Korean pix primp at Pusan fest

Local pics, retrospective foregrounded

PUSAN — Amid the biggest boom in the history of the country’s cinema, the sixth edition of the Pusan Intl. Film Festival (Nov. 9-17) underlined its status as East Asia’s leading event, with a rich selection of regional product and fest toppers from Cannes to Berlin jetting into the bustling port city, South Korea’s second largest.

With local movies enjoying a 40% share of the box office so far this year, all foreign eyes were focused on the new crop of Korean titles, with fest pin-up Kim Ki-duk’s “Bad Boy” and newcomer Jeong Jae-eun’s “Take Care of My Cat” emerging as the clear favorites.

Headed West

Kim’s dark, quirky romance between a lowlife thug and a girl he forces into prostitution looks set to get a berth in Western festivals early next year, along with Jeong’s enjoyable, well-drawn portrait of five young women adapting to life and friendship during their post-college days.

“Cat” unaccountably bombed on local release last month, but has since attracted such a strong cult following that distrib Cinema Service is mulling a re-release.

Fest’s opener, the prestige drama-thriller “Last Romance,” was viewed as a very professional attempt by veteran director Bae Chang-ho to reestablish himself in the mainstream industry. However, its rapid-fire mix of contemporary police drama and Korean history left many foreign viewers wanting a pic of more depth and contemplation.

Fest closed Nov. 17 with the international preem of Thai historical blockbuster “Suriyothai,” a gorgeously accoutred but overly complex drama set in the 16th century that’s so far hauled in a record-breaking $14 million at the local box office. Pic capped PIFF’s seven-title sidebar on Thai cinema.

Retrospective, finally

Drawing more attention was the fest’s other sidebar, a long-delayed retrospective of the legendary Shin Sang-ok (aka Simon Shinn), the only Korean director to have made movies in both South and North Korea.

Now a sprightly 75, and still talking about further projects, Shin remains a political hot potato in the divided country — one North Korean movie in the retro, “Runaway,” was withdrawn at the last moment — but the sensuality and invention of some of his pics from the ’50s and ’60s delighted foreign attendees.

Money troubles

Despite the enormous strides taken in its first six years, PIFF’s biggest problem remains funding, fest head Kim Dong-ho tells Variety. Financed by a mixture of local government and commercial coin, the event was hit this year by losing a major sponsor at the 11th hour, but saved when the local industry rallied round. Nonetheless, the $3.3 million operating budget was some 20% down on the previous year’s. Ticket sales, at around 160,000, were on a par with 2000.

“The festival still needs a dedicated new theater,” says Kim, who currently rents three adjacent multiplexes, at considerable cost, in the city’s downtown Nampo-dong area.

He’s been in discussion with the Pusan authorities over a 2,000-seat, custom-built multiplex in the resort suburb of Haeundae, but admits that its realization may be five to six years’ hence.

As for the fest awards, in an unprecedented series of decisions by separate juries, Korean movies took all the kudos on offer. Tone was set by the fest’s main jury for the New (Asian) Currents section, headed by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, which unanimously prized existential femme drama “Flower Island,” directed by Song Il-gon, and gave a special mention to “Take Care of My Cat.”

Two for Fipresci

Other main awards include the Fipresci (intl. critics’ association) Award was shared by “Flower Island” and Hur Jin-ho’s “One Fine Spring Day” from South Korea.

The Netpac Award went to “Take Care of My Cat,” with special mentions to Yim Soon-rye’s “Waikiki Brothers” (South Korea) and Kim Ki-duk’s “Bad Guy” (South Korea), while “Flower Island” won the the PIFF Audience Award.

Next year, PIFF is to revert to its usual October berth, with dates already set for Oct. 11-19.

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