Pusan fest balloons

Record films, attendance marks 10th year

Berlinale chief Dieter Kosslick, in town to receive the honorary Korean Cinema Award, reckoned that the “Old World” fests had better take the Pusan Film Festival seriously — or risk being overtaken.

Kosslick, accompanied by Cannes honcho Thierry Fremaux, was only half joking.

The 10th event, which wrapped Friday, has borrowed ideas from Rotterdam’s CineMart for its Pusan Promotion Plan and the talent campus, renamed the Asian Film Academy, from Berlin. Its tented village on the beach felt remarkably like Cannes.

It also has promised to launch the Busan Film Market in 2006, which threatens to outdo several regional rivals.

Pusan’s selection of more than 220 features exhausted even hardened festgoers. Fest head Kim Dong-ho expects next year’s edition to return to a slimmer format.

Flocks of teenage girls camped outside hotels and venues to mob Japanese stars and local screen idols. Pusan is probably the only major film fest where celebrity has an all-Asian face, and is not reliant on — or even interested in courting — Hollywood star power.

Winner of the competitive section was Chinese-Korean director Zhang Lu’s drama “Grain in Ear,” which premiered in Cannes Critics’ Week.

Jury, led by Iranian helmer Abbas Kiarostami, also gave a special mention to Chinese docu “Silent Holy Stone,” about Tibetan monks, and Korean drama, “The Unforgiven,” centered on a friendship forged among army recruits, by first-timer Yoon Jong-bin. Latter pic also nabbed awards from Fipresci and Netpac juries, plus the audience.

Pusan’s Asian programming — the main draw for foreign attendees — was broader in scope than previous years, which had drawn growing criticism for focusing too much on indie fare favored by western fests.

New Korean standouts were few, though coming-of-age drama, “The Peter Pan Formula,” had its supporters.

From other Asian territories, Japanese helmer Sabu’s comic caper “Hold up Down”; Chinese Huang Jianxin’s wry drama, “Gimme Kudos”; lonely hearts Thai pic “Midnight My Love”; and “Journey From the Fall,” a semi-autobiographical Vietnamese boat-people’s drama, attracted praise.

However, the most passionate response among movie buffs was to the Korean retro, dedicated to late 1960s and early 1970s journeyman Lee Man-hee, with “Watermill,” “Holiday” and “Road to Return” all praised for their craftsmanship and originality. Retro looks likely to travel to the West in the coming year.

With a record number of movies, attendance billowed to a record 193,000 tix, against 166,000 last year. But with more screens than ever, seating share was down from 85% to 68%.

Bigger is better seemed to be the message from organizers of PPP, the Bifcom locations expo and the current sales market, the last squeezed into a series of hotel rooms on the sixth floor of the five-star Paradise Hotel. But how many deals were reached was hard to establish.

PPP claimed it had arranged over 600 meetings between filmmakers and potential financiers and that more than 1,100 guests took part in the PPP and screenings mart. All were said to be record numbers.

But how much larger it needs to be was questioned by several visitors who found navigating the festival’s locations and 30 screens exhausting.

The Paradise’s ranks of film sellers had a good time striking high-priced deals with Japanese distribs desperate for the latest vehicles for Korean stars. But they also held back from introducing new product until next month’s American Film Market.

It will take some heavy persuasion to change that or to convince the leading Japanese players and most of the Hong Kong industry that the Asian film industry should accept Busan as its nexus from next year.

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