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November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 26, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 47

A Movie Magnet
If you're in the Asian film industry, Pusan is the place to be

A scene from Hong Kong's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'
Asiaweek Pictures

Once a year the newspapers in Pusan cut back on their gray columns of shipping information to make room for celebrity gossip. The port city's narrow streets bustle with artsy-looking foreigners, and schoolkids briefly push aside their mountains of homework. The reason? The Pusan International Film Festival - one of the world's youngest movie gatherings, but, increasingly, one of its most dynamic. The Pusan festival began life as a pin-prick in the movie firmament, but is now a have-to-be-there event for some of the world's leading production houses, and for many up-and-coming directors. "This festival is the most important in Asia right now," says Renate Rose, who visits Pusan from Germany to promote European films. One of the secrets of Pusan's success lies in the way it has cleverly carved a niche for itself as a launch pad for independent Asian filmmakers. "Our prime focus is on Asian films and Asian directors, and it will remain that way," says festival director Kim Dong Ho.

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Asian movies dominated four of the six categories in last month's fourth holding of the festival, with one section reserved for American and European productions. Often the emphasis was on shock-therapy, intelligently delivered for the most part. "The programmers really have their fingers on the pulse," says Mark Atkin, in from Australia to buy films for a national television network. "They obviously go for the edgier stuff."

At the heart of the festival's soaring popularity is the Pusan Promotion Plan (PPP), a bureaucratic title for a feature that can be of pivotal importance to the careers of young directors. This year, 17 filmmakers presented their new projects to visiting production and distribution companies, such as France's Studio Canal+. Pusan is only the second festival in the world, after Rotterdam, to promote the finance side of things alongside movie screenings. Indian director Murali Nair, whose 'Throne of Death' had its Asian premiere at Pusan, says he spent more time in meetings with money-men than watching movies. "This is the best window to the world for Asian filmmakers like me," he says. "It allows me to promote my new project and see if it's possible to sell it."

But movies will always be the main event, and the driving force behind Pusan's unique style. Once again, this truly buttoned-down country produced a festival that celebrated in-your-face cinema. Though homage was paid to venerable directors such as Korea's Yu Hyun Mok and China's Zhang Yimou, young filmmakers took pride of place.

Several new Asian films had their premieres, most of them notable for their zeal in confronting subjects considered no-go areas in mainstream Asia. 'Men and Women' by Chinese director Liu Bingjian tackles the difficulties of being homosexual in China, and stars a leading Beijing gay-rights activist. 'Timeless Melody', an understated masterpiece by Japan's Okuhara Hiroshi, addresses a disenchanted younger generation that feels abandoned and betrayed by its elders. It won the festival's grand prize, the New Currents Award.

'Love Will Tear Us Apart' by Hong Kong's Yu Lik-wai is a study in urban ennui, depicting the relationship between three mainlanders - a courageous prostitute, an unprincipled blue-movie dealer and his sympathy-craving, amputee girlfriend - as they attempt to scratch out a living in Hong Kong. "Young Asian directors are trying to break with the past," says Yu. "Older directors focus on historical subjects, but we prefer urban settings."

'Peppermint Candy', by Korean director Lee Chang Dong, is similarly radical. It peels away the pieties of Korean society to expose some brutal truths about the cruelty beneath. "Many of the films here are about people, particularly young people, adrift on their own," says Aruna Vasudev, editor-in-chief of the New Delhi-based Cinemaya magazine. "As Asia gets more prosperous, it becomes fragmented due to urbanization. Each country makes films corresponding to its own situation."

Not all the films at Pusan were soaked in angst. 'Nang Nak', which has broken box-office records back home in Thailand, is an incandescent rendering of a Thai legend about a loving wife who stays with her husband even in death. 'Not One Less', from China's Zhang Yimou, leaves audiences in awe at the performances of the pre-teen villagers he hired as first-time actors. 'Gemini', from Japan, is a stylish, pulsating drama, while the Bhutanese film 'The Cup' depicts Tibetan monks smitten with a passion for World Cup football.

But, as at most film festivals, it was the naughtiest who got the most attention. Jang Sun Woo's 'Lies' created a sensation when screened late in the proceedings. This sado-masochistic epic is banned from general release in Korea but was not subject to censorship at the festival, where it played to a full house. Here is a movie designed to shock. The two main characters - a sculptor in his late 30s and his teenage lover - spend most of their time having energetic sex and the rest of it pummeling each other with a variety of objects, including sticks, strips of metal, a rubber hose and lengths of wood. Jang is unfazed by the outrage his film has caused. He says: "I wanted people to think about the nature of truth and dishonesty between people who are intimate with each other."

He says he now wants to turn to lighter stuff - such as a movie for kids. Is he joking? We'll maybe have to wait for next year's Pusan festival to find out.

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