From Ashes of Korean Film Festival, Competitor Is Born
By Mark Russel
With Hollywood action films dominating screens all over the world each summer, most fans of art-house cinema would be happy to have an alternative to blockbusters.
Last week, South Korea had two art film festivals running during the same 10-day period, but thanks to a collision of art and politics, this didn't make anyone happy.
When Hong Gun Pyo, the mayor of Puchon, dismissed Kim Hong Joon, the director of the much-loved Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, known as PiFan, in late December, he probably expected a few angry letters to newspapers, maybe a petition or two; within a few months, all would be forgotten. Instead, Mr. Kim fought back.
He and his programmers created the Real Fantastic Film Festival, known as RealFanta, and scheduled it in Seoul for mid-July, the same period as PiFan in Puchon. Mr. Kim was supported by the Korean Motion Pictures Producers' Association, which helped ensure that no Korean films were shown at PiFan. A Canadian film, "The Dark Hours", was named best feature at PiFan. At RealFanta, the best feature award went to "It's All Gone, Pete Tong", a Canadian and British co-production.
Since its inception nearly nine years ago, the PiFan festival in Puchon, a suburb of Seoul just west of the city, has been the second-biggest film festival in Korea, after the Pusan International Film Festival. As a showcase for the odd, fanciful and often grotesque, PiFan earned a more enthusiastic following than many of the more staid, respectable festivals around the country, typically attracting more than 80,000 people over its 10-day run.
This year, however, because of the controversy and a heavy boycott by the local press and entertainment industry, PiFan attracted about 30,000 people to indoor screenings (and another 30,000 at the outdoor screenings) during its run, July 14 to July 23. City officials attended, but almost no celebrities.
In contrast, RealFanta received substantial industry support, with attendance by Korean heavyweights, including the actors Lee Byung-hun
and Ahn Sung-ki
, the directors Kim Jee-woon
("A Bittersweet Life
") and Im Kwon-taek
("Chiwhaseon" - "Chihwaseon
") and many producers. Working on a shoestring budget, RealFanta sold more than 11,400 tickets over its run, which also ended July 23.
Mr. Kim said the problems started at PiFan last year, when he forgot the newly elected mayor's name for a moment during his speech in the opening ceremonies.
The mayor fired Mr. Kim, citing Mr. Kim's busy schedule as dean of the film school at the Korean National University of Arts. Later, his office added that it was displeased with PiFan's emphasis on strange fare, which it described as inappropriate for families.
Mr. Kim and others, however, point out that the mayor had run on the slogan "Puchon - More than Just Culture", and say his conservative ties did not mesh well with the liberal bent of PiFan's organizers.
In any case, Mr. Kim was out. PiFan programmers and nearly all its major staff members insisted that the mayor reinstate him and promise not to interfere anymore or they would leave, too. Soon they all resigned.
The city's first choice to replace Mr. Kim resigned days after his appointment in the wake of continued vocal opposition to PiFan. Eventually the movie director Zeong Cho Sin took on the task of trying to put together and run the 200-film festival with only five months to prepare. But Mr. Zeong, best known for his "American Pie"-style sex comedy "Wet Dreams", faced difficulties beyond the short preparation time; many filmmakers and producers continued to support RealFanta rather than PiFan.
RealFanta made its home in the Seoul Art Cinema, an imposing, 40-year-old concrete box that spans a major downtown road. Until recently it was called the Hollywood Theater and was more notable for discrete sexual encounters than for great films.
"It was amazing", said Creta Kim, the RealFanta programmer. "We had 11,400 people come to our festival. We had no money and no government support, but still the people chose us. One Internet site full of our supporters raised money to buy eggs to feed people at the midnight screening. You could really see our support on the Internet bulletin boards".
RealFanta's midnight screening, part of an all-night event ending about 7 a.m., was similar to the popular all-night Marathon
s programmed by PiFan. But PiFan suffered greatly from the negative publicity, and its attendance dropped. In his five-minute speech that closed the festival, Mr. Zeong announced, "I said I would take all the criticism and apologize for any inconvenience", and went on to apologize about 10 times.
But many in the foreign media praised PiFan, which has typically received more than $2 million in government support. RealFanta organizers say they put together their 60-film festival on just $200,000.
"It was worth it, though, to be free from any controlling power", Mr. Kim said. "We're thinking of having the festival again next year. We want to find support from the private sector. We want to stay autonomous".