CINEPHILIA: Port of Call Busan
The 14th Pusan International Film Festival: October 8–16, 2009
Founded in 1996 by three film scholars—Lee Yong-kwan, Kim Ji-seok, and Jay Jeon—the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) has come a long way from its origins in Nampo-dong, in downtown Busan, a port city on South Korea’s east coast. With festival director Kim Dong-ho at the helm from the beginning, PIFF has expanded to encompass two other areas of Busan: Haeundae, home to the namesake beach that is a major tourist attraction; and Centum City, home to the Shinsegae, the largest department store in the world. Despite being mostly ignored by New York and L.A. critics, PIFF is now Asia’s largest film festival. This year, the festival unveiled its biggest slate ever: a mind-boggling smorgasbord of 355 films from 70 countries. Basking in the warm weather, watching a lot of great movies, hanging out on the beach, and enjoying seafood dinners, all the while surrounded by brilliant filmmakers and youthful, enthusiastic audiences, made PIFF nothing short of a cinephile’s paradise, an experience that anyone who cares at all about cinema should have at least once in their lives.
The Pollen of Flowers (Ha Kil-chong, South Korea, 1972)
Who knew there was a gay-themed film made in Korea in 1972? Ha’s whacked out and studiedly bizarre The Pollen of Flowers was released in Korea under the repressive thumb of President Park Chung-hee. As a result, its homoeroticism couldn’t be too overt, but the vibe is clearly there. An affluent middle-aged couple, Hyunma (Namgung Won), a music impresario, and his wife Seran (Choi Ji-hee), take in two of Hyunma’s protégés, both concert pianists. Danju (the young man) is Hyunma’s lover; also, subtle intimations of an incestuous relationship between Seran and the other protégé Miran, Seran’s younger sister, emerge. Introducing Danju and Miran proves a fatal mistake, since the two fall in love and scheme to get themselves out from under the boot of their overprotective and jealous benefactors. There is a definite class-based theme here, especially in the case of Danju, who Seran considers unclean because of his impoverished background. Danju’s pretty looks get him tagged as a Dorian Gray (a clear indication of the gay elements in this film). The Pollen of Flowers evokes the films of the great, eccentric Korean auteur Kim Ki-young, especially due to the presence of a strange housemaid—a voyeur who enjoys peeping on the private activities of her employers—and the addition of two very large rats (shades of Kim’s The Housemaid). Fractured editing, bizarre juxtapositions, and a healthy disdain for the upper classes make this a true discovery.
Symbol (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan, 2009)
Matsumoto, of Dainipponjin fame, strikes again with an even weirder film that may well be a masterpiece. Alternating between one story of a lucha libre wrestler and his family in Mexico and another of a man in polka-dot clown pajamas (Matsumoto) trapped in and attempting to escape a white room, Symbol mixes sublime Buster Keaton-esque comedy with a cosmic sense of the metaphysical. As hilarious as it is deeply strange, Symbol possesses an elegant structure demonstrating Matsumoto’s tremendous growth as a filmmaker. The film’s extremely sophisticated associative editing allows the film to build to a literally world-shaking crescendo. An extended sequence involving Matsumoto’s misadventures with sushi rolls is sheer comic genius.
Like You Know It All (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2009)
Hong probably shouldn’t bother giving his films titles, since many of them—Night and Day, Woman on the Beach, Tale of Cinema—seem so casually offhand. This new one proves to be more of the same, but in Hong’s case, more of the same works. The same themes, the same kinds of characters, the same actors pop up again and again, in a repetition mirroring actions in the films. If you’re not already a fan, Like You Know It All will not convert you. Ku (Kim Tae-woo), a film director, is invited to be on the jury of a film festival in Jecheon. As usual for Hong protagonists, Ku becomes entangled with two women: a festival programmer (Uhm Ji-won), and an old flame (Ko Hyun-jung) now married to a much older painter, a friend of Ku’s and his former college professor. Ku, who is supposed to be judging films, keeps falling asleep during screenings after late nights out drinking. The borrowed words that float from person to person indicate a rather pessimistic theme: most of Hong’s characters possess little originality; their identities are mostly constructed of the shards of philosophies and opinions stolen from others.
Tokyo Taxi (Kim Tai-sik, South Korea/Japan, 2009)
Like his first film, the wonderful Driving With My Wife’s Lover, Kim’s second film also involves a taxi driver (played by Hajime Yamajaki). He takes on an unusual fare: a Japanese musician (Masashi Yamada) invited to play a rock festival in Seoul who, because of his fear of flying, hires the taxi to take him from Tokyo to Seoul (with the help of a ferry, of course). The beauty of Tokyo Taxi lies in its wry, humorous take on the relations between Japanese and Korean people, and their mutual fascination with each other’s cultures. This fascination is most overtly evident in the subtle, expertly played romance that emerges between the Japanese musician and a Korean stewardess (You Ha-na). The bridging of cultures extends to the circumstances of the film’s own creation; Tokyo Taxi is a Korean-Japanese co-production.
Talentime (Yasmin Ahmad, Malaysia, 2008)
Talentime, the late and dearly departed Ahmad’s final work, proves an effervescent, lovely film, an unintended swan song from a director who was taken from this planet far too soon. Revolving around an annual talent contest in a Malaysian high school, Talentime combines heartbreaking tragedy with wonderfully anarchic comedy, including fart jokes. Ahmad presents the full spectrum of the many ethnic groups that coexist (not always peacefully) in her native Malaysia—Malays, Chinese, Indians, Muslims, Hindus—and offers such a beautiful, generous vision of humanity that as sad as the film’s conclusion may be, the even sadder thing is that there will be no more to come from this brilliant filmmaker.
At the End of Daybreak (Ho Yuhang, Malaysia/Hong Kong/South Korea, 2009)
Malaysian director Ho’s fourth film marks a radical stylistic change from his last, Rain Dogs. Shot on 35mm film as opposed to the DV Rain Dogs, this new film features faster, more fractured editing than his previous feature, which utilized long, sustained takes. Daybreak takes an ordinary premise—a young man gets his underage girlfriend pregnant—and creates with surprising depth and poignancy a moody atmosphere of loss, regret, and youthful restlessness. Mesmerizing, mournful, and lyrical, At the End of Daybreak (also, like Rain Dogs, named after a song) is bathed in dark colors and noirish shadows, appropriately reflecting the psyches of its characters.
Once Upon a Time Proletarian (Xiaolu Guo, China, 2009)
Novelist-filmmaker Guo contributes a valuable addition to the growing collection of documentaries about modern China with this fascinating and beautifully structured 12-part collection of living portraits of ordinary people. Guo presents a diverse selection of interviewees who are remarkably candid with their opinions about the state of their country. An old farmer curses modern-day China, railing about how greed and personal ambition have replaced the discipline and collective thinking that prevailed in Mao’s day; a garrulous weapons smuggler brandishes his wares openly to the camera; workers at a luxury hotel express dissatisfaction with their lives and disappointment that city life did not improve their circumstances as it seemed to promise; a female hotel owner, whose hotel includes “pink rooms” for lovers, expresses hope and enthusiasm about how much China has improved; materialistic young girls, getting hair extensions at a salon, have grand ambitions and high standards for potential mates, but don’t seem quite sure how to reach their goals. Inserted between these portraits are black-and-white sequences of a group of boisterous kids reading jokes from a book and singing, providing irreverent counterpoint to the often sobering personal tales.
Paju (Park Chan-ok, South Korea, 2009)
Park’s second feature is a major artistic leap from her first, 2002’s Jealousy is My Middle Name. Anchored by a brilliant performance by young actress Seo Woo (Crush and Blush), the film goes forward and backward in time to relate the tale of a housing-rights activist (Lee Sun-kyun), his first love, his wife, and his sister-in-law (Seo) in the titular suburb of Seoul. The activist continually runs afoul of the government, and thus finds himself in and out of prison. However, his passion for both his activism and the women in his life prove questionable. Somewhat misleadingly portrayed in its advertising, which emphasizes the potentially salacious aspects of the relationship between the activist and his considerably younger sister-in-law, Paju has much more on its mind and heart. Complex and emotionally wrenching, Paju features an intricately overlapping time structure that parcels out the secrets revealed within to tell an unusual story of love and loss, as tragic as it is intense.
She, A Chinese (Xiaolu Guo, UK/France/Germany, 2009)
Guo’s second film in this year’s PIFF, and her first scripted feature, She, A Chinese boasts an intriguing novelistic structure and an intimately first-person feel, following Mei (Huang Lu, Blind Mountain), a restless girl living in a nowhere Chinese village who constantly dreams of escape. The film charts her progress as she moves from working in a factory, then a love hotel, and finally to England, the promised land of Buckingham Palace and Big Ben, which she first encounters on a calendar in her lover’s room. Mei dons and discards identities with rapidity and abandon: village girl, factory worker, prostitute, sugar daddy exploiter, Oriental sex-fantasy object. Critics weren’t very kind to this film, which won the Golden Leopard at this year’s Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. She, A Chinese combines its sensitively directed study of this young girl, representing China herself (as indicated by the title), with ironic counterpoint given by the wry chapter titles. Guo, who now splits her time between the UK, France and Germany, is a challenging and uniquely irreverent voice in both literature and film.
Karaoke (Chris Chong Chan Fui, Malaysia, 2009)
Chong’s first feature, which premiered at this year’s Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, spins an impressively rich and complex tapestry in a mere 75 minutes. Betik (Zahiril Adzim) returns home from college, expecting everything to be just the same as when he left. Betik’s mother (Mislina Mustaffa) owns the karaoke bar of the title, ironically a dark and not especially fun place, and resents Betik for not coming home for his father’s funeral, and not helping her when she was struggling alone after her husband’s death. In stark contrast to the depressing bar, cheesy karaoke videos—which we see being filmed by a nearby crew—offer an idealized, candy-colored vision of everlasting romance. Drafted to act in these videos, Betik opts to live in this fantasy world to avoid confronting his more complex reality. Karaoke’s main narrative wraps around a near-documentary look at the town’s palm oil factory, contrasting the lush palm forest with the rusted machinery adjacent.
Lola (Brillante Mendoza, Philippines/France, 2009)
Mendoza’s typically observational new film asks: what is the price of a life? We follow two grandmothers (the title is the Filipino term for grandmother), one whose grandson was murdered in a knife attack, the other the grandmother of the perpetrator. Anchored by revelatory performances by the veteran actresses (Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio) portraying the grandmothers, Lola features Mendoza’s typically on-the-move camerawork and panoramic portraits of the poor denizens of Manila. The vaunted institutions of politics, religion, and the courts do very little to improve their lot; to paraphrase the Wu-Tang Clan, cash rules everything around them. All aspects of life, from court disputes to coffin purchases, involve protracted monetary haggling, and all elements of life and death are negotiable. In Mendoza’s vision of Manila, life is harsh, violent, desperate, and as it turns out, quite cheap.
Christopher Bourne is a writer on film based in New York City.