The 26th edition of the Busan International Film Festival started last Wednesday with the usual red carpet ceremony and opening film extravaganza, and according to the organizers the festivities this year are back up to speed after last year’s severely curtailed doings owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, I am not there because there are still restrictions regarding foreign visitors to South Korea, not to mention restrictions on Japanese residents returning home from overseas for whatever reason. So I’m stuck in my little office in Inzai trying to follow the festival (my first was in 2001). Unlike last year, I was not offered access to the online market screenings to which the non-attendant press are entitled with a special code. I informed the press office of this oversight and they were kind enough to set up a system so that I could receive screeners of whatever films I wanted to see that happened to be available, which means not all of them. I feel bad because it obviously required more work on the part of the foreign press office (NDAs, contacting each film’s distributor for permission, etc.), but so far they’ve sent me links to four films with, I hope, more to come.
To say the least, I feel strange not being there. This time of year I’m always there, and I feel even more disappointed than I did last year, probably because I know the festival this time is almost back to full strength. Moreover, since the last time I was at the festival, Parasite won the Best Picture Oscar and Squid Game has taken over the world (there’s even a new section this year dedicated to new TV dramas). Those of us who’ve always known how special Korean cinema is have finally been vindicated, and it would have been great to share in that sense of achievement after all these years. I’ve been in touch with a few people who are also regulars of BIFF and who feel the same way, so we’re all hoping that next year things are back to “normal,” if such a thing is possible in a post-COVID world.
Today I managed to watch the opening film, Heaven: To the Land of Happiness, a mainstream entertainment whose somewhat redundant English title sums up its eagerness to please. BIFF openers, especially if they’re Korean movies, often split the difference between somber high-mindedness and big-budget high-mindedness. This year’s offering leans so heavily toward the latter that it tilts over into genre excess, but what intrigued me was the director. Im Sang-soo is responsible for two of the most memorable Korean movies I saw at BIFF in the 2000s: A Good Lawyer’s Wife and The President’s Last Bang. He followed these acid-laced, cynical comedies with the pleasingly stylized but wholly unnecessary remake of Kim Ki-young’s classic 1960s erotic thriller The Housemaid, and then dabbled in commercial films that never displayed the kind of distinctive wit that characterized his earlier work. Heaven continues this pattern. It’s a buddy road movie whose only distinguishing feature is that the buddies are both really ill—one terminally so—and yet they get beat up so much that you wonder if they aren’t superhuman in some way. In other words, it’s a pretty conventional Korean popcorn movie, replete with the requisite melodramatic family subtext and a balance of honest and crooked members of the establishment. There are also a lot of things that don’t make sense, but that’s par for the course with this kind of movie. I would have been interested to see the reaction at the opening night screening since Korean audiences tend to be quite demonstrative while watching if you know what to look (and listen) for. It wasn’t the most auspicious opener, despite the high-caliber cast: Choi Min-sik playing to his strengths as a middle aged loser, and Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung in a small, delectable role as a dying mob boss.
As is usually the case with the opening film, Heaven was a world premiere, though the opening title card indicates it was slated to be shown at Cannes in 2020. Last year, BIFF had a special section devoted to films that were supposed to play at famous international film festivals but didn’t owing to the pandemic, and in a sense this year’s edition continues to clean up the mess that COVID has made of the film industry’s schedule for the past 18 months. A casual perusal of this year’s program (more movies than last year, but still fewer than normal) shows a higher percentage of world and international premieres, so obviously BIFF is doing its part to help the world heal. Let’s hope it’s completely better again by next October.