Seoul's Chungmuro fest begins on high note

Officials address the city's role in Korean film industry

SEOUL -- The third edition of the Chungmuro International Film Festival got under way Monday in the South Korean capital with a mix of caution and newfound determination.

As a mark of respect to the country's recently deceased former president and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Kim Dae-jung, the festival abandoned its red carpet ceremony and most local celebrities stayed away.

Although the glitz was toned down, Seoul's largest cultural center, the Sejong Hall, was nevertheless packed with officials, dignitaries and a warm-spirited public for the opening ceremony. "Let there be light," said Jeong Dong-il chairman of Chungmuro's organizing committee and head of the Jung district.

In a thinly disguised message to the Pusan and Jeonju festivals, which have traditionally been regarded as the country's top two film events, speaker after high-profile speaker talked up the Korean film industry and the importance of Seoul within it.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said that the market share of Korean films is again on the increase and suggested that Hallyu (or "Korean Wave") and Korean cultural assets are crucial for the wider Asian economy.

With more than 200 films, generous terms of hospitality for guests and a solid list of sponsors, the festival indeed seems positioned to make a bigger mark on the local and regional stages.

The opening ceremony even included a video message from the country's current president, Lee Myung-bak. He reminisced about his childhood spent hanging around the Chungmuro district, the central Seoul district which was once home to the Korean movie industry.

Underlining their point about a possible Korean movie revival, CJ Entertainment's disaster film "Haeundae" -- in which a tidal wave wipes out Busan -- this weekend sold its ten millionth ticket. That implies a gross in excess of $50 million and means more than a fifth of the population has seen the picture.

Lee Deok-hwa, a former actor who is now festival director, likened film to "a beautiful heroic war" in that it is a medium that transcends national boundaries with a cultural message.

"Haeundae" gets a rare wide release in China on Tuesday and is tipped to have a strong chance of becoming a hit in the Middle Kingdom thanks to its mix of down-to-earth sensibilities and onscreen spectacle.

The Chungmuro festival includes two small competitive sections and runs at various locations until Sept 1.