From a packed Pusan lineup, a Top 10 film list emerges

The most frustrating thing about attending a festival with 355 selections is that it is impossible to see more than a tiny fraction of them. My press pass allowed me a maximum of four films a day, which is pretty much the limit one can maintain and still allow yourself reasonable rest and time to do other things, not to mention retaining your sanity.

So putting together any kind of list of the best films of the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) is probably the height of folly; still, I want to highlight some of the films that stood out for me this year. I limited myself, with one exception, to Asian films when deciding what to see, which wasn’t a conscious plan – I would have liked to sample some of the other world cinemas on display. However, the idea was to concentrate on films that I would be less likely to see in the U.S., at least in the foreseeable future. For the most part, this turned out to be the films from Asia, many of which were the less commercial films from such places as Malaysia and Thailand, which are mostly anathema to U.S. distributors.

With these caveats, then, I present to you my one-man jury awards for the best films I saw at the 14th Pusan International Film Festival:

1. “Talentime” (Yasmin Ahmad, Malaysia)
The late, dearly departed Ahmad (who tragically passed away earlier this year) leaves us with this beautiful swan song, whose story revolves around a high school talent contest, and which is a generous and deeply human portrait of the many ethnic groups who inhabit her native Malaysia.

2. “Symbol” (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan)
The director of “Dainipponjin” returns with his even weirder second film, which alternates between a lucha libre wrestler in Mexico and a man in polka-dot clown pajamas (Matsumoto) trying to escape a white room. Both uproariously comic and metaphysically cosmic, this film is a true original, just like its creator.

3. “Paju” (Park Chan-ok, South Korea)
Park makes a major artistic leap with her second film, coming seven years after her first, concerning a housing-rights activist, his first love, his wife and his sister-in-law in the titular suburb of Seoul. Employing an intricately overlapping time structure, this is a very unusual story of love and loss, as psychologically complex as it is emotionally moving.

4. “Tokyo Taxi” (Kim Tai-sik, South Korea/Japan)
Kim’s wry and charming take on the relations between Koreans and Japanese follows two men: a Japanese musician invited to a rock festival in Seoul who takes a taxi all the way there from Tokyo because of his fear of flying; and the taxi driver who takes him there, seizing on the chance to expand his restricted horizons. Lyrical and humorous, this is a very different kind of road movie.

5. “At the End of Daybreak” (Ho Yuhang, Malaysia/Hong Kong/South Korea)
Ho’s depiction of youthful restlessness and anomie takes the premise of a young man getting his underage girlfriend pregnant and invests it with a moody, noir-like atmosphere, reflecting the fractured psyches of its characters. This is a film as mournful as it is beautiful.

6. “Karaoke” (Chris Chong Chan Fui, Malaysia)
The prodigal son at the center of this film learns the painful truth of the adage that you can’t go home again, returning home to a resentful mother and a place much changed from when he left it. Contrasting the cheesy romantic karaoke videos that play constantly at the bar owned by the young man’s mother with the much more complicated realities the characters live in, Chong’s debut feature forms a complex and emotionally resonant tapestry in a mere 75 minutes.

7. “Like You Know It All” (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Once again, it’s more of the same from Korea’s most fascinating and idiosyncratic auteur. As in all his other films, repeated words, character traits, and narrative details illuminate Hong’s depictions of the contentious relations between boorish, immature men and their long-suffering, and much more stable and emotionally intelligent, women companions and lovers. Cinematically speaking, Hong keeps a very small garden, but he tends to it impeccably.

8. “Nymph” (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand)
This creepy and ethereal film centers on a mysterious forest, and a photographer and his wife who ill-advisedly venture deep within it, and who both emerge deeply and irrevocably changed. A beautiful, quietly disturbing, and distinctly Thai rumination on the spirits that live among us.

9. “Lola” (Brillante Mendoza, Philippines/France)
A story of two grandmothers (or “Lolas” in Tagalog parlance), one whose grandson was murdered in a robbery, the other the grandmother of the perpetrator. The film is anchored by two mesmerizing performances by veteran actresses Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio, and Mendoza’s restless camerawork offers a vividly panoramic portrait of the harsh and violent lives of the poorer denizens of Manila.

10. “Once Upon a Time Proletarian” (Xiaolu Guo, China)/”She, A Chinese” (Xiaolu Guo, UK/France/Germany)
Novelist, filmmaker, and self-described “village punk” Guo delivered a potent one-two punch at this year’s PIFF – two irreverent portraits, one documentary and the other fictional – of her native China. “Proletarian” features 12 ordinary Chinese citizens’ remarkably candid opinions of the state of their country, while “She, A Chinese” follows a young woman with incurable wanderlust as she travels from her dead-end Chinese village to the promised land of England. Whether she uses the medium of film or literature, Guo is a provocative and challenging artist dedicated to not simply transcending, but obliterating national and cultural borders.

2009 PIFF awards/statistics

Number of films screened: 355 films from 70 countries, including 98 world premieres and 46 international premieres (a festival record)

Total audience attendance: 173,516

Accredited journalist attendance: 2,202 (from Korea: 1,832; outside Korea: 370)

New Currents Award (for best first or second film):
“Kick Off” (Shawkat Amin Korki, Iraq/Japan)
“I’m in Trouble!” (So Sang-min, South Korea)

New Currents Jury Special Mention:
“Squalor” (Giuseppe Bede Sampedro, Philippines)

New Currents Jury:
Head of Jury: Jean-Jacques Beineix (director, France)
Jury Members: Kim Hyung-koo (cinematographer, South Korea), Pen-ek Ratanaruang (director, Thailand), Terri Kwan (actress, Taiwan), Yesim Ustaoglu (director, Turkey)

Flash Forward Award (for best first or second film by a non-Asian filmmaker):
“Last Cowboy Standing” (Zaida Bergroth, Finland/Germany)

Flash Forward Jury Special Mention:
“Miss Kicki” (Håkon Liu, Sweden/Taiwan)

Flash Forward Jury:
Head of Jury: Kang Soo-yeon (actress, South Korea)
Jury Members: Marianne Slot (producer, Denmark), Alissa Simon (critic/ programmer [Palm Springs International Film Festival], U.S.), Frédéric Boyer (artistic director of Cannes Director’s Fortnight, France)

Sonje Award (for best short film):
“Somewhere Unreached” (Kim Jae-won, South Korea)
“Rare Fish” (Basil Vassili Mironer, Singapore/Indonesia)

PIFF Mecenat Award (for best documentary):
“Earth’s Woman” (Kwon Woo-jung, South Korea)
“The Other Song” (Saba Dewan, India)

FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Award:
“Kick Off” (Shawkat Amin Korki, Iraq/Japan)

NETPAC Award (for best Korean film):
“Paju” (Park Chan-ok, South Korea)

KNN Movie Award (Audience Award):
“Lan” (Jiang Wenli, China)

Asian Filmmaker of the Year:
Yash Chopra (director/producer, India)

Korean Cinema Award:
Riccardo Gelli, Director, Korea Film Festival in Florence (Italy)
Jeannette Paulson Hereniko, President, Asia Pacific (U.S.)

Photo Gallery: Select film stills from the Pusan International Film Festival 2009
photos courtesy of the Pusan International Film Festival