Can Pusan Festival Boost S. Korea Films?

South Korean actress Ko A-ra poses at the opening ceremony of the Pusan International Film Festival in Busan, South Korea, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008. One of Asia's top film festivals kicked off Thursday in this South Korean beach resort city - with an eye toward shoring up a depressed domestic movie industry.
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
One of Asia's top film festivals kicked off Thursday in this South Korean beach resort city with an eye toward shoring up a depressed domestic movie industry.

Hundreds gathered at a local yacht club to watch the 13th Pusan International Film Festival's opening movie, Kazakh director Rustem Abdrashev's "The Gift to Stalin," on a giant screen. The movie is about a Jewish boy exiled to Kazakhstan as part of mass deportations of ethnic minorities under Soviet rule.

The opening ceremony was overshadowed by news of the apparent suicide of popular South Korean actress Choi Jin-sil. Festival director Kim Dong-ho led the audience in observing a brief silence for Choi.

Organizers went ahead with a fireworks display and an opera performance. Members of the crowd cheered during the ceremony and took pictures of the fireworks with their digital cameras.

Danish-French actress Anna Karina, known for her roles in Jean-Luc Godard's movies, addressed the audience as head of the jury for the festival's New Currents competition.

"This is a wonderful festival. I hope it will be like this forever," Karina said.

The New Currents jury also includes Indian director Santosh Sivan, South Korean actress Lee Hwa-si and German producer Karl Baumgartner. Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf was also a member of the panel, but pulled out because she fell ill.

The film festival will show 316 movies from 60 countries, including 84 world premieres.

Among the planned highlights of the festival are programs on Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Asian movies about super heroes and music videos by Asian directors, and a Korean cinema retrospective.

Karina, Paolo Taviani, and Hong Kong director Tsui Hark will give talks.

While maintaining the event's international profile, organizers are also looking to give the struggling local industry a boost.

Once the pride of Asian cinema for its high-quality productions that could fend off Hollywood blockbusters in the domestic market, South Korean films are in a major slump.

In Seoul, seven out of the 10 biggest box office hits in the first half of the year were imports, according to the latest edition of the Korean Film Council's quarterly newsletter.

In May, Korean films accounted for a measly 7.7 percent of the total box office, overshadowed by the Hollywood movies "Iron Man," "Speed Racer" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

Korean productions made US$12.3 million in export sales in 2007, about half of the US$24.5 million in 2006.

Organizers of the Busan event - which retains the old spelling of the port city's name - hope to help stem the decline by promoting Korean projects at the festival.

The film market that runs alongside the film festival will showcase five local productions to investors.

Another side event that matches filmmakers with investors, the Pusan Promotion Plan, has accepted a record five Korean projects, out of a total of 30.

The Busan festival itself, however, does not appear to be affected by the local industry's downturn.

The budget is up 1 billion won (US$830,000) from last year, at 8.9 billion won (US$7.4 million). Its lineup of 316 movies is a record high, up from 271 last year, and the festival is hosting 19 more world premieres than at the event in 2007.

And organizers are breaking ground for a new permanent center for the festival comprising three buildings and an outdoor stage, which has a price tag of 15 billion won (US$12.5 billion).

The festival will end on Oct. 10.