The 2011 Busan International Film Festival (now known as BIFF) began last Thursday and continues until this Friday. I was able to attend 12 films over the course of the weekend, catching many of the movies I most wanted to see. Overall the quality was quite strong, with a number of great films that will certainly be among my favorites in what has already been a very good year in world cinema. Unlike at most festivals, I confined myself this year to all new releases, both because of their quality and because I didn’t find any of the retrospectives particularly intriguing. It was a great opportunity to see films by many acclaimed directors as well as a place to see smaller films that may not be seen or heard from again. Below is my complete list of films, in order of preference, as well as some other, smaller films I missed but of which I heard some positive notices.
My favorite film of the festival, and probably my favorite of the new decade of the 2010s, is the Dardenne Brothers’ THE KID WITH A BIKE. Like all of their films, it focuses on a character and a class that is normally ignored in cinematic representation. As the story opens, the 11 year-old protagonist Cyril has been abandoned by his father and is living in a group home. His journey is depicted in the Dardennes’ typically simple, direct and visceral style, identifying with his situation and emotions and yet seeing him clearly and with all his flaws on display. The ending is just about perfect, avoiding the desire to be unnecessarily tragic while also acknowledging how difficult and fleeting peace will be for this character. For anyone who thinks they do not like art cinema and stereotype it as slow and pretentious, this is a film that can change your mind. The other masterpiece of the festival was Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirthahmasb’s THIS IS NOT A FILM, a truly unique and original look at an artist who is unable to create and yet is ultimately still able to make a film against overwhelming odds. As many know, the acclaimed Iranian director Panahi (THE MIRROR, THE CIRCLE, CRIMSON GOLD, OFFSIDE) was sentenced to six years in prison and given a twenty year ban on filmmaking because of his subversive activities during the Iranian election protests. While under house arrest, Panahi and his documentary director friend Mirthahmasb decided to film his life while he awaits his appeal. Panahi begins by describing the screenplay he was planning before his arrest. Using his house as a miniature set, he reveals his opening shots, providing a great look at a director “working” and showing Panahi’s genuine love of his craft. But he soon grows impatient, and uses clips from his previous work to show that directing has to be captured through the actors and how they interpret the characters, something his discussion of his pre-production process cannot capture. But before the film ends, Panahi ends up having one of these real moments with a young student who is working in his building, filming him as he travels on the elevator collecting garbage. The final image is powerful and heart-breaking, as Panahi films the social world outside his courtyard but cannot join it. One of the best of all meta-films, and a striking contrast with hip postmodern senses of what self-reflexive cinema is really about.
Childhood was the subject of both Lynn Ramsay’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN and Kore-eda Hirokazu’s I WISH, both of which were very successful although completely different in their respective aims. Ramsay’s film, based on a well-known novel by Lionel Shriver, is a very dark look at childhood, but from the perspective of a mother, Eva (played by the great Tilda Swinton), whose son Kevin commits a massacre at his school. From his early childhood, the relationship between mother and son is very strained. In the nature-nurture debate, Ramsay wisely decides to be neutral, instead concentrating on impressionistic imagery to convey Eva’s emotional experience of having a problem child. Unsettling and dark but honest and important. I WISH, on the other hand, is one of the warmest movies I’ve seen in a long time. It details two brothers, Koichi and Ryu, who are living apart due to their parents’ separation, one with their mother and the other with their father. They decide to go on a journey with their friends to a spot where the bullet trains meet and where, according to legend, their wish to be reunited will be granted. The pacing is quite slow and the first hour lacks a momentum you would expect from a movie about children, but the last half and the journey of the large group of children rewards one’s patience. Kore-eda comes close to being overly cute and sentimental, but the performances and stories of each child actor are so strong that it is hard not to be seduced by its charm.
In the next tier of films are Mohammed Rasoulof’s GOODBYE and Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA. Along with Panahi, Rasoulof was also convicted to a prison term and banned from filmmaking for his political activities. GOODBYE documents his own personal feelings about wanting to leave the country through the story of a young female lawyer. The style is very reserved and formal, telling the emotions through the visuals rather than the dialogue, especially in the repeated and varied framings of the character’s apartment. I found it slightly more mannered and self-consciously austere than necessary, but still an effective look at being in an untenable position with few choices, all of them bad. MELANCHOLIA is von Trier’s take on the apocalyptic genre, telling a split narrative of two sisters, one of whom suffers from melancholia and the other who is obsessed with Melancholia, a large planet that may hit Earth. The first half, featuring Kirsten Dunst and her wedding, is rather reminiscent of Dogma film THE CELEBRATION and not as effective, while the second half is von Trier using sci-fi spectacle to create Kubrickian, 2001-like imagery. While I’m not a huge fan of von Trier and I don’t think MELANCHOLIA is completely successful, it is a work worth seeing and one of his better recent efforts, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is great as always.
Unfortunately, I was only able to see three Korean films this year, unlike last year when I saw mainly Korean movies. The best of the three was Jeon Kyu-hwan’s FROM SEOUL TO VARANASI, although it was also the most problematic. Jeon is best known for his TOWN trilogy (MOZART TOWN, ANIMAL TOWN, DANCE TOWN), but this is my first exposure to his work. It tells a story of two love affairs of a married couple. The husband, who works at a publishing company, is having an affair with one of his writers, while his wife begins a relationship with a young Lebanese man. I’m always interested in Korean films exploring foreigners in Korea in their films, and I give credit to Jeon for his tackling of this material. However, it can be argued that Jeon displaces the problems of Korean society (racism, sexual repression) onto his foreign characters, who turn out to be stereotypical Muslim terrorists. The fact that the husband’s affair is shown in graphic detail while his wife’s is never shown explicitly is a comment on its taboo nature, but that repression gets depicted in a literal explosion that her terrorist lover commits in Varanasi. It reminded me of American Vietnam films like THE DEER HUNTER, which are interesting in exploring their American characters but use the foreign characters only as symbols. That said, I found the movie compelling, and not as easy to dismiss as a simple ideological reading may suggest. The two other Korean films were disappointments. The documentary ARI ARI THE KOREAN CINEMA had a lot of great footage from almost every major Korean director and star, but was too rambling and unfocused to be effective. It is too scattered to work as a real introduction while lacking the depth a more knowledgeable viewer would seek. Still probably worth a look for fans/scholars of Korean film, but missed potential. The animated feature KING OF PIGS was the worst film I saw all festival, a poorly shot and acted work that attempts to be dark and profound but ends up being juvenile and banal. The potentially interesting subject matter, centered around male teenage bullying in Korea, is sadly wasted.
Rounding out my line-up of screenings were Philippe Garrel’s THAT SUMMER, Paddy Considine’s TYRANNOSAUR, and Amir Hossein Saghafi’s DEATH IS MY PROFESSION. The Garrel film covers rather familiar territory, detailing the friendship and love affairs of a group of artists. It is well acted and watchable, but lacks any real purpose or immediacy. TYRANNOSAUR features great performances from Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman, and is an impressive debut for actor Considine. However, the grim subject matter revolving around domestic abuse has been handled more powerfully by other British films (NIL BY MOUTH, for example) and again the territory felt too familiar. Both THAT SUMMER and TYRANNOSAUR work well enough on their own terms, but seemed to lack ambition. The Iranian film DEATH IS MY PROFESSION was more of an outright failure, despite a very intriguing opening that seemed to set the stage for an Iranian spaghetti western. The final hour degenerates into pathetic melodrama with a broad man versus nature metaphysical struggle standing in for Iranian society. The first Iranian film that has disappointed me.
Among the smaller films generating buzz at the festival: the Korean dramas RED VACANCE, BLACK WEDDING and BLACK DOVE; the audience favorite HOT HOT HOT; the Indian film GUZAAARISH; and the Soviet spaghetti western THE SEVENTH BULLET. Overall this year’s festival was stronger in terms of its international content while remaining committed to Korean and Asian cinema. The addition of the Busan Cinema Center was also welcome, making the venues more concentrated and the experience more audience friendly. While still with some of the drawbacks of a large festival, Busan seems to be moving towards trying to provide a small festival environment within the larger structure. Hopefully this direction will continue going forward.
Here is the complete list of films:
The Kid with a Bike
This is Not a Film
4 and a half stars
We Need to Talk About Kevin
3 and a half stars
From Seoul to Varanasi
Ari Ari the Korean Cinema
2 and a half stars
Death is My Profession
King of Pigs
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