Pusan West shines light on Korean cinema

The Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-woon admires the oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino and readily acknowledges that “Kill Bill” influenced Kim’s own recent film, the stylishly sanguine “A Bittersweet Life.” Kim also cites Brian De Palma’s gangster classic “Scarface” in shaping his film’s frenzied final shoot-out.

But like many contemporary Korean directors who came of age while ingesting Hollywood genre films, Kim strives to maintain a degree of independence from the L.A. dream factory. Although Hollywood has courted him since the breakout success of “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” his 2008 convention-tweaking “kimchi Western” set in 1930s Manchuria, the director shows a certain cautiousness toward the way the U.S. film industry does business.

“Hollywood films seem to solve every problem with money. That’s why Hollywood is looking to international filmmakers for creativity,” Kim said through an interpreter during an interview over the weekend at Chapman University’s inaugural Pusan West festival of Korean film.

“Korean people like to see their own stories,” Kim continued. “But specifically I think Korean films are as good as Hollywood films, as well-made and commercially [viable].”

Kim’s remarks about the useful creative tensions between East and West filmmaking traditions underscored a major theme of Pusan West. A three-day showcase of screenings, panels and Q&A sessions, the festival was a joint venture between South Korea’s prestigious Pusan International Film Festival and Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, which organized and hosted the event at its home base in the city of Orange.

It provided a rare U.S. platform for some of Korea’s most accomplished, internationally lauded young directors, including Kim and Park Chan-wook, who attended a screening of his latest work, the vampire-existentialist thriller “Thirst,” and received the festival’s career-achievement award.

Representing an earlier generation was Lee Doo-yong, one of the first Korean filmmakers to gain outside prominence. A screening of a largely restored version of Lee’s 1980 political detective story, “Last Witness,” which had been cut to ribbons by government censors when it originally premiered, helped wrap up the festival on Sunday evening.

The festival offered evidence of why Korean cinema in recent years has emerged as one of Asia’s most dynamic and varied, reflecting renewed global interest in a nation that has survived repeated foreign invasions and Cold War partitioning.

Screenings ranged from gangster epics and horror films to a documentary (Lee Chung-ryoul’s anthropomorphically astute “Old Partner,” about an aging farmer’s desperate reliance on his battered ox), a playful love-triangle comedy (Kim Dong-won’s “Drifting Away) and an omnibus film about artistic obsession (Park Jin-sung’s “Evil Spirit; VIY”), as well as Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother,” Korea’s official entry in this year’s Academy Award for best foreign film.

“If you want to get tuned into contemporary Korean cinema, you can do it in three days,” said Bob Bassett, professor and dean of the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.

Pusan West, which drew a mix of students, faculty and a few curious outsiders, also served as a kind of coming-out party for Dodge College’s burgeoning global ambitions. The school operates a satellite campus in Singapore and has exchanges with colleges in Seoul and Taipei, Taiwan.

Bassett credits Nam Lee, a former Korean journalist who’s now a Dodge assistant professor of film studies, with helping to bring the festival about through her longtime personal connections with the Pusan International Film Festival, staged annually in South Korea’s second-largest city.

Like Argentina, Spain and other countries that have experienced cultural renaissances following years of dictatorship, South Korea has witnessed a vibrant new wave of filmmaking after the democratization of recent years, Nam said. Young Korean filmmakers now in their 30s and 40s “were blessed with this freedom, so they were the lucky generation, in my mind,” she said.

While the festival celebrated this recent artistic outburst, some suggested it also served as a reminder for Korean filmmakers to keep holding up a mirror to the issues besetting their complex country.

“There is no longera limit on any themes or any issues like that,” said Lee Doo-yong, the veteran director. “This challenge of exposing the shameful things and problems with our society should continue as well.”