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A Busan native's guide to what to see, do and eat in film capital of South Korea

WITH PHOTO GALLERY: Fish cakes, photography, soju, strolling on the beach or a history walk - there's plenty to do in Busan whether you're there for its international film festival or not

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 September, 2015, 3:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 2:18pm

If you arrive in the port city of Busan a few days before its annual film festival kicks off, you can find yourself pretty much alone down on  Haeundae beach – no mean feat considering at the height of summer an estimated 100,000 people take up every grain of sand, every single day, along just 1.6 kilometres of foreshore here.

You can sit for a while and watch the waves slowly roll in from the Sea of Japan and then you can fix your attention to the transformation slowly taking place as Haeundae is turned from a haven for sunseekers to a hub for cineastes. At the start of every October the beach becomes a hive of activity once again during the annual Busan International Film Festival (biff.kr), arguably the most important event of its kind in Asia and one which this year is celebrating its 20th edition from October 1 to 10.

The massive posters erected along  Haeundaehaebyeon-ro herald some of the around 300 films which will screen in the 10 days of BIFF, an event which annually attracts an international line-up – names such as Quentin Tarantino, Aishwarya Rai and Zhang Ziyi – while also championing the cause of independent Asian cinema.  

In the two decades since the festival launched, the city has fully embraced the event. It spent   an estimated US$150 million on the  Busan Cinema Centre that opened in 2011 and hosts BIFF’s major events. BIFF has at the same time become a celebration of the city and its attractions, too, with places such as Haeundae hosting their share of meet-and-greets between  stars and their  fans, as well as nightly K-pop and rock concerts.  Festival guests  can be seen walking around town – in between screenings, of course.

Busan built itself from the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean war, welcoming refugees from all over the peninsula and then establishing itself as South Korea’s largest port.  Lee Yong-kwan, who has been with  the festival since its inception, explains Busan’s unique history.

“Busan came to cultivate a very peculiar and rich culture mixed by Busan locals and refugees from other parts of Korea,” said Lee, who shares the role of festival co-director with filmmaker Kang Soo-yeon.  “In the city’s old districts, you can encounter many traditional cultures, whereas a new district like Haeundae has developed into one of the most advanced, sophisticated residential areas in Korea. In this respect, Busan is a city where the legacy of war and state-of-the-art culture co-exist.”

Lights

The lights during  the festival shine mostly brightly at the Busan Cinema Centre, with its red-carpet premieres and assorted gala events.   Even when the festival is over the centre plays hosts to regular seminars and special programmes focusing on the history of Korean cinema (dureraum.org).  “It’s a landmark that represents Busan,” says Lee. “And for filmmakers, the Busan Cinema Centre has become a dream stage where they want their works to be introduced to the world.”

Dine outside under the lights in one of Busan’s  pojangmacha – basically tented restaurants or street stalls – found at Haeundae as well as in the  Nampo-dong and  Seomyeon districts. They serve up the city’s specialities, which, given its port and its massive fishing fleet, revolve around the gifts of the ocean. Favoured dishes include   ojingeo muchim (squid salad) or the local variety of  eomuk (fish cake). “Busan fish cake is famous throughout Korea for its unique taste and health advantages. Eaten with a fish soup it is especially good as the weather gets colder,” says Lee.

Camera

For those who fancy themselves behind the lens, Busan has over the past five years undergone significant beautification, showing   what can really be done when it comes to “urban renewal”.  Gamcheon-dong – traditionally one of the poorest places in Busan – was once under   threat of development, but the local government stepped in and helped villagers renovate their unique hillside dwellings, which date back to the arrival of members of the Taegeukdo religion during and after the Korean war. Busan artists were encouraged to work with locals on the outsides of their buildings and along the village’s winding alleys, and now the village is a living, breathing work of art, dotted with galleries and cafes.

The idea, Lee says, was to remodel the poor areas, leaving them as they were rather than destroying them. “By doing so, they have sought to improve the residential, traffic, and welfare environments and to revive what once was a dying community,” he says.

In the city’s   Choryang-dong, the tale of the millions of refugees who flocked to Busan is told in the  Ibagu-gil – or 168 Steps – historical path which runs for 1.5km and is lined with markers and storyboards.

After a long walk, Lee suggests doing what visitors to Busan have been doing since the 1600s: visiting the hot springs at either Haeundae or  Dongnae, both of which are famed for the recuperative properties of their steaming waters.

Action!

While Busan boasts some of the most impressive shopping malls in Asia – its sprawling Shinsegae Centum City Department Store lays claim to being the largest shopping complex in the world – there are three distinctly local markets that give life to the more traditional tastes, sights and sounds of Korea.

There’s action to be found every day at the  Jagalchi seafood market, home each October to the Jagalchi Festival which celebrates the city’s fishing fleet through fireworks, parades, concerts and games. Jagalchi is largest of its kind in Korea and a place surrounded by Pojangmacha stalls that will cook what you buy fresh off the boat, from king crabs to the popular local flounder.

Lee also suggests a visit to the Gukje and Bupyeong markets, which come stocked with every household item imaginable and serve Korean street-food delicacies such as the country’s signature bibimbap (mixed rice).

“These are places where you can see and feel the authentic Korea,” says Lee.