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Continuing Off-screen Dramas Fail to Derail the Busan Film Festival

Despite local and global political machinations threatening to overshadow the 2017 Busan International Film Festival, the event proved something of a success, even if proceedings were more subdued than was common in previous years.

Photo: RV: Resurrected Victims: Korean horror set for global distribution.
RV: Resurrected Victims: Korean horror set for global distribution.
Photo: RV: Resurrected Victims: Korean horror set for global distribution.
RV: Resurrected Victims: Korean horror set for global distribution.

Politics loomed unusually large at this year's Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), South Korea's annual showcase of Asian cinema. In addition to the international concern over events across the Korean Peninsula, there was also the continuing fallout from the Festival's lingering dispute with its host government.

As the event got under way, noisy protests against an impending visit by Donald Trump, the US President, could be heard from outside the Haeundae Grand Hotel, the Festival's traditional home. With classic bad timing, this year's event also coincided with the US Navy's 242nd anniversary, an event its Korea-based contingent had chosen to celebrate in the same hotel. While US sailors and BIFF attendees mingled uneasily in the hotel's corridors, some delegates may have wished they had followed the example of a number of the event's other regulars and given this year a miss.

As to the BIFF's own political problems, the Festival is still coming to grips with the consequences of its 2014 decision to screen The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, a controversial documentary focusing on the Sewol ferry disaster, which had happened earlier that year. With the sinking of the ferry still a sensitive issue across the country, many have seen the subsequent cuts to the BIFF budget and the ousting of Lee Yong-kwan, the Festival's former Director, and his subsequent prosecution for alleged embezzlement, as retribution on the part of the country's ruling classes.

In 2016, following Lee's departure, BIFF Co-founder Kim Dong-ho and actress Kang Soo-youn took over the reins of the Festival. In August, though, following mounting criticism from the Korean film industry, the two announced they would be stepping down after this year's event.

As if all of that wasn't bad enough, Kim Ji-seok, one of the event's founders and the man responsible for its Asian film programme, died of a heart attack while attending the Cannes Film Festival in May. Ironically, he died just as the BIFF appeared to be turning something of a corner, with the country's new political administration possibly more inclined to move on from the 2014 incident.

Given all of this background noise, it was somewhat impressive that this year's BIFF proved relatively successful, if a little low-key. Overall, attendance was up by 17%, setting a new record of 192,991 admissions, while the New Currents initiative, a showcase for young filmmakers, was deemed to have uncovered some impressive talent. It also proved to be a good year for Hong Kong, as the city made its long overdue return to the 10-title New Currents line-up thanks to Cheung King-wai's Somewhere Beyond The Mist, a drama focusing on the tale of a teenage girl who murders her parents. Despite its relatively warm reception, however, the film didn't win any awards at the Festival.

The city again came under the spotlight during an event to announce that Ten Years, a controversial Hong Kong-made 2015 satirical/dystopian sleeper hit, was to be remade for the Japanese market. Ng Ka-leung and Andrew Choi, the two Hong Kong-based producers of the original film, were on hand to explain how its core concept was being reimagined for its Japanese incarnation, as well as for future Thai and Taiwanese versions.

It was also announced that Hirokazu Kore-eda, the renowned Tokyo-born filmmaker, will serve as the Executive Producer on the Japanese version. In line with the format of the original, this new version will comprise five short films from different directors, all of whom will present their disturbing visions of Japan's possible future.

Explaining the thinking behind these proposed reworkings of the original film, Choi said: "After the success of the first, Hong Kong-centric, Ten Years, we met with a lot of producers from other countries at various film festivals around the world, many of whom had similar concerns about the future of their own home countries. We soon realised that the original concept was something other Asian filmmakers could explore in their own way."

Asian Film Market

Meanwhile, attendance at the Asian Film Market, the BIFF's dedicated showcase for up-and-coming movies seeking finance or distribution deals, was around the same level as last year – an impressive achievement given that it was held later than usual on account of the late timing of South Korea's Autumn Eve Festival (Chuseok) holiday, which meant it clashed with two other well-established content showcases – the Cannes-based MIPCOM and Tokyo's TIFFCOM.

According to its organisers, this year the Asian Film Market attracted 1,583 participants and 658 companies from 45 different countries. While several distributors from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and several other parts of Southeast Asia attended, mainland buyers were said to be few and far between, a consequence of China's ban on any screenings of Korean content.

Many of the European sales companies, attending the event courtesy of support from the European Film Promotion (EFP), an EU-backed cultural initiative, were hugely upbeat about this year's market. Acknowledging its growing importance, Derek Lui, President of Sales for Level K, a Danish sales and distribution agency, said: "At the major markets, such as Cannes and the American Film Market, buyers tend to focus on the bigger titles, those that they have to bid on. At the BIFF, though, they have more time to learn about projects and gain a greater understanding, which is especially useful in the case of European films."

Photo: Along With the Gods: Web comic turned sci-fi drama.
Along With the Gods: Web comic turned sci-fi drama.
Photo: Along With the Gods: Web comic turned sci-fi drama.
Along With the Gods: Web comic turned sci-fi drama.
Photo: Somewhere Beyond the Mist: A Hong Kong triumph.
Somewhere Beyond the Mist: A Hong Kong triumph.
Photo: Somewhere Beyond the Mist: A Hong Kong triumph.
Somewhere Beyond the Mist: A Hong Kong triumph.

Similarly impressed was Anil Ravdjee, an International Sales Executive with Westend Films, a London-based specialist in sales and film financing. Outlining his impression as a debutant at the event, he said: "Although this is my first visit to the Asian Film Market, I have been in back-to-back meetings the whole time.

"For me, it's been a great opportunity to not only meet Asian distributors, but also to get to know those buyers who don't usually attend the bigger markets. So far, I have primarily met Korean buyers, but I have also spent time with distributors from Taiwan, [mainland] China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Hong Kong."

While only a handful of Hong Kong sales companies chose to take stands at the Asian Film Market, it remains the key event for local sellers, with many buyers attending in order to identify the next hot Korean film property. In line with this, most of the major Korean studios had a substantial presence in the market, although their participation in the festival proper was a little muted.

Noticeably, the big parties traditionally held to publicise upcoming film slates were entirely missing this year. In part, this was because many Korean film-industry organisations are still boycotting the BIFF and calling for Lee Yong-kwan to be reinstated. It was also partly because of the current state of the local film industry.

It is widely acknowledged that 2017 has not seen Korean cinema reach the heights it did last year, a 12-month period that produced several global hits, including Train To Busan, The Handmaiden and The Wailing. That is not to say that the past year has not had its own successes, with The Battleship Island and A Taxi Driver both performing well at the box office.

With buyers clearly hopeful that 2018 will see a return to form, a number of upcoming Korean titles were much in demand during the course of the Asian Film Market. Among the prizes to be had was Outlaws, a crime thriller from M-Line Distribution, which was ultimately acquired by Hong Kong's Edko Films, as well as by several other companies across a range of territories.

Edko also secured the rights to Lotte Entertainment's fantasy drama Along With The Gods, with Well Go USA picking up the North American rights. Showbox Mediaplex, one of Korea's largest distribution companies, also had a good show, with rights to two of its properties – The Swindlers, a crime drama, and RV: Resurrected Victims, a foray into horror territory – being shared by Well Go USA and UK-based JBG Pictures.

Global Expansion

As was widely predicted, Chinese distributors bought very few Korean films. The ban on Korean movies, TV dramas and K-pop across the mainland stems from a year-old dispute between Seoul and Beijing over defence issues, but there are now signs that relations are thawing. Although this came too late to impact on BIFF 2017, it is possible that next year could see normal service being resumed, although many expect mainland buyers to remain cautious for some time to come.

While the return of Chinese patronage would clearly be welcomed, Korea's major studios don't seem to be relying on that particular tap being turned back on any time soon. Instead, they have been expanding into other parts of Asia, Europe and North America, with one leading Korean studio – CJ Entertainment – recently announcing plans to produce 20 films in 10 local languages, including Thai, Spanish and Turkish. Its expansive policy comes on the back of several extremely successful adaptations of one of its properties – Miss Granny, a 2014 comedy – which went on to be remade in several languages, including Thai, Japanese, Indonesian and Chinese.

Speaking before this year's BIFF, Jeong Tae-sung, the Chief Executive of CJ Entertainment, was candid about the challenges facing the local film industry, saying: "The Korean movie market has reached saturation point. By comparison, Hollywood has a global distribution system and its films don't have to contend with cultural barriers in any part of the world. With Korean films, however, overseas audiences often struggle to come to terms with a range of linguistic and cultural issues."

Photo: The Busan International Film Festival: Hoping to roll out the red carpet for returning Chinese buyers in 2018.
The Busan International Film Festival: Hoping to roll out the red carpet for returning Chinese buyers in 2018.
Photo: The Busan International Film Festival: Hoping to roll out the red carpet for returning Chinese buyers in 2018.
The Busan International Film Festival: Hoping to roll out the red carpet for returning Chinese buyers in 2018.

The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) 2017 took place at the Busan Cinema Center from 12-21 October.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Busan

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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