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Highlights of 25th Busan International Film Festival

Nov 03, 2020
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
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Pandemic-Struck Festival Foregrounds Fresh Korean Film Voices

Despite the global pandemic forcing it to scale down dramatically, the Busan International Film Festival was able to pull off its 25th edition successfully this year, with committed cinephiles embracing the festival’s deep program down in the seaside metropolis. Most events were cancelled or moved online, international guests were only visible through online greetings and Q&As and seating were greatly limited, but nevertheless BIFF welcomed almost 20,000 visitors this year, with screenings selling out across the board.

A handful of very high profile films drew most of the media attention, but for those wading deeper into the program, either in Busan or at home (certain members of the press were granted online screening accreditations), this year’s BIFF boasted an impressive array of new Korean titles which foregrounded a few key themes in particular. Protests (Candlelight Revolution) and labor rights (A Leave, Sister J) were the most visible and powerful elements on show this year, while teenage runaway dramas (SNOWBALL, Young Adult Matters) and coming-of-age films (LIMECRIME, Short Vacation) were also very prominent. Stories of young women finding themselves (Fighter, The Slug), realistic relationship dramas (Our Joyful Summer Days, Our Midnight) and explosive family comedy-dramas (Three Sisters, MORE THAN FAMILY) were also quite common in this year’s lineup.

Surely the hottest ticket down in Busan this fall was Minari, the new film from Korean-American director Lee Isaac CHUNG which debuted to sensational reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, on the way to a Grand Prize win, and has seen its buzz grow so much throughout the year that it is now being touted by many for Oscar glory. In his first role after LEE Chang-dong’s BURNING (2018), Steven YEUN executive produces and stars as a Korean immigrant who decides to move his family to Arkansas in the early 1980s to follow his dream of starting a farm. HAN Ye-ri and YOUN Yuh-jung play the man’s wife and mother-in-law in this story that draws from Director CHUNG’s own childhood. Exquisitely performed and teaming with clear and strong metaphors, such as the hardy Korean vegetable that can grow anywhere which gives the film its title, the film was strongly received in Busan ahead of a local release expected early next year.

BIFF’s signature New Currents competition section, which welcomes debut and sophomore films from Asian filmmakers, this year featured three works by Korean directors. Three, a co-production helmed by Korean-Uzbek filmmaker Ruslan PAK (Hanaan, 2012) and shot with a Korean crew, takes a Memories of Murder-like (2003) approach as countryside detectives try to track down a vicious serial killer in Kazakhstan in 1979. The film dovetails strong period production values and genre codes with a political and social undercurrent of the country’s Soviet Era. Actress and former editor LEE Woo-jung makes her feature directing debut with the teenage runaway drama SNOWBALL. A familiar story is convincingly brought to life through LEE’s clear directorial vision and an impressive young cast, including a standout co-starring role by SHIM Dal-gi. LEE Bong-ha is powerfully understated as the protagonist in LEE Ran-hee’s compelling debut A Leave, playing a man who takes a break from a labor protest he’s been active in for five years.

Beyond New Currents, many of the new Korean discoveries were to be found in the Korean Cinema Today - Vision section. Three years after debuting Park Hwa-young in the same program, LEE Hwan returned with its quasi-sequel Young Adult Matters. An inimitable LEE Yu-mi plays a pregnant runaway teen who glides along the Han River on her longboard and explores the underbelly of Seoul’s nightlife in this absorbing and abrasive follow-up. LEE Seung-hwan and YOO Jae-wook draw from their youth for the coming-of-age drama LIMECRIME, which offers an engrossing look at Seoul’s underground hip-hop scene. JUNG Wook’s Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) feature project Good Person is a fascinating morality play with KIM Tae-hun playing a teacher whose belief in his fairness is put to the test when his student is accused of pushing his now comatose daughter in front of a car. Two years after opening Busan with Beautiful Days, Jero YUN returns with the boxing drama Fighter, with LIM Sung-mi proving to be a standout as a North Korean defector who takes up the sport.

The Korean Cinema Today - Panorama section featured a mix of strong commercial titles that were released earlier during the year, including WOO Min-ho’s political drama The Man Standing Next, featuring an award -winning turn from LEE Byung-hun, the fitfully entertaining submarine-set geopolitical action-thriller sequel Steel Rain2: Summit, and the explosive action noir smash DELIVER US FROM EVIL with HWANG Jung-min going head-to-head with LEE Jung-jae. The section also featured some notable smaller films, such as LEE Seung-won’s riotous family drama Three Sisters, a Jeonju Cinema Project produced by MOON So-ri, who stars as one of the titular siblings alongside KIM Sun-young and JANG Yoon-joo. Arthouse darlings KIM Jong-kwan and JANG Kun-jae also joined forces for the ethereal and thought-provoking ghost story omnibus Vestige, a project that was commissioned by the Muju Film Festival.  

Many of Korea’s most important documentary films have also gotten their starts in Busan, where they screen in the Wide Angle Competition and Showcase. A number of impressive works debuted this year, including several that explored different aspects of protests and activism in the country. Much like A Leave in New Currents, both Sewing Sisters and Sister J explore labor rights activists. From LEE Hyuk-rae and KIM Jung-youngSewing Sisters shines a light on young women who worked in the textiles industry in the late 1960s and early 1970s only to be subjected to harsh treatment from security operatives. LEE Soo-jung’s Sister J follows an introverted man whose personality changes as he embraces theater and music during his 10 years as a sit-in labor activist after being laid off. Character actor KIM Eui-sung and radio personality CHOO Chin-woo co-directed Candlelight Revolution, a galvanizing tribute to the protesters of the Candlelight Movement, which led to the impeachment of former President PARK Geun-hye.

Beyond protests, With or Without You (2015) director PARK Hyuck-jee returned with the calming Speed of Happiness, a pleasing portrait of hardy mountain deliverymen in Japan’s Oze region, while LEE Dong-woo provided the non-fiction standout of this year’s festival with Self-portrait 2020. The long film finds Director LEE chronicling his conversation and adventures with LEE Sang-yeol, a former Venice Film Festival-invited short film director who has fallen on hard times and whiles his days away drinking around Central Seoul, when he’s not getting in trouble with the law. 

Busan also introduced some impressive shorts this year, which screened in the Wide Angle - Korean Short Competition. Among those were Jayil PAK’s Georgia, a vivid and stylized tale of parents trying to reopen an investigation into their daughter’s death. There was also the wry and affecting High Surf Expected, the directing debut of Time to Hunt actor AHN Jae-hong, in which he stars with E som as a couple who break up but are forced to spend the night together on Udo Island when the woman fails to catch a ferry back to Jeju Island.
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