Ongoing Smile: Busan Review

"Ongoing Smile"
A slight but endearing tribute to a true luminary of the global festival circuit. 

Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf delivers a cinematic love letter to Busan International Film Festival founder and honorary chairman Kim Dong-ho.

The title of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 52-minute documentary about Busan International Film Festival founder Kim Dong-ho is taken from a film critic’s comment about how Korean cinema’s doyen always appears beaming as he meets and greets everyone coming his way. Indeed, Ongoing Smile is more about Kim’s personality than his deeds: it is only in the film’s last ten minutes that interviewees begin to mention the significance and relevance of the event Kim has brought to the forefront of the international film festival circuit. Those seeking the context in which the Busan festival sprang to A-list status might have to look elsewhere.

But at least Makhmalbaf has been clear from the start that his film is nothing but a letter of love to one of the most revered festival gurus in Asia, if not the world. As shown in the film, Kim is the man who could get Juliette Binoche and Cannes head Thierry Fremaux to do the train dance with the masses in a public event at his festival. He can even whip teenage volunteers into a sort of frenzy when he appears at venues to shake their hands.

Ongoing Smile doesn’t pretend to be a conventional biographical documentary. The imagery is all in the here and now, in place of narrated expositions of Kim’s personal background. Makhmalbaf films Kim’s daily routine (which sees him invariably waking up at 4 a.m. to exercise before heading to work) or meeting his longtime friends and belting out the anthems they sung together while serving in the army.

And in between his appearances at the festival -- which he helmed until he retired two years ago -- are sequences showing him in the process of shooting his first film, the short Jury (which is shown at the festival this year in a double-bill with Ongoing Smile).

It’s a screening arrangement which suits Ongoing Smile best. While not exactly fully-fleshed, Makhmalbaf’s film could be seen as a Cheshire Cat of a documentary: never mind the nitty-gritty of history, it’s the aura of that grin which remains.

Busan International Film Festival, Wide Angle
Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
52 minutes