Some festivals coast by on seaside locations. Some festivals get high and mighty about mountainside resorts. Others still trade on the resonance evoked by the name of their cosmopolitan metropolis. And then there is Bucheon (nee Puchon), home to PiFan (July 19-28), the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival. Where fertile land once was home to miles of peach orchards (I hiked through a forested hilltop when I first came to this festival in 2002), this satellite city of Seoul is now awash with high-rise apartments and increasingly glitzy shopping malls. More importantly though, in addition to its slightly sleazy red light district, brimming with enough BBQ restaurants and bars to fill a culinary travel guide three times over, Bucheon has one of the most energetic film festivals on the planet. Mostly focussed on violence, horror, and fetishist sex, this festival offers for the open-minded movie-goer a rollicking good time.
With a sultry typhoon hovering overhead, PiFan opened with the omnibus film Horror Stories. With its Scheherazade-style framing device, this is a rare beast: an omnibus film of uniform strength. With Horror Stories spearheading the festival's 77-strong list of Korean films (including shorts), that would be enough to make up a festival in itself. But PiFan offers more than Korean film as it cast its net wide.
Primary amongst the countries trawled for the jaw-droppingly fantastic is Japan. This festival finished up with Miike Takashii's latest For Love's Sake (pictured). Probably the filmmaker with the most eclectic filmography in the world, Miike also had his film Ace Attorney (soon to play at the Melbourne International Film Festival) in the mix. Some feel that Miike has mellowed since his Ichi the Killer and Audition days, but there was plenty more extreme Japan to compensate. Dead Sushi was a trademark example of what director Iguchi Noboru (The Machine Girl, Robo-Geisha) is famous for serving up. A disembowelment smorgasbord that cuts right through all those castration anxieties, here Japanese cuisine comes to life and wreaks razor sharp havoc on the men who believe women are too impure to cut fish. PiFan has its own classification system and Dead Sushi had the most advisory categories (gories being the key syllables) including Monsters, Voluptuous Woman, Physical Damage (a Pifan favourite), Zombie and Comedy.
At PiFan's sidebar the 'Forbidden Zone' things got weirder still. English director Alex Chandon's Inbred (due for Australian release later this year) shows what happens when four juvenile delinquents are sent to a Yorkshire town to do volunteer work but instead raise the bloodthirsty ire of a populace who are all related to each other. At the other end of the Forbidden Zone spectrum also was the confronting Clip. Made by Belgrade-born Maja Milos, this film brazenly puts female sexuality on the agenda and almost dares audiences to judge what they see as teenage actress Isidora Simjonovic is put through her paces to shamelessly dramatise the joy and addiction of sex.
Things were strange in an academic sense while watching Room 237, a fascinating documentary on the making of The Shining. Named after the room where Jack Torrens received the zombie kiss, this collection of clips from the aforementioned 1980 film is adorned with voiceover from five different academics who offer a multitude of crackpot theories as to the real meaning of Stanley Kubrick's movie. One voiceover is punctuated by the tell-tale snorting laugh often generated by too much cannabis, so some ideas are clearly addled. But as delirious as some speculations were, others are revelatory. Are these true hidden meanings? Have these people found jokes that Kubrick has made and taken them seriously? Or are these ivory tower film critics just delusional? Once you see this film it won't matter which is correct because this documentary (also coming up at MIFF) will change your view of The Shining forever.
Also looking backwards were a multitude of retrospectives including focusses on Ken Russell, Myung Films (the Korean company that made JSA, my favourite Kim Ki-duk film, The Isle and espionage-style romantic comedy Cyrano Agency) and a celebration of Argentinean genre films lead by Tamae Garateguy's Pompeya, the tale of a screenwriter who finds that when his gangster characters come to life – his life – all hell breaks loose. For the animation buff there was a collection of classic Czech animation.
Guiding you into every screening, every festival sidebar and, in fact, throughout the town, were the PiFan volunteers. Decked out in red t-shirts and often armed with little more English than the catchphrase “Have a Good Time”, they made the long lines, the waiting for the venue-to-venue shuttle bus and the trauma of witnessing countless beheadings a cheerful experience as they waved you in and out.
But there were some sombre moments too. No one genre dominates the Korean concept of 'fantastic' from which PiFan derives its name. The festival programmers are also unabashed in their attempts to program a good film regardless of whether it actually falls within the festival's guidelines or not. (Other festivals in the Fantastic Film Festival network, Brussels, Sitges etc., are under much stricter control) So unexpectedly, my surprise hit of the festival was Ryuichi Hiroki's River (aka River of Despair). A low-budget indie about a young woman who hangs around Tokyo's electronic gadgets and maid café hub Akihabara to mourn the anniversary of her boyfriend's death, this film sublimely melds Japan's triple tragedies of 2011 (the earthquake, the tsunami and the radioactive damage caused by the nuclear power industry's slipshod practices) into one poignant narrative. It's a lot to take on and with the naturalistic performers, Fukushima native Hiroki successfully and literally brings it all back home to the spooky streets of the devastated city with its deserted houses, its car-less dirt streets and endless piles of debris which have been neatly organised so that they resemble fractured memorials to the dead and departed. If only such a mess was a product of mere imagination. No matter how much I tried to delve further and deeper into PiFan's embrace of the fantastic with werewolves and axe murders and witches, this humble and haunting slice of reality kept drawing me back. Brave programming. Braver filmmaking.