Busan bids to become hub of Asian film world

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The Independent Culture

Asia's largest film festival signed off this week with a promise to make the South Korean port city of Busan not only the hub of Korean cinema but of the entire region.

The 15th Pusan International Film Festival closed with a glittering ceremony Friday night at the Haeundae Yachting Centre and a world premiere screening of the three-part production "Camellia".

The joint effort by Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng, South Korea's Jang Joon-Hwan and Japan's Isao Yukisada pays homage to Busan and was put together under the eye of veteran festival director Kim Dong-Ho, who now retires from his post after 15 years in charge.

It was a fitting way to bring the curtain down on the latest edition of a festival which grew from humble beginnings to become the premier cinematic gathering in the region - providing a window into Asian independent film.

Kim said the challenge ahead was to establish Busan as the centre of the Asian film world. The inauguration next year of the 133 million dollar Dureraum, or Busan Film Centre, will go some way toward achieving that goal.

But the festival will miss the guidance of the 73-year-old Kim, who has been credited with helping introduce a generation of Asian filmmakers - from Park Chan-Wook ("Old Boy") to Bong Joon-Ho ("Mother") - to the rest of the world.

"Next year we move physically into a new facility and psychologically Mr Kim is not going to be with us, but we will hold on to traces of Mr Kim and try to move the festival forward," said co-director Lee Yong-Kwan.

South Korean films dominated the festival's awards this year.

Park Jung-Bum's "The Journals of Musan" and Yoon Sung-Hyun's "Bleak Night" - both mature, measured looks at aspects of modern Korean society - took the two 30,000 dollar prizes awarded in the main New Currents section for first or second time Asian directors.

They showed the depth of talent in independent Korean cinema, while audiences, including representatives of the international film industry, were also given a taste of the mainstream films which have recently been drawing crowds across South Korea.

Director Lee Jeong-Beom's ultra-violent thriller "The Man from Nowhere" - second only to the Hollywood blockbuster "Avatar" at the Korean box office this year - proved a hit for visitors to the country. So did Kim Jee-Woon's blood-splattered "I Saw the Devil".

Outside of films from the host country, China came to Busan with a mixture of small, independent films and blockbusters and showed just why box office receipts in that country are spiralling upwards.

The China Film Producers Association has estimated that by 2015 China will be ranked second behind the United States in terms of box office turnover.

Receipts by then are predicted to reach close to five billion dollars, and it's a fair guess to think that local cinema will take a share of those riches.

Director Li Weiran's madcap but socially aware comedy "Welcome to Sharma Town" was a hit with fans and critics alike.

And international visitors who for the first time saw Feng Xiaogang's earthquake-themed actioner "Aftershock" - China's all-time box office leader with receipts of 98.9 million dollars - were left suitably impressed.

The festival's special sections were also well received.

They included a revealing look at work by Kurdish filmmakers, while "A Window on Asian Cinema" featured some regional gems, such as Japanese maverick Takashi Miike's take on the samurai genre, "Thirteen Assassins".

"Twenty years ago in the film world it was Hollywood, Europe and the rest of the world. Now its Hollywood, Asia and the rest," said noted film scholar Thomas Elsaesser, in Busan as part of the jury for the Flash Forward award for first or second time non-Asian directors.

That award's 20,000 dollar first prize was won by the Swedish director Lisa Langseth's "Pure", which features a haunting performance from Alicia Vikander as a young woman whose life is changed after she witnesses a performance of Mozart's "Requiem".

A total of 306 films were screened over the festival's 10 days, with 101 of them being world premieres.

Organizers reported that 182,046 people turned up to watch them - and to attend the beachside talks with international stars such as Hollywood's Willem Dafoe and French star Juliette Binoche as well as local heartthrob Won Bin.

At the 5th Asian Film Market, which runs concurrently with the main festival, business was reported to be brisk rather than brilliant.

Most of the sales for distribution of films such as Chinese director Tsui Hark's actioner "Director Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" - currently the Chinese box office champ - were to other Asian markets and to Europe rather than to the United States.

But more deals are expected to be signed when the film festival circuit moves to events in Tokyo (October 23-31) and the American Film Market (November 3-10).

However, there were reminders that cinema isn't always simply about business at the box office.

"For me this festival is famous around the world for supporting young, independent filmmakers," said Iraqi director Mohamed Al-Daradji, who's "Son of Babylon" screened as part of the "A Window on Asian Cinema" section.

The film is Iraq's official Oscar submission for the 2011 awards.

"It is a thrill for us to come here and to find an audience and a festival that is just so supportive of what young filmmakers are trying to do," he said.