Busan International Film Festival, Oct. 11, 2022

A friend attended the public screening of Decision to Leave at the Sohyang Theater yesterday morning and said that the print they showed had no English subtitles. Consequently, almost all the non-Korean members of the audience just walked out after ten minutes or so. If any of them had paid I wonder if they were able to get refunds. In the 20 years I’ve been attending the festival this has happened to me at least once. I’m sure the festival knew before the screening that the print was not subtitled. Were they only expecting Korean people to attend? They should have made an announcement, but it sound like they didn’t make on. Fortunately, I saw the movie at a press screening, and the print was subtitled, so obviously there’s a subtitled print at the festival. 

Yesterday was pretty much my last day of movie-watching. I have interviews and other work I have to do today, so I didn’t reserve any tickets, but if I have time I might go to the video room or watch something online. 

I saw two documentaries yesterday that dealt somewhat with what I guess you call the Korean diaspora. Both were American productions about American subjects. The first was Free Chol Soo Lee, which is about that famous case of the Korean man who was falsely accused of murder in San Francisco in the early 70s. I moved to SF in 1974, but didn’t really become aware of the case until the retrial in the early 80s, when he was exonerated. The movie does a good, albeit dry job of explicating the case through stock footage and recent interviews with acquaintances (Lee died in 2014). The main issue, of course, was racism. Though Lee, who had immigrated from Korea when he was about 12, had been in juvenile detention and was considered, even by himself, to be a street punk as a teen, he was mostly a loner. The person he was accused of killing was a member of a Chinese gang, and Lee was famous in Chinatown as the “Korean guy.” Chinese witnesses to the murder would never have picked him out of a lineup, but the only witnesses used during the trial were white people to whom all Asians looked alike. Plus, the police completely botched the ballistics investigation. It was a classic case of pre-ordained conviction, and while in prison Lee was often attacked by white gangs or Mexican gangs. He was still alone, and while defending himself killed a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. His road back to freedom is encouraging and shows the power of a community—in this case the Asian community and not just Koreans—who feels victimized. Given the current mood of anti-Asian hate in the U.S., the movie is timely. I just wish it were a little less academic in style.

The other documentary, Liquor Store Dreams, is about Korean-owned bodegas in Los Angeles. It was made by a young woman who grew up as a “liquor store baby.” Her parents had immigrated from Korea in 1970s and her father eventually bought a liquor store at around the turn of the century. And while they weren’t involved in the infamous L.A. riots of 1992, when the Korean properties were attacked by Black people angered by the Rodney King verdict, they were deeply affected by it. Something like 80 percent of the liquor stores in the Black and Brown neighborhoods of South Central are owned by Koreans, and the director goes briefly into the history of how this happened. Mainly, however, the story is personal; about her own feelings of growing up in such a milieu, and how it affected her relations with other minorities. She contrasts her own situation with that of another liquor store baby, a man who got his dream job with Nike only to quit after his father died and he took over the store. But he made it into a community space that successfully bridged the racial divide between the Black/Brown community and the Asian community. Though the narration and mood were a bit too American bubbly for my taste, it’s a good look at a niche subject that says a lot about the immigrant experience in the U.S.

I also saw my third Iranian film yesterday, Jafar Panahi’s No Bears, which he completed before being sent to prison for various anti-government actions. Panahi, of course, has been banned from filmmaking in Iran for the past ten or more years, though he’s managed to make movies secretly through various means. No Bears is probably his most ambitious of this ilk. In fact, it addresses his situation directly. Panahi relocates to a village on the Turkish border where he remotely directs a movie set in Turkey (he’s not allowed to leave Iran). Naturally, all sorts of problems emerge with this methodology, including telecommunications issues, but the story has a dual structure. One is the movie-within-a-movie about an Iranian dissident couple exiled in Turkey who are attempting to flee to Europe, and the other is a young couple in the village he is staying temporarily who are having an illicit affair that Panahi may have inadvertently photographed. The two stories play out in parallel and finally converge in a very distressing way. I would say the whole production was a bit too neat, but it’s masterfully done, which is all the more extraordinary given the circumstances under which it was made.

The fourth movie I saw was Dream Palace, a movie that could only take place in South Korea, even though I know the problem discussed happens in Japan, too. A woman whose husband has died in a work accident takes the settlement money from the company and uses it to buy a new condominium, which right from the start has serious problems. The water, for instance, is rusty, and the developer says it can’t do anything until all the units are sold (if it sounds unbelievable, it is, though the explanation given is plausible to a degree). Eventually, the woman comes up against the condo owners association who resents her effort to help sell the unsold units at a discount. Meanwhile, the families of the victims of the accident that killed her husband resent the woman for settling while they continue to press the company for better compensation. It’s a complicated story that sometimes gets bogged down in particulars about who did what when, and it presupposes a certain understanding of the Korean penchant for organized demonstration, which to outsiders may seem over-elaborate. But it’s a very intense movie and Kim Sunyoung’s lead performance is one of her best.

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