You can't go to the multiplex these days without encountering a Hollywood remake of an Asian movie, so I lunged at the chance last month to attend the biggest and most dynamic film festival in Asia. The weeklong 10th Pusan International Film Festival is comparable in size to SIFF: over 300 films from 73 countries, 90 world premieres, and about 200,000 derrieres in seats (plus standing room). Then you've got the parties, the ocean, and the kimchee. This cinema bacchanal takes place two and one-half hours south of Seoul, in a sprawling port city of 4.5 million residents. Why there and not the much larger capital city? As in Seattle, Cannes, and Venice, the sea plays an uncredited role in PIFF's popularity. The steely Korea Strait roils like molten metal under gray morning skies. Fishermen are framed in dark silhouettes against the eerily green-illuminated shore at midnight. Then there are all those open- air restaurant fish tanks full of entrées still pulsing with life. In other words, the place is downright cinematic.
PIFF is one tight ship. When my press credentials got bollixed up, one of the glamorous gatekeepers, wearing her Sophia Loren sunglasses indoors, asked rhetorically, "But why do you have to see the movies?" Her colleague helpfully suggested, "Can't you just write about the festival?"
Six magic words got me on board: "Want to go to a par-tee?" A portly, kind-faced VIP from Bangladesh (director of the Dhaka Film Festival, as it turned out), the ever-cheerful Mr. Zamal swept me off to the exclusive "British Night" garden party. Bathed in flickering torchlight, a score of white-clothed buffet tables bore monumental pyramids of tempura shrimp, seared baby pork chops, imported cheeses, and artisan desserts. Wine flowed, dignitaries mingled, and within half an hour, my press-pass snafu was solved with a well-placed phone call.
Pass in hand, I soon discovered how the festival rewards timeliness, obedience, and planning. You will not be permitted to enter a general screening if you are as little as one second late. Much of the Korean audience had purchased its tickets up to three months in advance. In the screenings I attended, not one cell phone rang (and this in hyperconnected South Korea). Irrepressibly friendly if underslept red-shirted volunteers kept things running on time. When I begged one of these angels to direct me to a water fountain one minute before the doors were to close for a screening, she yelled, "Wait! One! Second!" and bolted down the stairs. Fifty seconds later, she returned, breathless, with her own half-guzzled water bottle—thus ensuring I wasn't shut out of the auditorium.
PIFF HAS STARS, too, who draw a legion of female fans. Hoping to meet one of the young Tom Cruises of Korea, like Lee Byung-hun (Joint Security Area) or Kang Dong-won, the fans form vast, primping lines at the "Cast Greetings" sessions where handlers parade their hunks. Eyelashes are curled, makeup applied, hair checked, mirrors shared, fan books passed around, cell phone photos taken.
Exiting a pub in the Westin Chosun Hotel, I was stampeded by about 30 paparazzi and five times that many fans in crazed pursuit of Jun Ji-hyun and Jung Woo-sung, sexy young "it" stars of Daisy (directed by Andrew Lau of Infernal Affairs fame), who had escaped their promo party on foot. Nearly knocked to the ground, I literally hid behind a column as cameramen vaulted over chic lobby furniture at full sprint.
Later, a chance meeting in a considerably quieter hotel lobby permitted an interesting chat with heartthrob Kim Jae-rok, 30, Seoul-born, with a wiry build, high cheekbones (offset by their analogue, sunken cheeks), and handsome smile of crooked teeth. He co-stars in Shin Dong-il's Host & Guest, which tackles two hot Korean topics head-on, Christian proselytizing and universal military conscription. Speaking exquisite English, which he picked up in school and from watching lots of TV, Kim explained that like most serious Korean actors, he has a private, New York–trained acting coach. Self-possessed and modest in an interview, however, he had no problem appearing buck-naked in H&G. What director would he most like to work with next? I asked. "A friend of mine," he replied. "You don't know his name. Yet."
BUT THERE WERE some recognizable names among the few movies I saw at Pusan that are likely to reach the U.S. From Kim Ki-duk (3-Iron, The Isle), The Bow is an achingly beautiful paean to nubile sirendom that packs a stealth punch. It considers whether conditional love (especially occasioned by debt) can ever be legitimate, authentic, or pure. Im Sang-soo's The President's Last Bang leads up to the 1979 assassination of President Park Chung-hee. Afforded passage into the Blue House via dozens of servants, call girls, low-end guards, dishwashers, and chauffeurs, along with the higher-ups plotting the hit, we get a prismed view of Park's devastating 18-year misrule.
The Unforgiven deals with clashing perspectives on the Korean military, while the charming Hong Kong–made Shoe Fairy recalls Amélie. Director Robin Lee creates a threatening fairy-tale world where shoes cry, cakes shake, and princes have nervous breakdowns. Shoe Fairy muses on how to wear the slings and arrows of misfortune with style. A Bittersweet Life and The Duelist are slickly produced action films with flimsy stories and thin characters, whose poetically choreographed violence will be impossible for younger viewers to resist. Unfortunately I missed Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), the Tarantino of South Korea.
Back to the parties. They were constant. My record was attending five in one night, but I'm a lightweight. There were promotion parties at nightclubs, "nation appreciation" fests, cliquey private soirees in hotel rooms (follow the ludicrously dolled-up actresses who haven't had their big break yet), soju tastings, and spontaneous post-film flop-outs on the beach. Yummiest were those with translucent tiles of high-end sashimi. Chummiest were those commencing after midnight, by which point pretense was nigh undetectable. Glummiest were those hijacked by logorrheic dignitaries with microphones.
At "Japan Night," I watched a Japanese actress of unguessable age with long, light-brown upswept ponytail, her swollen feet bulging in high-heeled rhinestone sandals, as she moped alone at the back of the room, waiting to be recognized. Finally several hysterical young fans surrounded her, squealing, whereupon her face lit up and she squealed, too, jumping and holding their forearms. Meanwhile, Mr. Zamal and I could only admire our plates of exquisite-looking chickpea salad, as there appeared to be no forks.
As one of the very few Americans at these gatherings (and at PIFF as a whole), I was treated well by the Koreans but given the occasional political lecture by Bush-bashing Europeans. One programmer for the Rotterdam International Film Festival harangued me, "Americans can judge, but they can't be judged!" (In my judgment, it was time to get back to the sashimi table.) Later, an Italian film distributor based in London commiserated that she was getting similar scorn from other Europeans for being a citizen of Berlusconi land. (I was tempted to go Canadian, as I suspected a few other Yanks were doing.)
Whether PIFF '06 will outsize the 10th jubilee remains to be seen. But should you decide to attend next year's fest (see www.piff.org for details), listen to your inner Zamal. PIFF, like safari, is a state of mind. Ignore the ubiquitous sputum and cigarette smoke, score as many screenings as you can cram in, then party wherever you are.