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Rainclouds Over Pusan

Vaunted by many as the hottest tickets on the Asian festival circuit, the first two installments of the Pusan International Film Festival had seemed to magnify everything newly golden in Korean film culture: the democratic reforms that loosened censorship's belt, the new New Wave of filmmakers, the timely rediscovery of forgotten past-masters, and the rebirth of box-office enthusiasm. PIFF3 doubled down on an apparent sure bet, raising the number of films from last year's 150 to over 200, and upping the foreign guest list from 350 to nearly 600.

If only someone had done the math. Somehow, the ranks of the festival's still fabulously friendly volunteers dwindled to a third of their previous strength, the number of available 16mm projectors in Pusan--South Korea's second-largest city--mysteriously dropped to one (forcing annoying pauses between every reel change), and theater mismanagement and internecine rancor were knee-deep well before typhoon Yanni blew in midweek, closing the massive outdoor screening venue at Haeundae and forcing the festival to swallow millions of wonin refunds. The only things left undampened by these unfortunate events were the (still predominantly female and late-teenaged) audience turnout for anything Japanese (even Shunji Iwai's nauseatingly needy April Story) and the high quality of occasional South Korean films.

Though buried in a program overburdened with mainstream hogwash, the year's two biggest box-office successes--Park Ki-hyung's Whispering Corridors and Hur Jin-ho's Christmas in August--jerked tears and sent jolts exactly on cue. Park's shocker about a dead schoolgirl's revenge on her abusive teachers and classmates incited the ire of various educators' groups, but won its audience with audaciously up-to-the-minute slang; Hur's moving portrait of a terminally ill photographer's unresolved feelings for a flighty meter maid made melodrama seem unapologetically honest.

PIFF's clear highlight was Hong Sang-soo's The Power of Kangwon Province, the director's sublimely detailed follow-up to The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. An account of a young woman's fitful affair with a feckless untenured professor, the film cross-indexes a variety of callused emotions and aborted intimacies in a way that is reinforced by its constantly immobile camera. Pusan may have felt a bit soggy this year, but it's hardly washed up; while it's toweling off, some savvy U.S. distributor should consider bringing Hong Sang-soo in from out of the rain.

 
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