When I told the foreign press liaison that my flight would be arriving at Busan at 9:30 p.m. she said the film festival counter at the airport might be closed by then, so could I please take a limousine bus on my own? No problem, I’ve done it many times before. What she didn’t seem to know, however, is that the last limousine bus into town leaves at 9:30. The counter, in fact, happened to still be open but the person there was less helpful than in the past. Though I’m not a “guest” in the technical sense, the festival has on occasion treated me as one, and if it were, say, five years ago I’m sure they would have put me in one of their official cars and taken me direct to the Grand Hotel. Not any more. She suggested I share a taxi with another stranded latecomer, a festival programmer from Los Angeles. The airport was swarming with drivers of “special” taxis, the ones that seem to overcharge but it’s difficult to tell. The guy that attached himself to us gave us a flat rate of 50,000 won, which is only about ¥4,500, a bargain by Tokyo standards, but a lot more than the bus, which is only 6,000 won.
I managed to make it to the hotel by 10:30, just in time for the opening reception party, which was being held there. Cars lined the little potholed-filled streets around the Grand and lots of rubberneckers filled the lobby snapping pictures with their cell phones of people I assume were movie stars, but I didn’t recognize any. The press liaison was waiting for me to make sure I could get into the party, since I hadn’t made any gesture about wanting to go. I usually don’t, but I was hungry and the 25,000 won taxi ride, as small in yen terms as it was, had put a sizable dent in my strict budget. Japan Times wasn’t paying much this year and finances are pretty dire in my household. I ate and drank more than my fill, and spent most of my time talking to a guy from Finland who programs something called the Antarctica Film Festival, the only one on the continent, apparently; news that I found unsurprising.
The big deal this year is the opening of the Busan Cinema Center, the huge, multi-venue production and screening facility that they’d been talking about ever since I started coming here in 2001. It’s a pretty imposing looking structure, located a block from the Centum City department store complex where many of the public screenings take place. It’s got all these curvy protuberances that hang over a central plaza rather ominously. Inside it’s something of a mess, with stairways leading to inconvenient places and rooms positioned seemingly at random. I haven’t been to any of the screening rooms there yet. The opening ceremony was still held outdoors, as is the tradition, but it was under one of these protuberances, which sort of ruins the effect, though I suppose from now on they won’t have to worry about rain. Also, I heard that the venue only seats 900, while the outdoor theater at the Yachting Center seated almost 1,500. What happened to those other 600?
The main problem is that the bulk of the festival is now in Centum, which is two subway stops from the beach hotel district and the Megabox cinema complex where they still do a lot of screenings. That means rushing back-and-forth. The shuttle, I discovered in the past, isn’t reliable owing to traffic, so the subway is better, but it still means a lot of running. I had a movie in the morning in Centum, then one at Megabox in the afternoon, then another one in Centum at night. It was hot yesterday. I was sweating.
It was a better than average day, film-wise. Caught the Chinese doc “Yulu,” produced and partly directed by Jia Zhangke. I’m still on the fence regarding Jia’s past attempts at pure documentary (as opposed to his hybrids, like “24 City,” which I think are very good), but the two segment he made and which bookend the film, were the best. The idea of the doc is to portray individuals whose work helps define Chinese development at this point in time, and Jia focused on two businessmen, one who is still struggling, and another who is incredibly successful. All the subjects speak for themselves in interview mode, and so there’s a lot of stuff about initiative and vision, which sounds almost reactionary in the context of a country that is still nominally communist; and Jia, because he concentrated on two men who are steadfastly going the free enterprise route, offered much to ponder about China’s future. The struggling entrepreneur, a 28-year-old named Cao Fei, runs an Internet shopping service for produce. As he said at one point, his choice of product puzzled a lot of people: “Why would a college graduate sell groceries?” If that isn’t a class-conscious reaction, I don’t know what is.
The two Korean films I saw couldn’t be more disparate. At the screening for Hong Sang-soo’s latest, “The Day He Arrives,” two of the stars showed up to talk about the film beforehand. They said that when it was screened at Cannes they heard a lot of laughter, and later when it was shown to preview audiences in Korea, there was a lot of laughter, too, only in different places. That seems a pretty good description of Hong’s unique brand of comedy, and “Day” is a return to the formally knotty style of his earlier films. Basically, a film director who has been retired for a number of years returns to Seoul to visit an old friend. As always, many of the scenes involve drinking and long, involved conversations that often result in misunderstandings and recriminations. Men and women act weird toward one another. What’s disconcerting at first is that the time frame is purposely skewed and situations are repeated at random to explore how that situation might have turned out if one element was changed slightly. It’s probably Hong’s loosest film, and his most enjoyable, for me, since “A Tale of Cinema,” which had a similarly open-ended structure. A friend from Kobe told me it’s already been picked up for distribution in Japan, along with three other Hong movies, in a package deal.
The other Korean movie, “A Reason to Live,” is still rattling around in my brain. The first movie in nine years by director Lee Jeong-hyang, it’s a soap opera in every sense except for its subject matter, which is the meaning of forgiveness. A woman turns full-on to Christianity after her fiancee is murdered. She petitions for mercy for the teen perpetrator and starts making a documentary about forgiveness, centered mainly on victims and prisoners on death row. At the same time, a younger friend who is about to attend college overseas starts staying at her apartment more frequently, saying that she can’t stand the beatings her father, a judge, doles out “for her own good,” as he and her brother put it. The contrast between these two women’s experiences makes for the film’s not inconsiderable tension, especially after the Christian woman discovers that the teen whom she forgave killed again. But the characters and situations have been shoehorned into a polemical agenda that’s schematic. Lee obviously considered every possibility that could come up in an argument over capital punishment and tried to cover them all. What gives the film staying power, however, is that it really does make you think about the difference between mercy and the rights of victims. I just wish it had done so with more subtlety and realism.
Realism was not the problem with “Good Bye,” the already famous Iranian film by Mohammad Rasoulof, who I believe is presently in jail. Uncompromising in its bleak portrayal of a woman lawyer who is disbarred because of her activism and that of her journalist husband, the movie’s oppressive spareness acts like those moments in horror movies just before a scary jolt, only there are no jolts. The woman uses an expensive intermediary to leave the country, which involves getting pregnant and going on false pretenses to a law conference. Her relations to her husband, who is forced to work construction in a remote area, are strained, but it’s the everyday work of just maintaining a bead on her goal that’s so exhausting, both for her and for the viewer. Rasoulof’s austere style is beautiful and maddening, especially during one scene–15 minutes with no edits–of two security goons ransacking the woman’s apartment in a quiet, almost respectful way. I’ll make the analogy again: It’s one of the most effective horror movies I’ve ever seen.