Sunday, October 16, 2011

Taking Chances: The Busan International Film Festival 2011

Busan (formerly Pusan) is probably the most intense stop on my festival circuit. There’s too much of everything: too many movies, too many meetings, too many friends to catch up with that I only see once or twice a year. In years past this tended to stress me out, but this year I resolved to keep calm and suck it all up like the raw shrimp a mischievous old lady served me in her food stall by the beach one night.

Much of the coverage of the 16th edition of the festival was about the changes - a new name, a new director, a splashy new festival center (pitched to do for Busan what Frank Gehry did for Bilbao), the relocation of most activities from lovely beachside Haeundae to corporate, anonymous Centum City – but the films are the real point. Read on for my take.

My main focus this year was the new Korean films, and I was pleased to see several directors playing with form in interesting ways. The granddaddy of Korean narrative gamesmanship is, of course, Hong Sang-soo, and if The Day He Arrives failed, for me, to live up to his last two films, or its sublime trailer, a pretty good Hong film is better than nothing. Speaking of whom, the catalogue description of Lee Kwang-kuk’s Romance Joe tied itself in knots simultaneously arguing that it was and wasn’t overly influenced by Hong’s work, which actually turns out to be true. The film’s narrative tricks, involving tales within tales, recall Hong, but Lee’s sense of humor is all his own, and, as the conclusion make clear, Lewis Carroll was at least as much on his mind.

Lee wasn’t the only one taking risks. Park Hong-min’s A Fish was both smart an haunting, luring you in one direction before pulling you into a beguiling story involving shamanism and lost souls. Jeon Kyu-hwan’s From Seoul to Varanasi and Roh Gyeong-tae’s Black Dove were both raw, sexually explicit dramas that may have tried a bit too hard. In Jeon’s case, an involving story of emotional violence veered into a terrorism plot that felt a bit forced. Roh’s at times very powerful investigation of guilt and sorrow in the aftermath of a fatal hit-and-run accident was marred by some unfortunate dream sequences that looked like they came from a bad music video, and an unnecessary twist that robbed the ending of some of its impact.

While the positives outweighed the negatives in both of those films, the same could not be said of Kim Sung-hoon’s Ryang-kang-do: Merry Christmas, North, a noxious and poorly made propaganda piece that was all too symptomatic of depressing rightward turn in Korean politics recently. Its sins were balanced, however, by a much more honest political work, Kim Joong-hyun’s student film(!) Choked, which chronicled a family’s spiral into financial ruin thanks to an economy that encourages even the poor to take on massive debt to get ahead.

While I normally try to get in a lot of the Korean Retrospective films, I only saw one from this year’s subject, Kim Kee-duk, who struck me as a solid craftsman, but hardly the revelation that previous honorees like Shin Sang-ok, Kim Ki-young and Lee Man-hee proved to be. But then again talents like that are rare in any country. The festival also honored Hong Kong director Yonfan, whose Hitchcock homage Double Fixation was a perfect slice of entertaining cheese starring my new crush object, Cherie Chung, who remained unspeakably sexy even in a succession of hideous 80s outfits.

The film of the festival for me, though, came from Thailand. Kongdei Jaturanrasmee’s P-047 starts with a shot that plays with offscreen space in ways not seen since Jon Jost’s Last Chants for a Slow Dance, and features a compelling enough premise: two guys break into people’s homes not to rob them but to borrow their lives for a few hours (and then put everything back where they found it). But it soon moves into more and more mystical territory involving reincarnation and Thai folk beliefs. If this sounds like Apichatpong territory, well, it is. But what it helped me realize is that Apichatpong has not so much inspired imitators as much as he has opened up new territory for Thai filmmakers to explore, an aesthetic system that each can use for his or her own ends, just as two other fascinating Thai films from the last couple of years, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Mundane History and Sivaroj Kongsakul’s Eternity, have done. May there be many more to come.

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