Busan Film Festival Enjoys Warm Opening After Two-Year Hiatus, Industry Turmoil

Busan International Film Festival
Naman Ramachadran

“Avatar” producer Jon Landau, Charles Rivkin, chairman of the Motion Picture Association, and the MPA’s Asia regional chief Belinda Lui, were on hand Wednesday in South Korea to tread the red carpet at the Busan International Film Festival.

It has been a struggle for Asian film festivals and rights markets to return to normal as conservative governments and reticent populations warily and belatedly embraced reduced quarantine periods, the end of mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing. But Wednesday night’s hosts were at pains to stress that this year’s 27th BIFF is operating at full capacity.

“I can’t tell you how emotional I am tonight,” said Lee Yong-kwan co-founder of the festival and now its chairman.

The Busan festival is Asia’s biggest and most significant talent and film discovery event. But in 2020 it was downsized and held virtually. Last year’s event operated largely behind a cordon sanitaire and without many foreign participants.

As the sun went down Wednesday, the floodlights came up and the spectacularly eccentric Busan Cinema Center lit up its fluorescent, mesh-like roof in a way that has not happened since October 2019. Seating was dense, allowing mass body heat to take some of the chill from the evening air.

The intervening years have been a tale of triumph and turmoil for the Korean film industry. After winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes Korean-made “Parasite” went on to triumph at the Oscars ceremony in 2020. But the COVID pandemic that halted normal film releasing in Korea until as recently as May of this year devasted the finances of film producers and distributors and meant that Korean film failed to capitalize on the “Parasite” moment. Feature film also failed to share in the “K-wave” that has been enjoyed by Korean-made TV dramas and K-pop.

Indeed, the pandemic ushered a Korean streaming market that is among the most cutthroat in the world. Competition among local and international streamers for Korean TV series has pushed up TV budgets, TV studios such as JTBC and CJ ENM’s Studio Dragon, and drawn acting directing and producing talent across the Rubicon, from film into TV – many for the first time.

The in-person audiences gave warm and excitable receptions to the evening’s other guests, especially Kim Han-min (director of this year’s second biggest Korean movie “Hansan: Rising Dragon”), “Parasite” star Song Kang-ho and veteran director Im Kwon taek. There were roars for Lee Joon-ik, a successful film director (“The Book of Fish,” “The Throne”) who recently completed TV series “Yonder,” which appears in the Busan festival’s newish series sidebar.

Others to tread the red carpet included the Berlin festival’s head of programming Mark Peranson and Cannes’ Christian Jeune, Japanese director Miike Takashi and Indian actor Adil Hussain (“Life of Pi,” “Star Trek: Discovery”).

Other spotted included: Indonesian superstar Asmara Abigail (“Stone Turtle”), Japanese rising star Shogen, Indian directors Nandita Das and Rima Das (no relation), Philippines-based producer Bianca Balbuena Liew, Thai acting star Mario Maurer, Yulia Evina Bhara, Makbul Mubarak and Shahana Goswami.

Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung Chiu-wai was on hand to receive the festival’s coveted Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award. He also curated a selection of his own films for a Busan fetival sidebar.

A video in-memoriam section dwelled heavily on actress Kang Soo-youn, who was the first Korean actor to win a major prize at Venice. More recently she was co-director of the Busan festival and seen as a calming influence during a period of earlier turmoil. The tributes to the recently departed also included Jean-Luc Godard and Aoyama Shinji.

The evening was completed with the world premier screening of Iranian director Hadi Mohaghegh’s “Scent of Wind.”