Asia's top film festival reflects growing Chinese influence

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The Independent Culture

Asia's most prestigious film festival kicks off Thursday in the South Korean port city of Busan, its programme reflecting the fast-changing nature of the region's cinema industry.

An array of international stars and world premieres - and an expanded Chinese presence - are set to embellish the 15th Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF), which is expected to draw 150,000 people from the world over.

This year's extravaganza boasts a record 103 world premieres among its line-up of 308 films and is again heavily slanted towards the diverse region's independent film-makers, including those from China.

The rapidly developing country of 1.3 billion people, which now has the second biggest economy in the world after overtaking Japan, has established itself in the last few years as the fastest-growing film market in the world.

"Each year, Chinese films take the largest part of our programme," said Kim Ji-Seok, the executive programmer of the festival, which uses Busan's old spelling of Pusan.

This year's opening screening is a Chinese film, director Zhang Yimou's "Under the Hawthorn Tree", a touching love story set during communist leader Mao Zedong's disastrous Cultural Revolution.

"I think the role and presence of Chinese film is very crucial in supporting the advancement of Asian cinema and joint productions between Asian nations," Kim added.

Cinemas are mushrooming in China - on average about one new screen opens every day, according to the state-run China Film Group.

Box office receipts in China are expected to break the 1.5-billion-dollar mark this year - up from 909 million dollars last year - and already the industry has seen a rise of more than 80 percent in ticket sales in 2010.

Having trumped Japan's economy, China is set by 2012 to overtake Japan as the world's second-largest film market behind the US, said a report last week by ResearchInChina, an independent provider of China business intelligence.

For star gazers, the festival will this year see appearances from acclaimed US actor Willem Dafoe, Bollywood beauty Aishwarya Rai, the Oscar-winning American director Oliver Stone and French actress Juliette Binoche.

Up-and-coming Chinese star Tang Wei will also walk the red carpet.

There will be a special focus on Kurdish cinema and spotlights on the cinema industries of Spain and the Czech Republic.

The festival's main award, "New Currents", hands over two prizes of 30,000 dollars to first- or second-time Asian film-makers.

Meanwhile there will be an extensive programme featuring Asian documentaries and the annual running of the Asian Film Academy, which aims to educate the region's next generation of film-makers.

The Academy is this year headed by legendary Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who won the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 1997 with his "Taste of Cherry".

"PIFF has been a very important festival for young Asian film-makers who are trying to establish themselves internationally," said South Korea-based film critic and author Darcy Pauqet.

"It's a great place to see new Asian films. At the same time, it's an important meeting place for film industry people around the world who are interested in Asian cinema."

Philippines-based producer Josabeth Alonso, who has three films screening this year in Busan, agrees.

"It opens a lot of opportunities for the Asian film-maker to be noticed by the outside world," she said, adding: "Getting screened in Busan is a big thing for film-makers."

The curtain will come down on PIFF on October 15 with the screening of "Camellia", a production of three parts centering on the city of Busan and directed by Thailand's Wisit Sasanatieng, Isao Yukisada of Japan and South Korea's Jang Jun-Hwan.

Next year, the film festival will move into the 133-million-dollar purpose-built Dureraum, or Busan Cinema Centre.

"But our goal is to maintain the character and unique identity of the festival," said executive programmer Kim.