A guide to the Pusan International Film Festival (and Busan, South Korea)

The Korean film industry has been in some turmoil lately, with the audience for local films shrinking and overseas markets becoming ever less receptive, especially such formerly reliable ones as Japan, Hong Kong, and China. The current global financial crisis, which has hit South Korea especially hard, has no doubt exacerbated the industry’s woes.

However, you wouldn’t have known it while being in the sunny climes of Busan, among the large audiences and enthusiastic, cheerful volunteers at the 13th Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF), which ran from Oct. 2-10, 2008. Flying defiantly in the face of the dire circumstances greeting the Korean film industry, the festival unveiled its biggest slate ever, showcasing a mind-boggling selection of 315 films from 60 countries. This year featured a special focus on films from Kazakhstan, the Central Asian republic that has lately become a focus of intense interest from film festivals. PIFF screened several films from Kazakhstan, including the opening night film, Rustem Abdrashev’s “The Gift to Stalin.” There were also special programs on Rumanian cinema, a Taviani Brothers retrospective, films from classic Korean directors Han Hyung-mo and Kim Ki-young, and more amusingly, a section on Asian superhero movies.

It was well worth the very long plane ride to Busan from New York, and PIFF is well deserving of its reputation as the most important film festival in Asia, and as a major, world-class film festival. Here is a guide to navigating the city and the festival, should you attend next year as I plan to do:

The beach

If you called PIFF the Cannes of Korea, as many have, you wouldn’t be far off. It is by far the biggest and most important film festival held in Asia, drawing audiences and filmmakers from many countries. And it has a very important element that puts it on par with Cannes – the beach. Haeundae Beach, that is. This beautiful area makes Busan a popular tourist destination not only for Koreans but for other visitors from Asia and all over the world. The weather this year was quite lovely, although a tad humid, and I was lucky enough this year to avoid the torrential rain that plagued last year’s festival.

The people

Since this was my first trip to Korea – and first trip to Asia – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But I was pleasantly surprised, and sometimes astonished, at the kindness and generosity of the people I met. If you look at all lost or confused while trying to find your way around, it’s almost guaranteed that a stranger will come up to you and try to help you out.

Getting around

Although there are many English speakers in Busan, it is definitely helpful to know at least a few basic Korean phrases, especially if you have to travel by cab or bus, as most drivers don’t speak English. The best and cheapest way to get around is the subway. There are only three lines, the signs and directions are English-friendly, and announcements are given in four languages – Korean, English, Japanese, and Mandarin. You can buy an all-day pass for 3,400 won, which is about US$2.50.

The festival does provide a free shuttle bus, but I’d advise against it if you’re pressed for time. The venues are quite spread out, and both waiting for a bus and navigating the often heavy traffic can take quite a long time. The only caveat, especially if you’re seeing late shows (the festival features a cult-film “Midnight Passion” section), is that the trains don’t run after midnight. So if you plan to do some barhopping (which I regret not having the opportunity to do, especially in a country where people love to drink), a cab is pretty much your only transportation option.

The food

Busan, being a port city, is known for its great seafood. Since I was only able to spend four full days in Busan, I didn’t have enough time to explore as much as I would have liked. However, I was able to sample some of what is available at the Haeundae Market, which is a five-minute walk from the SfunZ (Special Fun Zone) shopping mall, one of the main festival venues (the Megabox multiplex theater is located on the top floors). There I found a stall with great fried seafood, vegetables and kimbab (rice rolls similar to sushi), a very fast and cheap meal option.

Later during my stay, I wandered into one of the many small restaurants at the market and had a delicious chuotang soup, made with minced loach fish with radish leaves and other vegetables, accompanied by a generous assortment of banchan (side dishes common to Korean meals). This is a delicious, filling, and most importantly, cheap meal (4,000 won/$3).

And last, but not least: the Festival

The festival itself is an incredibly enjoyable experience. I would say that hands down it was the best experience I’ve had at any film festival, although I have only New York festivals to compare it to. The volunteers are the friendliest, most charming I’ve seen at any festival – young, enthusiastic people whose energy is infectious. They are also helpful to a fault: one young woman who felt sorry for me after having to tell me about a dozen times that a film I wanted to see was sold out talked to her supervisor and was able to get a ticket for me to one of the sold-out shows. Also, when I had some trouble finding an ATM that would accept my bank card, Nana Yun, the press badge coordinator, actually walked with me to find one.

This is not to say that there aren’t areas for improvement. One major problem is that the Q&A sessions, at least the ones I attended, are not very English-friendly. This makes it very hard for non-Korean speakers to cover these sessions. I can speak and understand some Korean, but not nearly enough to be able to follow. There are many journalists attending the festival from outside Korea, and there should be much more of an effort to allow them to cover, and be able to participate in, these and other festival events.

Tickets can also be very hard to come by; I basically had to throw out the first two days of my planned schedule of films, because nothing I wanted was available. I quickly figured out that you must get to the ticket venues very early in the morning to have any chance to get what you want, since many screenings sell out in advance. Also, the venues are very far apart, sometimes making it hard to get from one to the other; I missed one screening because of this. The festival is held in two areas of Busan, Haeundae and Nampo-dong, which are so far apart that one staffer advised me against choosing one screening in the Haeundae area followed by one in the Nampo-dong area, since it would be impossible to travel the distance between them in time to make the screenings.

Being on time for screenings is extremely important; if you’re late, you’re not getting in, ticket or no ticket. While this may seem a bit draconian to some, I very much support this policy, since latecomers can be quite disruptive and annoying. The audiences are usually quiet and extremely well-behaved (which is very much a rarity in New York). And they always applaud at the end of screenings, which I find quite charming. Even bad films receive applause (and I did see a couple, unfortunately).

Despite these issues, I had a great time. PIFF excels in its friendly atmosphere, youthful, enthusiastic audiences (I very rarely saw anyone older than their 30’s – most audience members are teenagers, high school and college students), and stellar staff.

2008 PIFF awards/statistics:

Number of films screened: 315 films from 60 countries, including 85 world premieres (a festival record)

Total audience attendance: 198,818 (a festival record)

Accredited journalist attendance: 1,594 (from Korea: 1,244; outside Korea: 350)

New Currents Award (for best first or second film):
“Land of Scarecrows” (Roh Gyeong-tae, S. Korea)
“Naked of Defenses” (Masahide Ichii, Japan)

New Currents Jury Special Mentions:
“Members of the Funeral” (Baek Seung-bin, S. Korea)
“Er Dong” (Jin Yang, China)

New Currents Jury:
Head of Jury: Anna Karina (actress-director, Denmark/France)
Jury Members: Santosh Sivan (director, India), Lee Hwa-si (actress, S. Korea), Karl Baumgartner (producer, Germany)

Sonje Award (for best short film):
“Andong” (Rommel Tolentino Milo, Philippines)
“Girl” (Hong Sunghoon, S. Korea)

PIFF Mecenat Award (for best documentary):
“Mental” (Kazuhiro Soda, Japan)
“Old Partner” (Lee Chung Ryoul, S. Korea)

FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Award:
“Jalainur” (Ye Zhao, China)

NETPAC Award (for best Korean film):
“Members of the Funeral” (Baek Seung-bin, S. Korea)
“Treeless Mountain” (So Yong Kim, US/S. Korea)

KNN Movie Award (Audience Award):
“100” (Chris Martinez, Philippines)

Asian Filmmaker of the Year:
Gulnara Sarsenova (Kazakhstan), Festival Director, International Eurasia Film Festival

Korean Cinema Award:
Richard Pena (US), Program Director, Film Society of Lincoln Center