Mention South Korea's Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) to someone unfamiliar with the film festival circuit and you might be met with a puzzled stare. What is a "fantastic" film festival anyway? In this case, it's not a synonym for "amazing" but a reference to works that spring from our fantasies, representatives of imaginative genres such as horror, science fiction, fantasy, monster movies, and more.
It was a bit unexpected that such a film festival should take root in the suburb of Bucheon - the Seoul satellite city changed its spelling in 2000, but the festival kept the old spelling - since the fantastic film festival is a European concept. Beginning in the late 1960s, events were launched in Sitges (Spain), Oporto (Portugal), Brussels, Paris and Rome to support a somewhat darker kind of cinema.
The works that screen at Cannes, Venice or Berlin appeal to one's intellect but fantastic films steal into your unconscious at night, and begin re-arranging the furniture. Today, the fantastic film festival is still largely a European phenomenon, led by the European Fantastic Film Festival Federation (EFFFF) which encompasses events held in 22 cities.
PiFan is one of just four festivals outside of Europe associated with the EFFFF: the others are Fantasia in Montréal, Screamfest LA, and Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. PiFan's 18th edition was held from July 17-27, with more than 210 films. Special sections were devoted to Godzilla films of the past 60 years; Latin American genre cinema; and Tinto Brass, master of the erotic film genre - but the primary focus was on new short and feature-length films from around the world.
Opening film Stereo, from German director Maximilian Erlenwein, takes us into the troubled mind of Erik, a motorcycle mechanic who lives in the countryside. Erik is dating a pretty woman with a young daughter, but when an aggressive, trash-talking man shows up in town one day, it's a sign of trouble to come - particularly because the man is a projection of Erik's repressed inner self.
Well-received by the audience, Stereo is the type of film that rarely gets a commercial release in South Korea. Nonetheless, a strong response from viewers at PiFan will sometimes convince a local distributor to pick up a film.
This year's Puchon Choice main competition included 12 feature films, with five from Asia: Singapore-Hong Kong co-production Camera by James Leong; Leste Chen Cheng-tao's The Great Hypnotist; Thai horror Hong Hoon by Kulp Kaljareuk; Fruit Chan Gor's The Midnight After; and Japanese director Toshio Lee's Time Trip App.
The Midnight After was awarded the Jury's Choice prize and was praised by actress/jury member Jo Min-soo as a "modern and unconventional genre film". But the biggest winners were Andreas Prochaska's Austrian-German co-production The Dark Valley, which won the Best of Puchon top award, and Norwegian film Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead, which took home prizes for best director (Tommy Wirkola) and best actor (Vegar Hoel), and also the Audience Award.
The former is a sombre variation on the American western genre, but set in the snow-covered Alps. It stars Sam Riley as an orphan who returns to carry out revenge on the rural community that raised him. The latter is a sequel to the 2009 movie Dead Snow, about a man trying to stop an army of Nazi zombies.
Ultimately, it is the audience who creates the distinct character of any film festival. Seeing a low-budget monster movie at PiFan can be a very different experience from watching it in an ordinary cinema, thanks to the welcoming response of the audience.
Fantastic film festivals also represent the argument that we should take genre films seriously. South Korean horror movie Mourning Grave is a case in point. Snubbed by local critics for sticking too closely to the teen ghost story template, it was given a special award for best Asian film by the EFFFF representatives, to the delight of director Oh In-chun.
South Korea has a complicated attitude towards genre cinema. Critics argue that directors should "rise above" the genres in which they work, while audiences have failed to support a market for indigenous low-budget genre fare, as Japan notably has.
Perhaps that's why the country needs a festival like PiFan. It's an annual reminder that to be truly creative, one should maintain an open mind, and embrace the fantastic.