Savvy moves boost Pusan fest fortunes

Event stays on top through innovation, cherry-picking ideas of the West

Broad programming, canny marketing and an eye trained on Asian filmmaking trends have been the keys to the Pusan Intl. Film Festival’s fast-track rise to become the region’s premier fest during the past decade.

When PIFF launched in 1996 as the country’s first international event, it showcased a modest 67 features plus docus, shorts and retro titles. Ten years later, riding a surge of interest in South Korean popular culture (the so-called hallyu wave) that PIFF itself could never have foreseen, the number of new features alone had more than doubled, to 162.

This year, that figure is equally robust at around 170 titles.

From the get-go, PIFF had a double goal: to be a festival of festivals for local auds and a place of discovery and learning for those interested in Korean and Asian cinema in general. On the Korean side, it had no competition at the time; on the Asian side, it was a direct challenge to the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival, which had enjoyed a glorious period during the ’80s but was going through a jittery period prior to the territory’s handover to China.

The international fest landscape has changed dramatically during the past decade, with even the European majors battling bitterly for titles. But PIFF has maintained its profile as the key Asian event through perpetual innovation and cherry-picking the best ideas of the West — the Pusan Promotion Plan, inspired by Rotterdam’s CineMart, a nascent talent campus modeled on Berlin’s and even beachside pavilions with an uncanny resemblance to the ones at Cannes.

But programming remains the heart and soul of any fest’s profile. PIFF’s original structure, with an Asian mini-competition (New Currents), Asian panorama (A Window on Asian Cinema), South Korean roundup and international panorama, has survived the test of time. Perhaps recognizing the fact that its next 10 years could be the hardest, PIFF has become more aggressive this year in demanding world preems and has strategically linked with the newbie RomeFilmFest, resulting in at least one simultaneous world premiere, Hong Kong helmer Patrick Tam’s father-son drama “After This Our Exile.”

Despite heavy competition, including the adjacent Tokyo and Hawaii fests, PIFF’s world preem list this year is still meaty. In addition to “Exile,” there’s a new docu by U.K. director Daniel Gordon, a specialist on things North Korean, about the 1962 U.S. defector Comrade Joe (“Crossing the Line”), plus new films by South Koreans Park Ki-hyung (“Gangster High”), and Park Heung-shik (“The Railroad”). Taiwan’s Leste Chen (“The Heirloom”) shows up with hotsy gay drama “Eternal Summer,” and Vietnam’s Huynh Luu with ’60s-set family saga “The White Silk Dress,” set in scenic Hoi An. Last three pics all compete in the New Currents section.

Last year, PIFF started spreading its wings as a critical learning school with the sidebar Remapping of Asian Auteur Cinema, a finessing of the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival’s pioneering work during the ’80s. Most boldly, it also came up last year with a list of the 100 most important Asian movies.

PIFF’s biggest challenge during the next decade is to avoid the twin traps of any new non-Western festival: sustain its international profile as big-name locals increasingly premiere their pics at the Western majors, and ride any future dip in the South Korean industry on whose back the fest initially came to global prominence.

It’s partly insured against these traps by having always stressed its Asian character: PIFF’s celeb list is almost exclusively from the region and doesn’t rely on Western or Hollywood A-list members.

So long as Asia’s industries remain vibrant and self-sustaining, PIFF looks to remain in pole position. Its repackaging of pure genre cinema, long an Asian strength, in this year’s new Midnight Passion section (13 titles in four all-night seshes) is a direct response to this.

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