A few weeks ago Jeonghee and I got a chance to catch a few films at the Busan International Film Festival. I remember checking out the lineup last year and not being very impressed, but this year’s slate ended up having more interesting films that we had time.
The festival began back in 1996, and has now grown into South Korea’s premiere film festival. Tickets for the opening weekend at least sell out in a matter of minutes, and we were fortunate to get two of the three films I most wanted to see: Beasts of the Southern Wild and Argo. Later, Jeonghee was able to get tickets to The Concubine as well, a Korean film that was already in theaters, but which was subtitled in English only for this screening.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
First off, bright and way too early at 10 a.m., was Beasts of the Southern Wild. This was a favorite at Sundance, a small indie film set in a quasi-fairytale version of southern Louisiana where a plucky nine year old girl is forced to grow up fast when her father gets ill, a flood washes her quirky town away, and prehistoric beasts threaten what’s left.
I wasn’t as blown away by it as a lot of critics were, but it’s certainly unlike anything you’ve seen before. The look of this film is undeniably unique, all of the largely unprofessional cast of actors are superb, and by the time young Quvenzhane Wallis faces off against the threat to her town it’s hard not to be a bit moved.
We had to cab all the way across town to catch the next feature. Most of the movies this year were in the swankier Haeundae Beach/Centum City part of Busan, but a few were still shown in Nampodong, probably as a concession to that neighborhood’s former stress as host of the festival. Even though “Busan International Film Festival” is stamped right into the sidewalk, you can see why the festival moved on. The neighborhood is cramped and worn down, but an interesting snapshot of what once was a bustling center of culture for the city.
The film was an Age 19-rated (the age you can do anything from drink to drive here) “ero” movie set in the Joseun Dynasty. As has been the case with the examples I’ve seen so far, this genre has a lot more going for it than titillation, although for a country that is fairly conservative in many areas, it’s pretty racy. The Concubine in particular was a lavishly shot, designed, and costumed royal intrigue drama. The story has plenty of twists and betrayals and strong acting that draws you in. The ending is a bit of a dud, but if you get the chance to catch it (or any South Korean film- there’s some amazing talent working here now), take it.
The last film of the day was the one I was most excited for- Ben Affleck’s latest acting and directing gig. Argo is based on the true story of a CIA rescue operation to retrieve six American embassy workers from the Canadian ambassador to Iran’s house during the 1979 Teheran hostage crisis. How it really went down was finally declassified in 1997. Agent Tony Mendez used some Hollywood contacts to make an entire fake sci-fi film production, then used it as cover to sneak in and out of Iran while “location scouting”, taking the six workers with him.
It’s an incredible story, and Affleck’s direction and the across-the-board excellent cast bring it to life. The film is able to juggle drama, comedy, and incredible tension without detracting from any of them, and is definitely going to be one of my handful of favorite films of the year.
Overall, it was a good day at the movies. I’m glad we took advantage of the opportunity to catch some movies that aren’t always a guarantee to come to theaters here (although Argo actually will show up soon, and has been in U.S. theaters for awhile). I only wish we could have caught even more.