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October 19, 2008|South China Morning Post|
Claim to frame|by Clarence Tsui

The Pusan film festival is justifiably proud of its reputation as more than just a showcase for new movies. But Clarence Tsui finds the event at a crossroads
As themed parties go, the Korean film night at this year’s Pusan International Film Festival proved to be both an enjoyable distraction and an effective showcase for contemporary South Korean cinema. On stage, a band featuring top Korean producers, filmmakers and actors pounded out tunes, to the delight of the attendees, and Korean Film Council (Kofic) staff weaved their way through the audience, dressed in costumes from well-known Korean films such as The Host, Forever the Moment, and I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK.

The evening proceeded swimmingly, and the guests left with their cravings for eats and entertainment well satisfied. Yet unlike at past editions of the festival, after-hours amusement was rather scarce. Although there were the usual bashes at embassies – including those of France, Germany, Canada and Indonesia – most Korean film companies, apart from CJ Entertainment and Mirovision, didn’t splash out on parties.
Such was the surfeit of revelry in the past two years that Kofic hadn’t hosted its own event since 2005. That it decided to do so this year reflects the extent to which the country’s film industry has been in the doldrums. It may sound glib to judge the fortunes of a cinema industry simply by the number of parties at a film festival, but since such festivities double up as celebrations of film companies’ slates not just for the past year but also the next one, it seems the conglomerates have little to shout about.

Kofic figures show only 30 to 35 films being made in South Korea this year – a sharp decline from 2006, when the tally hit 100. The drop is mirrored by local films’ plummeting share of the box office this year: the figure is expected to stand at about 40 per cent, down from 63.8 per cent in 2006. It’s amid such gloom that the festival opened on October 2. And, leaving aside the lack of sunshine for all 10 days of the event, there was a chill about the eerie quietness of the festival’s industry-geared parallel event, the Asian Film Market. It was attended by representatives of 132 companies from 28 countries, but wasn’t helped by the stock market crash which came as the festival reached its mid-point on October 6. Sales agents who set up stalls on three floors of the Seacloud Hotel almost all reported slow business.

Yet there was some relief for the festival’s organisers. Although the industry bemoaned the lack of wheeling and dealing, ordinary festival-goers’ enthusiasm for South Korea’s flagship cinematic event remained undimmed. The open-air stage on Haeundae beach may have been smaller than those at past editions of the festival, and fewer celebrities may have turned up, but there was still a rush for tickets and seats, especially during the national holiday weekend. The festival reported the highest-ever visitor numbers in its 13-year history, with more than 199,000 people attending 827 screenings of 315 films from 60 countries. The world economy may be crumbling, but the local appetite for film seems happily unaffected.

Kim Ji-seok, the festival’s programme director, says he is “satisfied” with the turnout and the response the audiences showed towards this year’s programme. “Not many companies have opened booths at the Asian Film Market, but the festival side has been different,” he says. “According to Korean cinema programmers, the quality of the films is better than last year. Even if the [local] film industry is getting worse, our new talents are doing excellently. This is very ironic, isn’t it?”

Several innovative South Korean productions made their premieres at the festival, including: Crush and Blush, a comedy about a misanthropic, unsightly and delusional schoolteacher’s cynical attempts to manoeuvre her way into the affections of a colleague; the Umberto Eco-inspired The Pit and the Pendulum, which sees a group of friends generating a web of stories to reconstruct the life of a former classmate; and Sisters on the Road, a road movie featuring two estranged stepsisters whose initial feuding turns into mutual empathy through revelations about their pasts – before the film takes an unexpected twist.

Kim says it’s inevitable that the festival is as much a cinephile’s event as an industry fixture, and that the “real role” of film festivals is to “make discoveries” – which may explain why it opened with The Gift to Stalin, from Kazakhstan, and why Kazakh film mogul Gulnara Sasenova received its Asian Filmmaker of the Year award.

But the organisers’ attempts to become arbiters of taste don’t stop there; special showcases for this year included a series on Asian omnibus films (featuring Thai horrorfest 4BIA, Hong Kong’s A Decade of Love, the fourth instalment of South Korean short series If You Were Me and 9808 Anthology of 10th Year Indonesian Reform, a collection of documentary and fictional shorts commemorating the 10th anniversary of the political upheaval that toppled the kleptocratic dictatorship of Suharto).

Perhaps more surprising was Superheroes in Asia, a series of films from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan, in which the protagonists have paranormal attributes.

“The quality of these [superhero] films is not very high – in fact, some of them are very, very bad. But it doesn’t matter. What we want to talk about is the cultural and economic backgrounds to why they were produced,” Kim says. The point of such showcases, he says, is to “reopen people’s eyes” to Asian cinema. “Our films are often observed and studied by western critics and scholars, and they are usually seen through western eyes,” he says. “[But] we need our Asian eyes to rediscover Asian cinema.”

Faced with a slew of regional film festivals – from long-running events in Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo to upstarts such as Bangkok’s and Shanghai’s – Kim says Pusan differentiates itself through its position as more than just a showcase. The festival manages the US$900,000 Asian Cinema Fund, established last year to provide financial backing for independent filmmakers engaged in script development and post-production, with a fund dedicated solely to documentary-makers. Among last year’s recipients were Aditya Assarat’s Wonderful Town and Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis, the former winning the Tiger Award at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival and the latter shortlisted for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

The fund adds to the Pusan Promotion Plan, a programme that allows a selection of filmmakers to meet potential investors to discuss projects in development. Now in its 11th year, the Pusan Promotion Plan this time featured entries from South Korean stalwart Lee Chang-dong, mainland Chinese director Zhang Yuan and Malaysian auteur Yasmin Ahmad.

Despite the quiet mood, the festival managed to lift the gloom somewhat for South Korea’s film industry. The ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of Busan Film Centre, for instance, highlights the festival’s dedication to the development of the country’s film culture, with the buildings – due for completion in 2012 – providing a permanent home for the event and for the Asian Film Academy, which will transform itself from small festival-time workshops into a fully fledged film school. There will also be space for a film archive and cinemas showing a mix of arthouse and mainstream movies. And although the Pusan festival seems to have maintained its position as one of the most important events in the Asian film industry, Kofic chairman Kang Han-sup says it “must obtain a new role and new vision to compete with prestigious European festivals”. Festival organisers “must have a vision to be the No1 festival in Asia or even the world,” says Kang, whose three-year tenure at Kofic began in July. He adds that the festival, which has a budget of 9 billion won (HK$56.4 million), should aim higher. As it stands now, he says, there is a contradiction between the resources the festival has at its disposal and its spirit.

“Pusan is now competing with less glamorous festivals, like Sundance. The aims seem to be towards a less commercial [direction] … I’m sure the organisers are excellent people, but they must reorient and reinvent the festival.”

But Kim disagrees with suggestions that Pusan should set its sights on Cannes and Venice. “Definitely not. Never,” he says, when asked to respond to Kang’s hopes for Pusan. “There are many reasons why. First of all, those are important festivals, but I’d like to ask you – how about the audience? Is there any chance for people to go see films in Cannes? No. It’s only for industry people. But support from the audience in Pusan is very important. The second reason is that we don’t want a competitive film festival here. We have one – New Currents – but it’s to support young directors’ new projects only. If we change, we will fail because every film company will think of the three main competitive festivals first.”


October 8th, 2008|The Hollywood Reporter|
Pusan fest’s best offered new look

By Maggie Lee and Elizabeth Kerr

BUSAN, South Korea — With an avalanche of films and sections this year, even the most diligent viewer would feel snowed under. To give an overview of the quality of selections is difficult because it’s still touching the tip of the iceberg even after watching 30-40 films.

It’s worth taking one’s eyes off competition films to check out showcases of Kazakhstan, the Philippines and Indonesia. The Philippines is particularly strongly represented, offering modestly budgeted films with alternative content and aesthetics from the gritty digital fest films set in slums. “Baby Angelo,” “Confessional” and “100” give an idea of the versatility of Philippine independent cinema.

Similarly, Indonesian films develop subject matter distinct from the national mainstream, which is haunted by trashy horrors and satiated with saccharine romances. “Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly” voices the Indonesian-Chinese experience in the director’s unique visual symbolism. “Fiksi” tries to play with the erotic-psychological thriller. “Chants of Lotus” is a female-staffed project that explores issues of women while situating their experiences in different regional and cultural contexts.

The omnibus retrospective program also is something that other festivals can help to expand in order to give more exposure to creatively and politically engaging works like “9808 Anthology of 10th Year Indonesian Reform.”

Some festival regulars complain that to maintain a cutting-edge reputation, programrs are breeding a pseudo-genre of films that are self-consciously artsy, long and static. Taking a sampling from New Currents and Korean Cinema Today, what scores are works that don’t set their artistic sights and production budgets too high but concentrate on character-driven scripts that use core protagonists and few locations yet manage to frame the characters within a strikingly cinematic topography. 

“Oishi Man” one of the discoveries in Panorama, is such a film. Set in Sapporo and capturing breathtaking snowy scenery, it echoes the quirky humor and Zen rhythm of Japanese independent directors like Nobuhiro Yamashita but remains recognizably Korean in the leading role’s development. “Naked of Defenses,” in New Currents, uses a concise film language to tell a deeply emotional story of female bonding and is extraordinary in its use of music (or lack of it). The death-focused features “Members of the Funeral” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” display originality, and “Miao Miao” charms.

Viewing along these lines, one of the greatest delights of the festival turned out to be a market screening. “My Dear Enemy,” by Lee Yoon-ki, who won in New Currents in 2004 with his debut “This Charming Girl.” “Enemy” creates a warm rapport between knockout leads Jeon Do-youn and Ha Jung-woo in a mellow urban romantic interlude.

Since Pusan attracts such an international audience, the difference in taste has given rise to interesting dissension in opinion over certain films, such as “Cape No. 7,” “Crush and Blush” and “100.” While Asian audiences embraced them for the local humor, sharp dialogue (which does not translate well into subtitles) and melodramatic content, film professionals from Europe and the U.S. expressed exasperation with their “triteness” or loudness.

It would be interesting to hold informal talk events to foster greater exchange about viewing cultures and critical criteria.

To forgive and not forget

Rizal Iwan, Jakarta Post

Ten filmmakers have come together to make “9808”, an anthology of short films commemorating the 10th anniversary of the May 1998 incident.

To Indonesians, the May 1998 incident — in which riots broke out in Jakarta, leading to the murder and rape of hundreds of Chinese women, as well as to the fall of Soeharto — may have the same wattage as the 9/11 tragedy.

Lives were lost in order to shed light on national skeletons and questionable government policies, giving way to a new zeitgeist, which we proudly refer to as the Reform.

The time is right then — reminiscent of the 2002 film 11’09″01-September Eleven, in which 11 international filmmakers compiled a collection of short films related to the tragedy — for Indonesian filmmakers to team up to make 9808, an anthology of shorts to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the May 1998 incident.

The idea for this project was initiated last September in a discussion between three filmmakers: award-winning screenwriter Prima Rusdi, acclaimed short film director Edwin, and prominent video artist Hafiz.

As quoted from their website, the project is expected to initiate a dialogue within the public, especially among students, in an attempt to empower the public to address issues and to speak up through the audio-visual medium.

“We have no intention of reopening old wounds. We just would like to have an idea of how we perceive (May 1998) as a moment,” explained Edwin.

They extended invitations to a bunch of filmmakers. Those on board were provided with a simple brief, and the filmmakers were given full creative liberty. Each is responsible for his or her own film, including the funding.

“We just provided the big concept and some help, if needed,” said Prima, who managed to get senior editor Sastha Sunu and composer Thoersi Argeswara to help with some final editing and scoring work.

They were delighted at how quickly the filmmakers responded to their invitations. One of them even submitted his finished film not more than two weeks after getting the brief.

The result is 10 short films, each offering a unique interpretation of the May ’98 incident and its impact on the people after 10 years. These shorts, Prima hoped, complement each other in conveying one collective statement. What is interesting is that none of the films get really political. Instead, they translate the political context into some deeply personal accounts.

“The films focus more on ordinary people, who in one way or another were affected by the incident,” observed Prima.

This transformation from the political to the personal is probably best depicted in Wisnu Suryapratama’s Kucing 9808, Catatan Seorang (Mantan) Demonstran (Chronicles of a (former) Demonstrator). Wisnu, who in 1998 was a keen activist in the student movement, scrutinizes himself 10 years later; now a husband and a father, caught up in mundane routines and questioning whether the demonstrator in him still exists.

Another side of a student activist’s life, or in this case, his lack thereof, is explored in Ucu Agustin’s documentary Yang Belum Usai (An Unfinished One), in which the mother of a student demonstrator who was killed in a shooting incident is still looking for justice 10 years on.

A slightly different take on student activism is offered by Steven Pillar Setiabudi’s sharp and daring doco Sekolah Kami, Hidup Kami (Our School, Our Lives).

A group of high school students in Solo formed an underground organization to collect evidence and demonstrate against their corrupt principal. The film is astonishing proof of how a situation not unlike the May ’98 incident continues to repeat itself 10 years later, on a much more grass-roots level; and how people as young as in their high school years are already fighting to make a difference.

The film is charmingly optimistic, yet at the same time closes on a note of pessimism, when the kids refuse to have a future in politics and question whether this kind of idealism will survive once they become a part of the establishment.

Anggun Priambodo presents multiple personal views on May 1998, with Di Mana Saya? (Where Was I?), as he takes us through photo slide shows and interviews with people about what they were doing at the time of the incident.

His film shows how the tragedy reverberates way beyond the country. “Indonesians living abroad were also affected, some of them even held a demonstration of their own,” said Anggun.

Undeniably, May 1998 also had a huge impact on the Indonesian ethnic-Chinese community, and the messages addressing this issue are various in so many different levels. Edwin’s lyrical A Trip to the Wound treats the tragedy as a wound, but not necessarily a bad thing.

“If you can still feel your wound, that means you are still human,” he said.

Ifa Isfansyah’s Happiness Morning Light is a bittersweet tale of a woman whose mother was killed in a riot, who is trying to escape the pain and finds happiness in the most unlikely place.  Ariani Darmawan’s tongue-in-cheek Sugiharti Halim presents the irony in the hassle of having to “Indonesianize” your Chinese name.

The change of reigning power instigated by the May incident also resulted in the Chinese New Year (Imlek) being recognized as a public holiday. Lucky Kuswandi ponders the impact of this policy, and of Imlek itself, in his film A Letter of Unprotected Memories.

“On one hand it’s an acknowledgement or perhaps an apology. It’s a good thing, but at the same time, I hardly feel any change. It’s just another day off for me,” he mused.

He also sees his film as an analysis of the Chinese tradition and of the community itself. Imlek comes with a set of traditional rules and customs, many of which his generation can no longer relate to.

“I made this film to express my feelings, and also as my way of understanding Imlek,” he concluded.

“Since May 1998, we have come to embrace the Chinese culture, but still in very artificial ways. It makes so much difference to have people coming from the background to take us right into their issues and real problems,” said Prima.

“The films in the anthology reflect how the May incident is still relevant even after 10 years. They go to show that now people are willing to identify and confront their problems, instead of accepting things the way they are,” explained Edwin, to which Prima added, “But it’s just the first chapter of a massive undertaking, so it will continue to have relevance for a long time to come.”

That is why the people behind the film specially requested that each screening be accompanied by a discussion session.

“What we really need is audience responses. We hope this project has enough layers to garner responses from people of various backgrounds,” Prima said.

She closed on a note that, surprisingly, none of the films exude anger in their tone. Perhaps, 10 years after the incident, it is time to forgive, but it is just as important not to forget.

The first screenings of “9808” will be held at Kineforum, Taman Ismail Marzuki, from 13 to 20 May 2008. The films will then be shown in Bandung, Yogyakarta and Semarang. Log on to for further info.

Films tell the lost history of May riots

Ary Hermawan, The Jakarta Post,  Jakarta, Sat, 05/17/2008

The Holocaust did happen and was historically well-documented by historians and its survivors with their published journals and testimonies.

Yet, there are people — the Iranian president is only one of them — who believe the event was a grand hoax.

History, we are thus reminded, is not always forgotten; it is sometimes denied, especially when the truth is hidden by ceaseless propaganda and buried in the bulk of bent information by those in power.

An anthology of self-funded short films and one commercial film were separately screened on May 13-14 to commemorate — as well as remind the public not to fall into a state of denial of — two of the darkest days in the country’s history that occurred on the exact same dates a decade ago.

A group of filmmakers, who voluntarily worked on a project called Proyek Payung (Umbrella Project), screened 9808 — a compilation of short films (mostly feature and documentary) that reflect on the May 1998 riots.

A day after the first screening of 9808 at Kineforum, Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center on May 13, Flix Pictures (producer of teen flick Dealova) screened May — the first middle-of-the-road film that dares to take the horrific May riots as its background — at Studio XXI at the EX Plaza.

Each of the film directors said they did not intend to open old wounds and that their films were made “carefully”. They added their films would hopefully not offend certain groups in society and, more importantly, be presented in the spirit of “forgiving”.

Still, they acknowledged they were dealing with a thorny issue that might upset some people.

Both 9808 and May are vivid and blunt when bringing to the screen the collective memories of the 1998 riots — the looting, the burning of buildings and the violence targeted toward the Chinese-Indonesians and their properties — through the use of media images, documentation and testimonies.

The case is different when they try to remind us of the most gruesome violence that occurred during the riots; the gang-rapes of Chinese-Indonesian women.

This highly sensitive issue is ghastly murky: When the fact-finding team of the May Riots revealed that the rapings of Chinese women indeed occurred during the incident, confirming what had been widely rumored previously, a number of people, including Muslim hardliners, quickly denied the reports, saying there was no proof.

The reports became fuzzier when the outraged international community discovered that photos of the atrocious gang-rapes said to have happen in Jakarta, which were widely spread on the Internet and even displayed at a formal exhibition in Singapore, were false and had actually been taken from porn sites.

Meanwhile, the rape victims, for the sake of their dignity and in fear of further traumatic abuse, chose to remain silent, leaving the women’s activists with only pseudonymous and third-party testimonies in their fight for justice.

The public, meanwhile, was left in the dark: Did the gang-rapes happen? If so, how widespread were they? And were they really carried out systematically?

There are three films in 9808 that touch the anti-Chinese issue, but only one, however, that implicitly tells the sexual violence suffered by Chinese women during the riots.

The other two films go far back to the years before the riots to highlight the long history of racial discrimination against ethnic Chinese under the New Order regime.

Huan Chen Guang (Happiness Morning Light), written by Ifa Isfansyah, tells the story of a Chinese girl named Chen Guang, who decides to leave Beijing for South Korea in an effort to erase the sad memories of her mother, who was killed in the May riots.

In the opening of the film, Chen listens to news reports from a Chinese-language radio station that Chinese-Indonesian women were gang-raped on the streets in broad daylight.

The story is not specifically about the rape victims, but rather about their families who held on to the memories of their brutally and unjustly murdered loved ones.

Lucky Kuswandi with his piece A Letter of Unprotected Memories, which depicts the Imlek ceremony, and Ariani Darmawan with her piece Sugiharti Halim, which ludicrously mocks the stupidity of the New Order’s policy to “Indonesianize” Chinese names, told the audience after the premiere screening that they just “wanted to share what they felt about their ethnicity”. Both are Chinese-Indonesians.

The most intriguing piece in the 9808 anthology is Edwin’s Trip To The Wound, which tells the story of Shilla (Ladia Cherryl), whose strange hobby is collecting the stories behind people’s wounds.

One night, she meets Carlo, who in erotic scenes peruses her body only to find that the Chinese-looking Shilla has no wounds. The story leads to the assumption that Shilla was a rape victim, but Edwin insists that she was not.

“It’s a film about a wound, which is a universal thing,” he said, but adding that he leaves his work open for interpretation.

May is a film about the controversial gang-rapes. It follows a Chinese girl named May (played by debutante Jenny Chang), who was raped during the May riots and fled to Malaysia after being saved by a foreign journalist, who found her crying alone and frightened in a dark tunnel.

The story is centered around her life and the relationships with her lover, Antares (Yama Carlos), her mother, Cik Bing (Tutie Kirana) and her son Tristan. May is not sure who fathered Tristan; Antares, or one of the strangers who raped her.

Unlike the poetic Happiness Morning Light and Trip To The Wound, May is more blunt in describing the tragedy.

“I tried to make it more light and popular. This is basically a love story. It’s not really that arty in the sense of, you know, that other kind of art,” director Viva Westi said.

However, she added that she tried to make the riot scenes carefully and avoided violent images in the movie: The chaotic and tense situation surrounding the riots were mostly depicted through television images and glass reflections.

Viva said no rape victims had been interviewed in the making of the movie and stressed that the main character was fictional. But she said she believed the rapes truly happened.

May is not her first film to touch on a sensitive issue.

“Actually, I made a short film on this issue when I was still studying at the Jakarta Arts Institute in 1998. At that time, it was difficult to find a rape victim who wanted to talk,” she said. Her only clue at the time was a letter sent to Kompas daily from a doctor who asked whether he should abort the pregnancy of a rape victim.

A decade later, Viva said she still couldn’t find a victim willing to talk about the atrocious gang-rapes. But she made the film anyway, which she said is actually a story about love, guilt and forgiveness.


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