Busan 2012: Best of the Fest

The Gardener Film Still - H 2012

The 17th edition of the film festival makes room for both the enlightening and the entertaining.

As the 17th edition of BIFF comes to a close, a handful of entries from around the globe managed to stand out amid the 300-plus films at the fest this year.

The festival started strong, if not Korean, with the Opening presentation, Cold War (Hong Kong), a slick procedural that doubles as a subversive exercise in unorthodoxy. The cops-n-robbers actioner was a polished slice of the kind of cinema Hong Kong has traditionally excelled at, and directors Longman Leung and Sunny Luk would appear to have bright futures.

Moving into BIFF’s signature programs — the competitive New Currents and A Window on Asian Cinema — freshman and sophomore filmmakers took center stage with varying degrees of success. Bahman Ghobadi's sister Nahid's 111 Girls (Iraq), KimSung-hyun’s Your Time Is Up (South Korea) and Ian LorenosBreakaway (Philippines) floated to the top of the pack.

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Ghobadi’s oddly comical but deadly serious testament to the difficulties Kurdistan faces in its near future is a stark but beautiful debut, as is Kim’s screamingly bleak first feature, an outstanding KAFA production about desperation. And Lorenos’ emotional, harrowing child trafficking drama is a prime example of theme and narrative trumping budget, with a moving father-son dynamic anchoring the entire film.

The more widely accessible sections that pivot on broad entertainment, chiefly the festival’s Gala Presentation and Open Cinema, housed a wealth of films that fulfilled the festival’s mandate of bridging the three-way gap between art, entertainment and global cinema. Moshen Makhmalbaf’s documentary The Gardener (Iran) is an exemplar of cinema as great unifier. The film by Iranian filmmaker Makhmalbaf — shot in Israel — is as radical and courageous a statement on the impact of religion on our world as is likely to be seen for the rest of the year as well as an enlightening introduction to the Baha’i faith.

At the other end of the spectrum are the genre entries Doctor from Kim Sung-hong, Choi Dong-hoon’s The Thieves (both South Korea) and Ruroini Kenshin by Otomo Keishi (Japan). The ultra-violent, if creative, plastic surgery horror-thriller, the frothy, glamorous pan-Asian heist caper and the lushly shot adaptation of Watsuki Nobuhiro’s paean to pacifism, respectively, stand out as BIFF’s strongest candidates for success beyond the festival, with good reason: each has the kind of high production values and popular appeal that also ensure crucial public support for BIFF.

Perhaps the most novel entry this year was the Special Presentation of aspirational North Korean circus comedy-drama Comrade Kim Goes Flying by the triumvirate of Kim Gwang Hun, Brit Nicholas Bonner and Belgian Anja Daelemans. Whimsical, tinged with a rare level of progressiveness and quite simply teeming with socio-political curiosities, Comrade Kim is one of the those films that needs to be seen to be believed. Though it lacks the technical sophistication of neighboring South Korea’s independent films, it’s a far cry from what most viewers likely expect and is a compelling reason to set ideology aside for a telling glimpse into an enigmatic culture.

A satirical, contemporary portrait of Bangladesh that highlights an aspect of Bengali life other than its crushing poverty rounded out this year’s BIFF. The Closing presentation, Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s Television (Bangladesh), was an engaging and optimistic tale of a village elder rigidly resistant to change who experiences something of an epiphany when his Hajj goes off track, and struck the perfect final note of 2012.