Pusan Int'l Film Festival


SEOUL -- "Way to go Korean Films!" ... While this year's official festival slogan has an endearingly upbeat charm, behind the hoopla surrounding the 13th Pusan International Film Festival, all is not well.

When the festival commences Oct. 2 and visitors flock to this cozy resort town on the country's southeastern coast, their merriment will contrast with growing anxieties about the future of Korea's once-thriving film sector.

The festival is expected to help dampen those anxieties -- not least within the government, which provides PIFF with 53% of its funding, or 8.9 billion won (about $7.9 million). Indeed, when the festival's veteran director, Kim Dong-ho, held a press conference in downtown Seoul earlier this month to announce the program, the fest's mission to revitalize the industry was the first order of business.

"Korean film is facing a critical stage at a moment when exports have gone down and investment moves are increasingly careful," said Kim, with palpable urgency.

There much cause for concern. A report by the Korean Film Council earlier this month, based on boxoffice results from January to August in the Seoul area, reveals that market share of Korean films has plummeted from 58.1% in 2006 to 36.4%. A previous survey by the council revealed that only 13 out of the 112 Korean releases last year broke even.

The number of theatrical films produced in Korea has also shrunk, down to 30 this year from over 100 in 2006, according to the council. Among industry insiders, ominous rumors are circulating about local film developers going broke, and talented technicians are leaving the film industry altogether for the more lucrative and secure worlds of TV and IT.

"In 2005, during the hype of Korean cinema, aspiring directors here joked that you're hopeless if you can't make a debut film," says

Lee Sang-yong, a movie critic and Pusan's programmer of Korean films. "Finding investors was that easy at the time. (However), most of them have lost money."

Now, observers and festival organizers alike agree that it's time for the PIFF to do whatever it can to revitalize an industry in crisis.

To that end, along with market showcases, a financing forum and the Asian Cinema Fund -- a special funding program to help incubate independent features by Asian filmmakers -- Pusan has added another program designed to assist emerging Korean producers. Officially called Korean Producers in Focus (KPIF), the program is an open call for young producers to pitch original scripts, with five winners from the program then allowed private meetings with investors during the festival period. The goal is to attract and discover fresh talent and bring renewed energy to a local film industry that many say suffers from a critical lack of quality scripts. So far, 45 people have signed up.

"We're looking at this program with a long-term goal," says producer Jeon Jae-young, who will lead KPIF with a jury made up of other veteran producers. "The corporate custom is not going to change overnight in the Korean film industry. But right now, most investors determine their deals by the cast and the names of directors. This has got to change."

In addition to financial support, three Korean films were added to this year's New Currents section, buoying the 20 Korean features in the Korea Cinema Today program.

Overall, producers and sales agents are optimistic about their films' commercial prospects, especially since PIFF provides a crucial link to overseas distributors, as well as programmers of Asian films from the world's major festivals, including Cannes and Venice.

"It'll certainly help the film's publicity," observes Lee Gyeong-jin, a sales agent at Dorothy Film, a local marketing agency that will be pushing the Panorama entry "Heartbreak Library."

Lee hopes the film's PIFF screening will generate strong buzz given the fact that the film opens in theaters shortly after the festival's closing Oct. 10. "The main cast will be invited to the opening, and that alone could make overseas sales easier."

A sales spokesman at CJ Entertainment, the country's largest distributor, points out that the festival has had a particularly strong impact on the company's independent films, because their tight budgets have a direct effect on publicity and screening opportunities.

But no matter what PIFF's efforts, a number of practical, industry-wide issues still need to be resolved, which is where an organization like the Korea Film Commission can play a central role.

"The commission could help by developing broad investment channels," says Kang Han-seop, chairman of the Korean Film Commission. "Local producers and theater owners could find a practical distribution line. But the real question is the audience's taste. The same crowd who travel all the way to Pusan to watch art films will not go to a theater in Seoul to see the same film. Maybe the younger Korean audiences are looking for 'star directors,' (since) there was once a cultural boom of Andrei Tarkovsky and Wong Kar Wai here."

On the plus side, this year Pusan's market is fielding a notably higher number of co-productions, including director Lee Chang-dong's "A Brand New Life," a French co-production he co-wrote and produced, with directing duties going to emerging French helmer Ounie Lecomte; "Arrested Memories," from Japanese helmer Sabu, who teamed up with the Korean production outfit Finecut; and "Forget-Me-Not," the sixth feature from Malaysia's Yasmin Ahmad, produced in partnership with the Japanese company WA Entertainment.

On the programming front, this year's event will feature 315 films from 60 nations, including 85 world premiers. Festival organizers have once again turned their attention to films from marginalized areas, including the first screening of a Kazakhstani film -- Rustem Abdrashev's historical epic "The Gift to Stalin" -- as the opening night gala.

It's a bold choice for a festival thrust into the role of cheerleading for local cinema.

"Abdrashev's film had caused some burden as an opening piece at first because it had no popular appeal whatsoever in terms of the cast, the director or the country itself," says Kim Ji-seok, the festival's chief programmer. "But we went ahead because it was a strong candidate, written by a top Russian screenwriter, Pavel Finn; and we felt it was part of Pusan's duty to (screen) more Asian films from lesser-known areas."

Ultimately, as Korean cinema programmer Lee concedes, the PIFF's success or failure in boosting the local film sector will take a back seat to the films themselves, once the festival gets under way.

"In the end people come to Pusan to celebrate," he says. "The festive element definitely plays (well) in Pusan."