Film gala to host 37 world premieres, 205 movies

With a lineup that includes 37 world preems among its 205 feature-length titles, the 12th Pusan Intl. Film Festival is coming out of its corner (Oct. 4-12) in fighting form.

It needs to. At a time when Asia’s fest landscape is in more flux than ever — and the local Korean industry is going through a wobbly period of artistic and financial self-criticism — PIFF realizes it has to mobilize its battalions to maintain its beachhead as the region’s premier event.

The good news is that PIFF has unparalleled name recognition worldwide and deep roots of good will built up through savvy personal connections.

It’s also successfully fought off competition from once-aggressive new kids on the Asian block, like Bangkok.

The not-so-good news is that next year Tokyo will shift its dates to just before PIFF (from just after), imperiling the Koreans’ ability to get as many headline world preems. And ambitious new management at other fests — notably Shanghai and South Korea’s PiFan, both in the summer — are reorganizing their programming to take advantage of perceived weaknesses in PIFF’s Asian selection, which has become progressively focused on indie and arthouse product.

All these elements will test the mettle of PIFF’s core leadership — director Kim Dong-ho, co-deputy director Lee Yong-kwan, international guru Jay Jeon and chief Asian selector Kim Ji-seok — which has remained unchanged throughout its 12 years. The international standing of South Korean cinema, after one of the most impressive growth spurts in history, will also weigh in on whether industryites feel compelled to make the annual trek to Pusan in hope of discoveries.

Maybe in recognition of its need to forge a broader, non-national profile, for the first time since 2000 the fest doesn’t have a Korean pic as either opener or closer. Ringing up the curtain Oct. 4 is the world preem of one of the bigest Chinese productions of the year, war drama “Assembly” by mainland B.O. maestro Feng Xiaogang; pic is centered on a brutal clash between the Nationalist Army and People’s Liberation Army in 1948. Closing attraction is mega-Japanese anime pic “Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone,” a new bigscreen version (first seg of a tetralogy) of 1995 hit TV series “Neon Genesis Evangelion.”

Following the introduction last year of an all-night section (Midnight Passion), fest has added two more sidebars. Gala Presentation is devoted to well-known fest names: Of its four titles, the most awaited are Royston Tan’s Hokkien musical “881″ (biggest local hit of the year in Singapore) and dark psychodrama “M” by Lee Myung-se (“Nowhere to Hide”), which preemed last month in Toronto.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Flash Forward bills itself as an “eclectic collection” of first- and second-time pics by non-Asian filmers yet to be discovered. Eleven pics include Cannes titles like “Jellyfish,” “France” and “Counterparts,” plus Karlovy Vary hit “The Art of Negative Thinking,” a black comedy from Norway.

Heart of the fest still remains the competitive New Currents section (devoted to Asian filmers) and regional panorama Window on Asian Cinema. These are two of the reasons why scouts, buyers and crix jet in each year — and it’s through them that PIFF has nailed its increasingly indie colors to the fest mast.

Even more focused on low-budgeters than previously, the 11 titles in New Currents include eight world preems. Among the most awaited are father-son drama “The Red Awn,” by China’s Cai Shangjun, former scriptwriter for Zhang Yang (“Shower,” “Sunflower”), and “Life Track,” helming debut of Korean-Chinese d.p. Guang Haojin, about an armless man and a mute woman in a remote mountainous region of China.

The 38-title Window on Asian Cinema showcases specialized and high-profile pics of the past nine months (China’s “The Sun Also Rises,” Thailand’s “Ploy,” Iran’s “Buddha Collapsed out of Shame,” India’s “Guru,” Taiwan’s “Help Me Eros”) alongside PIFF world preems. Hottest titles among the latter include He Jianjun’s drama “River People,” centered on two brothers in China’s Shaanxi province; “Love Dog,” a psycho-mystery by Zhang Ming (“In Expectation”); and prolific Japanese maverick Takashi Miike’s comicbook prequel “Crows: Episode 0.”

The other main reason for industryites to make the journey to the Korean peninsula has always been PIFF’s sidebar of local production. Though all high-profile Korean pics now preem at Western fests, PIFF’s Korean Cinema Today provides a useful chance to catch up with domestic baubles that may only have fleetingly screened at markets earlier in the year.

As well as largely unseen fare like costumer “Hwang Jin Yi” and serial murder mystery “Paradise Murdered,” section this year world premieres gangster caper “Spare,” by freshman Lee Seong-han, and drama “Hello, Stranger,” by Kim Dong-hyun (“A Shark”).

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