Busan: Why the 2013 Fest Snubbed Hollywood

Pawo Choyning Dorj/Courtesy of Moving Temple Films
"Vara: A Blessing," with Shahana Goswami, is the first film from Bhutan to open a major film fest.

Asia's biggest film event makes a statement of independence with a lineup conspicuously lacking Western star power.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

When the organizers of this year's Busan International Film Festival announced that Asia's biggest film event would open with an obscure drama from the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, insiders were quick to grasp the underlying message.

The film, Vara: A Blessing, directed by a Buddhist monk, Khyentse Norbu, not only demonstrates Busan's role as a showcase for Asian cinema, it also underscores the growing importance of Asian cinema on the global film scene. Indeed, while most international festivals bend over backward to open with a splashy Hollywood tentpole, Busan's decision to open with Vara underscores the new normal in global cinema: Asia doesn't need Hollywood as much as it used to.

"We've made it a policy to choose Asian films as the opener and closer," says festival director Lee Yong-kwan. "In the past, we chose mainstream works, but we felt it was more important to showcase the diversity of Asian cinema this year."

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It's been a regular complaint among filmmakers in the region over the years that their domestic industries are at risk of being overrun by Hollywood movies, but the reality is that in many parts of Asia, local releases are doing very well, thank you. Korean movies have performed especially well against the Hollywood juggernaut. So far this year, Korean releases have dominated the local box office at a 58.9 percent clip, while U.S. films account for 36.8 percent.

In one weekend in late September, Korean films accounted for more than 70 percent of the take, and eight out of the top 10 highest-grossing films this year are Korean -- with all eight of them bringing in more than 5.5 million admissions. The domestic drama Miracle in Cell No. 7 -- which screened in 2012 in Busan -- became one of the highest-grossing local releases of all time with 12.8 million admissions. The only two Hollywood films on the list are Iron Man 3 (third place with 9 million admissions) and World War Z (10th with 5.2 million admissions).

Similar things are happening in other markets in the region. Suh Young-joo, CEO of influential Korean sales banner Finecut, tells THR that she has heard of some buyers checking out Busan ahead of other, far more established industry events like MIPCOM in Cannes.

"That seems to speak for Busan's growing influence in Asia," says Suh. "We are showcasing eight films at the Busan market this year, and all of them are making their market debuts. The Busan International Film Festival is important because it's a chance for us to introduce new works and to provide a preview for buyers."

Busan executive programmer Kim Ji-Seok is proud of the event's focus on emerging filmmakers, pointing to the effort it took to program 94 films in the lineup that are debut or follow-up features.

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"There is also a strong representation of Central Asian cinema," says Kim. "We held a showcase on New Central Asian cinema 12 years ago, and this year there will be works by a lot of lesser-known directors. For some of the obscure works, it was difficult to get a hold of prints and screening rights."

Busan's refusal to cater to Hollywood also can be seen in the talent on hand this year. Aside from Irish director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) and Japanese actor Ken Watanabe (Inception), few VIP guests are likely to be recognizable to Western audiences. Fest director Lee believes that Asia's growing importance to the global film sector is real and sees Busan playing a key role in providing a platform for local talent. But will Hollywood notice? Lee is diplomatic, but he clearly is not going to hold his breath.

Notes Lee: "BIFF has always had a strong exchange with the U.S. indie film industry, but there is also growing interest from Hollywood. As a major Asian film festival, we feel it is our responsibility to represent and introduce the diversity and potential of Asian cinema, how Asian filmmakers are creating new markets."

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Bong Joon-ho's sci-fi thriller should appeal to Busan festival crowds thanks to an international cast that includes Tilda Swinton and Song Kang-ho.

Lee Hyo-won in Seoul contributed to this report.