Asia Life

Busan International Film Festival: Exploring Asia’s Cinematic Fringe

Asia’s largest film festival continues to grow, with an eye towards indie cinema.

Asian cinema is definitely reaching a global break-out point. According to the United States-based Motion Picture Association, box office growth in Asia surged 15 percent to $10.4 billion, compared to an uptick of six percent in North America (to $10.8 billion). Asia is on the cusp of becoming the world’s biggest market for cinema.

So it was only fitting that cinematic movers and shakers from around the world convened last Thursday in South Korea for the 10-day Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), Asia’s largest film gala, which draws some 200,000 visitors annually.  Big names from Japan like Joe Odagiri and Maeda Atsuko filed down the lengthy red walkway, alongside singer and actor Ok Taecyeon and actress Lee Yeon-hee. Bringing their directorial gravitas to the event were Cannes-winning directors Jia Zhangke of China and Hirokazu Kore-eda of Japan, along with megastar actors Ken Watanabe and Hong Kong’s Jimmy Wang.

The glitz is deceiving, though. The BIFF is about uncovering hidden cinematic gems around the region and giving them an audience more than it is about perpetuating a Hollywood – or for that matter, a Chollywood or a Bollywood – ethos. To be sure, there were plenty of big budget efforts on show among the 300 screenings in Busan. But by and large, the standout efforts turn out to be independent and art house in nature, and are often produced in the far-flung corners of the region – a special focus of this year’s fest.

Among the films coming from beyond the mainstream is the festival’s opener, Vara: A Blessing, the third feature directed by a Bhutanese Buddhist monk named Khyentse Norbu, who chose a mountain retreat in his home country rather than attend the festival. The film tells the tale of a South Asian traditional dancer named Lila who falls in love with a man from a lower class who dreams of becoming a sculptor. In an English video message, Norbu praised Busan for its vision and for mining Asia’s undiscovered cinematic gold.

The Diplomat’s Jonathan DeHart spoke with Kim Ji-seok, BIFF’s executive programmer, about what makes Busan special and trends in Asian cinema today.

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How much has Busan grown over the years? How does it compare in terms of size to other major global film festivals at present?

The Busan International Film Festival first set sail in 1996. From the outset, the Festival has been focused on contributing to the development of Asian cinema and discovering new talent. For our first edition in 1996 we invited 169 films from 31 countries, and this year, 299 films from 70 countries have been invited. In our early years, we simply played the role of being a showcase for these films.

However, in the past 17 years, our role has expanded through [initiatives in] the Asian film industry (Asian Film Market, Asian Project Market, Asian Cinema Fund), education (Asian Film Academy), and preservation of cinematic heritage (Busan Cinema Center Film Archive). Also, the Busan Film Commission, established in 1999, has launched the Asian Film Policy Forum, continuing a discussion on the film policies of Asia with the Busan International Film Festival.

Each year, the Busan International Film Festival is filled to the brim with audience members, as the head count of pure movie-goers exceeds more than 220,000. These audience members are passionate about watching films and enjoy engaging in discussions, more so than audiences at any other film festival out there. Such is one of the reasons why the Busan International Film Festival goes by the epithet of “the world’s most exuberant film festival.”

Where are the hottest spots for cinema in Asia at the moment?

In major film festivals around the world, independent films from the Southeast Asian regions have been showing a strong performance. Without exception, this year has seen many quality films from Southeast Asia, many of which will be introduced for the first time in Busan. (Transit, a highly charged drama about migrant Philippine families in Israel, is being called the frontrunner for the festival’s top prize.)

In particular, five films invited to the New Current section – the festival’s competition for works by new Asian directors – are Southeast Asian pieces. Further, they are all independent films. This year, especially, many Japanese films have been invited as well. The selection includes not only new works by top class directors such as Koreeda Hirokazu, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Aoyama Shinji, Sabu, and Sono Sion, but works of distinctive styles by new directors as well.

But, the truly “hottest spots” of this year are Kazakhstan and Mongolia. From Kazakhstan, we have Story of an Old Woman, a bold formal experiment by Alexey Gorlov; Nagima, by female director Zhanna Issabayeva who has opened up a new prospect for Central Asian realism aesthetics; Harmony Lessons by Emir Baigazin who entered the competition section at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival; among other amazing masterpieces and directors entering the scene.

For the past several years in Mongolia, there hadn’t been many directors distinguishable from others. However, this year, outstanding new directors such as Byamba Sakhya of Remote Control and Khoroldorj Choijoovanchig (Yellow Colt) will be introduced for the first time in Busan. With the appearance of these two directors, a new age in Mongolian cinema has arrived unexpectedly. 

131003_BIFF_개막식_사회자_002sgWho are some of Asia’s up and coming directors, actors and actresses to keep an eye on?

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We are keeping a keen eye out for the directors invited to the New Currents section. The 13 directors of this year’s 12 films are those whose talents have already been acknowledged. A close watch is also being kept for Zhanna Issabayeva, whose Nagima has been invited to the Gala Presentation.

Through her fourth film, Nagima, she has raised Kazakhstan’s realism aesthetics to a new dimension and opened up a new realm of female cinema. Also, Adolfo Alix Jr. from the Philippines is a director who has been most vigorous in his filmmaking activities. Presenting a new style in each of his works, Adolfo Alix Jr. is a versatile director of many talents.

Busan makes a clear attempt to explore off the beaten path. Along with the opening film, Vara: A Blessing, what are some of the other surprises or highly innovative films this year?

Of this year’s selections being introduced at BIFF, some 134 are world or international premieres. Naturally, many of these are surprising pieces. Dai Yoshihiko’s Present for You (Japan) combines real life images with a puppet show, presenting a new and completely original attempt made by no other works of the like in the past. Vikas Bahl’s Queen (India) is reminiscent of an English romantic comedy and shows a new territory of Indian popular cinema. Yamashita Nobuhiro’s Tamako in Moratorium (Japan) is a coming-of-age film unique to Japan and worth noting. In this film, the ‘self’ is discovered through the routines of everyday life.

What is the state of cinema in some of Asia’s more politically difficult environments?

In the case of Iran, which faces political challenges, changes can be hoped for with the new president coming into office. However, we will have to wait a while to see the results. Countries that face conflicts due to censorship still exist in Asia. Thailand, China, and Iran are some such countries. As such, the festival cannot help but always be on alert when inviting films that are experiencing domestic censorship-related conflicts at home, because of the subsequent problems that may arise. This year’s BIFF did experience a few such difficulties, but managed to forge on without any significant trouble, such as cancelled screenings.

For those interested in digging deeper, a daily commentary on the cinematic goodies being shared in Busan this year can be perused here, courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter.