The big news at this year’s BIFF is that, after 2 years of limited activities due to the pandemic, the festival is back to normal. I arrived Thursday evening, the day after the official opening, and had to make my way into town on my own. It wasn’t a big deal, but since the mid-2000s I’ve been a guest of the festival and they had paid for my accommodations and given me a ride from the airport. None of that this year—I’m paying for a tiny room in a little hotel off the main drag in Haeundae that doesn’t even have a closet or a desk—and though I greatly appreciate the hospitality in the past, I don’t automatically expect it. I’m just a reporter. Still, I’ve heard that public funding for the festival is still down quite a bit, so they are obviously cutting back on things. I see very few foreign press here, and even those who are present mainly work for the trades and live in Asia. I haven’t seen any journalists from Europe or North America. They’ve completely done away with English interpreting for the Q&A sessions (though they still announce after the screening, in English, for the audience to “stay in your seats” for the after-screening talks). A lot of the amenities that were normal features of the festival around the Busan Film Center are gone. So obviously things are not completely back to normal; or maybe the festival is just downsizing to be rational.
But they are definitely back to speed in terms of the program—more films than ever, and quite a few premieres. The main missing ingredient is China. I would say the number of films from China and Hong Kong is about a third the usual offering. China can be selective about what it sends to film festivals, and I know they are cracking down on Hong Kong’s movie industry, but I assume the paucity of works is due to COVID. The zero-virus policy must have had a serious effect on output. That’s also why BIFF gave their Asian Filmmaker of the Year award to Tony Leung. It gives them an excuse to set up a whole section with Leung’s classics, thus adding half a dozen old Hong Kong films to the roster. But with China slightly out of the picture, other national cinemas get a relative boost, and the buzz this year is that Iran’s offerings are very strong, which is a lucky coincidence because of the turmoil that’s in the news every day. I haven’t seen any Iranian movies yet, but there are several that I’ve heard are quite controversial.
Yesterday, I saw four movies, all Korean. I always try to catch Hong Sang-soo’s latest when I’m in Busan and, as usual, he has two this year. It’s better to see his work with a Korean audience, who tend to laugh a lot at his situations and dialogue. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Walk Up, which I watched online in my hotel room Thursday night, more than The Novelist’s Film, which I saw at a public screening yesterday morning. Walk Up is one of this Hong films whose structure is deceptive in that time doesn’t necessarily proceed linearly, but it’s story about how a particular artist abandons his art out of sheer neglect and distraction was quite potent and even a bit sad, an adjective I rarely use for Hong’s movies. The Novelist’s Film, on the other hand, is the usual Hong fare in that it’s almost all conversation over drinks that reveals more than its participants probably realize. It was definitely funnier than Walk Up, but seemed tossed off. Not surprisingly, the cast for both movies was identical, as if he had made both movies simultaneously. He probably did. I think, in fact, that’s part of his methodology.
Jang Kunjae’s Junee from 5 to 7 shows Hong’s influence in terms of style: monochrome with mostly static shots and very little in the way of plot development. It’s much more somber, though, befitting its theme. The title character, played by Kim Jooryung of Squid Game fame, is a middle aged drama professor who, during the titular time period, awaits a possible breast cancer diagnosis and tries to go about her business as best she can. It’s an actor’s film in more ways than one, since Kim has to convey what’s happening inside while she puts on a normal front for colleagues, friends, and family. But half the movie is also about a small theater company who is doing a play by her husband, which is about a husband and wife. Though the movie is almost too modest, it has a cumulative power that really does show how performance is the foundation of civilized life.
In contrast, Next Sohee, the latest film by July Jang, a former assistant to Lee Chang-dong and whose earlier film, Girl at My Door, is one of my favorite Korean movies of recent memory, is conventional in all the best ways, and yet it kept surprising me—at one point it even made my jaw drop. Like Lee’s earlier films, Sohee takes an acute social problem and studies how it affects individuals. The title character is a high school senior whose vocational school gets her a position in a telecom company as a customer service rep. Pugnacious to a fault but understanding her place in the scheme of things, Sohee quickly realizes that this setup is a kind of scam. The work is punishingly awful, and I wondered if customers for internet services are really this horrible, but in any case pay is dependent on performance and many new recruits quit. For Sohee that isn’t an option because the job is tied to her credits—if she quits, she might not graduate. The second half of the film centers on a police detective played with sullen assurance by Bae Doona, who investigates the goings-on at both the company and the high school and finds that the problem is systemic in the worst way. Next Sohee is simply a great, engrossing film, made with skill and a keen appreciation for what makes a viewer shake their head in disgust.
The last film of the day was 20th Century Girl, which has received a bit of pre-fest buzz, though I misunderstood the nature of that buzz. I think what people were talking about was that this movie will be hugely popular, and I can see why. It’s produced by Netflix, which Korea is slowly conquering series by series. 20th Century Girl looks like a Netflix production and has the same sparkly vibe as the biggest Korean drama series. It’s a romantic comedy set in 1999 at a high school. One girl is slated to go to the U.S. to receive heart surgery, and just before she leaves she meets a new kid at school and falls for him hard. She asks her best friend to keep an eye on him while she’s gone and tell her everything about him over the new internet. The best friend does too good a job of this assignment. At first, I found the bubbly humor obnoxious, but the script is clever and has some interesting twists. Mostly, though, it’s a nostalgia gorge for Korean viewers who were about the same age as the protagonists in 1999, so, yeah, it will likely be hugely popular. In Korea, anyway.