At this year’s BIFF, our FIPRESCI jury was asked to judge the New Currents section of debut features by Asian filmmakers.  The first film to grab my attention was Filipino director Loy Arcenas’ Niño, a very compressed melodrama about a group of musicians who work themselves up to a pitch of hysteria.  Naturally it builds towards an operatic climax, but even before then it is clear that the timing of this film is based on musical structures rather than plot concerns.  Niño divided the jury; while a couple of us admired its slightly insane, claustrophobic intensity, others performed choking gestures to describe its suffocating feel.  Interestingly, we all agreed that the film was both delirious and stifling – it was just a matter of whether we disliked that effect, or perversely enjoyed it.

Another polarising film was Siu Pham’s Here …or There?, a puzzling exploration of European expat fantasies.  A Swiss film director (Jean-Luc Mello) pursues a respectable cultural life in Vietnam, searching for subjects in a beach town.  From the beginning he is tweaked by strange impulses (stroking his own neck like a violin), but gradually his desires seem to drift towards prostitution and paedophilia – or is that just local paranoia about foreigners?  Several jurors felt that this unleashed male daydream was reprehensible; I personally found it a lucid and damning portrait of expat entitlement, a powerful statement from its 63-year-old female director.

In the end, the winning film was Mourning by Iranian director Morteza Farshbaf, a young protégé of Abbas Kiarostami.  This study of a mute couple may have been a little too rigidly controlled, but it was astonishingly assured for a debut.  Farshbaf’s style is already resolved and mature: every frame expresses a coherent, compact visual meaning.  I tend to feel uncomfortable with disability being used as a metaphor for emotional conflict; however, Mourning examines the intimate details of the couple’s life in addition to using muteness as a device.

I spent most of my non-jury hours watching the fearlessly programmed sidebar of “extreme” Portuguese cinema, which ranged from the superficially banal tales of Manoel de Oliveira to the hot gay thriller O Fantasma.  The latter was one of the most exciting films of the festival, a drama in which the erotically obsessed protagonist becomes aroused by any form of friction: rubber on steel, clothing on enamel, skin on skin.  The film retains its darkness even as this man turns into a klutzy superhero, scaling walls and rooftops in search of a thrill.

BIFF is a festival which dominates the entire city – there are red carpet trails all over Busan to mark the location of screens.  There were numerous parties at the aquarium, on the beach, and in all the harbourside hotels: you could walk up and down the shore to find some kind of gala thrown for a star or a designer sponsor.  Furthermore, attendance at these events was not only fun but mandatory.  I was surprised at how much of the essential networking took place at night.  Not only are Koreans avid card-exchangers, but so many conversations revolved around programming, research, interview offers, requests for articles, invitations to future festivals – and of course, the promise to follow up on all these suggestions later.  It’s easy to get caught up in the giddiness.

© Lesley Chow October 2011

Lesley Chow is an Australian film critic and associate editor at Bright Lights Film Journal. Her articles have also appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Artist Profile and the Times Literary Supplement.