Busan Festival: Regional Stars Come Out for Opening Gala

Ken Watanabe Inception Premiere - P 2013
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Ken Watanabe Inception Premiere - P 2013

The 21st edition of Asia's largest film event put the spotlight on local talent, including South Korean director Kim Ki-duk, Singaporean helmer Eric Khoo and Japanese actor Ken Watanabe.

Big names from the Asian film industry gathered in South Korea on Thursday as the 2016 Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) kicked off with a screening of Korean drama A Quiet Dream.

Taking place in the aftermath of a typhoon, the opening gala was marked by rather subdued glitz. Strong rainstorms on Wednesday had wrecked outdoor facilities on the Haeundae beachfront, muddling an evening ceremony, while a stormy conflict over the 21-year-old fest's artistic freedom had dragged the event through two grueling years marked by boycotts and power struggles.

"Tonight's opening ceremony is all the more meaningful, because it succeeds a long battle for the festival's freedom and autonomy," said BIFF chairman Kim Dong-ho. "We hope to put the past troubles behind us and make a leap forward and begin anew."

In 2014, conflicts arose between BIFF and the Busan metropolitan government when the festival premiered a controversial documentary against the wishes of Busan mayor and then-BIFF chairman Suh Byung-soo. The city of Busan funds about half of the fest's annual budget, and event organizers have claimed that the unprecedented audit reviews and drastically cut state funding that followed were a result of "political retaliation."

Nine film associations spanning directors, producers and critics had declared a ban on the festival in a gesture to defend its artistic freedom. Last month, four film groups decided to end the boycott, while four decided to continue the ban and the one remaining coalition chose not to take part in the vote.

Given that, the opening night's VIP guest list of about 200 was slightly shorter than usual and compared to about 250 last year. But nevertheless, a crowd of some 5,000 gathered at the Busan Cinema Center to see their favorite stars.

Korean actors Seol Kyoung-ku and Han Hyo-joo (co-stars of 2013 box-office hit Cold Eyes) hosted the ceremony, which was attended by other local A-listers, including Pieta's leading lady Cho Min-su and K-pop star-actor Choi Min-ho. Stars from other parts of Asia included Oscar-nominated actor Ken Watanabe, who co-hosted Busan's 2014 opening-night gala and is taking part this year for the gala presentation of Rage; Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo, whose much buzzed-about Art Through Our Eyes is making its world premiere; and Hong Kong International Film Festival head Roger Garcia.

Busan chose a Korean film for the first time in five years to open the event, a choice that reflects the fest's efforts to bring about the solidarity of the local film industry. Directed by Korean-Chinese filmmaker Zhang Lu, A Quiet Dream pays homage to iconic films in Korean indie cinema.

"I'm here today as an actor [rather than director] and hope the festival can provide an opportunity for everyone to reflect about the importance of artistic freedom," said Yang Ik-june, the actor-director of Breathless who plays his iconic character alongside Park Jung-bum (The Journals of Musan) and Yoon Jong-bin (The Unforgiven) in the opening film.

The 21st BIFF will show 301 films from 69 countries and runs through Oct. 15.