By Paige Lim; photos by Adora Tan and Yeo Zhi Yi
It is 13 degrees Celsius on a Wednesday night. I am huddled in a thick blanket, seated among 4,000 moviegoers under a giant roof at the outdoor theatre of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), watching director Guillermo del Toro’s latest masterpiece, The Shape of Water, unfold across a massive screen.
When the romantic fantasy film opens with alluring visuals of the female protagonist asleep, her body luminously floating underwater in a submerged apartment, there are audible gasps from the crowd.
For the next 120 minutes, Korean audiences remain transfixed to the screen with bated breath, barely flinching even when a gust of cold wind blows in from the outside. Applause rings out when the film finally concludes.
This is the Open Cinema section, which features seven outdoor screenings of new internationally acclaimed films that appeal to both artistic and popular tastes. It is one of the most popular cinematic attractions at BIFF.
Over the course of my 10-day trip, I have discovered that watching films at the festival is a deeply religious experience for cinephiles in South Korea, where the act of going to the cinema is treated as a serious pursuit that should be savoured in its entirety, without any interruption.
A strong cinephilia culture
Since its inauguration in 1996, BIFF has become the largest annual film festival in Asia and has cemented its identity as the hub of Asian cinema.
The festival is held in the southern port city of Busan, 325 kilometres southeast from Seoul, and sees more than 150,000 attendees from around Korea and across the world every year.
Upon receiving the catalogue at the box office, I am immediately floored by the extensive diversity and number of films to pick from — 299 films from 69 countries, to be exact.
There are 11 official programming sections offering something for everyone, from A Window on Asian Cinema (Asian films) to Korean Cinema Today (commercial and independent Korean films), World Cinema (works by world-renowned filmmakers) and New Currents, a signature competition section featuring 10 works by up-and-coming Asian filmmakers.
The festival is a distinct embodiment of South Korea’s strong cinephilia culture, a country with one of the strongest domestic film industries in the world. A unanimous love and appreciation for cinema across all walks of life is palpable in the chilly air of the bustling festival grounds.
At BIFF, the early bird catches the worm. Lines of people from the young to old begin to form in the wee hours of the morning before the box office opens at 8.30am, with tickets to popular flicks usually sold out an hour after opening.
A highlight of BIFF is its Guest Visits (GV), which give audiences the opportunity to engage in a question-and-answer session with the filmmaker after the film screening in the theatre.
I noticed how Korean audiences participated enthusiastically in the GVs, often fighting to pose questions to the cast and crew in attendance at hot films, and clamouring afterwards for autographs.
While GVs are often conducted in Korean for Korean films, English translation is available for international visitors. For instance, despite being the only English-speaking member in the audience at the GV of Korean film Counting the Stars at Night, I was pleasantly surprised to be assigned my own personal translator, who provided fluent simultaneous English translation for the entire 20-minute segment.
Another in-demand event would be the outdoor greetings, where popular film celebrities exchange and share ideas on stage with audiences in an open public space.
Even on a wet and rainy Sunday afternoon, dedicated moviegoers, clad in ponchos and holding umbrellas, still turned up in droves at the Haeundae Beach to catch a glimpse of Korean stars Kwon Hae- hyo, Kim Sae-byeok and Jo Yoon-hee from independent arthouse film The Day After.
Picking up the pieces
Beyond the glitz and glamour of red carpet guests, however, belies vestiges of the festival’s ongoing political turmoil. A group of student volunteers are stationed on the lawn outside the Busan Cinema Center from morning to evening, brandishing big, colourful placards with the words “I BIFF, I BELIEF”.
“This is to support the autonomy of the film festival. All art needs independence,” one student told me, before handing me a petition to sign. “We want the mayor of Busan to apologise to the festival,” he added.
In the past three years, BIFF has been plagued by controversy over alleged political interference by the previous right-wing South Korean government after it screened Diving Bell, a documentary on the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking.
The festival subsequently suffered drastic budget cuts from the city of Busan, boycotts by acclaimed filmmakers in the name of defending artistic freedom, and saw former festival director Lee Yong-kwan ousted.
But the embattled event seems to be slowly emerging from its darkest days this year, with ex-president Park Geun-hye’s impeachment in March signalling the festival’s first turnaround since its current woes began in 2014.
Recently-elected President Moon Jae-in even made a surprise appearance at this year’s edition, where he pledged support to the festival and expressed hope that it could reclaim its former glory.
Remembering Kim Ji-seok
There was also a sombre undertone at this year’s festival, as visitors mourned the loss of founding member and executive programmer Kim Ji-seok, who died from an untimely heart attack at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in May.
I attended a memorial event for Mr Kim at the Haeundae Grand Hotel ballroom one evening, alongside hundreds of Korean and international industry professionals.
Many tears were shed as filmmakers such as Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda and Malaysian director Tan Chui Mui read out heartfelt eulogies on stage. A late prize was also created in honour of Mr Kim, with a cash prize of US$10,000 (S$13,600) awarded to two films under the section A Window on Asian Cinema.
Filmmakers I interacted with at the event spoke fondly of the indelible impact that the late Mr Kim had on their fledgling careers, with his fervent support for Asian independent cinema.
Bangladeshi film director Abu Shahed Emon, whose debut Jalal’s Story was in the New Currents section in 2014, said Mr Kim’s persistent belief in his work gave him the courage to continue making films.
“Kim Ji-seok was not just a programmer — he was a great brother, a good mentor, and a great teacher. I hope people take inspiration from his life and that there will be many more Kim Ji-seoks in the future.”
Besides film screenings, BIFF offers plenty of educational talks, seminars, forums and masterclasses for visitors to attend.
This year saw the launch of Platform Busan, a four-day networking platform for Asian independent filmmakers, which offered informative sessions geared towards promoting and supporting independent cinema in Asia.
I sat in on an enlightening panel discussion featuring seven female Asian filmmakers, including Indonesian director Mouly Surya and Filipino producer Bianca Balbuena, who discussed the challenges of working in the male-dominated film industry — issues especially pertinent in light of the recent Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal in Hollywood.
The best part of the festival was no doubt the chance to get up close and personal with international filmmakers and industry professionals alike. During my daily coffee fix at the Busan Cinema Center’s main café, I would often find a young aspiring director casually parked at a table beside me, ever ready to engage in a meaningful discussion about film.
But the conversations I remember most vividly were the candid interviews I conducted with our very own homegrown talents for an assigned project, who had travelled from Singapore to Busan to showcase their films.
This year, three Singapore features — Singapore’s first dialect film anthology 667 by Kirsten Tan, He Shuming, Liao Jiekai, Eva Tang and Jun Chong, Tan’s Pop Aye and Wesley Leon Aroozoo’s I Want To Go Home — were selected to be shown at the festival.
As a fellow Singaporean, it was heartwarming to see their works so wholeheartedly embraced by audiences in Busan. In particular, Aroozoo’s film was one of 10 entries shortlisted for the Wide Angle Documentary Competition.
I Want To Go Home is a poignant and lyrical story about Yasuo Takamatsu, a Japanese man who lost his wife to the Great East Japan earthquake and has been diving in the sea every week to find her.
While it did not win the competition, several South Koreans told Aroozoo during his GV that the film struck a powerful chord with them, as it reminded them of the tragic Sewol ferry disaster.
Aroozoo said: “It means a lot to us Singaporean filmmakers to have our films screened at BIFF. It helps to open doors because you get to meet different kinds of people whom you could potentially collaborate with in the future. The opportunities that come from this festival are pretty great.”