Business shifts tests Pusan festival

Event battles market changes

While Pusan remains the premier film fest in Asia for huddling with a broad range of filmmakers and other industry pros from the region, it’s no longer the event to sample the fullness of Asian cinema.

PIFF grew fast in its first decade on the back of burgeoning local production and the rising international profile of South Korean cinema. Now, with the local industry in a period of self-questioning and artistic stagnation, and most high-profile Korean pics preeming at European or North American fests, PIFF has some rethinking of its own to do.

The fest’s non-Asian lineup does a good job in sucking up the best of the previous year’s fests, but that’s not what most international guests come for.

Its non-Korean Asian lineup, then, is the main attraction for global scouts and crix. But PIFF has for several years taken a much more selective approach to what it shows, sticking its flag demonstrably in the indie-arty-low-budget sand rather than trying to rep the whole, flourishing panorama of Asian cinema.

Fest’s New Currents strand — its only competitive section — has softened the past two years, partly by demanding world or international preems rather than going for good films per se. It’s not the only fest in the world to become caught in this trap, but for PIFF it’s a significant one.

This year’s lineup of 11 titles threw up only handful of interesting discoveries. One of the best, though flawed by a shortage of dramatic conflict, was father-son yarn “The Red Awn,” the good-looking, professionally helmed debut of China’s Cai Shangjun, former scripter for Zhang Yang (“Shower”). Also garnering positive buzz were Jim Libiran’s tough Filipino street-kid drama, “Tribe,” and Thai post-tsunami meller “Wonderful Town,” the sophomore feature by Aditya Assarat. Japanese drama “Asyl” also drew positive response from auds.

Rest of New Currents was a mix of hardcore, Western-style art movies, amateurish HD efforts and unremarkable fest fare, with no real market, even in Asia.

Pusan did get off to a worthy start with Chinese hitmeister Feng Xiaogang’s “Assembly,” a good, if flawed, drama of wartime heroism and post-war guilt and restitution.

Elsewhere among the Asian selection it’s been slim pickings for accessible, quality new fare. Japanese megahit “Hero,” centered on a group of unconventional Tokyo DAs tackling high-level corruption, strode the horizon as one of the few genuine audience-pleasers. It was joined, also from Japan, by prolific maverick Takashi Miike’s “Crows: Episode 0,” a nonstop slugfest set among proto-yakuza in a grungy high school, and Pechtai Wongkamlao’s Thai rollercoaster “The Bodguard 2.”

However, these pics passed many fest attendees by, as none was press-screened, “Hero” was shown only once (in the vast open-air auditorium), “Crows” got no screenings in the fest’s central multiplex (the Megabox), and “Bodyguard” blazed all but one of its barrels well past midnight.

Despite a thankfully enlarged press-screening sked, getting to actually see movies is still a problem for many attendees, with multiple screenings of the same film bunched together at the same time and press/industry ticket allocations often gone in minutes.

Interesting, though not major, debuts by Asian filmers included Ahn Seul-ki’s “My Song Is…” and Yang Hae-hoon’s “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?,” both from South Korea, and Robin Weng’s “Fujian Blue” from China.

Notable preems of international fare included South African James Darrell Roodt’s affecting drama “Meisie,” Dane Jannik Johansen’s dark psychodrama “White Night,” and Aussie Benjamin Gilmour’s Pakistan-set “Son of a Lion,” centered on a kid torn between education and fundamentalism.