Busan Film Fest opens with strong slate of new talent

LOS ANGELES — It is not just size, but the element of surprise that makes the Busan International Film Festival, which runs from Thursday (Oct 6) to Oct 15, a mecca for film buffs. A festival whose reputation is founded on discovering and nurturing new talents, picking which films to watch here is akin to blind-tasting.

This is especially true for New Currents, the festival’s main competition showcasing debut or sophomore Asian directors. Like trying out a new grape variety or wine from lesser-known regions, the best thing to do is to trust your instincts and take many sips.

Since most overseas film pros come to Busan to scout Asian films, the World Cinema and Flash Forward sections sometimes fall under their radar. Nevertheless, the programmers of Flash Forward fish for non-Asian indie films that may have slipped through the net in major festivals, such as Bonfire, a debut by Dmitry Davydov, that is set in Sakhia Republic.

Others include thrillers Night Of 1000 Hours by Austrian director Virgil Widrich and Bad Girl, by Australian Fin Edquist and starring Samara Weaving, niece of Hugo.

The enduring vibrancy of Korean cinema in both festival and commercial arenas means that everyone is on the look out for the next breakout talent, and the Vision section is practically swimming with them.

Yeon Sang-ho’s Train To Busan, Lost To Shame by emergent actor Nam Yeon-woo and Son Tae-gyum’s Baby Beside Me.

As the hub of Asian Cinema, Busan not only helps talents spin their imaginative yarns, but is also a huge reservoir of real-life stories that testify to and question social, political and cultural contexts around the world.

Wide Angle, an umbrella section that covers documentaries, animation, children’s films and shorts, boasts a first-rate documentary selection often overlooked amid the sea of fiction features.

The Busan film festival director Ms Kang Soo-youn said repeatedly through the summer that she expects the market to be smaller this year. But on the eve of the 2016 festival and market, her warnings seem overly cautious.

The festival’s film trade and professional functions may indeed be dented as a result of the internal, political and financial turmoil that the Busan festival has undergone in the past year. But the organised rights market, project market and IP launching activities are all going ahead. And much of the industry is on course to attend, even if the initial registered attendance showed only a fraction of last year’s attendees.

A likely factor was confusion over the boycott of the festival announced by sections of the Korean film industry.

Earlier in the year, an emergency committee and a boycott were organised by nine industry guilds in an attempt to pressure Busan city officials to guarantee the festival’s artistic independence.

After reforms were agreed to by the festival and the city, the guilds failed to provide the industry clear guidance on whether they accepted the festival’s new deal.

Four guilds voted to continue the boycott, four voted to end it and one was undecided. That meant the boycott continued in name, but in practice it withered. A list of market participants shows nearly all of South Korea’s international sales companies had registered. So too had producers, trade organisations and umbrella groups.

“We are of course aware of all the difficulties the festival went through in the past two years and were pleased that throughout the summer more and more European sales agents decided to travel to Busan,” said Ms Renate Rose, managing director of European Film Promotion.

“Finally, 36 sales agents will join us under the European Umbrella at the Asian Film Market. We are really pleased with the outcome and will carefully evaluate the situation afterwards.”

MAKING MUCH OF THE MARKET

Making the year-on-year statistical comparison trickier is the separation this year of the Bifcom locations market and the Asian Casting Market from the main rights mart, the Asian Film Market, whoever organisers insist “the actual size of the Asian Film Market itself has not changed much”.

A better measure of film sales activity may be the reduced planned market screenings. Moreover, the Busan market was already in flux last year. While the 2015 figures for overall market participants and companies attending were higher in 2015 than in 2014, the figures for booths (109 including Bifcom), and market screenings (84 screenings of 74 titles) were higher in 2014.

The regulatory and political climate in China had an impact on the 2015 market and may again in 2016.

Last year saw the launch of the E-IP section of the market, where companies could pitch intellectual properties from comic books and games to original concepts for remake or co-production. An all-ticket affair, E-IP was an instant hit, especially with companies from China.

That is because new Chinese regulations in 2015 limited imports, but left the door open for co-productions or Chinese localisations of South Korea’s high-concept and well-packaged ideas. That may have drained the main market for finished films, but boosted the E-IP and Asian Project Market.

This year is different. Chinese authorities appear to be aggressively clamping down on co-productions with South Korea, Korean co-financing and the use of Korean stars.

Whether that now hurts the E-IP market is unclear. Chinese companies may be limited in their acquisitions of Korean IP and completed content, but the past year has seen many Chinese companies embed themselves deeper in the Korean industry. China’s Huayi Tencent this year bought Korean TV producer HB Entertainment, while Huayi Bros Media recently bought 26 per cent of Korean talent agency SIM Entertainment (since renaming it as Huayi Bros Co), endowing it with a US$45 million war chest.

“Maybe there will be fewer Chinese and Koreans coming to Busan this year, due to Busan’s problems last year and also due to Chinese anti-Korean films and talent actions this year, but they are all observing the festival and the market,” said Ms Yuanyuan Sui, of Germany’s Picture Tree International. “I think it will be fine and I expect to close several good deals there. Roughly 70 per cent of our lineup gets sold to South Korea.”

She continues to see Busan as a useful launchpad. Picture Tree will give world premieres to Heart Of Stone in Busan’s Open Cinema section, and to Night Of 1000 Hours in the festival’s Flash Forward competition. VARIETY.COM/REUTERS

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