An outpouring of pride brings Pusan prestige


BUSAN, South Korea -- Film may aspire to be an international language, but every country speaks its own dialect. And film festivals, even when they carry the word "international" as part of their monikers, only serve to highlight those cultural differences.

The Pusan International Film Festival, whose 12th edition kicked off here Thursday, may be a teenager among world-class fests. But, founded to shine a spotlight on Asian cinema, it's already begun to find its identity.

On the one hand, like the Toronto International Film Festival, it reaches out to local film fans. The bulk of the screenings, with tickets available to the public, take place in the seaside town's megaplexes -- like the Megabox, as bright and shiny as a neon-lit arcade, that's housed in a multistory shopping complex that houses everything from Dunkin' Donuts to Calvin Klein. PIFF doesn't regard itself as a temple to high art, a la the New York Film Festival, but instead invites as many as can fit into its tent.

On the other hand, it also sees itself as an activist, not just curating films but promoting their production. Since 1998, the Pusan Promotion Plan has sought to serve as a matchmaker between directors and production and financing partners. And now Pusan is starting to flex its muscle as a sales bazaar, with the second annual Asian Film Market set to open its doors to buyers and sellers from around the world midway through this fest.

The fact that PIFF is developing growing clout is clearly a matter of local pride, plenty of which was on display at the PIFF curtain-raiser, the world premiere of "Assembly," Chinese director Feng Xiaogang's epic tale of war and remembrance.

As the evening got under way, looming clouds rolled in over the bay so that the horizon line became a blur of sea and sky. By the time the crowd, celebrities and onlookers began converging on the Yachting Center, where a massive outdoor theater awaited, a gentle mist falling. A half-hour into the arrivals, it had become a steady downpour.

But the audience, making do with plastic "pocket coats" and scattered umbrellas, weren't about to surrender to the elements.

The evening had all the excitement of the Academy Awards, coupled with the pomp of Cannes' celebrated red carpet. As the soaked stars arrived and posed for photos, their images were displayed on huge video screens. The folks in the bleacher seats went wild -- even if, to the uninitiated American, most of the celebrities went unrecognized, save for the occasional face like that of "Lost's" Daniel Dae Kim, a native of Busan who was coming home to help launch the Asia Pacific Actors Network, organized to advance the Asian film industry.

As festival chairman Hur Nam-sik said in his introductory remarks, Asian films "are building their identity as new windows on the world."

As if in acknowledgment of the role that film has played in boosting South Korea's own profile, the three leading candidates in the nation's presidential election all made appearances. Unlike the U.S. -- where President Bush knocked "Hollywood values" this week -- the growing film industry here is seen not as a convenient whipping boy but as a source of national accomplishment.

For example, to create "Assembly's" explosively realistic war scenes, the equal of those in "Saving Private Ryan," Feng called upon a cadre of Korean film craftsmen in special effects, special make-up, art direction and sound. And so the film is being hailed as a ground-breaking meeting of talents from China and Korea.

It is "a monumental film for co-production among Asian nations," PIFF director Kim Dong-ho said as he introduced it. And even the heavens seemed to agree, because suddenly the rain stopped, and the show went on.