South Korea's Bucheon Fantastic Fest Sets Opening, Closing Films

Courtesy of Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival

There are hints of improved diplomatic relations between Beijing and Seoul as Chinese industryites are expected to attend, along with Bong Joon-ho for his controversial Netflix film 'Okja.'

The Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan) will open its 21st edition with South Korean noir comedy Room No. 7 and close with Japanese manga-turned-film Gintama, organizers announced Thursday in Seoul.

Asia's largest genre event will present 289 films from 58 countries from July 13-23 in Seoul's satellite city of Bucheon.

With two new programmers on board, Kim Bongseok and Mo Eunyoung, the fest promises a greater number of quality films. Organizers have paid particular attention to presenting a broader range of domestic films, with the number of Korean titles jumping significantly from last year's 65 to 109. Local genre films are increasingly leading the scene, with two of three midnight screenings at this year's Cannes Film Festival being Korean. Last year's Cannes titles hailing from the Korean genre film scene have generated international buzz, with Gaumont winning the bid to remake zombie actioner Train to Busan.

"We wish to become a film festival remembered for films, and have decided to split Korean films into competition and non-competition sections," said BiFan director Choi Yong-bae. Moreover, guests this year will include some of the country's biggest icons, including director Bong Joon-ho, who will receive a special screening for his much-talked-about Netflix film Okja.

Okja, slated for simultaneous release to Netflix users and in Korean cinemas later this month, has faced opposition from major local distributors and has so far secured screenings in a select number of smaller cinemas across the country.

"We didn't expect the film to evoke so much debate when we were making selections [earlier this year]," said programmer Moon Seok. "Okja was a natural choice for us; it's a unique genre film based on a new internet platform, and we really wanted to show it on the big screen."

BiFan chairman and helmer Chung Ji-young believes the festival screening of Okja could "provide the occasion for filmmakers to discuss the changing landscape of film production and distribution that the industry must address."

Another spotlighted issue this year is the dire lack of female talent both on- and offscreen in Korean cinema and the larger social problem of misogyny. Cannes-winning actress Jeon Do-yeon, another special guest at the fest this year, will be featured in a retrospective of 17 films spanning her 20-year career. Another section not to be missed is "Terrible Women: Monsters and Villainesses," which presents strong female personas who are "neither secondary villains nor castrated versions of male monsters" but "whose wickedness stems from sex- or gender-specific factors such as menstruation, reproductive ability and motherhood," said programmer Kim.

In addition to the strong focus on issues close to home, BiFan will see the return of Chinese film industryites to South Korea following a months-long diplomatic stalemate over a U.S. missile defense system largely known by its acronym, THAAD. Earlier this year, Korean films and stars were conspicuously missing from the Beijing International Film Festival, while virtually no Chinese works or industryites attended Korea's Jeonju International Film Festival. Tensions, however, have been easing between Seoul and Beijing following Korea's presidential election of Moon Jae-in.

"One of the biggest feats of last year's edition was the signing of MOUs [memorandum of understandings] between BiFan and many Chinese state-backed bodies," said fest deputy director Kim Jongwon. "We were, however, inevitably affected by the THAAD situation. But since May we have been back in touch, and though the timing was too tight to organize everything before July, we do expect to revamp collaborative projects and to welcome the attendance of several [Chinese] industry reps."

According to programmer Kim Bongseok, the overall number of Chinese titles has decreased somewhat, but the drop was not drastic. "The political issue aside, an increasing number of Chinese projects feature Taiwanese or Hong Kong filmmakers. And so, if you include films from all Chinese-language territories, the number of films invited this year isn't [all that] low."

Asian genre filmmakers should not miss the tenth anniversary edition of NAFF (Network of Asian Fantastic Films), Bucheon's signature industry program for promoting genre film production and development. This year's installment will offer a special focus on Vietnamese genre cinema as well as South America's largest film market, Ventana Sur, and will host events to support exchanges between Asian and South American filmmakers.

On the fest side, moviegoers can also expect to see a diverse range of titles from all over the world, from Ugandan actioner Bad Black, made on a $65 budget, to Canadian lesbian flick Below Her Mouth. Alex de la Iglesia, the Spanish genre maestro, will also be featured in a retrospective and conduct two master classes.

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