My recap of the 14th Pusan International Film Festival

“Recession? What recession?”

This was the message of the 2009 Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) in South Korea, which bucked the current trend of other festivals that have felt compelled to cut back and offer fewer amenities to journalists (Tribeca, I’m talking to you). This year, PIFF unveiled its biggest slate ever: 355 films from 70 countries, sprawled out in two far-apart areas of Busan – Haeundae and downtown Nampo-dong. This was my second trip to the festival, and other than the usual logistical glitches and disorientation – Busan is an easy place to get lost in if you don’t live there – I had an even better time than last year.

Opening ceremony

This year, I arrived in time for the opening night ceremony, which was held at the Busan Yachting Center outdoor theater. As glitzy and star-studded as any Hollywood premiere, celebrities (mostly Korean and other Asian stars) walked a red carpet that ran down a runway through the middle of the crowd. The throngs of people who clamored in the chilly air, the camera people fighting for a clear view of the red carpet (I pretty much lost that battle), and the screaming girls whose peals rang in the night sky whenever Lee Byung-hun and Josh Hartnett (both at the festival with their film, Tran Anh Hung’s “I Come with the Rain”) appeared, made this night a chaotic and unforgettable experience. The evening also included a surprise performance from the wildly popular K-pop girl group Girls Generation, who performed two songs: a cover of Faith Hill’s “There You’ll Be,” and their own massive hit, “Genie.” Fireworks then illuminated the night sky.

Award categories

After this long procession of cinematic royalty, the ceremony began in earnest, with the hosts introducing the competition juries to the audience. PIFF’s main competition is the New Currents Award, given to the best first or second film by a group of selected nominees. The films in the running this year were quite eclectic and wide-ranging, giving a very broad sense of the diversity of Asian filmmaking. The nominees hailed from places one would expect (South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, India, Iran), as well as emerging territories and less represented areas (Malaysia, Philippines, Tajikistan, Iraqi Kurdistan). The New Currents Jury was headed by French director Jean-Jacques Beineix, best known for his 1981 film “Diva.”

This year PIFF instituted a new award called Flash Forward, which is similar to New Currents but honors non-Asian filmmakers. The inaugural Flash Forward jury was headed by veteran Korean actress Kang Soo-yeon, the first Korean actress to win a prize at a major film festival, winning the best actress award at Venice in 1986 for her role in Im Kwon-taek’s “The Surrogate Mother.” The main mission of this year’s festival was to expand its cinematic scope as well as its size, presenting films from other countries and territories, such as Mali and Kenya, that their (overwhelmingly Korean) audiences are less familiar with.

A continued focus on Asian film

As worldly and broad-minded as PIFF aspires to be, however, its main focus remains on Asian films, which the festival supports not only with its juried awards, but their other established entities such as the Asian Film Market, the Pusan Promotion Plan (which provides cash prizes for the best new projects), the Asian Cinema Fund (which provides post-production and other support to projects), and the Asian Film Academy (which included celebrated Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa – and in which established filmmakers and technicians instruct and mentor a selected group of students and guide them through the making of short films).

Korean cinema, of course, is a major part of PIFF. Some of the most interesting films can be found in the always fascinating Korean cinema retrospectives, this year devoted to two late directors: Ha Kil-chong, a major director of the 1970’s; and Yu Hyun-mok, who passed away this year, best known for his classics of the 1950’s and 1960’s so-called Golden Age of Korean cinema, most famously his 1961 film “Obaltan (An Aimless Bullet),” cited by many as the greatest Korean film of all time and which also screened at the festival.

The current state of Korean film

This year’s PIFF finds the Korean film industry in much better shape than at this time last year, its fortunes having turned around for the better with such recent hits as “Speed Scandal,” “Take Off,” and the biggest of the year, “Haeundae,” Korea’s first disaster movie, set in Busan at the titular beach (which just happens to be the main venue for PIFF), concerning a tsunami that overwhelms this area. This film was a massive box-office behemoth that is now the fourth biggest box-office hit of all time in Korea. It’s not exactly classic cinema, but it delivers the goods as far as CGI spectacle is concerned, and its cast full of Korean stars do a very good job of selling this material and making one care about the characters. It screened at PIFF this year (of course), and it must have been quite something to sit in a movie theater and watch the area 10 minutes away from you be destroyed on celluloid.

So on the Korean film front, there is currently much to celebrate. This most likely was the thinking behind the choice to open the festival with popular Korean comedy writer-director Jang Jin’s “Good Morning President,” which is practically the dictionary definition of a crowd-pleaser. Jang’s film is a gently satirical portrait of three successive Korean presidents: one on his way out of office; his successor, a young and ambitious politician (played by Jang Dong-gun, in his first film after a four-year absence from the screen); and Korea’s first woman president. This was a 180-degree change from last year’s opener, the much more obscure Kazakh film “The Gift to Stalin.” Opening the festival with this film sent the clear message that the Korean film industry is as viable and as strong as ever, and not to be counted out.

Improvements from last year

At this year’s festival, there were some major improvements, most notably in the area of providing English translation for post-screening Q&A’s (or “Guest Visits” in PIFF parlance). My major complaint with last year’s festival was the fact that there was often no interpretation offered for English speakers. This year, at most screenings I attended, the moderators asked if anyone in the audience needed translation assistance, after which they would gather the group in a designated area, and a staff member would sit with the group and interpret the discussion for them. I like to think my criticisms of last year had some tiny influence in this change, but that’s probably wishful thinking. Disappointingly, an important festival attraction, the film director Master Classes – which this year were given by Johnnie To, Jia Zhang-ke, Dario Argento, and Costa-Gavras – still lacked English translation. Nevertheless, PIFF improved considerably this year in this area, for which I heartily applaud them.

Exploring Busan

As for the rest of my stay, besides the many films I viewed (about two dozen during my week-long visit), I was able to experience different areas of Busan: Haeundae Beach, where many open talks and events were held, allowing audiences to meet the stars and directors of this year’s films; nearby Centum City (about ten minutes from Haeundae by subway), the home of the Shinsegae, the largest department store in the world (this is not marketing hype; it’s actually listed in the Guinness Book of World Records) – the CGV multiplex located here is one of the festival screening venues. I also spent some time in the funkier downtown sections of Busan: Nampo-dong, PIFF’s other main venue; and Seomyeon, a crowded district that is home to many nightclubs and norebang (Korean karaoke bars), which was my home during the fest.

And of course, I sampled some of the great food to be found in Busan, especially its seafood. Thanks to a very generous and kind friend who worked for the festival last year, I had a wonderful sashimi dinner at a place near Haeundae Beach called Busan Sealand, which contains a very large fish market on the bottom floor and a restaurant above that. A sashimi set dinner, which includes many side dishes, two soups, rice, fresh vegetables, fried and battered vegetables, assorted raw seafood, and countless other goodies, can be had for 25,000-30,000 won (about $20-25). The two of us were unable to finish it all; a third person would have been required. I highly recommend it as a great place to have an excellent meal and to have a wonderful view of Busan, overlooking the docks where the fresh seafood arrives each day. For an additional fee, the staff will cook any of the sea life that you pass by on the way to the restaurant if you request it.

Busan, je t’aime

I will end my report with an observation from none other than Tilda Swinton, who attended the fest with a film she starred in, Luca Guadagnino’s “I Am Love.” Discussing her admiration for Korean cinema at the film’s press conference, Swinton said that “there is something truly cinematic and truly idiosyncratic in the aesthetic of the Korean cinema I have seen.” I wholeheartedly concur, and in fact, I would extend her statement to say that the city of Busan itself is cinematic and idiosyncratic. Having now made two trips to Busan, I believe that there is something ineffable about what it feels like to be in this city that can be disorienting, bewildering and at the same time quite thrilling. Watching the great films I had the chance to see, surrounded by brilliantly creative filmmakers and enthusiastic lovers of film, and experiencing the unique sights, sounds, and smells of this city, I often felt as if I were in a movie myself. This movie could have been one of the many Korean films that I watched and loved many years before had the chance to visit the actual country in person, the films that caused me to fall in love with the Korean people and their culture, the films that helped to finally bring me to this place.

Photos: Highlights of the 2009 Pusan International Film Festival