If you were to pick the ideal site for a film festival, it would probably not be Pusan, a drab, sprawling port city on the southeast corner of the Korean peninsula. The traffic is murderous, the downtown stinks of fish, and the shops sell unintentionally hilarious examples of one-world culture. Guys bop around in canary-yellow Yankees ball caps, and the UCLA store (yes, there is one) sells sweatshirts in the Bruins’ traditional . . . black and gray.
Yet for all its provincial plainness, Pusan has created something I‘ve found nowhere else in the world: a film festival that’s a magnet for the young. Where festival directors in Sydney and New York joke about their audiences literally dying off, the fifth Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) was teeming with teenagers who, because of the country‘s film-import quotas, have grown up seeing more than just Hollywood movies. (Take that, Jack Valenti.) They shrieked at the sight of Japanese idol Tadanobu Asano, besieged Wong Kar-Wai for autographs (in Korea, he’s as potent a brand name as Spielberg) and turned out by the thousands to watch subtitled movies. When I asked French director Olivier Assayas about screening his film Les Destinees Sentimentales, he shook his head: ”It was very, very strange. The audience was 90 percent teenage girls.“
That‘s the other amazing thing about Pusan. Although Korea is notorious for its Neanderthal sexual politics — men hold all the festival’s top organizing slots — the PIFF is actually dominated by young women. They make up most of the 400 volunteers and compose a huge part of the audience, giving the whole scene an air of excitement and high spirits. It‘s as if the PIFF lets them assert their desire for things they can’t find in their everyday lives — be it the vaulting romanticism of tragic love stories or tales of women who break all the rules.
As Asia‘s major cinematic showcase, Pusan rises or falls on the quality of the work being done on the continent. Luckily, 2000 has been as triumphant for Eastern filmmaking as it’s been disappointing for the West, and crowds packed in to see one of the strongest lineups in years: Shinji Aoyama‘s Eureka, Jafar Panahi’s The Circle, Edward Yang‘s Yi Yi, Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Door Step, Jia Zhang-Ke‘s Platform, Im Kwon-Taek’s Chunhyang, and Wong Kar-Wai‘s In the Mood for Love (which sold out in eight minutes).
Still, I was more fascinated by the homegrown movies. Not so long ago, people would return from Pusan gushing that Korean cinema was the Next Big Thing; this year, many of those same people were already talking wistfully about the festivals of 1997 and 1998, back when Korea looked like another Hong Kong or maybe a new version of China’s Fifth Generation. Could such promise turn to decadence so quickly — before most Westerners had seen a single Korean film?
At the moment, Korea is falling prey to the familiar blockbuster complex. Korean films keep setting new box-office records (the Cold War action picture Shiri outgrossed Titanic), and such success has overshadowed nearly everything else. Indeed, the entire Pusan festival probably received less publicity than Joint Security Area, the September mega-hit about North and South Korean soldiers who meet in the DMZ and become friends. Not only did JSA (as it‘s called) become a national obsession, milking the Zeitgeist like a prize Guernsey, but it grossed so much money (nearly $30 million at last count) that it became the talk of Pusan — though it wasn’t even in the festival.
As if in reaction, the Korean films that did play the PIFF were almost the deliberate antithesis of box-office smashes. Either they were shot cheaply on DV, or covered well-worn indie ground (Tears is Kids set in Seoul), or belabored the familiar self-pity of alienated artists: a magazine writer who whines into his diary (La Belle); a street portraitist whose life is suffering, suffering, suffering (Real Fiction); and a screenwriter (Segimal) forced to write melodramatic crap when he really wants to author a radical Korean version of Seven. All these men exude the snivelly self-consciousness that sends ordinary folks everywhere fleeing to Coyote Ugly. Even an intelligent picture like Segimal (a millennial portrait of Seoul‘s moral disintegration) comes to life only when it dumps the screenwriter and puts us in the car of a 50-ish ”businessman“ who buys rough sex with girls a third his age and gloats about the power of money.
For years, one of Korean cinema’s more repellent staples was the rape scene, which fed the desire for onscreen lewdness while preserving the honor of the heroine, who hadn‘t done anything so sluttish as freely enjoy sex. Those days are mercifully disappearing, thanks in part to feminism and the new social openness brought by President Kim Dae-Jung; in the wake of last year’s wretched, scandalmongering Lies, the PIFF‘s Korean selection was a smorgasbord of bare breasts and bouncing rumps. Still, not all the taboos have been broken, and I found myself dazzled by the ingenious ways directors found to slather the screen with naked flesh while never showing a single fugitive pubic hair, let alone a dangling testicle. Korean filmmakers apparently hope that nudity sells tickets, but the audience fled in droves from the nudiest picture of them all, La Belle, sort of a narcoleptic Betty Blue (sedate guy, nutso chick), that’s as dull as any film can be that strips two of the sexiest bodies in North Asia every five minutes.
The two best local films handle their erotic material without sinking into cheapness. In Chunhyang, Korean master Im Kwon-Taek offers a gorgeous retelling of his country‘s best-loved folktale. Sort of Romeo and Juliet without the dying, it’s about the love between a governor‘s son and the daughter of a nobleman’s mistress who endures torture and a death sentence rather than let the evil new governor touch her body. The plot is simple, but Im tells this story with the panache of a musical, interweaving radiantly stylized images with the narration of a Pansori singer, who belts out this saga of romantic transcendence. Along the way, as a kind of grace note, Im quickly sketches his young couple first discovering the giddy tenderness of lovemaking; in a matter of seconds, he reveals more feeling for the erotic than all the festival‘s huffing and puffing sex films.
There’s no such joyous release in Hong Sang-Soo‘s Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, whose lurid title represents a parodic critique of what so many of the other films at Pusan were selling. It centers on the peculiar sexual triangle among a virginal 20-something woman writer and the two men who both want to bed her. As he showed in The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well and The Power of Kangwon Province, Hong is the most talented of the younger Korean directors. But he’s a little too taken with the Rashomon-like idea that truth is relative. Here he shows the same events through different eyes, yet this feels more like a gimmick than a revelation. What‘s terrific about the picture is not this slack relativism but Hong’s directorial assurance and keen eye for telling detail. The movie inexorably builds to the heroine‘s deflowering, all painful grimaces and thrusting hips, whose ruthless accuracy captures a truth about the pain and solitude lurking in sex that most other films never hint at.
I wasn’t surprised that Pusan‘s teenage girls didn’t enjoy seeing something like that. They were far happier at Junji Sakamoto‘s Face, a bleakly funny story about a chunky, downtrodden woman who strangles her bullying sister and, in the process of fleeing the cops and Japanese respectability, discovers the freedom and self-confidence that had previously eluded her — she’s transformed from a dutiful doormat to a jaunty, unsinkable tugboat. While this parable of liberation is a bit glib, it boasts a toughness and originality you won‘t find in celebrated American indies such as Girlfight. Face had its young female audience clapping and yelling their approval, and as I pushed from the theater surrounded by their happy faces, I thought, What a perfect place to have a film festival.