Pusan a sophomore curse, blessing

Directors feel the pressure after early success

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BUSAN, South Korea -- Korean films featured in this year’s Pusan festival have some peculiar things in common, such as making reference to particular locations through their titles or the film’s settings, such as “Paju,” “Haeundae” and “Tokyo Taxi.”

Many Korean directors who found early success at the festival are now returning with second features. Through them, one can predict the trends of Korean cinema in the next few years, or so the programmers of Pusan thought in organizing “#2,” an open discussion of six emerging Korean directors at the festival’s beachfront Saturday -- Park Chan-ok, Lee Seong-han, Lee Hae-joon, Lee Song Hee-il, Kim Dong-won and Kim Tae-shik.

For each one, doubt and anxiety about the uncertain conditions of filmmaking in Korea at the moment seem to have overpowered their enthusiasm.

“It became more complicated the second time because the pressure has gotten too big that I couldn’t just shoot a film because I think it’s all fun and it’ll work,” said Lee Hae-joon who directed “Castaway on the Moon,” about a man stranded on an island within Seoul.
Lee’s debut feature “Like a Virgin” (2006) was a comedy about a chubby schoolboy who wants to save money to get a sex-change operation. The film widely attracted critical reviews, but failed at the local boxoffice.

“The fact that I didn’t succeed as a commercial director put lot of burden on my attitude for my second film,” he said. “I had to come to terms with the fact that my interest doesn’t always match the audience's.”

The rough transition seems painfully inevitable for those who have witnessed the Korean film industry suffer in the past few years.

“You have to understand that many of these directors shot their first film when Korean cinema was enjoying the peak of a brisk market,” said Lee Sang-yong, Pusan’s programmer of Korean films. “It’s natural that they feel pressured. The investment condition has changed completely, and it’s so common for Korean directors to disappear after their first film.”

Others have gone the other way from commercial filmmaking.

Kim Dong-won began his film career as a writer for Bong Joon-ho’s twisted comedy “Barking Dogs Never Bite” (2000) and made his commercial debut through another comedy, “Bet on My Disco." For his latest feature he turned to a smaller-budget film “Drifting Away,” which portrays the life of Korean theater actors on and off the stage.

Director Lee Seong-han, whose debut feature “Spare” was shown at Pusan two years ago, set up his own production company for his latest feature “Wish,” a coming-of-age story about a local schoolboy.

“I developed a stronger mechanism for self-censorship,” Lee said, of producing his own film. “I cut out more ambitious scenes, and boldly highlighted parts that I wanted to stress.”

For Park Chan-ok, helmer for “Jealousy is My Middle Name” (2002), her second feature was the first in seven years. Her previous film was known for raw depictions of a Korean society, giving her the nickname “the female Hong Sang-soo.” (Park was an assistant for Hong in “Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors.”)

Park’s realist style is still visible in her second feature, especially in disclosing the hypocrisy of Korean liberal intellectuals, as evident in the male lead of “Paju,” who is a student activist from college but cheats on his wife. The film is a subtle romance between him and his dead wife’s sister.

Others make a curious transition from their first to second. Lee Song Hee-il of “No Regret,” a gay romance, shot a poignant short earlier this year -- part of an episode for an omnibus film “Show Me the Money” shown as the opening of Jeonju International Film Festival.

His episode is a horrifying psychological drama of a wife on the verge of nervous breakdown after learning that her husband lost money on stocks, and that he might kill her to collect insurance money. His latest feature, “Break Away,” delves into the lives of young soldiers trying to escape the military.

Others have stayed on a more predictable track. Kim Tae-shik in “Tokyo Taxi” continues to explore the notion of urban space from his debut feature “Driving with My Wife’s Lover” (2006), also a film about a man who discovers that his wife is cheating on him with a taxi driver.

For all six, their second features are fragile experiences of growing up as a Korean director and adjusting their expectations.

“I feel like a little child who doesn’t want to learn what it’s like to be outside of the house,” said Lee Song of “Break Away.” “Already, I feel like I was drowned and crashed. People always encourage you after you shoot your first film, because they know you’re still a child. But they don’t treat you the same the second time, and I have a feeling that they’ll be tougher on me for my third film.”