Busan: Jury Head Mike Figgis Talks Korean Cinema Past and Present, Demands of the Role

Mike Figgis - Getty - H 2019
John Phillips/Getty Images for The Moet British Independent Film Awards

On his first visit to the South Korean festival, the Oscar-nominated director will preside over the New Currents section jury.

There’s a distinct focus on the future at the 24th edition of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), even in a year in which the Korean cinema industry has been celebrating its past.

In total this year, BIFF is presenting the current work of 13 directors who have previously been in the running for the festival’s main New Currents award, including its 2015 winner Yerlan Nurmukhambetov (Walnut Tree), whose latest production The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time, co-directed by Japan’s Lisa Takeba, opened this 24th edition of the festival Thursday.

Much is being made of the influence the festival has had in unearthing new talent from the region – China’s Venice Golden Lion winner Jia Zhangke (Still Life) was another filmmaker found early on by BIFF. And much is expected from this year’s New Currents field, which features 14 films from 11 countries.

There are plenty of other attractions across a program that boasts 299 films from 85 countries over its 10-day run. There are retrospectives, and seminars, to mark Korean cinema’s 100th anniversary, and screenings of some of the films that have wowed elsewhere this year, such as Ladj Ly’s French Oscar hope Les Misérables and Gloria Mundi, a winner in Venice for its star Ariane Ascaride.

There is also, of course, all the latest from local filmmakers, including 20 world premieres in the Korean Cinema Today section alone.

Mike Figgis, the Oscar-nominated British director of Leaving Las Vegas, will head up the jury of the New Currents section and is among those in town, looking forward to diving headlong into the program at large. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Figgis, who has come to Busan, as he says “like a blank canvas.” He talked about his expectations, teaching film in Busan and how he approaches the role of jury head. 

It’s your first visit to BIFF, but how much do you already know about the festival?

Well, I have heard a lot about it. I was here recently teaching at the Busan Asian Film School producing courses for two weeks and focusing on script, structure, pitching and presentation. Basically how to sell it. I was tough because you either learn or you fail.

What’s your previous history with South Korea and Korean cinema?

I came for the first time on a whim about 14 months ago. I just bought a plane ticket. I had a contact through a past student, with Darcy [Paquet, professor at the Busan Asian Film School]. He kindly agreed to meet me, and he is like the king connector. I just jumped in. This is my fifth visit now in 14 months. I am trying to get a few things started, and we’ll be having an announcement about that here on Saturday.

Why Korea?

Actually it came through Netflix. I started watching K-dramas and thought they were pretty good. Interestingly feminine but a completely different expression from, say, Korean mainstream cinema, which I also like, obviously. Then I became fascinated by the culture. I swotted up on post-war Korean history and that very dark background.

Had you watched a lot of Korean cinema before?

I’m not a cinephile like a Tarantino. I love making films, and I also love making music. But I don’t go to video stores and all that. So I had to do a lot of catch-up and watched as much as I could.

And now you’re here and head of the New Currents jury.

Yes, I have been on juries before and had sworn never to do it again. But this is very special. I had been in Busan and saw what the festival does. One of the reasons I decided not to do jury work again was because I found myself in very political situations where there was too much pressure to award a certain film. So we’ll see.

Have you researched what you are about to see and who has made these films?

I love the blank. The blank canvass. I hope to knocked off my feet. I like to go and see a movie and know absolutely nothing about it. Don’t know what the plot is. Don’t know the actors. Then you engage really hard over the first 15 minutes on that basis. Then you dig into whether there is a style, a consistency and you take it from there. It’s good for me here because if it were Europe or America I would likely know the people involved or know of them. Here I have no preconceptions.

Let’s get back to Netflix and the rise of OTTs. How are you seeing the changes the film industry is undergoing globally?

The volatility we are seeing now means who knows where we are going. What we are seeing is how a technology-led revolution will or is forcing genre change. You can’t just slice up the old cake any more, you have to make new cakes. Friends of mine in America said recently they can’t remember the last time they went to the cinema. That’s happening everywhere. So things are changing. Constantly.