Busan 2018: Festival round-up

Slowly emerging from the political turmoil and boycotts it had faced the past few years, the Busan International Film Festival 2018 was one of rejuvenation and reunion for the community. This year’s festival saw a rise in metrics all around: attendances, world premieres, market participants and industry meetings.

Nestled between the imposing hills and idyllic beaches of Korea’s south-eastern coast, and lined with bustling seafood restaurants, the Busan International Film Festival has become the go-to location for the business and exhibition of Asian cinema. While East Asian films were aplenty at BIFF like always, the festival also continued to highlight the cinemas of West Asia and Southeast Asia. This year, the festival also had a special program dedicated to celebrating 100 years of Philippine cinema. A star-studded cast graced the festival, including celebrated directors Brillante Mendoza and Kidlat Tahimik as well as actors Christopher de Leon and Piolo Pascual.

Held towards the end of the year, many acclaimed films that have already premiered at other festivals are also screened at BIFF, providing the community a welcomed opportunity to catch some of the year’s most talked-about works. Also, with Korea’s bigtime directors like Lee Chang-dong and Hong Sang-soo often choosing to premiere their works at the earlier European festivals, BIFF spotlights the exciting, ground-breaking work of Korea’s younger and less established filmmakers.

In stark contrast to the fast-moving, action-heavy Korean blockbusters that we have grown increasingly accustomed to seeing, Korean films at BIFF often take on a contemplative, unhurried pace, exploring the existential anxieties and feelings of isolation in their characters. The common man is seemingly disoriented by the material wealth and rapid development in his country; he is constantly searching for meaning and purpose within it and seems to ask, “We have so much now, but why doesn’t life still feel whole?” Here are some highlights from the festival:

Beautiful Days
BIFF definitely took some risk here by choosing this difficult, achronological, slow-moving work by Jéro Yun to open the festival. Extending his repertoire of films on North Korean escapees, Beautiful Days follows a Korean-Chinese man as he tries to find his mother in South Korea. The film shines a light on displaced characters in peripheral places, drawing from Yun’s own experiences interacting and interviewing North Koreans living along the Chinese border, and even places afar like Paris.

Psychedelic blues and reds colour some scenes, marking these places as alien and disorienting for the film’s migrant characters. Yet, even in these uncertain spaces, the simple desire for reunion – for family to be whole again – grounds the film in a refreshing innocence and honesty.

Clean Up
A deeply-satisfying, highly-sensitive debut from Kwon Man-ki, the film picked up two awards at the festival (New Currents, KT HiTel awards). Clean Up takes its time to reveal the history between the two leads, Jung-ju and Min-gu. The inner worlds and psychological development of these characters – bizarre but still believable – are masterfully composed.

“Cleaning” takes on multiple meanings in the film – it is indeed the occupation of its main characters who work as cleaners – but it also refers to the female lead’s attempt to sweep away past wrongdoings and purge her guilt. With Kwon’s clever introduction of religious symbols (eg. blood, church, a young child), “cleaning” in the film becomes associated with salvation and repentance for its characters.


Manta Ray
Making its Asian premiere at BIFF, this Thai-French-Chinese co-production is a visceral, glorious feast for the eyes and ears. A truly impressive first feature from Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, the film skilfully weaves otherworldly, ethereal sequences with the natural day-to-day grittiness of village life. The plight of Rohingya refugees is highlighted in this film through its mute main character, Thongchai, as well as the sea of gleaming stones in the dense forest, a testament to the voiceless thousands who have lost their lives in the numerous coasts of the region.

The muteness of Thongchai and the general lack of dialogue in the film is filled by a rich, exceptionally layered soundscape with music by French duo Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry. The haunting melodies and sound effects reverberate with an unspeakable pain and displacement in some moments, but also the magic of new connections and simple kindness in others.

Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy
The festival closed with this martial arts film from veteran director Yuen Woo-ping. Part of the long-running Ip Man franchise, the film delivers a surprisingly clever, nuanced commentary on Western-Eastern dynamics in British-occupied Hong Kong, while Yuen renders the dusty streets, building interiors and labyrinth of electric wires and neon sign boards with a mesmerising beauty.

The film, set in the 1960s, follows a defeated Wing Chun practitioner who now desires a quiet life with his son. However, he makes a reluctant return to the fighting scene when he crosses paths with the local triad. The deft storytelling and entertaining action is rounded off with a strong ensemble made up of Max Zhang, Liu Yan, Michelle Yeoh, Kevin Cheng, Dave Bautista, Tony Jaa, Patrick Tam and Chrissie Chau. This film will surely delight both loyal followers of the franchise and first-time viewers.

Sara Merican

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