Teutonic Trade-off

The Asian film sector looks to cash in on Germany's foreign-friendly subsidy system

Linking the cultural and commercial worlds of Europe and Asia has always been a tricky business, as any European seller heading to the 14th Pusan International Film Festival will admit. So it is surprising that so many new films coming out of Germany, a country with few historic ties to the region, should be bridging the Euro-Asian divide.

Part of the reason is financial. Germany's rich, foreign-friendly subsidy system has been discovered by Asian filmmakers looking for cash to close gaps in their budgets. See the Australian-Chinese co-production "The Children Of Huang Shi," which linked up with Germany's Zero West and Zero Fiction for the historic epic starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Jin Shuyuan and Guang Li.

The bulk of new German-Asian co-productions, however, were initiated in Munich, Cologne or Berlin and show a genuine interest in Asian stories and how they connect to the European reality.

Florian Gallenberger's "John Rabe," which screens Oct.12 in Pusan's Open Cinema section, is the true story of a German corporate manager, and Nazi party believer, who became an unexpected folk hero in 1937 after the Japanese invasion of Naking. Rabe helped erect an international safe zone around the Siemens factory he managed in the city and played a key role in saving hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians from massacre by the Japanese army. A hero in China -- it is said Rabe is the most famous German in the People's Republic after communist thinker Karl Marx -- John Rabe was virtually unknown in his homeland before Gallenberger's film. Not anymore. "John Rabe" was the big winner at this year's German Film Awards, with four trophies including Best Film and Best Actor for star Ulrich Tukur. Strand Releasing just picked up the title for a U.S. bow.

Beta Cinema will be shopping the film around Pusan and hopes to close some Asian territories on the back of the festival platform.

"Asia can be a difficult market for us -- it's often longer to close deals," says Beta Cinema's head of theatrical sales and international acquisitions Andreas Rothbauer. "But Pusan is a good opportunity to meet with key partners in the area and give a little extra push ahead of the AFM."

Detlev Buck and Matthias Glasner, two of Germany's most compelling art house directors, have both taken on the subject of Asian sex tourism for their latest projects, though with starkly different results.

Glasner's "This Is Love" stars Jens Albinus ("In Your Hands") and Jurgen Vogel ("The Wave") as Chris and Holger, well-meaning entrepreneurs who "rescue" underage girls from prostitution in Vietnam, smuggle them back to Germany and arrange for-fee adoptions by rich prospective parents. Things get complicated when Chris decides to keep one of the girls -- Vietnamese newcomer Duyen Pham -- to raise on his own. His motives are not entirely pure, however, and soon the police get involved. A dark and disturbing drama, "This is Love" premiered at the San Sebastian film festival.

Buck's "Same Same But Different," is set next door in Cambodia and uses similar issues involving the cultural/economic divide between Europe and Asia to tell a more conventional, if equally complicated, romance. Based on a true story, "Same Same But Different" stars David Kross ("The Reader") as a German journalist who falls in love with a Cambodian prostitute, played by Thai actress Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, and stays with her, even after she is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

"The Two Horses of Genghis Khan," the latest documentary from Mongolian-born, Munich-based director Byambasuren Davaa ("The Story of the Weeping Camel") will bow in Pusan as part of the Window on Asian Cinema section. Produced by Germany's Atrix Films, it follows a Mongolian singer's attempt to restore her grandmother's horse head violin, destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Sung-Hyung Cho's "Home From Home," a German-South Korean co-production, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival this year, will screen in Pusan's documentary sidebar. The director follows three Korean women who return home after thirty years abroad with German husbands. Finding themselves strangers in their own homeland, they retreat to a German ghetto and try to balance their two cultures. It's a subject close to the director's own biography. Sung-Hyung Cho was born and raised in Busan but has made her home and filmmaking career in Germany.

German-Asian co-productions are only a fraction of the Teutonic titles screening in Pusan, however. Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or winner - and German Oscar hopeful - "The White Ribbon," set in rural Prussia on the eve of WWI, will have its Asian premiere at the festival. The black-and-white drama marks a return to form for Berlin-based X Filme, which headed up the €13 million ($19 million) production together with France's Les Films du Losange, Austria's Wega Film and Lucky Red of Italy. Sony Pictures Classics picked up "The White Ribbon" for the U.S. and the title has sold out across Europe. Les Films du Losange, which is handling the title internationally, is counting on Pusan to help open up the Asian market.

"Whiskey with Vodka," the latest comedy from Andreas Dresen ("Summer in Berlin") will also use Pusan as its Asian launch pad. It stars Henry Hubschen as a charming, if alcoholic, film star whose director tries to keep him in line by hiring an understudy to double his part, scene for scene.

Screening in Pusan's Midnight Passion sidebar is Anno Saul's supernatural thriller "The Door." A rare German genre film, "The Door" stars "Casino Royale" baddie Mads Mikkelsen as a successful artist whose life falls apart after his daughter's death.

"It's always a good bet bringing genre titles here," comments one German sales exec. "In Europe, genre can be a tough sell but the South Korean and Japanese buyers are a lot more open to them. You can get a theatrical deal for a good genre title that would be straight to DVD back home."

German comedy can be a harder sell, but The Match Factory is hoping Faith Akin's crowd pleaser "Soul Kitchen" will score with Asian buyers. Screening at the market in Pusan, "Soul Kitchen" is a hip and happy romp through Hamburg's culinary nightlife. The film marks a change of pace for the director of "The Edge of Heaven" and "Head-On" -- Akin said the movie is "more for the audience than the Cache du Cinema" -- but it has been riding a wave of goodwill since its premiere in Venice, where it won a special jury prize.

Another German market title to watch is Beta Cinema's "Ceasefire." Lancelot von Naso's directorial debut follows five European aid workers who try to get food and supplies to the civilians of Falludscha during a brief, 24-hour ceasefire in the U.S.-led siege of the city. "Ceasefire" comes to Pusan straight from its the Zurich Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Film.