When you step off the plane at Busan’s Gimhae airport, Robert De Niro is there to welcome you. Not literally, of course, but everywhere you turn, that familiar mole, those permanently squinted eyes, and that strained, insidious smile entreat you to visit the nearby Paradise Casino, in the kind of ad campaign A-list stars once did clandestinely for foreign markets — and still continue to do, even if in the Internet era nothing stays secret for long. (And really, if De Niro needs the work, better this than more movies like “The Family.”)
Though one doubts that Bobby D has ever actually set foot in the South Korean port city of 4 million residents, his “Jackie Brown” director Quentin Tarantino was among the guests who did pass through for the 18th Busan Intl. Film Festival (Oct. 3-12). Nor was Tarantino, who stopped in Busan after picking up a career achievement prize at the Huading Awards in nearby Macau, the festival’s biggest surprise visitor. That honor went to Typhoon Danas, which for 24 hours or so threatened to turn BIFF into a real-life “Haeundae,” the 2009 Korean disaster movie (released in the U.S. as “Tidal Wave”) in which a giant tsunami lays waste to the titular Busan resort beach.
Still, even slightly battered by Mother Nature, Busan proved resilient, attracting more than 200,000 spectators (including some 10,000 filmmakers, journalists and executives, many of them here for the concurrent Asian Film Market) for a 10-day program focused on Asia but ever more inclusive of the world. Indeed, in the seven years since I had last attended, the festival — and the city itself — has undergone a remarkable transformation.
Back then, foreign visitors couldn’t even get to Busan without first changing airports in Seoul, from international Incheon to domestic Gimpo, while the festival screenings spread across two different neighborhoods that required a lengthy and complicated subway journey to traverse. Now the flights are easier, and the festival venues are all within close proximity in Haeundae. Chief among them is the Busan Cinema Center, a five-screen film and events complex that serves as BIFF ground zero and provides a permanent home for the Busan Cinematheque, whose 70-film retrospective of legendary Korean director Im Kwon-taek began during the festival and will continue for weeks after. (Even then, it is far from complete: The 77-year-old Im, who was on hand to present several of his screenings, is currently in pre-production on his 102nd feature.)
Built at a reported cost of $150 million and first opened to the public in 2011, the Cinema Center was the longtime dream of the festival’s founder and first director, the irrepressibly cheerful Kim Dong-ho (now BIFF’s honorary president, its Gilles Jacob), and like the Toronto Film Festival’s Bell Lightbox venue, it speaks to the growing desire of the world’s leading fests to extend their mission — and brand — into year-round programming. Designed by the Austrian architecture firm Coop Himmelb(l)au with a curving metallic facade in the Frank Gehry style, the Cinema Center cuts an imposing figure on the Busan skyline, not least for its 85-meter cantilever roof, said to be the world’s largest, which lights up at night in a multicolored LED wash.
It is, more importantly, a terrific place to see movies, with large screens, comfortable seats and an audience etiquette policy that should be considered as a standard for the world. Before each screening, an animated trailer (presented in Korean and English) reminds viewers to turn off their electronics, to not consume any food with strong odors or noisy packaging, to keep their feet off the seats and — best of all — to remain seated for the duration of the end credits, which the “management” deems to be an important part of the film. Shy of physical restraints, a more pleasurable moviegoing experience can scarcely be imagined. Madonna would never make it past the front door. (Just one not-so-small quibble: The outdoor cinema that plays home to the festival’s nightly gala screenings suffers from too much light and noise pollution compared to similar venues in Bologna, Cannes, Locarno, et al.)
My own return to Busan was precipitated by an invitation to serve on the festival’s New Currents jury, a competition section for first and second narrative features from across Central, South and East Asia. In this adventure, I was joined by the French critic and programmer Charles Tesson, former editor of Cahiers du Cinema (where he co-authored the legendary “Made in Hong Kong” issue with Olivier Assayas) and now artistic director of the Critics’ Week in Cannes; the veteran Japanese director Shinji Aoyama, who made the brilliant “Eureka” (2000), about shell-shocked survivors of a violent bus hijacking; and our estimable jury president , Rakshan Bani-Etemad, whose blistering marital drama “Nargess” (1992) ranks among the great works of Iranian New Wave cinema.
Our task: to select two prizewinners (each given a $30,000 cash award) from a dozen films made as far afield as Kazakhstan and as nearby as Korea itself (which provided three of the New Currents selections). As jury gigs go, those dedicated to competitions of emerging filmmakers are always my favorite, alive with the promise of discovery — discoveries like “Pascha,” a supremely confident second feature by writer-director Ahn Seonkyoung (“A Blind River”) that tells of the odd but deeply affecting romance between a 17-year-old boy (Sung Ho-jun) and a 40-year-old spinster screenwriter (Kim So-hee). Ahn, who claimed one of the New Currents prizes, works in small brushstrokes but everything about the movie feels just right — we understand from the beginning that the love between these two characters is pure and real, no matter what society may think, and there is something quietly electrifying about the private world the film’s two marvelous leads create onscreen together.
Characters removed from their natural habitats, either by choice or by the swiftly moving waters of globalization, were a constant across the New Currents films, including the very affecting “Transit” (winner of a jury special mention), in which director Hannah Espia shines a revealing light on a community of Filipino guest workers living on expired visas in present-day Tel Aviv. And in our other New Currents winner, “Remote Control,” first-time director Byamba Sakhya offers a fanciful portrait of a teenage runaway from the Mongolian countryside who hides out on an Ulan Bator rooftop and develops a one-sided long-distance relationship with the beautiful young woman across the way, changing the channels of her TV with a stolen remote and wishing he could change even more.
Sakhya, a veteran cinematographer, is 50 years old and just beginning his directing career. That was also the case for Se-rae Cho, a Korean novelist and screenwriter born in 1957 whose directorial debut, “The Stone” (also screened in Locarno), is an idiosyncratic, compulsively watchable gangster yarn about a small-time mob boss (“Memories of Murder” co-star Kim Roe-ha) who enlists a young Go-playing prodigy (Cho Dong-in, the director’s son) to instruct him in the nuances of the deceptively simple Chinese board game. Both films should be taken as great encouragements that new directors needn’t always be young directors.
Counting those titles that had previously screened at other festivals and were showing locally for the first time in Busan, it’s been an outstanding year for Korean filmmaking, including Hong Sang-soo’s soju-scented double bill of “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” and “Our Sunhi”; Noh Young-seok’s devilishly clever comic thriller “Intruders”; and Lee Sang-il’s “Unforgiven,” a gutsy transposition of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Western classic from the waning days of the Old West to the Japanese frontier in the early days of the Meiji Restoration. Lee’s film is a fascinating cultural exchange on several levels, considering that Eastwood got his start in an unauthorized Italian remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” while the star of this new “Unforgiven,” Ken Watanabe, starred for Eastwood in “Letters From Iwo Jima.” And perhaps because Lee is an ethnic Korean born and raised in Japan, he gives the film a pointed subtext about Japan’s historically complicated relationship with its indigenous Ainu people — as complicated, one could argue, as its relationship with its neighbor to the west.
Then came the rain, after which gentler winds carried Tarantino into town, where he took part in an impromptu master class with “The Host” director Bong Joon-ho — an event I found myself asked to moderate on a few hours’ advance notice. Surely if any director could be called the “Korean Tarantino,” it’s Bong, another voracious cinephile with a healthy love of A- and B-grade genre fare who, like his American counterpart, takes the old tropes and spins them into something new. Both filmmakers have also arrived at similar places in their respective careers, each fresh off of his most ambitious and biggest-budgeted project: Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and Bong’s “Snowpiercer,” an English-language adaptation of a French graphic novel that is about to open internationally after grossing a whopping $60 million during its Korean release this summer.
In conversation, the directors revealed themselves to be generous mutual admirers of each other’s work, with Tarantino likening Bong to ‘70s-era Steven Spielberg — fitting, given that Bong is set for a similar tete-a-tete with DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg later this week at the CJ Global Creative Forum in Seoul. Elsewhere in the hourlong discussion, the duo addressed their respective casting processes (they shared the casting team of Johanna Ray and Jenny Jue on “Inglourious Basterds” and “Snowpiercer”) and the challenges of retaining full creative control on larger-scale projects. Should BIFF decide to make such East-West dialogues a recurring festival feature, may I propose for next year a meeting between frequent Bong leading man Song Kang-ho and … Robert De Niro?