Busan International Film Festival celebrates 20 years of increasing influence, as Asian cinema continues to grow

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 October, 2015, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 October, 2015, 6:12pm

Asia’s most influential film festival kicked off on Thursday in the South Korean port city of Busan, celebrating its 20th anniversary at a time of growing regional clout in the global movie market.

“An increasing number of filmmakers from around the world are paying attention to the importance and potential of Asian cinema and the market here,” says actress Kang Soo-Yeon, co-director of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF). “BIFF has always recognised the importance of Asian cinema and aimed to help introduce the region’s rising talent.”

This year, the 10-day festival opened with the world premiere of Indian drama Zubaan by first-time director Mozez Singh.

BIFF has never had a Bollywood production as its curtain raiser and Singh describes the selection of his movie as a “wonderful turn of events …All you really want is to make the best possible film that will reach out to as many people around the world as possible. Busan will give Zubaan this chance,” he says.

The coming-of-age feature follows the story of a young man who uses music to question his role in modern Indian society. “BIFF has constantly broken new ground by empowering new and young filmmakers and it continues to do so,” Singh says.

The festival’s 20th edition screens 304 movies from 75 countries, including 94 world premieres.

Asian superstars such as Korea’s Jun Ji-hyun and Lee Jung-jae, China’s Tang Wei and Taiwan’s Chang Chen will walk the red carpet alongside such Hollywood A-listers as Harvey Keitel and Tilda Swinton.

The combined box office of Asia’s biggest movie markets – China, Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia – was larger than North America’s for the first time last year – US$10.5 billion to US$10.4 billion, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

Much of that was down to stellar growth in China, where box-office receipts surged 38 per cent from 2013’s level, to US$4.8 billion. Growth in the first eight months of this year is estimated to have been even higher, at 49 per cent, and the Chinese market alone is expected to out-earn North America by 2018.

In the 20 years of its existence, BIFF has prided itself on identifying the filmmakers who have helped spur the industry’s growth in the region and on championing the cause of independent Asian cinema.

Multi-award winning Korean directors Bong Joon-ho and Kim Ki-duk’s early work was first introduced to the world at the festival, as was the work of China’s box office king Feng Xiaogang. Bong and Feng have gone on to direct Hollywood-funded productions – Bong with the sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer (2013) and Feng with the war drama Back to 1942 (2012).

BIFF’s Window on Asian Cinema and Korean Cinema Today programmes are designed to give audiences a look at who might be coming next. There are a combined 20 world premieres in those two sections alone, with much expected of the Korean-Chinese comedy thriller Bad Guys Always Die, directed by first-timer Sun Hao and backed by China’s Feng and Korean veteran Kang Je-gyu.

The 2015 Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award will be presented to Japan’s Studio Ghibli, formed by animation master Hayao Miyazaki and responsible for the Oscarwinning Spirited Away (2001).

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing for BIFF, with controversies seemingly stalking organisers at every turn over the past 12 months.

Political pressure was brought to bear last year after it scheduled a controversial documentary looking at the Sewol ferry disaster in which more than 300 people died. Busan’s city mayor, who was also chairman of the BIFF organising committee, urged the festival’s director, Lee Yong-kwan, to cancel the screening.

In the end, the film was shown but Lee said he later came under pressure from the municipal authorities to resign.

Then earlier this year, the festival had its state funding slashed to 800 million won (HK$5.21million) from last year’s 1.4 billion won.

Kang, who now shares the festival director duties with Lee, says she hopes the focus will shift back to the films themselves. “I think it is important that this year’s festival can be appreciated by as many people as possible – without any misadventure – and then we can move on to planning the next 20 years,” she says.

Agence France-Presse