BIFF 2021: Oct. 11

still from The Book of Fish (c) BIFF

The Asian Contents and Film Market opened Monday. Though separate from BIFF, it’s considered an adjunct to the festival, with attendees of both overlapping and mixing freely outside of sanctioned events, mostly in watering holes and hotel meeting places. In fact, it’s hard to imagine one without the other. While BIFF’s distinctive place in the world as a major international film festival is the attention it pays to local film buffs, ACFM feels like a truly global happening, since it addresses the business side with a real sense of purpose and scale. And while BIFF this year is making a lot of noise about how far it’s rebounded from last year’s curtailed event, ACFM rightly has to face reality and hold much of its events online due to continuing international travel restrictions, though its bulletins are quick to point out that they will be holding “onsite events…for domestic participants who are able to attend physically.” They literally mean business, so the online meetings, booths, and screenings are, presumably, run proficiently enough to facilitate the transacations that make BIFF and its peripherals one of the most important film market events of the year, but one component is necessarily missing, even for those who can attend in person: the parties. Every night, there are a dozen or so wingdings associated with the festival or the market that are attended freely by participants of both, and it’s where a lot of important connections are made. As someone who merely covers the festival, I’ve set up more interviews at parties than I have through the official press office, which is how you’re supposed to do it, but usually by the time the press office makes the necessary arrangements, I’m already gone (the festival typically pays for 5-6 days of my accommodations, and I usually leave on Tuesday or Wednesday). At parties, you can meet distributors and directors who are desperate for exposure, not to mention connections who are happy to introduce you to distributors and directors desperate for exposure. BIFF has bounced back, but from what I’ve learned from people who are there, the parties haven’t. However, one correspondent, a Korean friend, posted on Facebook the intelligence that a lot of the schmoozing and business card-exchanging normally reserved for evening and late night is now being done during breakfast at the various hotels, most of which have buffet offerings. She says, in fact, that she prefers this setup to the usual shenanigans since people are more serious and have to get their business done right away. After all, they have places to be at certain times. And, of course, they aren’t drunk, but she doesn’t mention that.

BIFF is also my venue for catching up on recent mainstream Korean cinema. Many of these films, unlike the often more stimulating indie fare, will eventually be released in Japan, but I like to get to them as soon as possible and on big screens. This year’s Korean Cinema Now: Panorama section, where these films are usually slotted, didn’t have many I was already familiar with, and since I am limited by which films the press office can send me (and have to watch them on small screens), I’m at a double disadvantage. The Book of Fish, which I watched today, is by Lee Joonik, a veteran director whose work I’ve seen but don’t recall with any clear memory. The movie is slated to open in Japan in November, so I was expecting something slick and star-studded. But besides the main actor, Sul Kyung-gu, one of the most versatile leading men in Korea (Peppermint Candy, Rikidozan, and Oasis, maybe my favorite Korean movie of all time), I didn’t see any viable stars in the cast. As a historical movie, its appeal falls outside the usual sword-and-intrigue genre that Japanese fans of K-cinema like, but I can see where it could draw a certain breed of cinephile based on world-of-mouth. It’s at once a crowd-pleaser and an intellectually challenging work. 

According to the opening title card, the script is based on the “preface” to the titular marine guide, which was written by a scholar in the early part of the 19th century. The story, I’m assuming, is mostly fiction suggested by acknowledgements in the preface that the author gleaned much of his knowledge about the sea and its products from one local fisherman named Changdae (Byun John). The scholar’s name is Jeong Yak-jeon (Sul), who was one of three nobleman brothers arrested for sedition because of their familiarity with the Catholic Church and its teachings, which were illegal at the time. As it turns out, only one of the brothers was a baptized Catholic, and he is eventually executed. The other two do not present as Christians but nevertheless admire the science and political thought attendant to Western teachings that arrived with Catholicism, and they are each exiled to far-flung regions. Jeong ends up on Black Mountain Island (Heuksando), whose governor, a bumbling semi-literate bureaucrat, feels himself only slightly superior to this traitor, who is quickly installed in the home of a widow with extra room. Contrary to what he might have expected, the island is an idyll for Jeong, a place of boundless nature and beauty that stimulates his intellect. Changdae is a young fisherman who often deposits seafood at the widow’s door, and who is the illegitimate son of a nobleman who lives on the mainland. Cognizant of his potentially high birth but low circumstances, he teaches himself to read, though the only books he can get his hands on are difficult Confucian classics about the proper way to live in the world. He asks Jeong to help him understand the texts, and in turn Jeong asks Changdae to help him understand the sea, since he wants to write a “treatise,” or, more exactly, a kind of encyclopedia of the ocean’s riches. At first, each of the two men resent the other’s demands, but they eventually fall into a mentor-apprentice relationship that mutually enriches their understanding of the world.

It’s Changdae’s entreaty, “I want to be a better person,” that informs the movie’s theme. To him, “better people” are the learned nobility that he was only half born into, and when he finally achieves his goal he realizes that ambition is a two-edged sword, and reviles what ambitious men make of their privilege, since it necessarily means subjugating the lower classes of which he was member for so long. Jeong, who was born into the nobility and stripped of his place in it, has no such illusions. He is left only with his mind, which has plenty of room for both Eastern philosophy and Western worldliness. To him, the better person is the one who wants to know more. He is, to put it bluntly, the original democratic thinker. 

As befits a mainstream entertainment, the film’s intricate social fabric is shot through with hyperbolic dramatic touches that sometimes feel antithetical to Lee’s intentions, and while the pristine black-and-white cinematography is an effective antidote to the hyperbole, the score, which mixes familiar classical themes (Satie?) with Jerry Goldsmith-worthy bombast often distracts from what a scene seems to be trying to pull off. But it’s a moving historical drama, and one that does a very good job of illuminating a tricky intellectual conundrum. 

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