It would be incredibly appropriate for the first entry into a blog about Korean film would focus on a celebration of the industry – and that’s exactly what we have here, with a report from the Busan International Film Festival  (BIFF) 2011.

Busan, for those unaware, is the second largest city in Korea and has hosted the festival for the last 16 years. During that time it has grown considerably, initially using available cinema screens in the Nampo-dong (남포동) area to later broadening out to the famous tourist destination of Haeundae (해운대).

Running from the 6th to the 14th of October, and showcasing over 300 films, this year also saw a number of ‘firsts.’ The first time the festival was held without founder/coordinator Kim Dong Ho (김동호) since his retirement; the first time ‘Pusan/PIFF’ was changed to ‘Busan/BIFF’ in a long-overdue Romanisation change; and the first unveiling of the exclusive Busan Cinema Centre, that had been under construction since 2008. The centre was also used for the opening red carpet ceremony and opening film ‘Always’ (오직 그대만), tickets for which sold out with 7 seconds.

The founder of BIFF, Kim Dong Ho (김동호)

However BIFF operates a great service for cineastes. While 80% of tickets can be bought online, 20% are available on the day at the ticket office. Also worth mentioning are the price of the tickets; ₩6,000 (£3.28/$5.12) for a regular ticket and ₩8,000 (£4.38/$6.82) for a 3D feature. Compared with the London Film Festival (£6-20/₩11,010-36,703/$9.46-31.52), and the New York Film Festival ($8-50/₩9,316-58,225/£5.07-31.72), the tickets at Busan are a real bargain.

With a few days spare, I visited the area early only to find that the cinema centre was still under construction. But Korean builders are nothing if not diligent, and the centre was (for the most part) completed on time. It’s certainly an impressive building, with 4 indoor screens and 1 outdoor that seats 4000 people. In the basement is the Korean Film Archive, which focuses on Korean film history with the option to buy old films and memorabilia. Designed by Austrian architect Coop Himmelblau, the Cinema Centre cost ₩160 billion ($136 million) and it shows – it really is an astounding and stylish building. It’s also nice to see a country invest and develop the infrastructure of their film industry when others countries – notably England – are withdrawing funding and closing institutions designed to support new productions.

The new Busan Cinema Centre

Before the special red carpet opening of the festival, there was a pre-opening event on Haeundae (해운대) beach. Actors and actresses from different countries were present, fireworks were lit, and prayers of good luck (complete with incense and pig’s head) were conducted. It was a relatively calm and intimate affair, unlike the spectacular ceremony the following day.

The bright lights of the red carpet opening event

Despite the 8pm opening time, I decided to explore the venue at 1.30pm…which turned out to be too late. Crowds of people were already in lines at the ticket office in an attempt to score last minute invites to the ceremony. Flocks of teenage girls were crammed along the railings next to the red carpet, and their hysteria made it virtually impossible to get a glimpse of the stars as they made their way along the carpet. In spite of this, the event was incredible and lasted hours, followed by the screening of ‘Always’ (오직 그대만), and the entire event was reported by a large number of media outlets.

The pre-opening ‘good luck’ ceremony

Sporting a pre-booked ticket, the next morning I visited the cinema centre once more to watch ‘Hara Kiri: The Death of Samurai’ (3D) by Takeshi Miike. The interior of the building is futuristic in the style of ‘Minority Report’, despite not being entirely finished. Armed with a ticket, a bottle of vitamin water and some peanut butter squid, I ventured into the theater itself, which proved to be a very comfortable viewing experience.

After the film, I intended to explore the rest of the building including the Korean Archive, yet due to the continuing construction work it still hadn’t been finished. Worse still, the Archive didn’t have a kiosk at BIFF Village on the beach, unlike last year. Instead, more commercial firms were present that had little to do with film, which was a shame.

Time constraints meant that unfortunately I couldn’t stay to enjoy the entire festival, yet the opening few days were easily the biggest and most impressive in its 16 year history. It will certainly be interesting to see how the event manages to improve further next year after setting the standard so high.

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