It was obvious from all the prefatory statements made by the various officials of the Busan International Film Festival on Sept. 7 to announce what would take place this year that the opening press conference was supposed to be a bigger deal that what it turned out to be. The organizers wanted it to be a live event in front of flesh-and-blood journalists in both Seoul and Busan, with the mayor of the latter city showing up to lend his unqualified support, but, unfortunately, that pesky typhoon showed up and they ended up limiting the event to one venue with reporters participating online. Consequently, it wasn’t much different from the last two opening press conferences, which were online and relatively brief. Why it was doubly disappointing this year is that the four men who talked to us online were bursting with the wonderful news that BIFF was back to full strength from two years of limited exposure due to the pandemic, meaning more sections and screenings than ever in real theaters with full attendance and, more importantly, big guests from Asia and the rest of the world in attendance because without that celebrity cachet, BIFF isn’t BIFF. Though it’s got the best market and the biggest, most eclectic selection of any film festival in Asia, it’s mostly a party for Korean film fans, and they do love their stars and VIPs.
Still, it’s the selection itself that means the most, and while BIFF tends to play down the spectacle when it comes to programming, as programmer Nam Dong-chul said at the press conference, this year he and his colleagues focused on “large-scale films” that were designed to be seen in theaters with an audience. However, the organizers chose Iranian director Hadi Mohaghegh’s Scent of Wind as the Opening Film, a seemingly modest production set in a rural environment among people who must deal with isolation and disability. In 2015, Mohaghegh won the New Currents Award, the only prize given to films themselves by the festival, for his second feature, Immortal, so the honor of opening the event can be seen as a kind of family affair. The Closing Film sounds like more a big deal: Japanese director Kei Ishikawa’s hotly anticipated A Man, which is based on a best-selling mystery about a woman who learns after her husband’s death that he wasn’t who he said he was. While A Man should be a crowd-pleaser—its release had been delayed more than a year due to the pandemic—it won’t be a world premiere, since it was already screened at Venice.
Even the Gala Presentation, which usually includes the festival’s highest-profile films, this year contains only two, both European: Alain Guiraudie’s Nobody’s Hero and Pietro Marcello’s Scarlet. Where the festival hits its stride with regard to the goals articulated by Nam is in the Icons section, which offers a whopping 24 selections by the world’s most famous and/or important directors, and while only one of them, Philippine director Brillante Mendoza’s Feast, is a world premiere, the section fulfills the real mission of BIFF, which is to assemble those movies that other, bigger, flashier (i.e., Western) festivals showed off over the past six months all in one convenient place, including James Gray’s Armageddon Time, Claire Denis’ Both Sides of the Blade, Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, Dario Argento’s Dark Glasses, Francoise Ozon’s Peter Von Kant, and Noah Baumbach’s White Noise. Asia is represented by Kore-eda’s Korean co-production Broker, which already opened in Japan, and two-count-’em-two Hong Sang-soo features, Walk Up and The Novelist’s Film.
Though Hong Kong actor Tony Leung was announced as this year’s Asian Filmmaker of the Year, the lineup in general is light on new Chinese product, which probably reflects economic realities in Hong Kong and on the mainland. Leung himself will, of course, be on hand to host a special section of six of his films that he selected himself. Of the 31 selections in what I deem BIFF’s most important section, A Window on Asian Cinema, there are only four from either China or Hong Kong, which only leaves more room for Southeast Asian and Indian fare, a good thing as far as I’m concerned. The Japanese movies in the section are already in general release here, but it also contains nine world premieres. Of course the New Currents section, by its very nature, contains nothing but world premieres and this year’s Japan entry, Thousand and One Nights by Nao Kubota, has received a lot of positive advance buzz.
But for most of us, the central reason to go to BIFF is to catch up with Korean cinema, and this year’s offering is particularly strong. In line with Nam’s edict, the new Korean Cinema Today section has two blockbuster world premieres, Bang Woo-ri’s 20th Century Girl and Chung Ji-young’s The Boys, but even the Panorama section, which showcases mainstream movies, has five world premieres, though I’m most excited about Next Sohee, the latest work by July Jung, who directed one of my favorite BIFF films of all time, A Girl At My Door. Then there’s the Vision section, which showcases new Korean indie films, all of which are world premieres. Usually, you have to wait until after the festival starts to get a sense of the buzz surrounding any of those films, but many of the attached directors go on to sustained, fulfilling careers. Another new section simply called Jiseok also bows this year. Named after master programmer Kim Jiseok, who died in 2017, the section highlights world and international premieres of the type of idiosyncratic Asian films that Kim always looked for and championed at BIFF. Of special note in this section is Anshul Chauhan’s Japanese feature, December, whose trailer is the creepiest of all I’ve seen so far.
The biggest platform for “large-scale movies” is Open Cinema, which tends to screen crowd-pleasers in the most literal sense, and the one to see here is the Michelle Yeoh action vehicle Everything Everywhere All at Once, which won’t open in Japan until next spring. Another new section that promises to make waves is On Screen, which features so-called OTT content, meaning films and series developed for streaming services. Of these the most interesting are definitely Takashi Miike’s first (as far as I know) Korean production, Connect, and Lars von Trier’s return to epic weird TV, The Kingdom Exodus. Almost all the other selections are Korean, naturally.
About a third of the press conference was given over to explanation of the market events, with a special emphasis on greater involvement in Asian co-productions, which has always been Busan’s strong suit anyway, though there seems to be a lot more action promised this year, including a huge content market, the biggest in Asia, from all reports. Among the typically spiky questions asked by Korean reporters during the Q&A session was why weren’t there any Russian films (actually, there is one, Alexander Sokurov’s Fairytale in the Icons section, though it also had input from Belgium and Estonia). The organizers didn’t dodge the question but simply said that, as part of the international festival community, Busan adheres to the boycott on directors who “support the Russian war.” A more interesting question was about BIFF’s relationship with the city of Busan, which, at the moment, seems fairly smooth, though the festival has had serious problems in the past with mayors or other local political players who objected to BIFF’s decidedly liberal bent. Though BIFF has said it is fully cooperating with the city’s effort to win the hosting gig for the 2030 World Expo (that big BTS concert in Busan takes place the weekend after the festival), chairman Lee Yong-kwan also hinted that the festival is always striving to win new sponsors so that they don’t have to be so economically reliant on the city. Busan may be the festival’s home, but its heart is everywhere.