The 26th Busan International Film Festival concludes today and the festival has already released its final report summarizing the crowd numbers and other relevant data: 223 films were screened comprising works from 70 countries; 76,072 distinct attendances, including for both physical and online screenings; 31 special programs featuring in-person appearances; 191 guest visits to screenings, including 40 online; and, perhaps most interestingly, only 69 “international guests” as opposed to 1,079 “domestic guests,” which means, despite the festival’s claim that it is “the first international event in Korea to be held during the pandemic,” it’s an international event only open to people who are already in the country or those from overseas who received special permission to attend, and that would seem to include guests who attend the market events. There’s nothing untoward about such a claim, but, obviously, BIFF can’t possibly reassert itself as the biggest and best film festival in Asia until the actual international component of its attendance regains its old potency. A lot of people I know can’t wait to get back.
As mentioned in an earlier post, there is no overall competition at BIFF, though a lot of niche awards are given out. The only film competition that’s sponsored by the festival is the New Currents Award for new filmmakers, which went to two films, Chinese director Wang Er Zhuo’s Farewell, My Hometown, which I didn’t see, and Korean director Kim Se-in’s The Apartment With Two Women, which I did. The latter also won the New Currents Audience Award as well as the festival’s Actress of the Year Award for the performance of Im Jee-ho. Outside the festival, Apartment also won the NETPAC Award, which is given by representatives of foreign film festivals, and the Watcha Award, a Korean prize for new filmmakers. Im’s award seems appropriate because Apartment is, if anyting, a real actors’ showcase. Kim’s script and direction exude a strong sense of autobiography spiked with hyperbolic depictions of scenes plucked from real life. Still, it’s difficult to imagine the protagonist, Yijung (Im), as a proxy for the director, who, after all, possessed the wherewithal to get into film school and make this ambitious 140-minute portrayal of a fraught mother-daughter relationship that oftens descends into comic, albeit blood-shedding arguments. Though the theme is hardly original, Kim earns points for avoiding much of the sentimental undertow that characterizes such movies. She doesn’t bother with a back story, so we never know who Yijung’s father is or why he isn’t in the picture. And though the mother, Sookyung (Yang Mal-bok), has some good reasons for demanding her 20-something daughter move out, her abject intolerance of Yijung’s presence will itself be intolerable to most sentient viewers; and while Yijung may attract sympathy for having to put up with the emotional and physical violence inherent in her mother’s attitude, her glum behavior is just as off-putting. Kim makes it very difficult to like either woman, and yet the long running time never becomes a tortuous slog because of her talent for couching these stereotypes—especially Sookyung’s penchant for youthful fashions that are not only out of her age league, but feel at least 20 years out of date—in episodes that are both credible and dramatically compelling. It’s by no means a masterpiece, but as with so many Korean films by new directors, it shows how adept the film education system is at instilling in film students the importance of conveying, as directly as possible, an original vision, even if the tools are well worn.
In that sense, it’s helpful to compare Apartment to another Korean movie about single motherhood, Doom Doom, a World Premiere screened in the Korea Cinema Today section and another debut feature. Director Jung Wonhee, however, falls into most of the thematic and stylistic traps that lay in wait for impressionllbe filmmakers who want to say something about the strictures of social mores. The single mother in Doom Doom is much younger than Sookyung, though, in essence, their problems are the same: the lack of freedom that comes with parenthood. Sookyung is basically tired of having to live with her daughter, even if she doesn’t necessarily have to support her any more, since she has a boyfriend she wants to marry. Ina, on the other hand, is an up-and-coming DJ in the Seoul club scene whose career has been interrupted by what seems to be an unexpected pregnancy. Like Kim, Jung doesn’t dwell on the past or who the father of Ina’s toddler daughter is. She doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring the painful options for Ina, ranging from giving up her daughter to a Catholic orphanage for possible adoption to completely abandoning her career in order to raise her daughter full time. The gist of the movie is actually trying to find a middle ground where an ambitious, talented person like Ina can do both, and in that regard it has something to say, but it would be better if it said it in a less dour way. For a movie that is mostly set in music clubs, it’s rather static and fails to properly convey the kind of joy that this sort of electronic dance music is supposed to provide. It might be different if Ina’s brand of electronica was completely art-based, but the central conflict here is an EDM competition whose winner will get to go to Berlin to perform and make music for an important label. At times, the dramatic aesthetic hews closer to K-drama than K-cinema, with TV’s affection for the breakout moment, the epiphany or show-of-purpose that changes everything for the protagonist. Though Jung aims for a new kind of style to tell an old story, she ends up with something that feels even more conventionl in contrast to that style.
As an addendum, I also saw another movie that deals with the pitfalls of ambition in a world defined by family obligations. The Exam is an Iraqi film set in the country’s Kurdish region that has already generated some buzz at other festivals, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an incredibly tense, compact work that operates on various levels to explain the current situation, especially for women, in the part of the world where it’s set, and while I can think of other films from that part of the world that explore these themes more adroitly, I can’t think of one that does all of them well and with such skill. Director Shawhat Amin Korki, who won the New Currents Award in 2009 for his movie Kick Off, focuses on Iraq’s university examination system, which should resonate for a lot of people in other countries where getting into a good school is sometimes a matter of life and death. In the case of Rojin (Vania Salar), a young, nervous woman without much academic fortitude, it’s the only means she has to escape from what will likely be a disastrous marriage being forced upon her by her family. Her older sister, Shilan (Avan Jamal), who is already in a disastrous marriage, is determined to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to Rojin, and makes arrangements with a private company that helps clients cheat on the exams. Korki is painstaking in showing the technical and logistical details of the scheme, in which each step is charged with the possibility of something going terribly wrong. The movie is almost unbearable to watch at times, not only because the chance of disaster is so palpably real, but because of the stakes, which, as the story progresses, affect more and more people, from Shilan’s violent but essentially clueless husband, to the teachers who conspire with the cheaters because of their pitiful renumerance, to the students who actually study hard to gain a leg up on everyone else. In the end, what The Exam really exposes is the horrible price that a society which is still at war (in the background there is always news about Kurdish troops retaking Mosul from ISS) pays for unrestrained competition, not to mention a culture where women still count as property first and independent human beings second.