October 18, 2006

Busan Dispatch. 3.

Fresh takes on seven films at the Pusan International Film Festival - take it away, Adam Hartzell.

Pusan International Film Festival I realized I had reached the point of film festival sensory overload when I was reading "The Promise of Beauty," an an excellent article written by Pico Iyer about director Terrence Malick in the September 06 issue of the Walrus. At least I'm sure it was an excellent article, this is Iyer I'm talking about here. But I can't fully verify its excellency because my mind could only process blurbs as I rushed through the bowels of Busan on the hour-or-so subway ride from Haeundae to Nampo-dong for my three screenings Monday. Iyer was commenting on the importance of the mystical resting space Malick provides, where nothingness and silence are anything but that. I wasn't able to appreciate Iyer's words as much as I should have because I wasn't rested, I wasn't still. My mind was racing as fast as the subway train.

But there was hope for a calmer mind because my first screening Monday was Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century. I was sure that Weerasethakul would take me to the place that bypasses "the realm of words and sense entirely, to speak to something deeper," wherein Iyer writes both Malick and Sigur Ros reside. And, indeed, that hope was realized.

Syndromes and a Century

Weerasethakul provided exactly what I needed midway into PIFF, a marker to appreciate all that resonates around me. As soon as the screen expanded with the fields of green behind the doctor, my mind was settled. Each time the camera floated around the statues and multi-colored uniforms, I had a content little smile on my face. Like Filmbrain, I smiled a lot during this film even though I'm not clear if I "get" what Weerasethakul wants me to get. Regardless of whether I understand Weerasethakul's intent, the repeating country and city mice of doctors, monks, patients and staff of this film were the cinematic herbs my racing mind needed to calm down from the heightened visuals in the theatre and the neon-ing and bustling outside. Jazzercise has never looked so lovely.

Sound Barrier My racing mind from earlier in the day was well visualized by Sound Barrier. Amir Naderi, an Iranian director (who has since moved to New York) I was unfamiliar with until now, was one of the featured directors in the Asian Auteurs section of PIFF. The festival notes claim his continuing subject matter is "...psychologically unsettled individuals who compulsively pursue the object(s) of their obsession," and that indeed occurs in Sound Barrier. A young deaf boy whose mother has died has the key to the locker of one of her obsessive listeners who has recorded the boy's mother's shows (along with many other local radio personalities) on tape and carefully catalogued each with a brief commentary. Filmed in black and white with rushed images and often dampened noise, the editing ups the frantic factor considerably as the child scrambles to find a particular show his mother made that is dear to him. The purpose of the Asian Auteurs series is to "discover, introduce and support directors in Asia who are little known abroad." Although I don't know if PIFF has "discovered" Naderi here, they've definitely introduced him to me and I'll be looking for other chances to see his films based on this effective bit of minimalism in Sound Barrier.

I'm going to make a guess, considering the speed that blogging requires prohibits a full survey, but I believe my experience with The Host was very different from the experiences linked up here at GreenCine. I'm assuming the theaters at NYFF, MVFF and Toronto were packed, whereas my screening was sparsely filled. I'm being generous when I say that about a tenth of the theater was full. Over 13 million South Koreans have seen this film already, so the screening I attended at PIFF was more for foreign guests than the Busan populace. Such a dearth of people affected the energy of the film. The merging into one mass of being that happens when a crowd watches such thrills on screen was missing here in Busan. I still liked The Host, but this is the type of film as spectacle one wants to share with a community larger than a handful of people.

But back to packed houses. Just Like Before by Filipino director Mike Sandejas is included in the New Currents Award series. It is a fictional film about the real-life Filipino new wave band from the late 80s and early 90s, The Dawn. Sandejas begins at the end with the band, several years after their lead guitarist was murdered (which indeed happened in real life), when their star had faded. Lead singer Jett Pangan experiences a head injury that causes him to forget everything after 1988 before the band lost their lead guitarist and mass popularity. The film follows Pangan as he revisits his rockstar devils, a common theme of all rock biopics and fictional films.

Just Like Before

Sandejas was not working in an industry that has access to high production values like South Korea and the United States. So the film is filled with aspects that would be filtered out of more well-funded works. Room noise buzzes and dubs are often poorly positioned. In spite of this, I still greatly enjoyed the story. Yes, the acting is sub-par at times, but as my day job colleagues in the Philippines would say, "it's so heart," that is, it is sincere in its hope for better ways. And although some might say the film drags at the end, I was happy to see that time was permitted for a fuller reconciliation with wife and child rather than a typically quick, falsely wrapped-up resolution. I doubt Just Like Before will end up winning the New Currents Award, but it definitely deserves to be here.

While I didn't really "get" Syndromes and a Century yet thoroughly enjoyed the film regardless, Suh Myung-soo's Butterflymole I simply don't get. (Although I like the title, but, as if to underscore my point, I don't see how the title relates to the film.) This debut on digital video follows two subway conductors as they struggle with their romantic and familial relationships while emotionally dodging suicides on their tracks. The film does a good job presenting the weariness of such work, and for someone like me who loves riding subways throughout the world, you might appreciate the visuals of rushing through tunnels and the sounds of thock-thocking across tracks. But the film leaves me no better stationed as to where I'll arrive at life's next stop than when I stepped onto to this train in the theater.

My Friend and His Wife

Shin Dong-il's Host & Guest was one of the highlights of last year's PIFF for me. And Shin returns to PIFF with his second feature, My Friend & His Wife. Ye-joon (Jang Hyun-sung) and Jae-moon (Park Hee-Soon) established their adult friendship where many Korean men do, during their required military service. The two are so close that Jae-moon's wife Ji-sook (Hong So-hee) sometimes wonders whom Jae-moon loves more. A good thirty minutes into this film, I was unclear where this film was going to take me. But then the turning point arose and I realized Shin was going to force me to face my worst fear. I'm not going to say exactly what happens. Not because I'm worried you'll blackmail me with that knowledge, but because it will ruin the shock the incident causes when watching it yourself. I'll just say that the incident confirms whom in this triangle Jae-moon truly favors. Shin wrote the screenplay here as well and, although it's not as impressive as his debut, Shin's work still intrigues me as he continues to explore visions of hope found sifting through pits of despair.

Before the Summer Passes Away

I almost passed on Before the Summer Passes Away, but I managed to fit it into my viewing schedule at the last minute and I'm very glad I did. This debut feature for director/screenwriter Sung Ji-hae is a well-constructed tale of a woman who wants something bad for her because there's something good for her in it. So-yeon (Lee Hyun-woo) is juggling romances with two men, one she's willing to lie and reschedule plans for; another she's willing to see when the other isn't available because she knows she "should" see him. Sung could have presented us with easily caricatured props in place of the ambivalent, complicated individuals we see here. So-yeon's handsome-to-lie-for lover isn't a complete ass with all his requirements surrounding their clandestine meet-ups but he's still a jerk. And So-yeon's willingness to meet his demands doesn't play her out as a victim lacking agency. There is something powerful she gets out of her lack of power in this relationship. Even though everyone around here sees her lover as wrong for her, she doesn't find herself fully desiring the "Mr Right" who desires her. When lesser directors and writers would require punishment of a flawed character like So-yeon for making the "wrong" choices, Sung allows her character to be alone to think things through, to reflect on what direction she'll choose next. Although So-hyeon would claim such reflection is not "Korean," it's exactly what's had me following South Korean film so intently for the past ten years. It is nice to see that it's still there as I begin my next decade.

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Posted by dwhudson at October 18, 2006 12:10 PM


Loving these reports Adam, if in something of a longingly masochistic way. I hope you're passing on your admiration for Syndromes and a Century to whatever San Francisco film festival programmers you might be bumping into in your travels!

Posted by: Brian at October 18, 2006 12:21 PM