Although the fourth Pusan Festival—held last month—programmed films from 53 countries, South Korea’s bustling second city has rapidly become one of the world’s premier showcases for Asian cinema. But not without a few bumps—the local film community has been taking to the streets for over a year to protest the Motion Picture Association of America’s attempts to reduce (some say abolish) the screen quota system established to protect Korean cinema. (Theaters are obliged to show local films 146 days of the year.) Cho Jai-Hong’s white-hot doc Shoot the Sun by Lyric records the history of the movement, which has garnered over a million signatures and become a rallying point for Korean resentment of American cultural dominance. (In a phone interview, MPAA president Jack Valenti countered these charges by saying, “I’ve never called for the quota’s abolition, just for its reduction to a reasonable amount. After all, Korea doesn’t make that many films.”) Needless to say, with a weakened quota, even fewer are likely to be made.
The fest opened strongly with the world premiere of Lee Chang-Dong’s ambitious Peppermint Candy. Taking in 20 years of Korean history, the novelist’s second film darts back and forth fluidly between the present and 1979 to tell the story of Yongho, a tormented Everyman figure. The idealistic protagonistbecomes a brutal soldier who shoots a schoolgirl during the 1980 “Kwangju massacre” (when the army killed hundreds of demonstrators); he’s seen later as a rookie cop, torturing political dissidents, and finally as a failed businessman.
Jang Sun-Woon’s Lies, banned for public viewing outside the festival, was naturally the hottest ticket in town. It concerns a strenuous sadomasochistic affair between a virginal Seoul high-school student, eager for sex, and a thirtysomething sculptor. Adroitly crafted and accompanied by a pounding techno score, it’s often witty, if somewhat overextended. Far less sophisticated, Liu Bing-jian’s Men and Women has the aura of a simple home movie—understandably, for this humorous and likable little film about homosexuality in Chinese society was shot clandestinely in Beijing and smuggled out of the country in bits and pieces.
Galina Dolmatovskaya’s Ivan Mosjoukine or the Carnival Child, the most impressive doc at Pusan, recounts the life of the great Russian star of czarist cinema who emigrated to France in the wake of the revolution. It was on seeing the extraordinary Le brasier argent, directed by Mosjoukine, that Jean Renoir decided to abandon ceramics and try to make films. Dolmatovskaya’s affectionate bio, full of rare clips, will be on view in New York as part of December’s festival of Russian films at the DGA and Anthology.