PIFan 2003 Report

4 August 2003
picture: PIFan 2003 Report


You won't find any mention of Puchon in the tourist guidebooks to South Korea. An anonymous sleeper town about 20kms west of Seoul, it has rapidly expanded ever since it was accorded City status in 1973, and now boasts around 789,000 residents. It's not the most obvious stop-off point for the first-time visitor to the country. At first glance, the foreign eye will find it sprawling, hectic, impenetrable and downright confusing.

But aside from offering all the usual mod-cons that you'd expect from an up and coming dormitory town - extensive shopping malls, restaurants, parks and sports complexes, etc. - Puchon (also known under its alternate alphabetic rendering of Bucheon), has at least one thing to offer that the rest of the world would certainly benefit from hearing about - The Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival.

In case you hadn't heard, the Koreans absolutely love the movies. Screenings are packed, audiences are vocally enthusiastic and there are new screens popping up all over the country all the time. On top of that, Korean cinema is currently the hottest thing in Asia. Marked out with an inventiveness and technical slickness that looks better than any other non-Hollywood production the world over, Koreans are justifiably proud of their national product, and over the past couple of years, it seems that the rest of the world has been beginning to sit up and take note too.

Part of the reason for this relatively recent phenomenon, aside from the quality of the films, can be put down to the strict screen quota system operating in the country, which has been in effect since the 1960s but only began to be rigidly enforced in 1993. The system is now coming under siege from Hollywood, which is trying to use its financial power to muscle its product onto the nation's screens, claiming that the system violates their principles of free trade. Which is fine, if you treat the film industry purely as an industry, concerned only with profits and monopolies and the rapid turnover of a product that is consumed only to be forgotten about within the space of several hours.

As in France, however, the system has its ideological basis in trying to preserve the nation's cultural industries. Judging from the current popularity of Korean films amongst its own population, not to mention its neighbouring countries in Asian (along with the new surge in interest in Korean "K-Pop" music), it could be argued that the system is no longer necessary. But at the same time, without it, would the Korean film industry be in the healthy position it finds itself in now? Indeed, the rest of the filmmaking world could well take note of the Korean example.

For more information on the screen quota system, and Korean cinema in general, I refer you to Darcy Paquet's excellent The Korean Film Page.

One possible reservation one could have with the system is that if Korean films occupy, for example, around 50% of the nation's screens (in practice the figure is considerably lower than this), then the vast majority of the other half is sure to be taken up with the Hollywood product. This has the obvious knock on effect that films from other countries will not find themselves properly distributed in Korea. You won't find too many films from Japan or France on a trip to a Korean multiplex.

Which is of course why international festivals such as PiFan are so crucial. If variety is the spice of life, then the films offered up at Puchon this year (its seventh) were as fiery as that staple of national cuisine, kimchee, the spicy pickled cabbage that accompanies every meal. This year featured just short of 200 films, both features and shorts, from all over the globe, and by the end of the week had attracted over 70,000 visitors.

There were retrospectives for Bollywood, Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers, the recently deceased Kinji Fukasaku, and Canadian experimental director Guy Maddin. Godfrey Reggio was in attendance with his Qatsi trilogy, "visual poems" such as the celebrated favourites of the 1980s arthouse Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and his latest instalment, Naqoyqatsi, subtitled Life as War. And eccentric US film programmer Dennis Nyback brought along three eclectic programs of shorts from his private collection, the most eye-popping being The Blaxploitation Cartoon Special, featuring some crass examples of racial stereotyping in US animation long suppressed and glossed over by their own studios: Mickey's Man Friday (1935) and Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs (1943).

As an international fantasy festival, PiFan is certainly international, though it perhaps rather stretched the definition of the word "fantasy", also screening such films as firmly grounded in the real world as Shane Meadows's Once Upon a Time in The Midlands, and Nick Broomfield's jaw-dropping documentary exposé on FBI double dealings in the murders of the two rappers Biggie and Tupac. But a main part of the agenda for the festival was in bringing to Korean audiences films that they wouldn't normally get a chance to see. And this stretched to the Korean films as well. Even though a retrospective of Korean horror maestro Park Yun-kyo was all but abandoned due to the poor condition of the scheduled prints in the National Film Archive, I thank whatever god of fortune it was that replaced one of these films with Lee Yong-min's A Devilish Homicide (Salinma), a delirious B-movie shocker from 1965 featuring cat-women vampires that would have been nigh on impossible to see by any other means.

Top of the pile of the Korean films was the one-of-a-kind Save the Green Planet, in which a young beekeeper captures and imprisons the president of a chemical company, believing him to be the alien Prince of Andromeda on a mission to destroy the earth during an imminent solar eclipse. Science fiction, horror and comedy combine in a visual maelstrom that left few unaffected. Despite a disappointing performance at the Korean box office upon its domestic release earlier in the year, it picked up the festival prizes for best actor and director, and was cited by most as the strongest Korean film screened.

Unfortunately I missed the opening film of the festival, the most expensive animated feature ever produced in Korea, Wonderful Days, though the post-mortem the next day sounded fairly gruesome. Similarly Wishing Stairs, the festival's second closing film (the first being Vincenzo "Cube" Natali's latest, Cypher) was disappointing, all too reminiscent of Ring and the Japanese horrors so popular across Asia several years ago, and with a blankly ambivalent approach to its pretty young characters (one of whom, the beautiful Park Han-byul, graced the festival's publicity posters as this year's "festival lady").

I didn't have the chance to catch many other Korean films, outside of an industry screening for the psychological horror A Tale of Two Sisters, playing outside of the festival, but this film was enough to reinforce all images of Korean cinema as way above the competition in terms of its technical virtues. Juon the scariest film of the year? My arse! Sumptuous production values and a macabre funereal atmosphere harking back to the heyday of the supernatural horror film with the Italian films of the 1960s and 70s, the film played a similar game plan as The Others, though unfortunately the overall effect was somewhat diminished by an overly complicated and not entirely convincing double twist at the end.

But of course, Midnight Eye's main purpose in Puchon was to see how the Japanese films went down, and let's say the results were fairly mixed. Sole entry from Japan in the Puchon Choice competition was Takahisa Zeze's big budget sci-fi vehicle for rock stars HYDE and Gackt, Moon Child. Rather a departure for the director, the results were, on the balance, pretty enjoyable.

The Fukasaku retrospective played without English subtitles, though all four titles were already familiar from other retrospectives: The abrasive Battles Without Honour and Humanity rubbed shoulders with the rather leaden comedy drama of The Geisha House, whilst the kitschy Star Wars-inspired Message from Space formed a wonderful companion piece to the epic apocalyptic vision of the (predominantly) English-spoken longer Japanese version of Virus.

picture: scenes from 'Moon Child', 'Battles Without Honour and Humanity', 'The Geisha House' and 'Virus'

The pick of the bunch of the Japanese films outside of the competition and Fukasaku retro was the modest romantic drama Bijokan, directed by Masaya Kakehi, in which a 24 year-old college student who lives alone finds love in a can containing an instant girlfriend: just pour the contents of the Bijocan into a bathtub full of water and leave for thirty minutes. Keep your eyes peeled for a cameo by Firefly Dreams director John Williams in this witty, well crafted, digitally-shot feature debut, which spins out its ingeniously simple idea to an hour running time without losing its grip on the attention for a single minute.

Similarly compelling was Hideyuki Hirayama's barbed family drama, A Laughing Frog, featuring 33-year-old Ryoko, now living alone in the family home having been left by her husband Ippei who is now wanted by the police for embezzlement. Then one day Ippei turns up on her doorstep, on the run from the police. Ryoko allows him to hide out for 9 days on the condition that at the end of his stay he signs the divorce papers allowing her to start her new life. She locks him in the storeroom attached to the living room where the penitent Ippei is forced to bear witness to Ryoko's new life as a single woman, including her on-the-sofa petting sessions with her eccentric but reliable new boyfriend Yoshizumi, prurient inquisitions into her love life from her mother, and lecherous advances from the detective assigned to Ippei's case.

picture: scenes from 'Bijokan' and 'A Laughing Frog'

Opinions on the merits of Takashi Miike's work have seldom been unanimous, but I have to confess to be somewhat disappointed with his latest work, Gozu. Though some have claimed it his strongest film, it was considerably slower moving than one usually expects from the director and didn't go anywhere particularly interesting. Only a handful of scenes lingered in the mind by the end of the week, lost in the festival fog of late-night Korean barbecues and shochu drinking sessions and endless screenings during the day - a yakuza boss who can only climax during the sexual act with a soup ladle inserted up his arse, an aging inn hostess who lactates into milk bottles, and a potent underlying homoerotic charge. Sounds like pretty standard Miike to me.

Sticking on a psycho-sexual note, Concent gave viewers a little more to come away with. Freudianism goes head to head with shamanism as Miwako Ichikawa (from Joji Iida's Another Heaven) begins to see a link between the death of her reclusive brother and the symbolism of an electric plug outlets. A little over-earnest at times, Shun Nakahara's film covered some interesting territory, though with a slow pace and no real clear sense of direction. It did at least give us something to sink our teeth into. Battlefield Baseball didn't, but this fast-moving and funny cult film throwback was an obvious crowdpleaser, meeting a raucous reception from the audience.

picture: scenes from 'Gozu', 'Concent' and 'Battlefield Baseball'

More tangentially linked to Japan, there was the French film Fear and Trembling (Stupeurs et tremblements). Belgian author Amélie Nothomb's autobiographical account of her downward career trajectory from interpreter to toilet cleaner in a large Japanese company in the early 1990s seemed an unlikely candidate for screen adaptation, but I have to say, I enjoyed Alain Corneau's film far more than I did the book. More than a little xenophobic in places, the source material's original theme, the impossibility of a Westerner ever fully assimilating into Japanese culture, for me was marred by the fact that its ham-fisted raconteur would have proven a liability for any company whatever country she was in. Nevertheless, as well as giving Japan's most famous bit player Taro Suwa one of the most significant roles of his career, this perky film adaptation, apparently shot entirely in France, was an amusing and well-crafted time-passer.

A TV film crew from Japan lead us into the heart of the narrative of the vibrant and frequently hilarious Taiwanese youth comedy/action movie, Better Than Sex, searching for subjects in the streets of Taipei for a documentary exposé of the escalating phenomenon of teenage delinquency in the country. They find them in the form of two girl punks involved in a series of convenience store robberies, and a gang of three bike-riding wannabe mobsters eager to try out a new sword they just bought. Meanwhile porn-addicted high school student Lin is berated by the police for reading a sex magazine in front of an important government building. It turns out that the father figure of this chronic masturbator, porn shop owner Cheng, has just died. Before passing away, however, he handed Lin the keys to a secret hidey-hole where he can spy on Cheng's former lover, a housewife with a hidden past as a nude model. Directors Su Chao Pin and Lee Fong Nor cut between these seemingly unlinked groups of characters with a verve that gives Better Than Sex an unwavering inertia. For me, this was the most enjoyable film of the festival.

Other films I caught included my entry point into the colourful world of Bollywood, though Ram Gopal Varma's Company is considered a bit of a break with tradition in that aside from a couple of pounding nightclub numbers, it doesn't feature the usual exuberant song and dance routines Indian cinema is famed for. The Indian industry is a noteworthy example of a national cinema that has needed little assistance in overcoming foreign competition, and over the years Indian films have evolved into their own distinct brand of screen entertainment. Bollywood films are notorious for their length. Company, a Godfather-like saga of friendship and betrayal in the criminal underworld with the action spread across Bombay, Hong Kong and Kenya was the shortest of the other epics (including Lagaan and Devdas) playing in the program, but its 155-minute running time, peaking with soap-opera-like cliffhangers and energetic action sequences and screening with an interval in the middle, never really made itself felt. I'd definitely recommend the experience.

Spreading our net farther afield, we had Jorge Olguin's Angel Negro, apparently Chile's first-ever horror film, though in every other respect the film breaks little new ground. First released a couple of years ago in 2000, Olguin's debut is hampered by a noticeably low budget, though it brought back happy memories of a misspent youth watching the lesser Italian giallo-thrillers during the 80s. But Olguin is certainly no Argento. Then again, neither is Argento any more.

The animation Eden, by Polish director Andrzej Czeczot made for an interesting diversion, a surrealist journey through heaven and hell, check-listing Bosch, Dali and The Beatles, but non-narrative animated features without dialogue don't really lend themselves to 78-minute running times, and the imagery might have been better served broken up into a series of short segments.

I rounded up my trip to Korea with a trip at the Imjingak, some 50 km northwest of Seoul, on the border with North Korea. Amongst a finely sculpted landscape sat against the barbed wire perimeter fence was a shrine and several monuments to a divided nation and those lost in the Korean War, whilst a three-storey pavilion housed a gift shop, a restaurant, a rooftop viewing platform facing North and an exhibition touching on such subjects as life in the mysterious country across the border.

Weekending picnickers up from Seoul for the day took snapshots of the border guards, whilst a small "peace train" full of visitors chugged around the Unification Park past a row of authentic tanks and fighter planes. There was also a theme park, complete with merry-go-rounds, a rocking Viking ship and a small cinema showing a CGI movie about dinosaurs.

To the north was the Joint Security Area (JSA), also known as the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the no-man's-land that sits between the two countries, a bare grassy landscape with the view attenuated by a solid row of hills several kilometres on the horizon. Who knew what was going on on the other side of them. The contrast was quite surreal. It felt like looking into a lion's cage at the zoo.

During my time at PiFan, I got chatting to the fascinating Johannes Schönherr, a German with an interest in some truly obscure films and some fascinating tales to tell about his own visit to North Korea. Apparently there actually is a Pyongyang Film Festival held every two years - they even screened Alan Parker's Evita, starring Madonna last time in 2002 - and Johannes was in attendance. You might be interested in reading about it in his book, Trashfilm Roadshows, published in the UK by Headpress.

You will need a special invite to get to Pyongyang, but PiFan is open to everyone. By the end of my stay, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, the energy, and the vibrancy of the film world in South Korea; the audiences, the films and all those involved in the scene, PiFan showcases them all. It's a festival of stunning diversity that will surely only get bigger and bigger. I can't wait to go back.