Sunday, March 11, 2012

Busan Film Festival 2011: The Reviews

In October 2011, just upon the completion of running a festival in 2 states and working for 75 days in a row for about 15 hours a day, I decided to take a rest. By watching endless films in Busan!!! So no, it wasn't really a rest but it was a great experience and was the first time I have attended the Busan International Film Festival, so I thought I would recap my experience here on the blog.

I am going to be doing 2 entries to cover my experience, 1 in terms of reviewing the films I saw, and 1 of the experience of the festival and country itself. (The 2nd entry will likely be posted post-blogathon). If you are involved with Asian cinema or festivals it is highly recommended to attend, what has become the biggest film festival in Asia, sometime in your lifetime. Read on to see my thoughts on the films, guests and festival happenings! (apologies for my piss poor blackberry photos!)

The BIFF history lines the beach front
I managed to catch 12 features and a few shorts at the festival, not a whole lot due to wanting to experience things outside of the cinema such as the newly opened Busan Cinema Centre, meeting up with various industry professionals and taking in the sites. I will talk about those elements later, now onto the films. I specifically set out to catch as many Korean films as possible, targeting indie, art house and doco flicks in particular, as I knew they would be the hardest ones to get access to back in Australia. First up, was the joyful The Reason Why I Step.

Baek-ja solo
It was a bit of an experience making it to the venue in time for the film, being that it takes about 25 minutes to get to the top floor of the CGV shopping centre. Lifts that alternate between odd and even floors didn't help, and people on the escalators seemed to be in no rush. I got there in the end to enter a completely dark room as there was a good 2 minute delay between the trailers and the film starting. I also found a lovely Korean couple sitting in my seat, so I had to find the next closest available position. Overall my in cinema experience is exactly summed up by Darcy Paquet's piece on "Going to the cinema in Korea".

The Reason Why I Step is a doco about the unification band "Urinara", with the band having been involved in rallies that support the merger of the 2 Korea's and the end of the division and violence. The film is highlighted by the delightful Baek-ja, it is his story, his struggle to live as an out of work artist, and the trials and tribulations he goes through to keep the band together. The element that gives the film a bit of an edge, is Baek-ja's internal fight with his fans. Do they like him for his music, or because of the political nature of it? The entire cast and crew were in attendance at the screening at the CGV in Centum City, and concluded with a live performance by Baek-ja himself. A light doco, but thoroughly enjoyable and will go down as the 1st ever film I watched at BIFF.

Next up was a film I was really anticipating, well maybe anxious for to be honest. I adore Pracha Pinkaew's Ong Bak, Tom Yum Goong and Chocolate, not to mention other films he has produced including Midnight My Love, Born to Fight and The Love of Siam. But things have gone down hill recently with Power Kids and Elephant White, as well as all the controversy over Ong Bak 2, enough to put me in a cautious mood for The Kick. This was my 2 favourite countries in terms of producing cinema, coming together to make a co-production.

Now this wasn't just a financial assistance partnership, it had prominent Korean and Thai industry professionals making a true co-production, about a Korean family living in Thailand. It has some great great people involved with it (Pracha, Petchtai, Jeeja and Cho Jae-hyun) and the audience of young girls absolutely loved the film, mainly due to Yea Ji-won's action turn, but I thought it was a complete mess. Unsatisfying action scenes one after the other and a 3 Ninjas type storyline, it didn't work for me. To give screen time to the Korean leads it meant Jeeja sat in the background way too much, whats the point of including a bad ass if you aren't going to use her? Overall, very disappointing.

Park Hae-il popped in to say hi!
Next up I managed to catch a film I had wanted to see since it screened at Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year. It was Son Tae-gyum's Fly By Night. Thanks to the lovely people at Central Park Films I managed to see the film and meet the director. The film is a beautiful picture that looks at sexuality in a unique way, and features terrific cinematography and acting. Surely another young Korean Director to watch out for! The other shorts in the program including the fairly solid animation Camels and the overlong  Endless Joke. I sat next to Oh Kwang-rok in the audience, and struggled not to show my hatred for the film! I really thought they were trying to punk the audience, by it actually being endless! Sorry but it put me to sleep, despite having Park Hae-il contribute another seemingly free performance (following his appearance in End of Animal).

The power of film
Next up I ventured over to Megabox Haeundae to catch Jam Doco Kangjung, which is an omnibus film that really delivers. It's an inspiring piece made by the actual people effected by the naval base that is being setup in a small island around Jeju. It's a people power film that makes you want to get up and change the world. Another doco followed with Ari Ari the Korean Cinema, and while the version shown at the BIFF was clearly hurriedly put together, with some poor editing and titles, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience for a Korean film fan. With interviews with nearly every person in the Korean industry I have ever heard of, it was just a wealth of content that delivered a rounded view of the industry. These 2 documentaries placed 8th and 9th respectively in my Top 10 of 2011 list.

Ruslan Pak in the flesh
I'm a big fan of co-productions and next up was the Korean-Uzbeki flick Hanaan. It was a promising debut from Ruslan Pak, but the film trailed off towards the end. It' essentially an Uzbeki "The Wire" with Korean actors, and Stanislav Tyan gives a solid all round performance. The digital projection did have some issues, so I'm happy to give the film a 2nd go around. I also managed to catch the animation that stopped nation The King of Pigs, and Jeong Jae-eun's (Take Care of My Cat) return piece Talking Architect, which both delivered on their titles.

Korean Masters in person ...
I eventually got around to seeing a film at the Busan Cinema Center, and it was quite an experience. The film was the BIFF omnibus project A Journey with Korean Masters, which would end up being the highest place Korean film on My Top 10 list for 2011, taking out spot No.3.

... and Oh In-hye!
A film I wasn't so sure about going in to, while I was excited to see new films from these classic Korean directors, would they still be able to deliver? Well 3 out of 4 did, with absolutely brilliant entries from Lee Jang-ho, Jeong Ji-yeong and Lee Doo-yong. Park Chul-soo's was unfortunately disappointing.

The filmmakers not only made great short films, but they even seemed to express their inner grief and feelings towards being left in the wind in recent years, as most haven't been able to get a film off the ground for decades. Inspiring stuff.

Once great directors. Always great directors!

Jeon Soo-il and a tough Q&A!
My festival was rounded out with a few more flicks, including the completely overly-melodramatic A Reason to Live, featuring a Song Hye-kyo performance to forget, and I even managed to fit in Gus Van Sant's Restless, my 1st English language film of BIFF 2011.

An intruiging film and the sole film I saw at Lottle Cinema in Centum City, was Jeon Soo-il's Pink. Its very Kim Ki-duk-esque, but doesn't quite match his standards. The young Korean audience seemed to not get the film at all going by the Q&A that followed the screening. Maybe they should watch more Kim Ki-duk!

The final film I saw at BIFF 2011 turned out to be my favourite. It was the number 1 film I wanted to see when the full programme was announced, and I finally managed to catch P-047 at its final screening.

I had seen Kongdej and Sorus Sukhum walking around and about in Busan for days, and knew I just had to see the film before even daring to speak to them. In the end, once I had seen the film they had jettisoned out of the country, but hey, next time! P-047 was not just my favourite of the festival, but my favourite film of  2011, as one of my favourite directors since the 2000's continued to deliver!

My view of bussling Busan

Well that covers the films, the 2nd part will cover more of a report of the festival itself and my experience in Korea. Look out for it in the coming days (if not weeks! I'm very busy!). If you have seen any of the films mentioned I would love to hear what you thought of them.

Kieran Tully

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