The opening night of the Busan International Film Festival is a star-studded affair which many film pundits regard as unmissable. While visiting guests are impressed by the screaming adulation of this who's who of Korean cinema, some of this year's biggest roars of appreciation were prompted by political 'stars'. As South Korea is facing an election this coming December, presidential candidates both left and right were on hand to tap some reflected glory of the local film industry.
In a departure from tradition, Chinese actress Tang Wei (Lust, Caution) was the first non-Korean to co-host the opening ceremony with South Korea's answer to Cary Grant, Ahn Sung-ki. Despite Tang's unscheduled swapping between English and Mandarin while Ahn hung in there in with Korean banter, it was an enjoyable, smooth affair.
A few hours before the ceremony however, Edko, Hong Kong production company for opening film Cold War, announced that they were pushing back the film's release date. Rumours of China censorship abounded. While some of the (mostly) taut thriller's content makes Chinese government interference a valid theory, it may also have been a publicity stunt. That was definitely not the case with the Korean films on offer at Busan this year.
With political nationalism in the air, leading off with a non-Korean film seems, at first, like an odd move. It also encourages foreign attendees to speculate that the quality of Korean films has dipped to below opening night standard. This theory was quickly shot down in flames with the first screening of National Security. A dramatisation of one man's experience in the torture chambers of the 1980s dictatorship, this film was shocking, gruelling and powerful. As a snapshot of life under former dictactor Park Chung-hee, it would have been far too provocative to show to opening night attendee, presidential hopeful and the dictator's daughter, Park Geun-hye. Multiple waterboarding sequences were hard to take, but were skillfully laced with smart dialogue laying bare the machinations of compliance and ideology that operated behind the scenes. Too tough for some, the film has a surprisingly uplifting, tear-inducing third act which takes place in contemporary Seoul, rewarding those who endured the confronting torture scenes.
Equally tough was Kim Ki-duk's latest film, Pieta. Out of favour on the festival circuit and never a favoured son locally, Kim's film unexpectedly won the Golden Lion at Venice this year. The lead character in Pieta is Gang-do (a startling performance by Lee Jung-jin), a loan shark's standover man who would rather break legs than collect money. An unsympathetic monster, Gang-do is caught off-guard when a defiant middle-aged woman (a stunning Cho Min-soo) bursts into his apartment insisting that she is his mother. More interested in psychology than politics, Kim has his characters collide with an elemental force that is jaw-droppingly robust.
At the other end of the cinematic spectrum was Busan's scheduling of the Korean box office hit The Thieves. Featuring a pan-Asian cast, this enjoyable blockbuster is a caper about Korean and Chinese tricksters joining forces as they make an elaborate bid to steal a jewel from a Macau casino.
The other crowdpleaser in the mix was Nameless Gangster (pictured), which was the story of a corrupt government official who, after finding that the democratisation process of the 1980s has pushed him out of a job, manages through family connections and Confucian elder worship to bluster his way into a Busan crime syndicate. Regarded as a showpiece for Choi Min-sik (Old Boy), this film also showed younger actor Ha Jung-woo matching Choi every step of the way.
In between these arthouse and commercial extremes were several films from the 'Hong Sang-soo kids'. These are Korean filmmakers who think that they can replicate the internationally celebrated director if they follow his story pattern of, mostly male, characters drinking and talking. Sunshine Boys was the best of these, with some charming performances, particularly Kim Kkobel (best known for Breathless) as an enigmatic small-town prostitute. But the film – like much of Hong Sang-soo actually – never really transcends its trivial base. Many of the other new Korean films at Busan centred on bullying or rape traumas. Some such as Pluto (also featuring Kim Kkobel) or Jiseul had their fans (the latter won three awards across the pleothera of Busan competitions) but these angsty low-budget features are overrated student films rather than the true future of Korean cinema.
While many look for the future of Korean cinema, Busan always makes sure the cinematic past is not forgotten. This year's retrospective focussed on actor Shin Young-kyun. Appearing as a guest at the screening of Shin Sang-ok's fighter pilot melodrama The Red Scarf (1964), Shin gleefully began his introduction by shouting into the microphone: "I'm still alive!" While some of the films featuring this macho leading man have mere historical curiosity value, Rice, also directed by Shin Sang-ok, revealed that the star's frequent director was comfortable with left-leaning politics even before he was 'kidnapped' by the North Korean government in the 1970s. It is also an indicator that left and right shifting politics have always been a factor in Korean film, long before the Busan Film Festival and the Hallyu wave began.