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The First Three Rows Are Exhausted: PIFF 2006 (Part 1)

Saturday, November 4, 2006
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The poster’s theme is ‘Asia.’  Everything in Asia’s theme is ‘Asia.’First, some data: the Pusan International Film Festival, in its 11th year in the southern Korean coastal city of Busan (official romanised spelling 11 years ago: Pusan), is the largest film festival in Asia, with 245 films from 65 countries played over 9 days. It was Asia’s first international film fest, partakes of 31 screens including one big outdoor screen on the docks, and it’s too damn popular. Online tickets sold out in two hours.

I wasn’t prepared for this. My Travelling Companion and I did not buy any tickets in advance. Fortunately, 10% of the tickets for any show are held for same-day box office sales. That was the glimmer of hope that led us to take the three-hour train ride from Seoul to Busan. And this is how it all played out.

Friday, October 13th, 9:20 pm — Get on the Train.

Our secret dream is to get into a show as soon as we arrive; like all good festivals, (Toronto included) PIFF has a Midnight section. It’s called Midnight Passions, and the Koreans know how to do this right: it’s not just one culty movie showing at the moon’s peak, it’s three culty movies, in a row, starting at 12:30 and ending about 6 am. The Friday midnight slot holds two flicks I’d like to see (Wilderness and Borat — the latter being the only major American release on the schedule), and the train is scheduled to arrive with just enough time for us to get to the theatre by cab. Perhaps there’ll be a rush line, or some unsold tickets, or even a scalper…

12:10 am — Arrive in Busan.

The train was late. The station is definitely more than 20 minutes from the theatre. We’re off to a bad start.

1:08 am — Megabox.

WNobody’ll notice if I just move up to the front here…e decided to check the theatre out anyway, and it’s a good thing we did. The lineup for 8:00 am tickets has already begun to form. We shan’t be sleeping tonight.

2:30 am — Sit up.

There are about 30 people infront of us, stretched out in the cue, like some kind of linoleum basecamp. Cardboard boxes and newspapers spread on the floor, plastic bag survival packs from the Mini-Stop, television cellphones the only way to stave off madness.

And who’s the first celebrity on the film fest scene? Me. Being the only foreigners in line, the media quickly singles us out. I’m interviewed by no less than two TV reporters with only a basic working knowledge of English (my companion declines comment, citing a pending arrest warrant). The questions are about as broad as you can get (“Why you are here? How do you feel about movie?” — it’s like I got a mini-Borat), and my answers are the dictionary opposite of charming and witty, but it doesn’t really matter how buffoonish I sound, because none of the audience will understand a word I say. They even asked me to do a cheery little tag for the segment: one of the reporters asked me to say “사랑 PIFF!” (“Love PIFF!”), though I mishear him and say “사랑 People!” instead. They’ll probably still use it.

So many trees.20 Minutes Later — Okay, lay down.

The reason I titled the previous entry “Sit Up” was because at that point, some PIFF employee instructed the people camped out in line that we couldn’t lay down, but I forgot to mention that in the entry. I’m tired, so fuck you. Anyway, another guy just said we could lay down after all.

8:00 am — Tickets semi-successfully bought.

We had four screenings picked out, with some backups, and when we finally got to the booth, two of them were already sold out, and one of them didn’t have English subtitles (The Host, part of their Kontemporary Korean Kinema program — guess I’ll have to keep waiting to find out what secrets it holds), but we’ve ended up with a good haul, and fortunately weren’t able to get any tickets for the noonish slot. Because that means we get to sleep.

8:45 am — 여관.

After a final, parting interview for the media (“How do you feel about tickets?”), we find a cheap hotel with ease, and will be fast asleep just as soon as I scan the TV for signs of me on the news. I don’t find any, but I do find a channel of cheaply-produced porn that dodges the dreaded Asian Blur with some careful camera angles. For those not in the know, you won’t find crotch in real Asian penetration porn, only mysterious pixely blurs; they’re really doing it, but we ain’t seeing it. Travelling Companion tells me it’s actually illegal to show genitalia on-screen in Korea, which is consistent with the glowing yellow orb I saw in that one scene in Sideways, but inconsistent with that Dick of Sarsgaard I saw in that one scene in Kinsey. The Asian Blur tends to challenge my suspension of disbelief, so for that I applaud these particular pornographers, though I secretly suspect the true reason for shooting around the unshowables was budgetary. They may not have been able to afford the pixel blur.

Docks, as indicated by boats.1:30 pm — on 4 and a half hours of sleep.

We get up earlier than we need to (first act: check the TV — porn’s still there, I’m still not) because there’s a restaurant in Busan, the Seaman’s Club, right by the shipping docks, where you can get real Western breakfasts and such. This doesn’t exist in Seoul; when you get such a chance, you go out of your way to take it. It’s right by the train station, but the cab ride there takes a bit longer in the afternoon traffic than it did last night, so we have to eat fast. We do, and we think there’s enough time to get back for our first film, My Friend & His Wife, at 5:00, especially since the traffic going back where we came from is pretty thin.

4:35 — Back Traffic.

But the second cabbie is taking a different route, and we’re only inching our way through a long, smoggy tunnel. Stayed up all god-damned night, and we’re gonna miss the first gosh-darned movie. And they do not let you in late at festivals. We’re not even sure if they’ll let us bring in food.

Not that we’re hungry. That was a good breakfast.

5:00 — My Friend & His Wife (Korea)

But we do make it. Barely. Movies have assigned seating in Korea, and we plop down in the very first row with minutes to spare.

To celebrate the closeness of our friendship, I'm gonna wretch on the curb.

My Friend & His Wife is a film with complex characters, a good story, and some fine ideas. It tells of a husband, his wife, and his best friend across a span of years. Dramatic events occur that challenge well-defined relationships in interesting ways. It has all the tools to give a viewer an honest, unmanipulated emotional response, but it didn’t. For all of its fine elements, it runs a flatline from the start. The first act takes its time introducing the characters and the relationships without anything too significant taking place, and once it finally does come to the stage where there are strains, it still never manages to break that steady plod. Really serious things happen to these characters, and they are good characters, and well-played — intellectually I get how tragic a spiral they’re caught up in, but I never really feet for them, and for this I blame the pacing and the presentation. I was surprised to find after-the-fact that it was less than two hours long; it feels like more, and I can think of a few spots where things go longer than need be or events are built up to over one or two scenes more than necessary. All of the elements are there to make a fine adult drama, but they just don’t coalesce, I’m afraid. [Nary a link to offer, I’m afraid]

And then the movie ends, giving us enough time to grab some food and whatnot, but not giving us enough time to catch up on some sleep, before it’s time for the next one.

8:30 pm — The Optimists (Serbia and Montenegro)

Second row, far left. We’re starting to detect a pattern.

Beware the dark secrets of my moustache.

The opening of this film is wonderful. The camera slowly moves through a flooded little town, one obviously poor and desolate even before disaster struck, and every so often it will pan across the intense, accusing face of a man, and he stares right out at us. It is potent and mysterious.

From there we’re taken to a barn where all the townspeople have gathered for shelter, and the air is one of hopelessness. But then the intense man reappears and offers a salvation for them all: hypnosis. His pitch is elaborate and impassioned and a hell of a performance from Lazar Ristovski (whom I’d assumed I would never get to see again, but it turns out he’s got a small part in Casino Royale), but there are a few townsfolk who don’t quite trust the man, and when a woman’s wallet goes missing, his welcome quickly spoils.

This story is great and quirky, from its first minute to its last — unfortuately these are only about the first 20 minutes of a 95-minute film that is essentially just a series of unconnected shorts. They don’t want you to think they’re unconnected, so they fudge a bit, but the connections they create are basically superficial and the film would benefit from severing them altogether, because the quality of the different segments varies so wildly. The first it easily the best, and the last is interesting as well, but while the other three might have moments or elements of interest, for the most part they just serve to remind me how much I’d have preferred it if the first story had just continued. [IMDB] [Official]

And now that that one’s done, we’ve got enough time to get a bite to eat, bitch and argue over the two movies we just saw, and relax just enough to realize how much sleep we didn’t get today, before it’s time for the real struggle.

Three movies, in a row, starting at 12:40 am, and we’re already beyond ready for bed. Can it be done?

Of course it can. But will it be done tonight? laebmada

Night, as indicated by lack of light.

Go to Part 2Go to Part 3

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