Last week, the organizers of the 25th annual Busan International Film Festival announced somewhat abruptly that the festival, originally scheduled to take place Oct. 7-16, would be postponed for two weeks and would instead begin on Oct. 21. It has already been decided and announced that, due to the COVID crisis, the size of Asia’s biggest film event would be scaled back considerably. For one thing, there would be no foreign guests in attendance due to government rules stipulating a 14-day quarantine for anyone entering South Korea. That includes, of course, the usual invited press, of which I have been a member since 2001. It also means that most if not all the non-Korean filmmakers whose works will be shown at the festival will not be able to attend in person. However, the organizers were, and still are, intent on having a live event, with real people attending screenings in real theaters, because that is what a film festival is about and BIFF considers itself a real film festival, i.e., one for the local fans. The two-week postponement was implemented because of uncertainty over the Chuseok holiday period in the first week of October, when many Koreans visit family and friends. The fear is that such activities could result in another spike in infections. If that happens, the two-week lag time might be enough to flatten the curve.
But even that is not certain, and the main message of the first press conference that took place Sept. 14 via the Zoom conferencing app is that the festival could very well still be cancelled, depending on the situation following the holiday period. Festival Director Jay Jeon, Chairman Lee Yang-kwan, and Program Director Nam Dong-chul answered reporters’ questions online after announcing the lineup of films and providing a general overview of the festival. As expected, the roster of films has been cut considerably, from the usual 300 or so to 192. However, the usual sections are all still in tact, with one rather striking addition: a large selection of films invited to the cancelled Cannes Film Festival will be screened, including Francis Lee’s Ammonite, Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, and a revival of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. The opening film will be the omnibus Septet: The Story of Hong Kong, with contributions from Hark Tsui, Sammo Hung, Johnnie To, Ringo Lam, and others. The closing film will be the Japanese animated feature, Josee, the Tiger and the Fish, directed by Kotaro Tamura. In fact, Japan, as usual, is perhaps the best represented non-Korean country at this year’s festival, with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Venice winner Wife of a Spy and Naomi Kawase’s True Mothers in the Gala Presentation section; Kazuo Hara’s Minamata Mandala in the Icons section; Yuya Ishii’s All the Things We Never Said, Shinji Aoyama’s Living in the Sky, Shuichi Okita’s Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone, and Bunji Sotoyama’s Soiree in the Window on Asian Cinema section; Yujiro Harumoto’s A Balance in the New Currents section; Keisuke Toyoshima’s Mishima: The Last Debate in the Documentary Competition section; and Ryota Nakano’s The Asadas in the Open Cinema section.
Most of the notable Korean films are already in general release in South Korea, including Peninsula, the sequel to the huge zombie hit, Train to Busan, as well as Hong Sang-soo’s latest (presumed) sex comedy, The Woman Who Ran; Kim Yong-hun’s Beasts Clawing at Straws; and Lee Chungryoul’s Cicada. Other prominent Asian films scattered throughout the various sections include Tsai Ming-liang’s Days, Jia Zhangke’s Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, and Majid Majidi’s Sun Children. Non-Asian selections are in rather short supply, but those that are coming are very exciting, including Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall, Orson Welles’ Hopper/Welles, Amos Gitai’s A Night in Haifa, Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears, Michel Franco’s New Order, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, Viggo Mortensen’s Falling, Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow, and Francois Ozon’s Summer of 85. Most of the usual awards will be in place, but all judging will be done online as well.
As mentioned, it is the organizers’ main wish to have a “live” festival, albeit one without most of the crowd-pleasing events that make BIFF special, including the opening, closing, and awards ceremonies; guest visits and seminars; hand-printing sessions; and the countless number of meet-and-greets. The market events that traditionally take place at the same time as BIFF will be held, but obviously attendance will be greatly limited so it’s not clear what the parameters will be. Most of the activities will presumably be carried out online, as will all press activities, including press screenings, one of the main points of concern during the press conference Q&A session. Since all events will be limited to the Busan Cinema Center, which only has five screens, there will only be one public screening for each film. In addition, according to regulations, all indoor events are limited to 50 persons, which will make ticketing for the screenings something of a nightmare, but apparently all ticketing will be done online. At the moment, the organizers are also trying to arrange for online press screenings, but that may take time, what with the need to check with each film distributor for permission. Needless to say, the festival, if it indeed takes place, will be an interesting thing to attend remotely, but it would definitely be nice to see some of these films, even on my computer. Though downsized, this year’s festival has one of the best lineups I’ve seen in a while.
There is also the matter of the Asian Film Awards, which this year are supposed to be presented in conjunction with BIFF for the first time. Though it appears to be still on the schedule, none of the three officials in attendance confirmed anything definite. The biggest heartbreak, as Lee said, was that all the people who normally enjoy the festival will not be able to enjoy it this year. He particularly feels sorry for the citizens of the host city, Busan, who, in effect, are footing the bill (a number of questions covered the budget, which continues to be something of a political football) and have proven themselves to be the loyalest film fans in the world. Since outdoor events are allowed but limited to 100 persons, some may still take place, but, again, nothing will be decided until after the holiday. Lee projects that a final announcement will be made Oct. 15, which would be less than a week before the festival is slated to start. That’s cutting it pretty close. If the festival is cancelled, Lee said that they will still try to find a way of screening the films, though he wouldn’t speculate on how that could be done. Either way, you have to hand it to the festival organizers: They are willing to stake a lot for the movies they love.