The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) likes to have it both ways. On the one hand, the event - which ran this year from October 3 to 12 - is a glitzy, star-studded event that injects the South Korean port city of Busan with a healthy dose of glamour every autumn. Scores of the local industry's top actors make the trip from Seoul.
The setting of the festival is also luxurious. With the active support of the city government, the BIFF has built an architecturally bold cinema complex designed by co-operative architectural design firm Coop Himmelb(l)au that includes a 4,000-seat outdoor theatre sheltered by the world's longest cantilever roof. Now entering its third year of operation, the Busan Cinema Centre feels both modish and properly lived in, serving as the festival's focal point.
Additional screenings take place at a multiplex in the world's largest department store, located across the street.
On the other hand, a look at the festival programme itself reveals a strong preference for low-budget, independent and sometimes obscure films over commercial crowd-pleasers. The six Gala Presentations this year included South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's transnational sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer and Nagima, a realistic drama from Kazakhstan by female director Zhanna Issabayeva.
Large numbers of young and as-yet unknown filmmakers from Iran to Indonesia held the first screenings of their works. In addition, special programmes were devoted to Central Asian cinema and Irish cinema, while the Asian filmmaker of the year award was presented to Cambodian director Rithy Panh ( The Missing Picture).
These two somewhat contrasting faces of the BIFF successfully coexist thanks to the enthusiasm and cinephilia of the local audience, with the festival recording more than 200,000 admissions this year. Tickets to the opening ceremony - featuring Bhutanese film Vara: A Blessing by director-priest Khyentse Norbu ( The Cup), and co-hosted by Hong Kong singer-actor Aaron Kwok Fu-shing and South Korean actress Kang Su-yeon - sold out in 43 seconds.
Some critics contend that 18 years of constant growth and new initiatives have left the festival feeling unwieldy and out of control. Apart from the festival itself, there's the Asian Film Market which ran from October 7 to 10, bringing together buyers and sellers of films. An academic conference also takes place concurrently with the festival, as well as a training programme for young Asian filmmakers.
With generous support from the local and national government, and increased corporate sponsorship, the BIFF's budget stands at US$11.6 million, significantly higher than festivals in Tokyo (US$7 million) or Hong Kong (US$5 million).
Nonetheless, the BIFF's ambition to become the hub of Asian cinema faces certain limits. On the worldwide festival circuit, Busan is much admired, but can't compete with the prestige factor of the oldest European festivals. Consequently, the most critically acclaimed filmmakers from Asia inevitably choose to premiere their works at Cannes, Venice or Berlin.
So the BIFF has focused its efforts on branding itself as a festival of discovery, where one can unearth the acclaimed directors of tomorrow. Its lone competition section, New Currents, is devoted to Asian directors making their first or second film.
This year the two top prizes in the New Currents category went to: Byamba Sakhya's Remote Control, a Mongolian-German co-production about a young man who runs away from his alcoholic father and hides out on an apartment rooftop in the city; and Ahn Seon-kyoung's Pascha, a gritty love story from South Korea about a relationship between a woman in her 40s and a 17-year-old boy. Also drawing strong praise and a jury special mention was Transit by debut Philippine director Hannah Espia, about the difficult lives of Filipino labourers in Israel.
The BIFF has been accused in the past of giving the cold shoulder to Hollywood. However, the festival received an unexpected visitor from the US this year when Quentin Tarantino made an impromptu visit. Organisers hastily arranged a public talk between Tarantino and Snowpiercer director Bong, during which each man expressed his admiration of the other's work. But mostly, the American filmmaker had come to watch films. In this, he was just another face in a crowd of thousands.