PiFan Fest: 25-Year-Old Film Resonates Amid Current Anti-China Protests

Godzilla has featured heavily at PiFan 2014

At the South Korean genre film festival, "Godzilla" from 1954 also strikes a chord with audiences concerned about nuclear disasters.

BUCHEON, South Korea — Decades after their release, a Hong Kong gangster film from the 1980s and a Japanese monster film from the 1950s are resonating with contemporary moviegoers at the 18th Puchon (Bucheon) International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan).

Hong Kong-born American director Wayne Wang said he was surprised that the PiFan festival organizers chose to screen his experimental film Life Is Cheap… But Toilet Paper Is Expensive. Released in 1989, Wang's film follows a young man's surreal journey through Hong Kong's underworld. Despite winning at the 1990 Rotterdam International Film Festival, however, it was one of the first films to receive an NC-17 rating in the U.S. and was rarely shown to the public including in Asia.

Life is Cheap... struck a chord with the sold-out audience at Sunday's screening with many viewers seeing important parallels with Hong Kong's relationship with the Chinese government as well as making sense of the recent protests in the city against mainland China. 

"The movie was made in 1987 and released in 1989. Hong Kong had just signed the agreement to return to China, and I thought that would be the end of Hong Kong. When 1997 came, though, nothing happened, and people thought it was a smooth transition. But now the effects are showing," said Wang.

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"Confucianism, which is familiar to Korea as well, is all about respecting elders and giving them face. When I was in Hong Kong, the Tiananmen Square thing was happening in China. And for the first time, youths were not giving face to elders, which angered the elders but it also created a new China," Wang added, about the 1989 student-led, pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen.

"Hong Kong right now is going through the same thing. The government of China is trying to control Hong Kong, saying 'you have to honor me and give me face.' There was a big demonstration against the Hong Kong government and against China, and this is still going on," Wang said referring to the reported 800,000 Hong Kong people who took to the streets in pro-democracy protests recently.

Meanwhile, Korean festival-goers were also able to catch a rare screening of Ishiro Honda's Godzilla from 1954. Godzilla remains largely unfamiliar in Korea due to a long ban on imports of Japanese cultural products, a result of Japan's colonization of Korea (1910-1945) that is still largely a sensitive and controversial topic for Koreans.

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The cultural ban on Japan was lifted in the mid-1990s, and a dubbed version of the 1999 Godzilla 2000: Millennium finally opened in Korean theaters. "It was a complete flop, however, and a lot of Koreans thought it was [the Korean monster character] Yonggari," said Kim Taek Gyu, a local film producer and longtime fan of the Godzilla franchise, in a forum following the screening of the first Godzilla film on Saturday.

Tickets for Honda's 1954 Godzilla film at PiFan, were sold out days in advance with local monster movie fans keen to discuss the film's relevance today.

"In 1954, U.S. H-bombs were tested in Japan, and it affected the local fishery business and people died from radiation. Sixty years down the road we have the same [radiation] concerns...in this post-Fukushima age," said Kim Sung Ho, chief editor of Cinefringe, referring to Japan's 2011 nuclear disaster.

"The incident influences not only that immediate region but the rest of the world, and Godzilla reflects the social concerns of the times that we can connect to even today. It's also notable how there was high regard for safe evacuations, which Koreans can consider after [the tragic sinking of the Sewol Ferry]," added Kim Sung Ho.

PiFan runs through July 27, showing 210 films from 47 countries.

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