The celebration of the 15th anniversary of the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) this year was a bit of a balancing act. On the one hand, festival organisers sought to dazzle visitors with a panoply of cinema, seminars, and star-studded galas, all emphasising its continued leadership in an increasingly crowded and competitive regional scene. At the same time, they had to bid an appropriately enthusiastic farewell to their beloved founding director, Kim Dong-ho, under whose guidance the festival was able to develop and flourish in the first place. The departure of the politically savvy Mr Kim – admired for his fundraising skills, hands-off relationship with festival programmers, and general conviviality – has many insiders biting their lips with apprehension for the festival’s future.

It turns out that Pusan, in the words of one long-time attendee, is an “insider’s festival”. I’d venture that, in the age of the mega-festival, these cliquish tendencies are more out of necessity than vanity. The number of accredited guests at the festival, whose modest origins in the bustling neighbourhood of Nampo-dong are a world away from its present home amidst the tony shopping malls of Haeundae-gu, has grown from just over 200 to more than 9,000. PIFF also has a devoted audience of cinemaniacal Koreans who travel from across the country each autumn, the engine of its audience numbers that hover just shy of 200,000. The festival does a good job of nurturing this base with celebrity appearances and director Q&As (and, for its armada of youth volunteers, fancy freebies like logo-embroidered Levis).

Against this backdrop of glitter, glamour and creeping trepidation, come the films – 306 of them, to be precise. Close to one-third were represented in the World Cinema and Flash Forward sections, both devoted to films from outside the region; there were also special programs of Franco-era Spanish and contemporary Czech cinema. The strong representation of this work traces its roots to the early days of PIFF, when, as the first international film festival in South Korea, it played an important role in introducing foreign independent and arthouse cinema to what was then a more culturally isolated nation. But considering Pusan’s reputation as an Asian platform, with its specific emphasis on South Korean film, I chose this as my primary focus. The festival offers a rare opportunity to hone in on an elusive national cinema, the film industry here being one of the most prolific in the world. Its reputation, if any, tends to be for extreme violence – an unfair perception, which, a few years ago in Sight & Sound, Grady Hendrix blamed on the market-oriented whims of western distributors. (1) And while fluffy romances and feel-good movies are as popular here as anything else, directors with gruesome imaginations like Kim Ki-duk (The Isle, 3-Iron) and Park Chan-wook (Old Boy, Sympathy for Mister Vengeance) continue to hold sway.

Having worked previously for Kim, Lee Sang-woo has drawn attention for his “deliberately shocking” work (2) emphasizing graphic sexual violence and disturbing family dynamics (Tropical Manila, 2008; the rather self-explanatory Mother is a Whore, 2009, featuring the son as procurer). His latest project, Abeogi-neun Gae-da (Father is a Dog), centres on three brothers living with their fanatically abusive, widowed father. Heavily allegorical, the film presents an isolated universe, with no outside witnesses or intervention; the siblings, one mentally disabled, another a porn-obsessed artist, and the youngest, the responsible, “normal” one, endure endless beatings at the hand of the patriarch. Tensions escalate when he brings home a Chinese immigrant as his live-in boyfriend, lavishing him with affection. The suffering brothers take turns lashing out at each other, the brunt of abuse levied on the most helpless. Eventually, a mentally unstable homeless woman is dragged into this nightmare (inciting rape, further beatings, pathetic displays of affection); the Chinese boyfriend begins having doubts; and the beatings, at long last, reach an inevitable apocalyptic conclusion. Shot on a low budget in grimly lit video, the film is commendably unaesthetic. It’s a fierce indictment of Korean society, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

The other movie most viciously seared into my brain is actually Chinese, Wang Bing’s Jia Bian Gou (The Ditch). For Wang, a different spectre is haunting China, where Confucian norms like patriarchy were supposedly dismantled in the last century. A documentarian who has devoted his practice to recording the human cost of China’s rapid industrial development (Tie Xi Qu [West of the Tracks], 2003; Cai you ri ji [Crude Oil], 2008), his first feature narrative recreates a labour camp in the Gobi Desert where “rightists” were sent for “re-education” during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Unsurprisingly, Wang is more interested in evidence than narrative, and every detail in Jia Bian Gou is the result of years of research. Hovering close to the earth, Lu Sheng’s camera observes the days and nights of starvation that pass for existence in this unforgiving landscape. Wang’s script, inspired in part by a book by Yang Xianhui, is based on written testimony and interviews with survivors. The film’s strength lies in its actors’ unaffected incarnation of this forgotten suffering, and the use of digital video only heightens their immediacy. “The living count more than the dead,” one character tells another. It’s a statement with which the director, who shot the film in secret, clearly takes issue. (3)

Though very different films, Jia Bian Gou and Abeogi-neun Gae-da are an interesting comparison. For Wang, pathos is a path to humanism and the restoration of collective memory (though, for the foreseeable future, accessible only via bootleg DVD for Chinese nationals). Lee is more of an expressionist, using an accumulation of bodies and actions to render a disturbing vision of the present. It brings to mind Kim Ki-duk’s sarcastic mea culpa: “I apologise for exaggerating hideous and dark aspects of Korean society”. (4) Are Korean directors, as many have suggested, simply channeling a brutal past of colonisation, war, and military dictatorship? For Lee’s part, he swears his films are inspired by true stories that he came across in the news.

In the days leading up to the festival, it was Kim Jong-il’s appointment of his son as successor that dominated headlines. Across genres, the relationship between the two Koreas continues to be fertile ground. Shot in the dead of winter, Zhang Lu’s Doomangang (Dooman River), winner of the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema Award, brings restrained, long-take cinema to a humble Chinese village on the border with North Korea, to consider one community’s complex relationship with its silent, starving neighbours. Jang Hun’s spy-action-comedy Uihyeongje (Secret Reunion) is an entertaining political action-thriller that offers an admirably nuanced portrait of contemporary Korean social issues. (For those who saw the 2000 blockbuster Swiri [Shiri, d. Kang Je-gyu] I say it gets feminist bonus points for its male spin on the communist-killing-machine-with-a-heart). And the realist Musan Ilgi (The Journals of Musan) tells the story of a North Korean defector discovering a new kind of misery under capitalism and Christianity in the South. The first feature by Park Jungbum, who worked previously as an assistant director for Lee Chang-dong, the film won the FIPRESCI prize and was co-winner of the New Currents competition. (5)

Two films take direct aim at South Korean society: Im Sang-soo’s Hanyo (The Housemaid) and Kim Gok and Kim Sun’s Bangdokpi (Anti Gas Skin), both fresh from A-list European premieres. The former is a mega-production by an established director known for politically themed dramas (Orae-doen jeongwon [The Old Garden], 2006; Geuddae geusaramdeul [The President’s Last Bang], 2005). The latter is an independent project by up-and-coming twin brothers with a reputation for radical, experimental inclinations. In Im’s stylised remake of Kim Ki-young’s 1960 classic, western consumer fetishism poisons the elite, while the Kim brothers abstract social contamination into a phantom killer stalking Seoul in a gas mask, along with four characters who blur the boundary between victim and perpetrator.

Issue-oriented critique predominated among the Korean documentaries, which drew attention to labour issues (Park Bae-il’s Janinhan Gyejeol [Cruel Season]), marginalised communities (Lee Hyuksang’s Jongno-ui Gijeok [Miracle on Jongno Street, winner of the PIFF Mecenat Award for Best Korean Documentary]) and environmental activism (Lee Kang-il’s Yamanui Mugi [Sweet Nuke]). An exception was Kelvin Park’s Chonggyecheon Meduilli (Chonggyecheon Medley), a poetic exploration of a decaying neighbourhood of metalsmiths in Seoul. Reaching across generations through a letter to his grandfather, who operated a scrap yard in Japan during World War II, Park observes craftsmen in their fading workshops to consider the meaning of modernity in South Korea.

Italian Leonardo Cinieri Lombroso’s Viaggio nel Cinema Coreano (Through Korean Cinema) is also worth mentioning, a concise primer on the history of Korean film that covers the work of directors Im Kwon-taek, Park Gwangsoo, Lee Myung-se, Lee Chang-dong, and Park Chan-wook. The documentary uses interviews and film clips to capture the inspirations and central motivations of their careers, and includes critical commentary by Kim Young Jin, Tony Rayns and Kim Soyoung.

Mentioning Kim Soyoung, a scholar and filmmaker who co-founded the Seoul Women’s Film Festival, I am reminded of the truly abysmal representation of female directors in the Asian programs of PIFF this year. True, two established female directors and PIFF alumni, Yim Soon-rye (So-wa Hamkke Yeohaengha-neun Peop [Rolling Home with a Bull]) and Anna Lee (Doenjang [The Recipe]), were represented in the Gala Presentation. But there was not a single woman in the competitive New Currents, and only one in Korean Cinema Today (Boo Ji-yeoung, and for an omnibus film, at that). (6) So it was up to the actress Jimi Kim to carry the torch for Korean women, in a special retrospective of her fifty-year career. Programmer Joo You-shin’s catalogue notes declare that “Defying the common roles of obedient and submissive girls in a patriarchal society,” the actress “embodied independence, a strong will and dignity.” A personal favourite was Ticket (1986), directed by the venerable Im Kwon-taek and produced by Ms Kim’s own production company. In it she plays Madame Min, the owner of a call girl business in a small coastal city. Both strict enforcer and matriarch to the working-class girls resorting to her employ, she coldly dispenses advice (“No money, no love”, “To bear is to win”), which, it turns out, hides the deep pain of a lost love. It’s the stuff of melodrama, that other great Korean cinematic tradition; however, this being Im Kwon-taek, the film is also a deeply considered portrait of a particular place and time in Korea. The elder Ms Kim and her spirited young co-stars are thoroughly compelling in their evocation of the complexity of womanhood under a strict, hypocritical social code.

Alas, the female characters in most of the films I watched tended to be plot devices, or flat symbols of suffering. (7) One towering exception was Shi (Poetry), written and directed by Lee Chang-dong. One of the rare Korean directors working today who has taken an interest in dynamic female protagonists (Oasis, 2002; Miryang [Secret Sunshine], 2007), the masterful Lee has achieved an incredibly rich balance between portraiture and dramatic storytelling. In Shi, we observe Mija (the captivating Yun Junghee), a woman in her late 60s, just as her world begins to turn upside down: she is diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and learns that teenage grandson under her care participated in the gang rape of a classmate who subsequently committed suicide. But for Lee, trauma is prelude, and this twin premise facilitates the navigation of dual internal and external realities. While focusing on Mija, cinematographer Kim Hyun Seok’s open compositions allow an expanded view of her social condition. There is the young woman behind the cash register who almost accidentally tunes her out; the cranky demands of the old stroke victim she helps into and out of the bath; the dishes left on the floor by her grandson; the knowing eye contact between a group of fathers who cajole her to give money to the dead girl’s family. As Mija draws inward, channelling her energies into writing a poem for a class she has decided to take, we witness the growth of her autonomy. The creative act becomes a catalyst for transformation, for freedom, and for empathy. In this sense, Shi is a stirring manifesto.

And on a lighter note, I have to mention Hong Sang-soo’s wonderful Hahaha, which sees the celebrated auteur (Jal aljido mothamyeonseo [Like You Know it All], 2009; Bamgwa nat [Night and Day], 2008) invigorating his practice with a strong dose of humour. The film, whose title is a play on the Korean word for “summer”, weaves together the reminiscences of two friends who do not realise they are talking about the same people. Continuing his use of the zoom lens, Hahaha is stylistically unique for its black and white snapshot-like stills that frame the story. On display are the director’s perennial themes: selfish, insecure men and the women who are drawn to them; intellectual posturing and false bravado; the complexities of human behaviour and its interpretation. A statement contested by two characters – “The more you know, the more you see” or “The less you know, the more you see” – resonates through the course of a movie in which looking, seeing and knowing “truth” (played for deadly hilarious effect by a struggling poet) are central. Moon So-ri (who blew critics away in Oasis), steals the show with her bold, assertive Seong-ok. For his men, women either are the view, or are blocking the view, but Hong’s women are becoming increasingly self aware and indignant. “It’s just what I was feeling at the time”, the director will demur, when probed as to his intentions. Regardless, it’s a pleasure to observe his evolution.

Hong and Lee are Pusan success stories, now fêted by the western elite; Shi and Hahaha both premiered and took home prizes at Cannes. Hong’s most recent film, Ok hui ui yeonghwa (Oki’s Movie) was released domestically in September and did not end up at PIFF. In fact, both Shi and Hahaha were released in South Korea last spring, so their presence at the festival almost came across as symbolic: the filial sons paying homage to their progenitor. (8) Both directors made appearances, as did another “son” of the festival, Tsai Ming-liang, who came not with a film but to receive the award for Asian Filmmaker of the Year. Through its co-production initiative, Pusan Promotion Plan, its Asian Film Market, and an educational arm, the Asian Film Academy, PIFF continues to do the important work of investing in the next generation of filmmakers. It’s likely that the future of the festival will hinge not only on its next director, but on these young men and (ahem) women, as well.

Pusan International Film Festival
8 -14 October 2010
Festival website: http://www.piff.org


  1. Grady Hendrix, “Vengeance Is Theirs”, Sight & Sound, February 2006.
  2. Vancouver Film Festival.
  3. It would be appropriate to also mention two Chinese documentaries: Guo Hengqi’s New Castle (winner of the PIFF Mecenat Award for Best Asian Documentary) and Jia Zhangke’s Hai Shang Chuan Qi (I Wish I Knew). The former is a portrait of a community in a forsaken mining town, directed by Wang’s former editor; the latter, structured around a series of interviews with a range of citizens, is a sociopolitical city symphony that explores the history of Shanghai.
  4. The Korea Society, “The Strange Case of Director Kim Ki-duk: The Past, the Persistent Problems and the Near Future,” n.d.
  5. Visually captivating but hampered by a convoluted script, Yoon Sunghyun’s Passugun (Bleak Night) was also awarded.
  6. The section titled A Window on Asian Cinema faired slightly better, with four out of 55 films directed by women, though none Korean.
  7. It goes without saying that Korean films are not the only ones facing this problem.
  8. Lee Chang-dong has a strong arthouse reputation, but his films have done well in the domestic market. For some reason – a more ambiguous form? An older female lead? – Shi was less successful, so the PIFF screening was also an opportunity to channel renewed interest following the Cannes win. Hong’s films, on the other hand, draw little attention at home. Apparently, his actors work for free.