Fireworks lit up the night sky and movie stars graced the red carpet as Asian’s biggest film festival kicked off on Thursday night in the South Korean city of Busan. Japanese heartthrobs Joe Odagiri and Maeda Atsuko brought wild cheers from the thousands of fans gathered outside the Busan Cinema Centre for the opening of the 18th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) while Hong Kong’s Aaron Kwok was joined in front of the cameras by South Korean actress Kang Soo-yeon. Oscar-winning Irish director Neil Jordan and his compatriot and six-time Oscar nominee Jim Sheridan led the international contingent, with perennial favourites of the European art house circuit – China’s Jia Zhangke and Hirokazu Kore-eda of Japan – bringing with them the films that scooped prizes at this year’s Cannes festival, A Touch of Sin and Like Father, Like Son . Kwok joined Kang as co-host of the night’s lavish opening ceremony, the first time a non-Korean man has been handed the task. “It is an honour. Movies that play here have a huge spotlight on them and get a lot of notice. The Busan festival has shown over 18 years that it has a lot of power,” said Kwok, whose latest thriller Silent Witness is showing at Busan. “We have worked hard to find new talent and bring Asian films to the attention of the world,” said festival director Lee Yong-kwan. The 10-day BIFF opened with the world premiere of Bhutanese musical drama Vara: A Blessing , a surprise selection that organisers said demonstrated the event’s commitment to unearthing gems of Asian cinema. The film’s director, Bhutanese lama Khyentse Norbu, chose to miss the festival in favour of a silent mountain retreat, but sent a video message in which he expressed disbelief that his story of an Indian villager who falls for a man of lower caste had been chosen as the opener. “The festival has always shown so much encouragement to obscure and special films and special filmmakers that are not necessarily known and established,” he said. More established stars of Asian film will be attending the festival, including Academy Award-nominated Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, and director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The event aims to showcase new Asian talent, with more than 300 films to be screened over 10 days, including 95 world premieres. Box office takings in Asia are growing much faster than in North America – up 15 per cent to US$10.4 billion last year, compared to 6.0 per cent growth in Hollywood’s home region to US$10.8 billion over the same period according to the US-based Motion Picture Association. Busan will also “look into the future of Korean cinema as well as the cooperation we have with non-Asian regions,” festival director Lee said. The festival’s New Currents competition offers two prizes of US$30,000 for first- or second-time Asian directors from a shortlist of 12 productions. Busan’s Asian Filmmaker of the Year award will go to Cambodian director Rithy Panh for preserving his country’s films and audio-visual materials. The director, who lost his family during the Khmer Rouge genocide, won the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival with The Missing Picture , in which he retold the turbulent history of Cambodia with elaborate dioramas. Irish director Sheridan is in town to host a Master Class where he will discuss with students work such as his acclaimed feature In the Name of the Father while he will also join Jordan, director of the Oscar-winning The Crying Game in support of a segment on Irish cinema. The city’s Haeundae beachfront will host events giving fans the chance to interact with stars including Watanabe, along with the veteran Hong Kong actor Jimmy Wang, in Busan for a screening of his martial arts classic The One-Armed Swordsman (1967). Buzz has built around the first screenings of maverick South Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s ultra-violent and dialogue-free Moebius , as well as Bong Joon-ho’s English language sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer , starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, which is yet to be screened overseas. The festival closes on October 12 with the world premiere of the Kim Dong-hyun drama The Dinner .