Korean Film Festival: Sex, ghosts and domesticity

It's film industry may have taken a commercial tumble, says Roger Clarke, but at the Pusan Festival, Korea's film-makers showed they can still command popular and critical success
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The Independent Culture

Pusan is Korea's second largest city. Now in its seventh year, its International Film Festival is the pre-eminent film festival in Asia and a source of great national pride. Naturally, all three Korean presidential candidates turned up to the opening night.

Pusan is Korea's second largest city. Now in its seventh year, its International Film Festival is the pre-eminent film festival in Asia and a source of great national pride. Naturally, all three Korean presidential candidates turned up to the opening night.

Last year after writing about the renaissance of Korean cinema on these pages, I found myself judging a short film season, run as part of a film festival managed by the Korean Embassy in London. I was astonished to find Britain was actually full of Korean film students studying at art colleges like Goldsmith's. While British filmmakers watch TV, spend much energy blagging their way into showbiz parties and make friends with famous sportsmen, these guys were closeted away like poor monks, studying Godard and Mizoguchi. It was a fine thing to see. The winner of the prize was Min-ho Woo and Seouck-kuen Lee for their film Who Killed Jesus? and I was glad to see them both again in Pusan. Their movie Goodbye to Arms was one of 20 project ideas up for a production grant in the three-day Pusan Promotion Plan (PPP) festival in uptown Haeundae.

Lee Chang Dong is a novelist turned director with whom I've been obsessed since Peppermint Candy, (ridiculously never released in the UK). He appeared at Pusan with the controversial Oasis, about a retarded man developing a sweetly improbable and problematic sexual liaison with a Down's Syndrome woman. Also of interest was Jang Sun-Woo's Resurrection of the Little Match Girl, made on a budget of $10m, simply because it lost a huge amount of money. It was, in fact, one of three films last year that brought a swift end to several years of exponential growth in Korean cinema. Its failure resulted in the collapse and sale of its production company and an end to much of the fickle venture capital that had been funnelled into Korea, looking for easy profits.

On the flip-side of such losses are small-budget films such as The Way Home (a heart-warming tale of an old lady in a village looking after an unruly city child) and Chihwaseon (an unstable 19th-century artist becomes a court painter) which made good returns. They were also popular films in Korea, which, like no other country except France, has a committed domestic audience for its own cinema. Both were shown in the festival.

Of the documentary section, one film especially caught my eye: Mudang – Reconciliation of the Living and the Dead. Directed by Park Kibok, it follows the lot of some hereditary and modern shamans (what we would call mediums). Several of these old women are called upon to bless the fishing boats in a ceremony of the dead every five years, but it's clear these people are regarded as "unclean" and low-caste types to be avoided most of the time. It's not surprising, then, to find most of their children have vanished into the anonymity of Seoul.

On the other hand a remarkable young woman seems to have embraced the lot of the self-appointed shaman: we see her go into trances, stand on knives, predict a death that then subsequently happens in a family. In one visually alarming sequence she pulls the heads off live chickens, and wrestles and bites the body of a dead pig.

It was just such animal cruelty issues (amongst others) that this year stopped the censors in the UK from allowing you to see Kim Ki-Duk's The Isle. But there are censorship issues within Korea, too: Park Jin-Pyo's Too Young to Die, though lauded at Cannes this year, failed to persuade the bigwigs that vigorous sexual intercourse between 70-year-olds was a fit subject for delicate Korean viewers.

Pusan is not a city geared up for western tourists and I can't say I found the festival easy this year, since the event is currently divided between Haeundae and Nampo-Dong, which is rather like splitting the London Film Festival between Canary Wharf and Herne Hill. Evening hikes uptown from my downtown hotel sometimes took over an hour, though I appreciated the more colourful character of Nampo-Dong, where they've already started a "walk of fame" on the pavement: Abbas Kiarostami and Jeremy Irons have joined it so far.

Tricky too were the hoards of "volunteers" in their early twenties, suited in powder-blue tracksuits, and walking around selling tickets with the self-important air of young cultural revolutionaries. One of them admitted to the Joongang daily paper that western visitors to the festival can get short shrift. "When foreigners try to talk to me I just say 'sold out'," she told a reporter, without a trace of embarrassment.

Evenings spent with friends like Min-ho were more fun, carousing in traditional bars and being persuaded to drink the local toast called The Bomb (shot glasses full of rice wine sunk in the local Hite beer). Most Koreans have done national service, and I suppose know a thing or two about bombs.

Such knowledge will surely help Min-Ho to make Goodbye to Arms ("three soldiers on a remote island meet a ghost"), which I'm pleased to say won first prize at PPP and should be in production next year. This week Variety reported that the Korean Army has launched an initiative to lend its resources to selected film-makers: perhaps that will help Min-ho, too.