The Asian Film Awards are now being presented every year in conjunction with BIFF, and the 15th set of winners was announced at the Paradise Hotel Ballroom on Friday night, though it’s not clear how many of the winners were physically present. Japan won big by capturing the Best Picture prize for Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy, which also garnered Yu Aoi the Best Actress award. The most prominent Japanese person on hand at the awards seemed to be director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who didn’t win anything, but was in town because two of his movies are being feted at the festival in the Gala Presentation section, which is set aside for high profile new releases whose makers accompany their films in order to talk at length about them in front of fans and in conversation with other filmmakers. Probably owing to the fact that still many filmmakers are unable for one reason or another to attend BIFF, the Gala section this year only has three films: Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and Leos Carax’s Annette. Consequently, Hamaguchi is responsible for two-thirds of this year’s Gala Presentation.
So far I’ve only had time today to watch one screener today, Oh Seyeon’s Fanatic, which is in the Documentary Competition section. A highly personal film, as a documentary it reminded me of last year’s When the Hen Crows, by another young woman who goes by the name of Dabin, which I also saw online through BIFF. Oh’s movie is definitely a student project, since she is still studying film at university, and I suspect Dabin’s was, as well. Besides both being mainly about their authors, the two docs ostensibly use the personal to explore a more general theme. In Dabin’s case, it was the state of feminism in South Korea through the filter of her own “coming out” as a feminist. Oh’s film explores the countours of fandom, especially the downside, and jumps off from her own adolescent crush on a K-pop singer who was eventually arrested and tried for gang rape and distributing videos of his victims. Since both are quite young—Dabin 25 when she made her movie, and Oh only 21 when she made hers—there’s an air of embarrassed amateurness in their narrative tone, though Oh, having already tasted the limelight as a fan, seems more confident of her ability to hold your attention.
That 15 minutes of fame, when she met her idol, Jung Joon-young, in person on TV at a fan event, is the centerpiece of the film since it not only describes perfectly the depth of her devotion, but also made it possible to reach out to other fans who knew her by reputation. She interviews about a dozen young women, many Jung fans, though about half had crushes on other stars. What they all have in common is that their idols eventually disappointed them either through criminal activity or scandal. Perhaps predictably, their enmity became as fierce as their adoration was previously. “I want him to die in jail,” one hooded woman says of Jung after he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. Despite the fact that Oh herself professes to only being able to talk frankly about her crestfallen emotions after getting drunk, she’s articulate and probing about her feelings, as are almost all her interlocutors, who approach their fanaticism (seongdeok) with a lot more thoughfulness than you’d expect, which probably says more about my prejudices than it does about their states of mind. In fact, I was intrigued by the film because I regularly write about K-pop for a music industry magazine and have always been intimidated by the defensiveness of hardcore K-pop fans, who are extremely sensitive to anything that even resembles a slight to their idols. Unfortunately, Oh doesn’t go into this aspect of the issue, maybe because from her perspective it was more or less natural, but as a reformed seongdeok she certainly knows how it feels, and at one point made the connection between rabid K-pop fandom and right wing proselytizing by visiting a rally for the release of imprisoned former president Park Geun-hye, where one of the activities was writing fan letters to Park that the organizers would pay to have delivered to her. As someone who has had a lot of experience penning sweet meaningless love notes to someone she doesn’t know, Oh felt as if she were among her people, despite the fact that most were old enough to be her grandparents and she didn’t have any particular opinion about Park.
She also avoids the elephant in the room when it comes to pop stardom and fandom, especially with regard to K-pop, which is that most stars are manufactured. Consequently, their whole public being is built around attracting people like Oh and making them devotees. One of the women Oh interviews had a crush not on a K-pop star but on an indie rock artist, which would seem to contradict the kind of fandom Oh is talking about, since indie artists are, by definition, self-made, but the woman didn’t sound any less distracted in her devotion than the K-pop fans, and was equally destroyed when the artist was felled by a scandal. It also might have been interesting had Oh interviewed some men, but maybe their own brand of fandom doesn’t scan along the same lines as that of women’s. In my own experience, I once made a joke about a K-pop boy band some years ago in print and received reams of hate email, which seemed to mostly come from men.
But what makes Fanatic special is that Oh, thankfully, doesn’t take herself seriously, even if her movie is formally meticulous. It appears that at least half her production budget was spent on taking the train from Busan, where she’s from, to Seoul to attend Jung’s trial, which, like any function related to K-pop, “sold out” in 5 minutes. It’s implied that she got into the court by paying a scalper. She also interviews her own mother about her own feelings regarding an actor she idolized who similarly screwed up and ended his career in disgrace. The parallels with her daughter’s situation are both chilling and hilarious, and when Oh asks her if she was worried about her daughter’s devotion to Jung, the mother says, “No. I thought it was good that you stuck to one thing for so long.” Let’s hope she sticks to filmmaking with the same dedication.