning to that area with his girlfriend in an attempt to regain those memories. Ananda has brought along his real-life American girlfriend Zoe (Cerise Leang) to keep him company during the shoot. It’s not long before problems in their relationship come to the surface, exacerbated by Zoe’s feelings of being ill at ease due to her obvious difference from everyone around her. What’s interesting is that Ananda is also seen as sort of a foreigner to other Thais, because of the time he’s spent abroad. Zoe spends more time wandering by herself, and soon disappears, both from Ananda’s life and from the film. Much like “Year Without a Summer,” “Hi-So”also has a binary structure; the second half of the film details Ananda’s subsequent relationship with May (Sajee Apiwong), who works for the production company for Ananda’s film. This half mirrors the earlier section, with May feeling out of place among Ananda’s expat party friends. Each half features a scene in which Ananda reads from a text in a language that his girlfriend doesn’t understand. “Hi-So”powerfully, and poignantly, expresses the paradox of our modern global village: how the increasing erasure of national boundaries can simultaneously bring us together and increase our individual isolation.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order)
“Bleak Night” (Yoon Sung-hyun, South Korea)
The co-winner of this year’s New Currents Award (along with Park Jang-bum’s “The Journals of Musan”) exhibits a sophistication of style and directorial assurance that belies the fact that the film was Yoon’s graduation thesis project at the Korean Academy of Fine Arts. Essentially a mystery surrounding a high school student’s suicide, “Bleak Night”takes us into the ornate and deadly passages of friendship, betrayal, power games, and bullying that form a powerful indictment of the cruelties that often abound in the Korean educational system. Viewer patience may be required to sift out the initially elusive relationships between the characters and the separate time frames the film freely traverses, but sticking with it reaps rich rewards and affirms the often astonishing talent to be found in Korean independent cinema.
“The Fourth Portrait” (Chung Mong-hong, Taiwan)
A marked contrast with Chung’s previous film, the much more comic “Parking,” the colorful, lush palette of “The Fourth Portrait”clashes sharply with the darker existence of its ten-year-old protagonist, who must navigate the trauma wrought by the deeply troubled adults who surround him. Its nonlinear method of storytelling may be initially confusing, but it beautifully reflects the bold stylistics that mark Chung as a major emerging talent of the new Taiwanese cinema.
“Lover’s Discourse” (Derek Tsang and Jimmy Wan, Hong Kong/China)
In this anthology of interconnected love stories, Tsang and Wan spin romance and philosophy into a compelling universe in which all its characters collide and drift apart in fascinating emotional patterns.
“Magic and Loss” (Lim Kahwai, Japan/Malaysia/S. Korea/Hong Kong/China/France)
This polyglot, multinational production (Malaysian director, Korean and Japanese actors, set in Hong Kong) observes a Korean woman (“Breathless” actress Kim Kkobbi) and a Japanese woman (Kiki Sugino) who find themselves in a deserted resort attended by its seemingly sole employee (“Breathless”actor/director Yang Ik-june). Largely improvised, this film is deeply strange and often willfully obscure; yet it is indelibly haunting, and saturated with a free-floating eroticism that colors all we see.
“A Useful Life” (Federico Veiroj, Uruguay/Spain)
This witty ode to the cinema details the last days of a dying cinematheque and its caretaker who finds himself adrift in a world outside of his cocoon of auteur reverence. Elegant black-and-white cinematography and sardonic melancholy enliven this compact (67 minute) yet incredibly rich film.
“When Love Comes” (Chang Tso-chi, Taiwan)
Chang’s film is family drama in the grandest sense; bookended by chaotic scenes of childbirth, it follows the equally chaotic life of Lai-chun (Li Yi-jie), a pregnant teenage girl saddled with the issues of her father, two mothers, grandfather, and autistic uncle. High drama is impressively rendered without resorting to overwrought kitchen-sink melodrama.
2010 PIFF awards/statistics
Number of films screened:
306 films from 67 countries, including 101 world premieres and 52 international premieres
Total audience attendance: 173,516
Accredited journalist attendance: 2,237
New Currents Award (for best first or second film):
“The Journals of Musan” (Park Jung-bum, South Korea)
“Bleak Night” (Yoon Sung-hyun, South Korea)
New Currents Jury:
Head of Jury: Emi Wada (costume designer, Japan)
Jury Members: Kim Yunjin (actress, South Korea), Murali Nair (director, India), Yang Kuei-mei (actress, Taiwan), Christoph Terhechte (head of the International Forum of New Cinema at the Berlin Film Festival, Germany)
Flash Forward Award (for best first or second film by a non-Asian filmmaker):
“Pure” (Lisa Langseth, Sweden)
Flash Forward Jury Special Mention:
“Erratum” (Marek Lechki, Poland)
Flash Forward Jury:
Head of Jury: John Cooper (festival director of the Sundance Film Festival, US)
Jury Members: Alexey Popogrebsky (director, Russia), Jasmila Žbanić (director, Bosnia-Herzegovina), Lee Kwangmo (director/producer, South Korea), Thomas Elsaesser (film scholar, Germany)
Sonje Award (for best short film):
“Broken Night” (Yang Hyo-joo, South Korea)
“Inhalation” (Edmund Yeo, Malaysia/Japan)
PIFF Mecenat Award (for best documentary):
“Miracle on Jongno Street” (Lee Hyuk-sang, South Korea)
“New Castle” (Guo Hengqi, China)
FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Award:
“The Journals of Musan” (Park Jung-bum, South Korea)
NETPAC Award (for best Korean film):
“Dooman River” (Zhang Lu, South Korea/France)
KNN Movie Award (Audience Award):
“My Spectacular Theatre” (Lu Yang, China)
Korean Cinema Today – “Vision” Award
Best Director: Min Yong-keun, “Re-encounter”
Best Actor: Park Hyuk-won, “Read My Lips”
Best Actress: Ra Mi-ran, “Dance Town”
Asian Filmmaker of the Year:
Tsai Ming-liang (director, Taiwan)
Korean Cinema Award:
Bruno Barde, Director, Deauville American Film Festival (France), Gérardmer International Fantasy Film Festival (France), International Film Festival of Marrakech (Morocco)