By Lee Hyo-won
BUSAN ― "The Gift to Stalin", the first ever Kazakh film to be invited to the Pusan (Busan) International Film Festival (PIFF), opened the 13th annual event Thursday. This endearing, family-friendly film shows that something classic is never out of style: historical drama unearths the past for Kazakh and provides a window to a new world for the Korean audience, while the politically correct, good old traditional celebration of virtue in times of adversity appeals to crowds of all backgrounds.
The namesake "gift" here is no ordinary birthday present, but a Hiroshima-style atomic test bombing carried out in Kazakhstan in August 1949 for Stalin's 70th birthday. Director Rustem Abdrashev sheds light upon this harrowing event of ethnic persecution, but makes it palatable ― and all the more palpable ― as it is told through the story of a charming little boy.
"It's been a little over a decade since Kazakhstan's liberation. This is the first film to reflect upon the postwar Soviet years, and I wanted to show how the younger generation perceives that period. The movie premieres at this festival in order to reach a larger audience", Abdrashev told reporters following the press preview Thursday.
"Gift" has the soft touches and deeply affecting allure that correspond to South Korea's own such project, "Crossing"
. The first film to depict the plight of North Korean defectors, it also makes uncomfortable truths more approachable through the story of a young boy, without beautifying or skewing the facts in any way.
"I think Koreans and Kazakhstanians are kindred spirits", he continued. "After learning about the two Koreas, I always wanted to visit South Korea. I think Kazakhstan and Korea have similar cultures, lifestyles and values. There is a lot of pain in our histories, but we should remember it", he said.
Charming child actor Dalen Shintemirov plays the role of a Jewish boy, Sashka, who is relocated to Central Asia following the arrest of his parents. He was one of more than 1.2 million such minorities forced to move at the time, subtitles say. The arduous train journey takes the life of his ailing grandfather, and the boy is saved from being buried alive with the corpse by Kasym, a one-eyed Muslim laborer (Nurzhuman Ikhtimbaev).
Sashka is taken to a village that is home to orphaned ethnic and religious minorities, a haven for tolerance and virtue in the repressive Stalinist state. But the serenity of rural Kazakhstan is forever disrupted when the town receives an unexpected "gift" while commemorating Stalin's birthday. Sashka is again left all alone in the world.
The unforgettable gaze of the child makes the film a must-see. The nine-year-old was just as winsome in person at the conference. "I always dreamed of traveling and I'm so happy I was able to come here with just one phone call", said Shintemirov, grinning brightly. "I wanted to be an actor but I'm thinking I might become a director now", he said, drawing laughter from the director and his co-star, Kazakhstan's most representative actor Ikhtimbaev.
The actor is from the postwar Soviet years. "When I was young, I grew up watching the deportation of 30 minority groups. Today about 130 ethnic groups comprise Kazakhstan, including Koreans who were forced to move. My neighbor was a Korean director and I've acted opposite Korean actors in film", he said, adding that he is particularly impressed by the talent of Korean actresses. He said he found the actress in a Korean culinary TV drama being broadcast in Kazakhstan wonderful, presumably referring to Lee Young-ae
of "Jewel in the Palace" (Daejanggeum).
The 13th edition of PIFF marks a record lineup of 315 films from 60 countries. Over the years, there was mounting concern about the festival becoming increasingly commercial. PIFF's choice of "Gift" as its opening film is by far one of its most praiseworthy decisions, as it upholds the essential spirit of international film events, to celebrate the inspirational power of cinema to promote cross-cultural exchange and understanding.
"Gift" will continue to be screened throughout PIFF, which runs through Oct. 10. 99 minutes. No rating. Nikola-Film.