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Busan Film Festival Ducks Typhoon, Opens on Celebratory Note

South Korean actors Lee Ha-nee (L)
KIM HEE-CHUL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

After a typhoon wiped out Wednesday evening events in Busan and brought back memories of last year’s drenching, organizers of the Busan International Film Festival must be mighty pleased to have got proceedings under way Thursday largely as planned.

Indeed, by the time the opening ceremony got under way around sunset on Thursday the problem was heat and humidity. A slight evening breeze was most welcome as local and international celebrities wafted along the red carpet in the city’s landmark Busan Cinema Center.

The ceremony kicked off with a choir of children that provoked delighted cooing from the audience.

While Korean and Japanese politicians at national level have engaged in one of the most bitter diplomatic rows in years, the Busan festival, no stranger to political intrigues, has deliberately kept its doors open. Not only is the opening film “The Horse Thieves” a Japanese-Kazakh co-production, the festival’s prestigious Asian Film Maker of the Year prize is awarded to Japanese auteur Kore-eda Hirokazu, director of 2108 Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters”.

For reasons left unexplained, Kore-eda did not show up to receive his award in person. But he sent a video message instead and promised to be in Busan in a few days from now for a gala screening of his latest festival favorite “The Truth.”

Korean film-making, which during the lifetime of the Busan festival has gone from obscurity to world-beating, is also being celebrated. (Bong Joon-ho’s dark drama “Parasite” won the Palme d’Or this year and gets a final spin during Busan.)

Highlight of the celebrations is a 10-piece showcase of films marking the centenary of Korean cinema. They include “The Housemaid” (1960) by director Kim Ki-young and “Old Boy” (2003) by Park Chan-wook.

There is also a Korean retrospective section — Kim Ki-young’s “Woman of Fire” (1971), and Kim Soo-yong’s 1981 “Late Autumn” – are standouts. Some twenty titles get their world premieres in the Korean Cinema Today section, and the festivsla will close in ten days time with “Moonlight Winter,” by Lim Dae-hyung, who won the festival’s New Currents award for “Merry Christmas Mr. Mo” in 2016.

The Korean Cinema Award was presented to Bae Yong-jae and Yoo Dong-suk, organizers of the Paris Korean Film Festival, which has screened 500 features over its 14 years existence. “Our goal is to create a cultural code of Korean cinema, in France, said Bae.

The ceremony was co-hosted by Lee Hanee (Honey Lee) the former Miss Korea, who has built a solid acting career and is currently riding high as the star of “Extreme Job,” now the second highest grossing Korean film of all time.

Korean films are doing well with their home audiences, despite the increasing penetration of Netflix and other streaming services. (The festival includes Netflix title “The King” from David Michod). In the first half of the year, Korean films sold close to 57 million tickets and accounted for 52% share of the box office, their best first half performance since 2013.

But within the industry there are worries that film-making is becoming too expensive (only 14 of the top 50 are reckoned to be in profit), and too skewed towards blockbusters. Busan programmer Nam Dong-chul recently described the difficulties faced by new talent attempting to break through as a “crisis.”

For today, however the mood was celebratory and the accent on style.

Korean talent on the red carpet included Suho, of K-pop boy band EXO, Jo Yeo-jeong (“Parasite”) and Cho Jung-seok and Lim Yoona, stars of “Exit.”

Foreign guests included Indian director/actress Tannishtha Chatterjee turning heads in a shimmery gold Amy Billimoria ensemble, iconic producer Ekta Kapoor, and actresses Konkona Sen Sharma and Bhumi Pednekar, Singapore’s Eric Khoo, Hong Kong director Yonfan (“No. 7 Cherry Lane”,) and Taiwan’s Tom Shu-Yu Lin, director of “The Garden of Evening Mists” a multinational co-production backed by HBO Asia and Malaysia’s Astro, which gets its world premiere this week.

Expected later in the festival are multi-Oscar-winning musician A.R. Rahman and Timothee Chalamet.