Normally I’m just a geeky white boy living in Seoul, but every fall I turn into a super-action hero for a badass week or two. Armed with oversized wrap-around sunglasses, a rack of pimp suits and an all-access press badge, I catch an express train down to the rugged southeast coast of the peninsula for the kimchi-hot Pusan International Film Festival. If I’m just a geek, you’re probably wondering, how did I get all those pimp suits? Because my buddy Tony Leung lent me his Gold Card, that’s how. And how the hell did I manage to get my hands on an unrestricted press pass? Because Wong Kar-wai told the festival organizers they couldn’t screen In the Mood for Love for the closing night film unless they set me up carte blanche, that’s how. And how’d I ever get such funky fresh shades? Because Maggie Chung bought ‘em for me the last time she was visiting me in Seoul—that’s how.
I’m told that Pusan is a large port city facing the East Sea, but whenever I go down there the only sea I ever see is the sea of film that floods the town during the festival. About four million people live there, and as far as I can tell they’re all raving film freaks. In years past I’ve almost been trampled to death by stampeding high school girls hot on the heels of Jeremy Irons, Isai Shunji, or local heartthrob Jang Dong-gun. Even worse are the armies of ajummas or “aunties” who all seem to be black belts in taekwondo—don’t even think about telling them they’re sitting in your seat, ‘cause they’ll kick your candy-ass all the way to Kansas before the opening credits have even started. I have a theory that like Popeye and his spinach, kimchi is the source of their superhuman strength—which is why I’ll be munching on tubs of kimchi instead of tubs of popcorn this year, simply as a matter of survival. I’d rather have bad breath than a broken butt any day.
I arrive at Pusan Station at 4:30 on a crisp Friday afternoon in early October, and grab a taxi to downtown Namp’o-dong, where all the movie theaters are clustered around PIFF Square. My taxi driver sports green cotton-knit gloves and thick, black-frame glasses, and looks like a middle-aged accountant except for the massive, jagged scar on his right cheek. True to local form, he’s a huge fan of the big screen.
“I love Roman movies,” he enthuses gruffly.
I know the Romans invented indoor plumbing and central heating, but had no idea they also pioneered the art of the moving image. This could be the scoop of the new century.
“Roman movies?” I repeat uncertainly.
“Yes!” he gushes, slicing the air vigorously with his right hand, and almost flattening several jaywalking ajummas in the process. “Roman movies! Spartacus, Kirk Douglas! Gladiator!”
Ah yes—Konglish strikes again. Minutes later, as I get out of the taxi, Gladiator Kim is still hacking away furiously, grinning like a maniac. “Roman movies! Yeah!” Russell Crowe has nothing on this guy—I toss him an extra fat tip, just to make sure I don’t get decapitated.
I make my way to the little alleyway behind the Kukdo Theater, which is lined with cheap yogwans (or Korean inns). I usually stay at the Shinwoo-jang, but find that it’s changed owners; the new ajumma seems to be an eager supporter of cinema as well—mainly because she can overcharge out-of-towners during the Festival.
“Hey Ajumma, how much is a room?” I ask, unbuttoning the top two buttons of my pimp suit.
“25,000 won (about $23) a night,” she says with a smile that looks more like a sneer. The pungent order of kimchi is overwhelming.
“25,000 won?! It was only 20,000 last year.” I slide my shades down my nose an inch, and give her the evil eye.
“The Film Festival starts today—lots of Japanese and Russians here now.”
Yeah right, and maybe a few Highlanders from Papua New Guinea? “Look, I stayed here last year and the year before that and didn’t see any Russians or Japanese,” I counterpunched deftly.
She’s knocked off balance, but recovers quickly. “Well, um, lots of Westerners are coming, too—journalists, directors, actors…”
This ajumma must be drunk on soju-and at this time of the day, too! “All those people stay at the big Western-style hotels—they’re on expense accounts.” Pow!—right in the kisser.
Back and forth we go, but she’s one tough cookie, refusing even the standard discount for a long-term stay. The PIFF has only been going for five years, but its growing rep as the hottest festival in the world for Asian film seems to mean that price hikes and gentrification are doomed to follow accordingly. I’m sure that as far as this ajumma is concerned, it’s already the Cannes of the East.
Fortunately there are plenty of other yogwans in the area, which, of course, I do not hesitate to mention as I pick up my bags and leave. I go down a few doors to the Yusong-jang, where I negotiate nine nights for 160,000 won-about 7,000 won a night cheaper than the Shinwoo-jang. Mr. Lee, the short, roly-poly ajosshi (“uncle”), is super friendly, and also has excellent taste in interior decoration. There’s a giant bubbling aquarium in the foyer, plush red carpeting in the hallways and, best of all, a bright purple coin-operated hair dryer on the wall above the TV in my room. I rather doubt the fancy-schmancy Commodore Hotel up on the hill behind Namp’o-dong offers such classy features.
The opening film, Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s The Wrestlers, starts at 7 p.m. way out at Haeundae Beach, so after a quick costume change I dash out in search of the Festival Café, where I need to pick up my press badge. But as I cut through PIFF Square, I find myself slowing down and then stopping altogether, my jaw scraping along the pavement. There are babes everywhere, and they all look like glamorous actresses and supermodels. That one there looks like Gong Li. The girl in front of the convenience store looks like Kim Tae-yeon, the whip-wielding star of Jang Sun-woo’s Lies. And that one over there looks like a Korean Farrah Fawcett circa 1976, complete with feathered hair! Should I go up and tell her my name’s Charlie?
After a while I manage to reel my jaw back in, find the Festival Café, get my press badge and then snag a taxi out to Haeundae with Kyung Dijkman, International Press Coordinator, who works her cell phone non-stop during our ride. An hour later we arrive at the Pusan Yachting Center, behind which is the Festival’s enormous outdoor screen. As we enter the Yachting Center, several hundred photographers and TV camera crews start screaming and going mental, snapping and shooting away like Battlestar Galactica. This is my favorite part of the Festival: because I’m a weoguggin (“foreigner”) and have some sort of badge hanging around my neck, everyone figures I must be famous. We both glide along the red carpet, shaking hands, waving and bowing to all the well-dressed VIPs along either side of it. Near the end of the line, I’m introduced to Ahn Sang-young, the beaming Mayor of Pusan. I give him an extra hearty handshake and, with a Hollywood wink, tell him he’s doing a fine job running the city and to keep up the good work. He bows deeply in return, no doubt reassured by my sincere vote of confidence.
The opening ceremony is fantastic, with fireworks exploding over the beach, celebrities everywhere and people in funny costumes doing wacky dances up on stage. Wim Wenders is in town to receive some sort of Lifetime Achievement Award, so he gives a speech about Something or other; I don’t really pay attention, because I’m too busy trying to lift my jaw off the ground again—the Babe Factor here is off the charts. Then a video greeting from President Kim Dae-jung is aired—what with all the corruption scandals in his cabinet, the economy on the verge of another meltdown and the opposition trying to crucify him, he’s obviously too busy to come down in person. But I have to admit that despite all his problems, his hair always looks fabulous. Forget about the Novel Peace Prize—President Kim should get a Lifetime Achievement Award for Best Hair.
The Wrestlers starts and it’s a wonderful film, although I have a hard time concentrating because all 1,200 members of the domestic media here are jabbering away on their cell phones throughout the first half of it. And then they all suddenly leave, like all at once, a mass exodus—I guess they must have run out of battery power, and could no longer enjoy the movie properly. Later on at the opening reception at the beachside garden of the ultra swank Paradise Hotel, Wim Wenders is asked by a local TV station, “How can Koreans learn to better appreciate the cinema?”
“Well,” says Wim in a stern German accent, “they can start by turning off their damn cell phones during the movie!”
I don’t think the reporter heard him, though, because she’s too busy answering a sudden call from a friend.
“Yeah,” she says in Korean, “I’m interviewing Wim Wenders right now!” “…”
“No, right now—he’s standing right in front of me!” “…”
“Yeah, I agree, he’s pretty handsome—he’s really tall.” “…”
“His new movie? The Million Dollar Hotel? Yeah, I saw it—it sucks.” “…”
“Oh, The Buena Vista Social Club was okay, but he hasn’t made a really good film since Wings of Desire.”
At this point, Wim looks over at me and starts shaking his head. “I think I need another drink,” he grumbles, and off he goes. No wonder he’s lost his touch—he’s spent the last decade in a drunken haze of endless film festivals, dodging endless journalists asking endlessly moronic questions. He must be half mad by now.
I’ve already had a few cocktails myself, and things are starting to become pretty hazy from my point of view as well. Everyone looks like a celebrity, so I take pictures of just about everyone I meet. I snap a few pics of the great fashion designer Andre Kim, complimenting him on his artfully applied mascara; get in a few quick shots of director Buddhadeb Dasgupta and actress Jaya Seal, who I most definitely would like to have a wrestling match with after the party; and go through half a roll of film on Lee Hyo-jeong, the lovely teenage star of Im Kwon-taek’s Chunhyang, who speaks perfect English and, judging by the attention she lavishes on Total Western actor Samuel Le Bihan, is keen to learn a few choice French terms as well. The only people who won’t let me photograph them are the Paradise Hotel’s monosyllabic security guards, who look really hard-boiled and cool. They’re wearing sleek black suits and have Secret Service-style earpieces and lapel-pin microphones, so that they can communicate with each other discreetly at far distances. I guess they need to be prepared for immediate response in case someone from off the beach tries to steal sushi from the buffet table.
The last thing I remember is seeing my friends Sally and Sean from Seoul, who convince me against my better instincts to go to nearby Kwanganli Beach for some late-night sashimi and soju. I get home at about 5 in the morning, a total mess, and splatter fully clothed into my bed like a cold cup of ramen chucked out the window of a speeding train.
The next nine days, in a nutshell, are basically more of the same. A week later, I’m still popping pills three times a day, trying to get my basic shit together again. Whoever says today’s movies are dangerous to our youth sure as hell ain’t kidding.
I awake at 9 a.m. with a Surround Sound, Technicolor hangover, wondering how I’ll ever make it through five screenings today. There are 207 films from 55 countries on the program, 40 from Korea alone and 80 from Asia; I’ll have to pack in at least five a day if I want to see even a fraction of them. I decide to narrow my focus to East and Southeast Asian films, forgoing anything from the West, as well as the large selection from India and Iran. Between Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as the odd offering from Thailand and the Philippines, I’ll have enough action and angst to keep my head spinning till the next Chinese New Year.
South Korea is, to put it mildly, a nation of unrepentant alcoholics, and that includes much of the female population, I might add. But it didn’t grow to be the world’s 11th largest economy without having a few tricks up its sleeve to deal with debilitating, unproductive hangovers. Being an intrepid traveler, I am privy to this crucial knowledge, and set out to clear my head and refresh my weary body in the local manner.
First, I stop at the LG-25 convenience store around the corner and buy a single-serve packet of kimchi, tilt my head back and dump it all at once down my gullet. In about three seconds flat my eyes are popping out of my skull, my left and right carburetors have been thoroughly cleared and cleaned, all my spark plugs changed and my whole body is now humming like the engine of a Formula 1 race car, supercharged with pure pepper power.
Next, I go over to the south side of Kukje Market where all the big pharmacies are located and buy a couple of bottles of Wonbi-D, a popular energy drink loaded with ginseng, caffeine, and assorted “vitamins.” This stuff is incredible: in no time my feet are starting to burn and smoke like a dragster screaming to tear off the start line. I pity the ajumma who tries to get in my way now.
Finally, I stop at one of the ubiquitous instant coffee vending machines that are a sidewalk institution here in Korea. I used to be a coffee snob, but have since learned that Korean instant coffee is like nothing else on this planet—creamy, frothy, impossibly tasty and more potent than rocket fuel. Just a few sips and suddenly I am the space shuttle Discovery halfway on my way to the moon.
And that, my friends, is the secret of the Korean economic miracle right there. It is also how I will be able to make it through five movies today no problem. In fact, I may just go for six, and perhaps make a feature-length documentary on North and South Korean rapprochement during lunch.
The good thing about seeing so many movies all at once is that you immediately forget pretty much everything except for the really standout stuff. And honestly, I’ve already got way too much useless crap in my head, so why add more? The two movies today that make a big impression on me are Im Kwon-taek’s lavish historical folk opera Chunhyang and Yukisada Isao’s bitter-sweet 20-something drama Sunflower. (I know that last phrase, “bittersweet 20-something drama” sounds like hackneyed film reviewer terminology, but Wong Kar-wai told me I should toss in a few of those every now and then, just so he doesn’t look like a total schmuck for getting me that press pass.)
Of course, Im Kwon-taek is Korea’s most famous film director, a Master Craftsman, the King of the Local Mountain, as it were, so basically everything he makes these days is by definition a Masterpiece, at least according to popular opinion. But I don’t know, there’s something about this guy’s politics that always gives me the creeps, no matter how “good” his films actually are. I mean, given his unreconstructed nationalism, unabashed sexism, and dusty, romantic-kitsch view of the past, I feel like I’m watching ham-fisted Confucian propaganda half the time, and Chunhyang is no exception. But anyway, the only thing I can focus on while watching it is the fact that I met “Chunhyang” last night at the opening reception, and she was just so incredibly nice and sweet! I kind of feel like she’s speaking every line directly to me, especially during the really passionate scenes when she offers herself unconditionally and promises her eternal, burning love. I can say quite objectively that she is without doubt the finest actress in the history of Korean—no, make that world—cinema. If she doesn’t get an Oscar for this performance, then the system must be rigged.
In fact, if she doesn’t win, I’ll be on the next plane to L.A. with Rony and Wong to make sure that those responsible pay—and I mean pay big time, if you know what I mean.
As I watch Sunflower, its themes of thwarted first love and lost opportunity resonate powerfully deep within, reminding me of that stupid, interloping French actor at last night’s party. Just because he has a French accent and is the star of one of the festival’s hottest tickets, is that supposed to make him a big hot shot or something? I just hope that he didn’t forget his manners and do something rash and unforgivable—I know how all those smooth-talking Continental types really are: total Jekyll-and-Hyde sex fiends, every last one of ‘em. Anyway, Sunflower is superb cinema, the kind that makes you laugh and cry and all that good stuff. Later in the evening at the Grand Ballroom of the Paradise Hotel, where some kind of swish party for European films is underway, I have a chance to conduct an on-the-spot, in-depth interview with Yukisada Isao himself, who used to be an assistant director for Iwai Shunji, and who has that Wong Kar-wai thing of wearing sunglasses 24/7 going on, and Sunflower star Aso Kumiko, who got her big break playing the prostitute in Imamura Shohei’s Kanzo Sensei, and who is a really good actress because in person she comes across as the personification of cute, cuddly button-nosed Hello Kitty—about as far as you can get from a skanky, trick-turnin’ ‘ho. After their producer tells me that Sunflower only cost $400,000 to make, which is unbelievable because that’s basically what a cup of coffee costs in Japan, I ask my most brilliant, hard-hitting question.
“So, what do you think of Korea?”
Sunflower is ample proof that Yukisada-san has great insight into and understanding of the human condition. Naturally, he needs a few moments to consider this question carefully.
“Hmm,” he says, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
Several long seconds pass in silence.
“How is it different from Japan?” I ask eagerly after a while. The suspense is killing me—I’m practically at the edge of my seat.
He glances first at his producer, and then at Aso-san. Finally, he turns back to me to deliver his verdict.
“Korea is colder,” he declares with impressive conviction. Everyone is nodding their head as they consider the manifold implications of this statement. I begin scribbling furiously in my notebook—this whole film writing thing is so exciting!
“Isn’t that right?” he says to the others.
“Yes, Korea is quite cold,” agrees the producer.
“That’s right,” meows the button-nosed Aso-san.
“Especially during wintertime—Korea is colder than Japan in the winter,” continues Yukisada-san, clearly on a roll.
“Oh yes, Korean winters are very cold,” says the producer.
“Really cold!” shivers Kitty, sniffling her cute little nose at the mere thought of it.
They’re all speaking so quickly that I barely have time to write everything down. When I look up again, they’re standing together in a tight huddle, teeth chattering, blowing hot breaths on their hands as they rub them back and forth briskly.
“I guess it must be a pretty tough place for sunflowers,” I suggest sympathetically.
“Brrr!” is the last thing they manage to say, and then suddenly they all turn into Popsicles.
Across the room, I see my friend Pedro from Seoul, and take that as my cue to slip away before I’m implicated in any criminal wrongdoing. We hit the open bar repeatedly and shamelessly, gawking at all the luscious peaches and making fun of the fat foreign film critics doing frantic laps around the buffet tables.
“Hey, the Olympics finished last month!”
“And the winner of the 100-piece Sushi Sprint is the very rotund gentleman from The New York Times!”
“Food fight!” we shout, but judging from all the scowls we receive, there are few if any John Belushi fans in the house. Before the guys in sleek black suits and Secret Service-style earphones can drag us away, we slip downstairs to Charlie’s, where a post-reception dance party is just starting to heat up. Charlie’s is an English-style pub with an American name, the DJ is a French guy called Matthieu and all the bar staff are Korean—how postmodern, how international! Welcome to the global economy! I’ll have another rum and coke, thanks! Make it a double! Hell, make it a triple! Soon Matthieu is tearing the proverbial roof off the house, actress Jaya Seal is busting some incredible Jennifer Beals moves and people are spinning around on the floor like extras from Wild Style. But I don’t think they’re breakdancing—I think they’re just really wasted. Someone’s obviously been serving soju to unsuspecting foreign guests—it’s described innocuously as Korean vodka, but in fact one 360 ml bottle is the equivalent of half a tab of acid. Come to think of it, I’ll have a few shots myself! Hey, watch me spin on my head! And now my nose! Hours later, I am crashing into my room at the Yusong-jang, dreaming of cold ramen, sushi and kitten-shaped Popsicles before I even hit the bed.
ContributorJ. Scott Burgeson