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Busan Film Festival Rediscovers Its Sparkle in Heartfelt Opening Ceremony

Staff handed out plastic ponchos. And red carpet-goers toted capes and umbrellas in Busan’s Centum City. But the storm clouds whipped up by Typhoon Kong-Rey served more to add to the atmosphere of the Busan International Film Festival’s Thursday night opening ceremony, rather than to dampen spirits.

After three years being buffeted by a political storm, and a partially-observed cold front of a Korean industry boycott, there was a sense that the festival is returning to some kind of normality.

While the iconic former festival chief Kim Dong-ho was not spotted on the red carpet, the festival is now, once again, in the hands of Lee Yong-kwan and Jay Jeon, who co-founded the festival with Kim 23 years ago.

A highlight of the opening ceremony was the barely announced arrival of ace music composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. He strode across the stage and knocked out a piano medley, including a segment from “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” Sakamoto later received the Asian Filmmaker of the Year award.

His acceptance speech was personal, and political. And it may have resonated among the festival organizers. “Finally peace is coming to the Korean peninsula. As an Asian, I feel great happiness,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Busan mayor, Oh Keo-don. Although he was away in Pyeongyang, he sent a taped greeting, and suggested an “inter-Korean film festival.”

Other international visitors included Cannes selector Christian Jeune. Martine and Jean-Marc Therouanne, co-founders of France’s Vesoul Film Festival, were on hand to accept an award for their part in globalizing Korean cinema.

The evening’s clearest evidence of normalcy was the screening of a Korean-made film “Beautiful Days” as the festival opener. By first-time fiction feature director Jero Yun, the film focuses on the dissolution and restoration of a North Korean family. It boasts audience favorite actress Lee Na-young in her first film for some six years.

Lee Na-Young, Jang Dong-yoon, Oh Kwang-rok, Lee Yu-jun and Seo Hyun-woo were in attendance for the film. Top Korean actors Hyun Bin and Jang Dong-gun also walked the red carpet, representing Korean period drama “Rampant.”

Audience reaction bordered on the hysterical for the “Herstory” team of director Min Kyu-dong, and veteran actress Kim Hae-sook. K-pop got a look in with EXO’s Chinese member Zhang Yixing and Girls’ Generation star Choi Soo-young both in town for their acting roles – in “The Island” and “Memories of a Dead End” respectively.

Past Busan regulars were present again this year. They included: actors Shin Sung-il, Ahn Sung-ki, and Moon Sung-keun. The 82-year-old director Im Kwon-taek made a dignified entrance, accompanied by his wife and young grandson.

Making a similar comeback, after a hiatus, the major Korean studio groups, CJ Entertainment, Lotte, Showbox and N.E.W., are this week all expected to host major parties in Busan. These events, which serve as showcases for upcoming movie slates and distribution muscle, had either been cancelled or toned down due to an air of austerity.

Busan’s position as an industry event also looks solid enough, after a couple of years in which politics conspired to keep away many Chinese executives. Busan’s Asian Film Market this year boasts an enlarged European presence.

Hollywood’s Patrick Hughes will give a talk on“The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” while star producer Jason Blum will discuss matters ranging from “Paranormal Activity” and “Get Out” to “Whiplash” and “BlacKkKlansman.”

But otherwise, the festival selection, made in a shortened time frame, leans heavily on Asian titles. Among the film highlights playing out over the next days are Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow,” Ho Wi Ding’s “Cities of Last Things,” Naomi Kawase’s “Vision,” Stanley Kwan’s “First Night Nerves” and Ash Mayfair’s “The Third Wife.” The week will round off with the world premiere of the Yuen Woo-ping-directed “Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy.”

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