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Thursday, October 08, 2009
No kimchi jokes please: Pusan is the place to be
Some locals describe Pusan, somewhat rosily, as "the summer resort." First-time visitors to this seaside city in South Korea may wince, however, as the plane flies over a stretch of bleak concrete blocks and overhanging highways and lands at the equally drab Gimhae airport. Talk about the power of imagination: Fourteen years ago the local government of Pusan envisioned the city as a location for Asia's premier film festival, perhaps with the sparkling glitz of Cannes or Venice as a model. They drafted a blueprint of a flagship movie event that would steal the torch from Hong Kong and Japan, and that would reinforce the staus of Korea as a roaring tiger in the global entertainment industry.
We can make as many kimchi-related jokes as we like, but against the odds Pusan actually succeeds. Big time. The Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) is now the most influential film festival in Asia, a beach-side jamboree that film professionals from all across Asia have to visit if they want to remain "in the picture" and to keep their vast network of dealmaking running. PIFF is significant both as a cultural event (most screenings are packed by locals) and as a business engine for the global film industry -- this is a place where investors, directors and producers congregate to meet and drink a copious amount of soju and strike multi-million-dollar deals. In short, Korea treats its movie festival the same way it treats their electronic or mobile phone markets. It's about movies, and it's also about keeping the economic wheel spinning. Never mind that in the bustling alley behind one of the main hotels of the festival, vendors still hawk live eels and abominable octopuses (to be eaten alive, in many cases), Pusan looks ahead toward the future where Korea rules.
Naturally it's not always a smooth ride. This year, there's a concern that the centre-right government of president Lee Myung-bak is keeping a watchful eye on the left-leaning PIFF, and the festival, with the backing of the local government, has to rally support from Korean stars and directors (which is not that hard, to be honest, since nobody likes their own government). The result is that, to prove its importance and influence, Pusan is determined to make this year the biggest festival ever.
I will land in Pusan on Saturday (Oct 10) and will hopefully take my time off from the endless series of heavenly BBQ beef to blog from there.
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