Shark week

The waters of the Pusan fest are remarkably smooth

The sharks are teeming off the coast of Haeundae, the main beach of Pusan where this year's Pusan International Film Festival (Oct. 8-16) takes place in South Korea -- to such an extent, in fact, that the local authorities have actually installed an electric device to repel them. But you'd hardly know that from the sense of calm and control that is omnipresent as the city gears up for its annual festival, now entering its 14th year.

Such international names as French director Jean-Jacques Beineix, Hong Kong action maestro Johnny To and horror helmer Dario Argento will be gracing the event, which has emerged as one of Asia's leading festivals. Beineix will be there as jury president for its New Currents Awards (given to directors for the best new Asian films); To and Argento as honorees with special screenings. Other Hollywood A-listers who plan to attend include actor Josh Hartnett and director Bryan Singer.

These names are critically important to Pusan's mission, "to send Asian films to the world and bring world films to Asia," in the words of Kim Ji-seok, the festival's chief programmer.

"We also see it as the festival's major task to become a co-production platform between different continents. In that sense, it's essential for Pusan to create a solid network of film talent from Europe and Hollywood," he says

As part of that move, this year's Pusan fest will launch a new training program by the Luxemberg-based film network EAVE, who, along with European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs, will host a three-day workshop with the Asian Film Market aimed at facilitating co-productions for Korean producers who hope to forge relationships with producers from European film companies.

By strengthening the possibilities for Asian filmmakers, Pusan aims to secure quality world premieres and better position itself on the crowded festival circuit, while also competing with other fall fests such as Venice, Toronto and Tokyo.

The festival, which is screening a record 355 films from 70 countries, will be bolstered by Pusan's parallel Asian Film Market. The effort to boost the market -- which competes with next week's TIFFCOM market in Tokyo -- may be paying off: Organizers cite deals signed between unusual pairs of producers or directors with different film experiences. AT BIFCOM, an industry showcase, postproduction companies will present the latest technology in the field of special effects and 3D.

Whatever happens at the market, Pusan has clearly established itself as a must-attend event on the fest circuit. In doing so, it has been careful to juggle the market and program, to satisfy the tastes of art house audiences and commercial film buyers. How far it succeeds is a matter of annual debate.

This year, the program is peppered with a mix of mainstream and art house fare, including 99 world premieres and 46 international premieres.

The festival will kick off with Jang Jin's highly anticipated comedy "Good Morning President," a look at three South Korean presidents, one of which is played by Korean superstar Jang Dong-kun ("Taegukgi").

Humor runs through many of the festival entries, including Yang Qing's madcap "One Night in Supermarket," which chronicles and Miike Takashi's "Yatterman," a live-action remake of a popular animated TV series from the 1970s about a motley group of would-be crime fighters.

"You can tell the current (state) of Korean cinema has gotten more flexible," says Lee Sang-yong, the programmer of Korean films. "There's more humor and diversity in the stories."

At the same time, the fest will continue to showcase new Asian art house cinema, with regulars like Fruit Chan and Jia Zhang-ke on hand. Chen's Gala Presentation, "Chengdu, I Love You," tells two separate stories revolving around the devastating 2008 earthquake in China's Sichuan province, while Jia will be on hand to head a special master class during the fest.

Major Asian auteurs will contend as finalists for the Pusan Promotion Plan, the festival's biggest project market. Among the contenders are Bong Jun-ho ("Le Transperceneige"), Pang Ho-cheung ("Great Love") and Kiyoshi Kurosawa ("Tokyo Sonata"), who recently was also named dean of the Asian Film Academy, a series of hands-on production workshops for aspiring directors financed by the Korea Film Council during the festival.

Among the festival sidebars, a selection of Filipino indie films -- continuing an exploration that began last year -- will resume with "Kinatay" by Brillante Mendoza, winner of the best director prize at May's Festival de Cannes.

Elsewhere, the fest has already named Bollywood producer Yash Chopra ("Roadside Romeo") its Asian Filmmaker of the Year.

As part of the special programs in focus, works by To and Argento will be honored with retrospectives. And the festival closes with the premiere of "The Message," a much-discussed spy thriller set during World War II China under Japanese rule directed by Chen Kuo-fu and Gao Qunshu and starring Chinese actress Li Bingbing.

"Pusan will continue to explore hidden films from lesser-known regions, as we did last year when we hosted a Kazakhstan film -- Rustem Abdrashev's 'The Gift to Stalin' -- as the opening film," Kim says. "And you'll be surprised about the selection of world and international premieres this year, from countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Iraq."