Pusan International Film Festival 2010. It was the end of an era, it involved more farewells than Melba, and whether it was one of the better installments of the festival's history or not, it was not to be missed. Why? Because it was the year that the most beloved of film festival figureheads Kim Dong-ho was handing over the reins of the hub of Asian cinema, the Pusan International Film Festival. After 15 years of traveling the world (Kim has more frequent flyer points than George Clooney in Up in the Air), of seeing a festival move from a bright idea to a by-word for Asian cinema (not so long ago Pusan was the only festival that could get the directors of Berlin, Cannes and Venice under one roof – though alas those days seem to have passed), and being a magnet for Asian superstars and the Beatlemania-like posse of Korean schoolgirls and Japanese housewives who pursue them in the lobby of the Grand Hotel. It was once a sleepy little beachside festival for locals and nerdy Asian film buffs, but Pusan always wanted to be bigger than that. Kim Dong-ho and the cresting of the 'Korean Wave' in 2000 made sure that the festival got so big it's difficult to know where to start to describe this glittering event.
Like all the festivals though, the best place to start is with the films. Zhang Yimou's latest film Under The Hawthorn Tree started the 2010 festival with a bang. The film saw the versatile Zhang back in rural mode as he told the tale of Jing, a Cultural Revolution era young woman sent to a village in Hubei province where she falls in love with a young geology student. En route to the village, Jing is shown an iconic Hawthorn tree which – local legend has it – atypically blooms red flowers, since it grew strong on soil enriched by the blood of Chinese soldiers fighting Japanese invaders. Like many of Zhang's films it can be read as pure propaganda but the Fifth Generation director's ability to weave an entertaining and moving drama through censorship constraints contribute to the richness of this touching romantic film.
In addition to the opener, my role as a Variety reviewer meant I had an overwhelming pool of 107 films to choose from the Pusan smorgasboard. (It was only possible to see a mere 40 in the course of the 9 day festival.) While those with less stringent agendas were able to enjoy Takeshii Miike's initially sluggish and then Shinkansen-fast samurai film 13 Assassins (pictured) and my fave for next year's foreign film Oscar (and Asia Pacific Screen Awards headliner) Aftershock, I went in search of the largely unknown. More often than not I was rewarded.
Number one on my list was Dancing Chaplin. Masayuki Suo, the charmer from the original Shall We Dance?,is married to Tamiyo Kusakari, who beside starring in her husband's most famous film, has also spent most of her career as a ballet dancer. Kusakari had appeared in a ballet Chaplin Dances and Suo set out to make a film version of this dance piece which takes the films of Charlie Chaplin as its inspiration. The film splits into two halves. The first half, shot in HD, is a classic 'making of' doco where Suo observes the rehearsal process. You don't have to be interested in dance as an art form to be gripped by the creative process seen here. Unfortunately, it helps to have an interest in dance for the second half (shot on 35mm), or at least a love of Chaplin. Suo takes care to do more than just film the stagebound actions of dancers – he even executes one number in a park. But dance still requires a particular mindset to watch. I was riveted. But the mostly Korean audience around me was less enthused. At least they didn't slam the door on the way out.
Top of my list of Korean films to see was this year's big box office smash The Man from Nowhere. Won Bin (Taeguki, Mother) transforms his nice guy image to arrive as an action hero. The scenario recalls Luc Besson's suspect Leon but has a stronger emotional connection in that the little girl that the protagonist must rescue is symbolic of a tragedy in his past. It can be a little tricky to follow who's shooting who but well-blocked fight scenes and tight editing make this an action fan's treat. While some of the violence is stronger than the Korean average (I admit it – I flinched), female fans seem to forgive the violence to enthuse over Won Bin's swoon-inducing moment where the semi-naked heart throb flexes his muscles as he shaves his shaggy locks from his head.
Three other Korean thrillers of 2010 – Moss, No Doubt and The Housemaid – all suffered from the same sin: an intriguing set up betrayed by a poorly conceived finale. No Doubt and its story of a paedophile wrongly accused by a country town was the mildest offender, where Im Sang-soo's glossy, yuppie gothic, erotica The Housemaid may hold the record for a film moving from soooooooo good to soooooooo baaaaaaaad.
There was so much more to see, but it also must be admitted that Pusan's standards have been hollowed out by the low-budget, amateurish arty (but artless) digital tosh that has dominated the fest's programming in recent years. To be fair, this rubbish is peddled by other festivals – the worst offender being Rotterdam – but Locarno and even Berlin can be guilty, too.
But the dud of Pusan this year was Hong Kong funded, English language film Strawberry Cliff, about a woman who can predict the exact time of people's deaths; it has cult potential that could see it launched as Asia's answer to The Room. Much of the (in)action takes place in confined rooms with no sense of place at all. Oh and that great dialogue: “Hong Kong is the clitoris of Asia”. All the tact of Austin Powers on a bad day.
But let's forgive Hong Kong. After all, it was in pre-handover Hong Kong where I first met Kim Dong-ho. The year was 1996 and I was attending the HK fest. I couldn't have found Pusan on a map back then, but one look at Mr. Kim and his programmers Jay Jeon and Kim Ji-seok, with their well-cut grey suits and well-designed business cards, and you just knew that this new festival was going to kick butt. And it's been knocking out film festival flaneurs ever since. Thanks for changing my life, Mr. Kim.