This year, the Busan International Film Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary, drawing the largest attendance in its history despite massive budget overhauls. For a festival with a Korean identity, it was somewhat striking that the opening and closing films, Zubaan and Mountain Cry, came from India and China, respectively. Regardless, hoards of Korean cinephiles camped out in box-office lines that started at sunset, so as to get a chance to patronize a lineup that included new works from Jia Zhang-ke, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Claude Lelouch, Marco Bellocchio, Radu Jude, among others.
As much as the concurrent Asian Film Market (October 3—6) and the infamous late-night soju drinking parties added to its cultural and economic prestige, this is still a festival for audiences and cinephiles alike. From October 1 to 10, the atmosphere in Busan was imbued with the sublime energy of youthful ambition, which was evident if one took the moment to talk to any of the volunteers, many of whom dream of becoming filmmakers. The impressive array of 302 films from across the Asian continent, stretching from Iran to the Philippines and back, succeeded in creating what director Lee Yong-kwan called “the window to the world for Asian films.”
Prasanna Jayakody’s Leopard Do Not Bite showcases some of Asia’s most dynamic talent. After the killing of two young lovers by a leopard, a Buddhist monk pacifies the village crowd—except for a maverick hunter in favor of killing the animal, presciently knowing it’s poised to kill again. The conflict between monk and hunter becomes a philosophical exploration of death’s place in life. Without resorting to expositional dialogue, Jayakody delivers a philosophical exegesis on mortality and portrays the jungle through the worldview of erotic animism; in one awe-striking shot, the camera vertically pans from the trunk of a tree and through the earth to a starry reflection in the river. The film artfully delves into Sri Lankan mythology without waxing poetic or resorting to historical fantasy. Instead, it problematizes anciently held philosophical beliefs more than it professes them. With its galactic opening shot, it becomes clear one is in the mind’s eye of a poet.
Not to be confused with the similarly named Chinese indie film Undertone, which gave away its impotence so early that many fled the theater before the end of the first act, Pengfei Song’s Underground Fragrance delivers story and ethnography all at once. It follows a young migrant construction worker living in the basement dwellings of Beijing’s outskirts. He’s left temporarily blind by a demolition accident and is subsequently befriended by his strip-dancing neighbor, and as the two fall for each other, the film gracefully and subtly strays from politicizing and moralizing their strife. Instead, the story reorients itself around the relationship of an individual to the monstrosity of the urban landscape, deftly using reflections in bus windows and grease stained mirrors to convey a loss of individual identity. Its hokey plot aside, this role-reversal riff on Chaplin’s City Lights also successfully calls into question the viewer’s own scopophilia and the perversity of the male gaze.
Six years in the making, Ye Yuan’s documentary Look Love is a quotidian family drama that juxtaposes the lives of an upper- and lower-class Chinese family as they’re split at the seams due to the call of working opportunities. Three famished brothers wander the dusty streets of a mountain village as their father slips into depression, all of which is cross-cut with the dysfunction of a young girl attending an expensive private school, and who struggles to communicate to her parents both her love for them and how their ambition pressures her almost daily. The way the stories of these two seemingly disparate families are stitched together on screen springs from a logic deeper than association. It’s the intimacy of the images in conjunction with the comprehensive scene-driven editing that distill this 141-minute documentary into a heartfelt interrogation of the dissolving bonds of love.
Sadly, few films in the Korean Cinema Today section were able to stand shoulder to shoulder with Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then. Even O Muel’s Eyelids, winner of two trophies, comes across as stunted until its last poetic scene. Though the film has immense cultural importance as part of a healing process after the Sewol ferry disaster, it struggles throughout to find a harmonic sense of pacing and cinematographic texture. While the ideas of reincarnation, purgatory and Buddhism as a whole are manifest throughout, their visual cogency teeters between cliché and half-developed.
Other Korean crowd favorites never quite transcended their inventive scenarios. Kwon Oh-Kwang’s Collective Invention, about a mutant fish-man’s rise to national celebrity after a corporate science experiment goes wrong, offered a welcome sense of comedic relief to a festival saturated with films abundant in visions of human suffering, but its humor is no more complex than the kind you’d expect from an Adam Sandler production. Elsewhere, Shin Su-won’s Madonna blended suspenseful intrigue with social commentary on body politics, patriarchy, and class divides. When an unidentified, unconscious woman is admitted to a hospice ward, the son of a rich energy tycoon contracts a nurse (Seo Young-Hee) to discover the woman’s identity in hopes that he can provide his dying father with yet another heart transplant. The film finds its strength in the novelty of its “outsider” protagonist and its kernel of emotional truth about the hardships of female homeliness in an otherwise image-obsessed culture, but fails to wholly recover from its one-dimensional villains, longwinded flashbacks, and hard-to-buy plot gaps.
The Busan International Film Festival runs from October 1—10.