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Stars and Sunbeams Rain Down on Revitalized Busan Film Festival

Oct 12, 2021
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
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26th Edition of BIFF Embraces Small Screen, Doubles Down on Discoveries 



Song Joongki and Park Sodam, who were on hand to host the opening ceremony


Packing for the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) has always been a unique challenge. The blustery fall weather and even the odd surprise typhoon require a variety of layers that come on and off during the day, while the festival’s many functions can call for more formal attire during the evenings.


Just like last year’s first pandemic era edition, this year’s 26th Busan International Film Festival stripped most parties and events from its schedule, but what really made this year stand out was the unseasonably hot weather, as temperatures pushed close to 30 degrees during the day. Rather than a fall festival, BIFF and its environs were transformed into a summer beach town, with festival-goers mingling in the beachside Haeundae district with large crowds of tourists in town for a long weekend, owing to Hangul Day, to make the most of the weather.


While BIFF and its host city have to abide by strict social distancing regulations, which include a ban on large groups and patrons having to check in at every establishment, all of which must wind down their sit-down services by 10 pm, the festival was nevertheless able to recapture much of its pre-pandemic glitz and glamour. 


The first indication that the festival may be returning to its former glory could be seen on the red carpet, as BIFF’s opening ceremony was the first major event to put on a red carpet event since the beginning of the pandemic.



Bong Joonho & Ahn Sung-ki, who attended the opening ceremony 


Luminaries of the local industry returned to the seaside festival with figures such as directors Bong Joonho and Im Kwontaek, and stars Yoo Ahin, Han Sohee, Byun Yohan, Uhm Jiwon, Cho Jinwoong and Jeon Yeobeen posing at the photo wall beside the outdoor screen of the Busan Cinema Center in Centum City. Also joining the star parade were Song Joongki and Park Sodam, who were on hand to host the opening ceremony, two of the highest-profile names ever to do so. 


During the ceremony, Director Bong presented the Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award to legendary filmmaker Im, the author of over 100 feature films and one of the people responsible for first drawing international attention to Korean cinema. 


Following the opening ceremony, BIFF staged the world premiere of Im Sangsoo’s Heaven: To the Land of Happiness in its opening slot. Im and his stars Choi Minshik and Park Haeil graced the stage to introduce the film, which was first selected by the Cannes Film Festival last year for an edition that was unable to take place.


BIFF staged the world premiere of Im Sangsoos Heaven: To the Land of Happiness


Director Im’s return to the director’s chair, a road movie that alternates between cheeky action-comedy and contemplative drama, was a return to form for a filmmaker whose best work dates back to the early 2000s when he made films like A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003) and The President’s Last Bang (2005). Choi and Park share terrific chemistry as a terminally ill convict and hospital porter on the lam who join forces as they escape the clutches of the police and the gangsters from which they unintentionally stole a coffin full of cash. Full of warmth and humor, not to mention a catchy indie folk song soundtrack, Im’s latest film finds the director in a mellow mood compared to his usually politically charged works.


One of the biggest changes at BIFF this year was the unveiling of the new ‘On Screen’ program, which introduced small screen works at the festival for the first time. The section comprised three series, two of them local Netflix productions, with the third, from Thailand, presented by HBO Asia.


Already the most visible content provider in the country this year following its well-publicized $500 million commitment to Korea in 2021 and the current global success of the series Squid Game, Netflix also loomed large over Busan, where it presented the first three episodes of both the occult-themed thrilled Hellbound and the revenge drama My Name, with director and stars in attendance in Busan.


From Train to Busan (2016) director Yeon Sangho, Hellbound features Yoo Ahin as the leader of a cult that gains massive influence when demons begin appearing on earth and dragging sinners to hell. First presented last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, the six-part series’ first three episodes ooze dread and menace as they detail a gritty dystopia and an unusual investigation as paranoia begins to grip Korea.


My Name


After The World of the Married and Nevertheless, rising star Han Sohee takes the lead in My Name, playing the daughter of a drug dealer whose world falls apart when he is murdered in front of her. She joins her father’s gang, led by a charismatic Park Heesoon, and rises up the ranks until she is tasked with infiltrating the police, where she will try to find the source of the police-issued weapon used to gun down her father.


Yet beyond red carpets and stars, the real heart of the Busan International Film Festival is and always has been its discoveries. Dozens of features from new voices across Asia, many of them supported by sisters’ events and programs of BIFF, are introduced to audiences for the first time in Busan every year, with many of them going on to find great acclaim at home and abroad after screening at global festivals.


For new Korean narrative features, the prized slots in the program are the Korean Cinema Today-Vision section, which is reserved for debut or sophomore works from local filmmakers, and BIFF’s signature New Currents, featuring first or second features from Asian filmmakers, which normally includes two or three Korean titles.




This year’s Vision program was expanded from its usual ten slots to 12 to accommodate a larger-than-usual amount of high-quality debuts, while two local films, Kim Sein’s The Apartment with Two Women and Park Kang’s Seire, took part in the New Currents competition.


Kim’s ambitious drama focuses on a dysfunctional mother and daughter pair whose already fraught relationship grows more unstable when the mother knocks her daughter over with her car intentionally, and the daughter teams up with the insurance investigators to claim against her. A feature project of the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA), The Apartment with Two Women features revelatory performances from Lym Jiho and Yang Malbok in a dense and fascinating character drama full of memorable and uniquely staged conflagrations.



The Apartment with Two Wemen


Meanwhile, in his Korea National University of Arts (K’Arts) produced quasi-horror Seire (pronounced se-i-re), director Park paints a tense portrait of superstitions in Korea at the intersection of a birth and a funeral. Seo Hyunwoo is the father to a newborn baby whose mother rigorously observes the 21-day ‘seire’ ritual, during which new babies should be kept home and clear of outside influences. The father is suddenly called to the funeral of his ex-girlfriend, which upsets the tradition and sets off a series of unusual events in this supernatural-tinged and richly composed debut. 


Though the opening weekend is now behind us, the Busan International Film Festival will continue until Friday, October 15, while the Asian Contents and Film Market (ACFM) and its related events kicked off on Monday and will carry on throughout the week, both online and offline.

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