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Resurgent Busan Sees Korea on Course to Take Lead Role in Asian Film

With the Busan International Film Festival restored to pre-eminence among Asia-Pacific moviemakers, moves are afoot to capitalise on its success via pan-regional initiatives and greater co-operation within the ASEAN cinema community.

Photo: Parasite: The ‘twisted’ South Korean horror movie that won the Palme d’OR at Cannes.
Parasite: The 'twisted' South Korean horror movie that won the Palme d'OR at Cannes.
Photo: Parasite: The ‘twisted’ South Korean horror movie that won the Palme d’OR at Cannes.
Parasite: The 'twisted' South Korean horror movie that won the Palme d'OR at Cannes.

This time around – for the second consecutive year – the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) definitely felt like it was very much back on track. Indeed, the political problems it suffered under the administration of Park Geun-hye, the former South Korean President, suddenly seemed a long time ago.

Chaired once again by event co-founder Lee Yong-kwan and with award-winning film producer Jay Jeon as Festival Director, this year's BIFF was bigger and busier than ever. Unsurprisingly, the reinvigorated event attracted filmmakers, stars and industry professionals from across Asia, as well as a growing contingent from Europe and the US. Among the big names on this year's red carpet were Korean megastar Jung Woo-sung and current Bollywood muse Bhumi Pednekar, while Hollywood was represented by Timothee Chalamet, who was in town to support The King, which was being screened as a Gala Presentation during the course of the Festival.

The accompanying Asian Film Market – now in its 14th edition – was also busier than usual, with a 22% reported increase in attendance, taking it to a total of 2,188 participants from 56 countries. The number of companies taking booths in the market was also up – rising by 17% to about 200 – with some sharing stands or pavilions, making 86 separate booths overall.

Unsurprisingly, Korean sales companies were out in force, along with a growing number of sellers from Hong Kong and Japan. The European delegation, hosted by European Film Promotion (EFP), was this year up to 64 participants, a sizable increase on last year's 42.

Explaining the particular appeal of the event, Elliot Tong, Founder of Autumn Sun, a Hong Kong-based sales agency, said: "The Asian Film Market is very useful for us as it's all focused on one venue and it's just the right size to ensure that buyers are going to eventually visit every booth and take notice of every title.

"It's also the first 'Asian' market of the season – at least it is if you don't go to Toronto and your focus is actually on buying Asian titles. I think with Korean films being fully back in gear, Japanese animation doing better than ever and with the recent interest in contemporary Indian titles, the AFM is now the most must-attend market for buyers after Cannes."

Heading into the market, concerns remained that the region's unpredictable and – arguably – over-sensitive geopolitics might have a negative impact on business. Korean content, after all, is still effectively banned in mainland China, due to the lingering political tensions between Beijing and Seoul. On top of that and somewhat more recently, the long-simmering Korea-Japan trade war boiled over during the course of the summer.

The BIFF, however, prides itself on being something of a neutral nexus, one that connects all the Asian markets and their respective creative communities. As a sign of this, this year the festival awarded its Asian Filmmaker of the Year title to Hirokazu Kore-eda, a Japanese director, and on the industry side, Japanese attendance at the AFM seemed wholly undiminished by any international tension. Indeed, Korean and Japanese companies are still actively buying and selling one another's films – this year's Korean Cannes Palme d'Or winner Parasite, for instance, is scheduled for Japanese release early next year.

On the other hand, very few mainland Chinse buyers attended the AFM – perhaps unsurprising given there are few signs that China is likely to lift the 'unofficial' embargo imposed on Korean films in 2016 any time soon. Addressing the issues – and speaking very much off-the-record – one Chinese buyer said: "South Korea is still off limits to us in every way."

During this year's Cannes Film Festival, Chinese buyers were also warned to stay away from US independent and Swedish films. This was considered to be due to the ongoing US-China trade war with regard to the former and Beijing's disapproval of recent Nobel prize winners in the case of the latter.

Although now in its 14th year, the AFM is still not the size of Hong Kong's FILMART in terms of the volume of buyers or sellers. There is, however, something of a consensus among regular attendees that it's important to have a second market in the region during the autumn film festival season – scheduling that complements FILMART, given that it inevitably takes place in the spring.

Commenting on the importance of the various scheduling of the industry's key events, Maria Ruggieri, Head of Sales and Acquisitions for Asian Shadows – the Hong Kong-based sales agency that was this year handling Wayne Wang's Gala presentation title, Coming Home Again – said: "FILMART falls at a crucial time, coming just after the Berlin Film Festival but before Cannes.

Photo: Hormones: The Series – Teen fun, Thai-style.
Hormones: The Series – Teen fun, Thai-style.
Photo: Hormones: The Series – Teen fun, Thai-style.
Hormones: The Series – Teen fun, Thai-style.
Photo: Saturday Afternoon: Bangladesh-made terrorist tale.
Saturday Afternoon: Bangladesh-made terrorist tale.
Photo: Saturday Afternoon: Bangladesh-made terrorist tale.
Saturday Afternoon: Bangladesh-made terrorist tale.

"Busan's timing is also interesting, as it takes place after all the major festivals – Locarno, Venice and Toronto – and gives buyers an opportunity to see everything available from Asia in a more relaxed state of mind. As it's not as busy as other markets, buyers spend more time talking to you and tend to do more research."

Up until this year, the AFM had stayed true to its name and solely focused on films – unlike FILMART and Japan's TIFFCOM, which long ago broadened out into TV, digital and animation content. For 2019, though, the market's organisers belatedly recognised a need to showcase South Korea's strength in TV drama, while looking to capitalise on the recent boom in OTT platforms by expanding into the worlds of TV and streaming. As a clear sign of intent, they kicked off this year by persuading the major Korean broadcasters – CJ ENM, MBC, KBS and JTBC – to attend the market, some of them for the first time.

In another departure, this year's BIFF also hosted the first Asian Contents Awards – a red-carpet event designed to recognise the talent behind the ever-burgeoning number of Asian TV dramas. While Korean TV stars – most notably Kim Jae-joong – drew scores of screaming fans, the top prizes went to such productions as Thailand's Hormones: The Series, Singapore's Faculty and Mr Sunshine, a South Korean drama.

Ecosystem Building

An integral part of the AFM is the Asian Project Market (APM), a co-production and financing event where Asian filmmakers present projects at script stage to potential distributors and investors. Another string to the festival's bow is the Platform Busan networking event, a series of sessions where Asian independent filmmakers get to participate in masterclasses led by such established talents as Kore-eda, Wayne Wang and Korea's Park Chan-wook. This strand also incorporates industry sessions with such companies as Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment and India's Jio Studios, which offer advice on raising finance, co-production and the best way to navigate festivals.

Along with its year-round initiatives – the Asian Film Academy (AFA) and the Asian Cinema Fund (ACF), which offer grants to Asian films at different stages of production – BIFF has developed a comprehensive ecosystem for the support of filmmakers. This extends well beyond South Korea and encompasses much of Asia, with a particular focus on the smaller countries and the still-developing markets. This year, its past efforts to support Central Asian cinema clearly bore fruit, with The Horse Thieves – Roads Of Time, directed by Kazakhstan's Yerlan Nurmukhambetov and Japanese filmmaker Lisa Takeba, chosen to open the Festival.

One of the many filmmakers to have clearly benefitted from a long association with Busan is Mostofa S. Farooki, the noted Bangladeshi director-producer. In addition to participating in the APM and receiving funds from ACF, his fourth feature, Television, played as the closing film of the 2012 event. His most recent film, Saturday Afternoon, meanwhile, was playing this year in BIFF's A Window on Asian Cinema section.

Reflecting on his experiences of the event, he said: "The Asian Project Market is a very important aspect of Busan as it allows filmmakers to connect with industry people. At the same time, it also works as a kind of focused group discussion for any project, which helps filmmakers find the strong and weak points of their films."

Although Farooki hadn't studied at the AFA, this year he conducted a workshop for academy students, alongside UK filmmaker Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), who was also serving as president of BIFF's New Currents jury.

Assessing Busan from his own point of view, Figgis said: "What I've come to realise is that the AFA gives promising filmmakers a much-needed platform and allows them to interact with mentors and fellows. Since Busan established itself as a hub for Asian cinema, it has allowed students to get in touch with filmmakers and festival programmers from around the world. This makes the AFA's positioning undeniably unique."

This pan-Asian development ethos is also being adopted by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), a body that has indisputably helped Korean cinema reach its current stature. With an eye clearly on the future, it's now in talks with government officials from across the ASEAN bloc with a view to establishing an ASEAN-ROK Film Organisation (ARFO) as a vehicle for supporting Southeast Asian cinema as a whole.

Formerly referred to as the Asian Film Center, this initiative was first discussed at BIFF in 2018 and was then conceived as a pan-Asian support organisation. After that promising start, it floundered a little, with KOFIC finding it all but impossible to get China or Japan on board. More recently, the South Korean government has earmarked about $1.48 million of funding – with more promised – in a bid to breathe new life into the ARFO project.

Looking at all these initiatives together, it's clear that South Korea is taking a leadership role in the region in terms of film-industry development. BIFF, which next year will also host the Asian Film Awards, is just the very visible tip of a growing network of pan-Asian support. Acknowledging this, Farooki said: "Having a film fund, market, academy and festival all under one umbrella has really put Busan in a unique position."

Photo: Mr Sunshine: Korean TV is ushered out of the cold and into a warm Busan reception.
Mr Sunshine: Korean TV is ushered out of the cold and into a warm Busan reception.
Photo: Mr Sunshine: Korean TV is ushered out of the cold and into a warm Busan reception.
Mr Sunshine: Korean TV is ushered out of the cold and into a warm Busan reception.

The 2019 Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) took place from 3-12 October at the Busan Cinema Center.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Busan

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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