A Report from PiFan ’99

by Darcy Paquet

The Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) held its third festival from July 16-24, 1999 in Puchon, South Korea, located about an hour west of Seoul.  The festival is devoted to screening films that appeal to a large audience, yet challenge cinematic conventions in aesthetics and narrative.  Although SF and fantasy works make up a large portion of its screenings, the festival is not constrained to any particular genre.  This year’s festival opened with David Cronenburg’s eXistenZ, and featured 102 short and feature-length films from 29 countries.

 The following are some comments and thoughts about the films I watched during the three days I attended the festival.

Sex and Violence.  USA, 1997, 8 min, 1.33, color.  Directed by Bill Plympton.
More Sex and Violence.  USA, 1998, 7 min, 1.33, color.  Directed by Bill Plympton.
Surprise Cinema.  USA, 1999, 7 min, 1.33, color.  Directed by Bill Plympton.

I was first introduced to Bill Plympton’s work last year, when his feature-length animated film I Married a Strange Person was released in Korean theaters.  I remember being impressed but somewhat overwhelmed by its continuous barrage of clever, perverse creativity.  These animated short works, in contrast, offer smaller doses of a truly remarkable creative vision.

Although I (and perhaps the audience) found the Sex and Violence films to be more enjoyable, Surprise Cinema has lodged more firmly in my memory.  It opens with a smiling Al Merton, host of a Candid Camera-esque television show, who proceeds to maim, butcher and kill a whole host of victims in the most bizarre, twisted ways, all to a backdrop of canned laughter.  The film’s theme, if not its message, is obvious: America’s obsession with media violence, and (perhaps) its refusal to acknowledge it as such.  This film not only disturbs the viewer’s feelings but also seems to shake at something more fundamental.  A film that should be experienced (once, anyway).

Rat Race.  Austria, 1998, 60 min, 1.66, b&w.  Directed by Valentin Hitz.

About as grim a look at the future as you’re likely to find, Rat Race is set in Vienna, in a futuristic society where drugs and trade in human organs have come to replace the standard currency.  Doctors, the only people with access to both of these items, have become the de facto rulers of the city.

As the film progresses we follow Karter, a man who becomes an unwilling accomplice to a doctor performing experiments on memory.  When Karter finds that his lover Maria has become the subject of a new experiment, he struggles desperately to stop it, knowing that if Maria loses her memory he will be gone from her life.
As in Blade Runner, this film poses a disturbing question: how much of our identity is tied to our memory?  If we discover that our memories are false, then how can we truly grasp our identity?

The star of this film is unquestionably a whirring, tubelike contraption that, when placed against the stomach or chest, sucks the organ of your choice out of its screaming, hapless victims.  When all other memories of this film have faded, I will still have visions of this thing held up against my temple.

Nocturne.  Sweden, 1998, 7 min, 1.66, color.  Directed by Pernilla Hindsefelt.

I came across this piece in a collection of short films screened in an outdoor park in front of Puchon City Hall.  The film accompanies a Nocturne by Chopin, and is carefully choreographed to match the rises and falls of the music.  Using simple images that evoke older Disney films, Nocturne depicts a brief romance between a star and a stone, who ultimately find that the distance between them will keep them apart.  The simplicity and grace of this work made it stand out from the other films in the collection.

Cube.  Canada, 1998, 90 min, 1.85, color.  Directed by Vincenzo Natali.

An intense, thought-provoking work with the feel of a good theater production, Cube was awarded PiFan’s Jury Prize at the end of the festival, and was later given a general release in Korean theaters.  The premise of the film, as well as its set, is quite simple: six people awake in a maze of identical rooms, with no memory of how they got there.  As they navigate the maze they must avoid deadly (grisly) traps and struggle to understand the workings of the Cube.

The real drama of this film unfolds within the group itself, as the six gradually reveal to each other their hidden abilities and secrets.  Ultimately, however, we are left to consider the dynamics of society as a whole: the forces which created the Cube in the first place, which are perhaps mirrored in our small group of strangers.

La Somnambula (Sleepwalker).  Argentina, 1998, 105 min, 1.66, b&w/color.  Directed by Fernando Spiner.

A futuristic piece set in Buenos Aries, 2010, where government experiments have resulted in complete memory loss for millions of people.  Amidst this elaborate and highly-controlled world, a woman has fleeting dreams of her former life, which eventually lead her out of the city in search of her past.  Because of her connection with a wanted rebel leader, government agents track her and eventually try to gun her down.

The elaborate set and narrative framework of La Somnambula make it a fascinating watch.  First-time filmmaker Fernando Spiner has created a strangely beautiful and convincing world, where a series of well-drawn, complex characters guide this woman past the dangers that face her at every turn.  As we move outside of the city, towards a frontier where the government has less influence, we can sense a breath of new possibilities amidst the new and strange settings which appear before us.

The ending of the film proved enigmatic for most of the people in the theater (including myself).  Although the audience had clearly been in tune with the film up to its final minutes, the rolling of the credits was met with a shocked and stupefied silence.  Nonetheless, the film possesses great originality and visual power.  I’m hoping to get the chance to see the film again, as a second viewing might clear up for me some of the gaps in my understanding.

The Ring Virus.  South Korea, 1999, 102 min, 1.85, color.  Directed by Kim Dong-Bin.

This film is in some ways a sister to the popular 1998 Japanese film Ring, as both are based on the same novel by “the Japanese Stephen King,” Koji Suzuki.  Currently, it is illegal to screen most Japanese films in Korea (although the government plans to open the market fully within a couple years).  This may have provided the impetus to make a Korean film based on the same story.

The Ring Virus stars Shin Eun-kyung, a popular actress who seems to fit perfectly into this film, and it proved to be quite successful with Korean audiences.  The film depicts the grotesque events set in motion by a cursed videotape, which brings death upon all who watch it in a week’s time.  (There is a means to break the curse, but, alas, the instructions have been erased from the tape)  Gradually it is revealed that the videotape is the creation of a psychic who was raped and thrown into the bottom of a well.

It is quite interesting to compare this film to its Japanese counterpart.  Although I was only able to obtain an unsubtitled copy of Ring, the visuals alone contrast sharply.  The colors in the Korean film are much more saturated, and the film seems more stylized.  The Japanese version, on the other hand, has a much more earthy, cryptic feel to it.  Many of the details in the films differ as well.  I would argue that neither film rises above the other; both are creative adaptations of a fascinating story.

Grand Evil Master Yonggary.  South Korea, 1967, color.  Directed by Kim Ki-duk.

For my last film, I was treated to this late-sixties’ monster flick from Korea, the inspiration for a newer and decidedly inferior remake which hit theaters this summer.  In the 20+ years of its existence, Yonggary has found its way into Koreans’ hearts, serving as the basis not only for films, but also a line of commercial products, including “Yonggary Chicken.”

When “the Korean Godzilla” attacks the motherland, the government quickly mobilizes a small family of heroes, including a bookish scientist, his mischievous kid brother, and a skilled aviator who is forced to call off his honeymoon, leaving his young bride pouting at the edge of the bed.  Together, this group of minds summon their wits, courage, and scientific knowledge to attack and eventually bring down the beast, saving the grateful citizens of the world.

The monster himself is unspeakably cute, as he lurches about, smashing models of buildings and bridges.  Midway through the film Yonggary catches a hint of music, and proceeds to display for us his unique dancing abilities.  At the end of the film we feel sad to see him go, a sentiment echoed by the kid brother, now a national hero: (paraphrased)  “I feel bad that we had to kill him.  Earlier I saw him dancing, and it made me think that he had feelings, too.  He was going to destroy the world, though.”

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