This story first appeared in the Oct. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Since launching in 1996, the Busan International FIlm Festival -- which changed its official title from "Pusan" to "Busan" last year because of the country's new romanization system -- has grown into one of Asia's most important film events. Each fall, film execs, sales agents, the international press and stars transform the resort town on the country's southeastern coast into a bustling film mecca. This year's BIFF will screen 304 films from 75 countries -- more than a third of which are world and international premieres -- and offer dealmakers access to more than 170 exhibitors at the Asian Film Market, which kicks off Oct. 8. Here are six reasons why Busan should be on everyone's festival radar.
1. Tang Wei becomes the first non-Korean to host BIFF
One of the signs that BIFF has truly gone global is the decision to crown Chinese actress Tang Wei an official moderator of the opening ceremony. For a film festival that always has juggled its international profile with a need to please local bureaucrats who fund the event, this marked a notable transition. Best known to Western audiences as the heroine of Ang Lee's erotic thriller Lust, Caution and noted for her frequent appearances at Busan's beachfront last year, Tang is the festival's first non-Korean host. "She has visited Busan twice, and through those visits, the organizers felt she had a good sense of communicating with people," says BIFF PR manager Yun Kim. "She was very capable of handling an event like this. Luckily, when we offered the role, she gladly accepted it."
2. A chance to see the world's first-ever North Korean romantic comedy
Who would have thought that a romantic comedy about a coal miner could help improve decades of tension between North and South Korea? Shot entirely in North Korea, Comrade Kim Goes Flying (pictured below) is a unique co-production between Europe (Belgium and U.K.) and Pyongyang that will screen as part of BIFF's Special Screenings sidebar. Telling the whimsical tale of a female coal miner who dreams of becoming a trapeze artist, the film was cleared by fest organizers concerned that it could have a political agenda. "The festival programmers who watched the film agreed that it was not ideological or was shot as political propaganda," says Kim. "The Ministry of Unification also approved the film's screening at the festival." Currently, the Ministry is reviewing the possibility of the film's North Korean crew and actors visiting Busan during the fest.
3. An extra day of screenings
BIFF organizers have added an extra day this year, expanding the festival period from nine to 10 days to allow festivalgoers an extra weekend of theater hopping. This year, the festival will hold the closing ceremony on Saturday instead of Friday. "It was our decision to allow more people to enjoy the festival, given that a majority of audiences visit on weekends," says festival director Lee Yong-kwan. "If it's successful, we will consider extending our festival period for two full weeks until Sunday next year."
4. Thrills and chills after midnight
For night owls, Busan is the ideal city during the festival. That's when visiting film celebrities and cinephiles flock to the city's many colorful beachfront food stands and comfort themselves with loads of seafood -- and plenty of soju boilermakers. But for those who have extra energy or had trouble getting tickets to the daytime screenings, the fest's Midnight Passion sidebar offers a provocative alternative to the respectable art house fare screened when the sun is out. This year's highlights include Gangs of Wasseypur, a five-hour Indian epic about vengeance between two families that spans more than 60 years; the horror title Sinister, starring Ethan Hawke, which opens Oct. 12 in the U.S.; another American thriller, Chained, from Jennifer Lynch (David's daughter); and the gory Irish comedy Stitches, about a clown who comes back to life and begins plotting revenge against his killers.
5. More time to do business
With more exhibitors and buyers from overseas, the Asian Film Market has expanded market screenings from 62 to 73 films this year. Among 170 exhibitors, Thailand will set up its own pavilion for the first time -- with as many as 20 Thai sales companies -- while major producers including Myriad Pictures, Toho and Edko also have signed on to participate. Market organizers have made it a point to gather feedback from attendees after moving into the sprawling BEXCO convention center last year. "It was our first year at BEXCO, and we've had some technical complaints about the space's soundproof system," says Nam Dong-chul, a GM of the Asian Film Market. "So we've tried to strengthen these facilities." High-profile industry players, including Fox International president Sanford Panitch and producer Terence Chang (John Woo's Red Cliff), will participate this year as panelists and share their experiences in international co-productions as part of a seminar series organized by the Korean Film Council. Screenings of independent films often excluded from the main market will be available online as well for overseas sales opportunities.
6. A chance to see some of Asia's biggest screen stars
Busan always attracts its fair share of Asian screen talent, but this year organizers have upped the star power significantly. Local paparazzi will be out in force for the Gala Presentation of Chinese director Hur Jin-ho's adaptation of the French classic Dangerous Liaisons, which will see castmembers Jang Dong-gun, Zhang Ziyi and Cecilia Cheung make the trip to Busan. Then there's the BIFF opening-night film, Cold War, which boasts a who's who of Asian superstars, including Aaron Kwok and Tony Ka-Fai Leung, both of whom will visit the South Korean port city. Elsewhere, official guests of the fest include Spanish actress Victoria Abril, on hand for a screening of The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears; Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland, in support of her Holocaust drama In Darkness; and Japanese director Wakamatsu Koji, who will receive this year's Asian Filmmaker of the Year honor.