“I hope we can communicate and reconcile again,” said Busan Mayor Park Heong-joon on the opening night of the South Korean city’s film festival.
With so much of the dialogue in opening drama “Because I Hate Korea” discussing Korean societal rigidities, group loyalties, long working hours and poor pay (which cause the protagonist to emigrate to laid-back New Zealand), it is easy to forget that many of these characteristics are what may have saved this year’s Busan International FIlm Festival from going off the rails.
Mid-year, the festival’s aging senior management had a self-inflicted meltdown (a senior moment?) when chairman and co-founder Lee Yong-kwan set off a chain of events that caused multiple resignations, highlighting the old city-versus-festival political divide and alienating local sponsors and industry guilds.
This was dirty laundry that Busan should have washed out of its system in the years-long aftermath of the 2014 “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol” debacle, which caused a previous round of bitter infighting. But the truth is that Korean film festivals continue to be intensely sociopolitical affairs with freedom of expression (and freedom from outside control) as the deep-down kernel of the debate.
There’s a fleet of cars driving around the city painted with slogans such as “Busan Is Ready” and “Busan Is Good.” They are part of the city’s drumbeat for its hosting of the 2030 World Expo, not part of the festival’s sloganeering.
Slightly slimmed down as a result of the lost sponsors, and notwithstanding the low-key opening film, this year’s festival program looks as rock solid as ever.
Busan operates two highly stratified competition sections (New Currents and Jiseok) for Asian filmmakers with differing degrees of experience. Its Korean program is stuffed full of world premieres by the talented newcomers that Korean film schools seem to have in endless supply. And this year’s two thematic special sections, on Indonesian cinema and filmmaking in the Korean diaspora, underscore Busan’s cornerstone role in elevating Asian art cinema to global relevance. The festival, its accompanying rights, project and IP markets and the Busan Film Commission have at times all played their parts.
Such a pedigree enables the Busan festival this year to claim Korean acting star Song Kang-ho (“Parasite”, “Broker”) as host of the opening ceremony and to attract a multitude of international talent. VIP visitors include: Chow Yun-fat (recipient of the Asian Filmmaker of the Year award); Hamaguchi Ryusuke (“Evil Does Not Exist”); Indonesian dynamos Joko Anwar, Kamila Andini and Mouly Surya; overseas Koreans John Cho and Justin Chon; Mohsen Makhmalbaf (“Talking With Rivers”) and Hana Makhmalbaf (“The List”); Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing (“Green Night”); and Chinese provocateur Ning Hao, purveyor of the archly comic closing night film “The Movie Emperor.”
Top Korean director Lee Chang-dong (“Poetry” and “Burning”) was on hand to lead a tribute to the actor Yoon Jeong-hee who died earlier this year and was recipient of the festival’s Korean Cinema Award. “We have many stars, Yoon Jeong-hee was the brightest and most beautiful of them all,” said Lee.
The festival’s programming integrity, the red-carpet glamour and the still expanding success of the “Korean Wave” permit a temporary respite from questions that some in the industry are now pondering. Will Korean cinema box office ever recover to pre-pandemic levels? Is Korea’s growing success in the globalized streaming and programming industry a cause of its film sector’s current woes? And, can TV success be sustained if the famously innovative film sector stumbles?
The Busan festival is playing a part by showcasing more TV series and giving awards to Asian “content.” But the new and, hopefully younger, management will have to do more to keep up with the pace of change.
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