The Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) - one of the three leading international film festivals in Korea - was held from 9-16 July this year. Although all film festivals in Korea had been cancelled or postponed up to May, BIFAN was held successfully in June on both online and offline venues, with strict social distancing guidelines. In early June, the Seoul Independent Documentary Film Festival, which boasts a long history, was held offline, and the Muju Film Festival 2020, both online and offline. The online portion was held as a live broadcast. The film event will take place in Muju and Seoul’s theatres for three weeks, from August end under the title 'Muju Film Festival Season 2’. The 2nd Pyeongchang International Peace Film Festival (PIPFF) was an entirely offline event in June.
Held a month after PIPFF, BIFAN organizers worked hard to keep the festival going despite the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and did their best to reflect social demands within the programme. As a result, this edition’s theme was 'to amplify the talent of genre and introduce it to the world,' focusing on the areas of 'hybrid,' 'support,' and 'safety.' The event itself was held in a 'hybrid' fashion, as it was the first time that a domestic film festival had planned its events both online and offline to make up for the fewer theatre screenings.
This year 194 films (100 less than last year) from 42 countries were shown: 88 features, 85 shorts, and 21 VR cinema films. There were more SF and dystopia disaster films; a greater a variety of themes and styles on a grander scale, and more female directors. All of the 173 films (apart from the 21 VR cinema films) were screened in the cinemas, and 68 of these (including 37 full-length features and 31 shorts) were available on Korea's leading online platform WATCHA. Six Chinese full-length feature films were screened on Smart Cinema Korea, a mobile platform.
BIFAN operated eight theatres over eight days, using only 30 to 35% of all theatre seats by strictly adhering to social distancing guidelines. A total of 10,836 seats were valid during the festival, and occupancy rate was 91.8% with 9,952 spectators. Of the 221 screenings, 153 (69.2%) were sold out. In short, 20,710 people (online and offline) attended the event. And if you add to this the number of people watching VR films, the count rises to 36,271. Having hosted the VR and XR sections titled 'Beyond Reality' since 2016, BIFAN allowed film buffs to watch VR and XR films online this year. And of the 41 invited films from 20 countries, 21 360-degree VR films were introduced on SK Telecom's VR platform. Conversations with film directors also took place on the online platform with a total of 15,000 people watching the films virtually and 400 people participating in the dialogue.
As a precautionary measure, BIFAN held nearly all its programme events online: project market meetings, lectures, master classes, performances, conferences, and even the closing party. The Network of Asian Fantastic Films (NAFF), a key industry gathering, was held entirely online with 93 enterprises from 24 countries participating. Of the 1,010 requests for meetings, 600 were finalized - 70 more than last year. The NAFF Fantastic Film School, a production education and network programme for emerging filmmakers in Asia, was held online and offline with 30 mentees from 20 countries. Nine mentors including Indonesian director Joko Anwar, who spearheaded the programme, gave 11 online talks on the film industry to the participants. So did The Exorcist's William Friendkin and production designer Christian L. Scheurer. A conference on copyright issues was also held online, while the closing party took place via Zoom. Some seventy Korean and international film professionals graced the event.
BIFAN received pre-recorded video messages from more than 60 international guests including filmmakers who could not be physically present. These messages were played before the screening of each film. A 'survival kit' including masks and mask cases were sent to these international guests. Pre-recorded video clips - many of them messages of hope - of actors and film directors congratulating the festival were also shown to viewers.
“Support” was another important key theme in this year’s BIFAN. The festival has expanded its support programme to aid genre movie production. Approximately $700,000 was offered in cash and prizes, and the prize money for the competitive section and industrial programme (B.I.G.) was increased. In order to carry out quarantine and preventative measures efficiently, BIFAN was held in a single multiplex theatre which had eight screens. Highly sensitive thermal imaging cameras were installed at the theater's main entrance to check body temperatures of moviegoers. Those who had successfully undergone the QR check-in at the quarantine desk were given a festival bracelet allowing for easy identification. (without the bracelet, entering the premises was impossible). Body temperatures were checked yet again at a high-tech body sterilizer machine and fine dust was removed with an air shower before people could enter the theatre. In compliance with strict social distancing guidelines, only 30 to 35% of all seats could be used.
Thirteen Asian films were nominated for the NETPAC Award in the Fantastic Blue section. The winner was the debut feature I WeirDo by a new Taiwanese director Liao Mingyi. This romantic comedy combines - visually and thematically - a simple love story of a young couple suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder as seen through the lens of an Instagram-perfect world in which only clean and beautiful things are presented and shared, and dirty and messy things are rarely seen. A remarkable illustration of the power of storytelling and wonderful imagination, despite its predictable ending. The director deals with the story hilariously, with no signs of serious ambition or obsession with artistic expression. But his amazing gift raises higher expectations in us for his next work. The jury gave a special mention to one other film, which was discussed at length - a debut fiction film, Nosari: Impermanent Eternity, by veteran Japanese documentary filmmaker Yamamoto Tatsuya. It traces, captures, and records vestiges of a once small Japanese city, now vanished; and gives us a chance to reflect on the meaning of ‘locale’, which is slowly disappearing in the contemporary landscape of global capitalism.
The spread of the COVID-19 virus has had a negative impact on film festivals around the world, especially small or middle-scale Asian festivals without stable budgets. The crisis of the film industry begins in the cinema. As people are afraid of going to theatres, distributors don't wish to release their own films theatrically. And as new films don't release in theaters, you have a shrinking audience. It is a vicious, unending cycle and the industry’s current crisis is putting both independent/arthouse as well as commercial films at risk. But the risk is greater for independent/arthouse films because they are mainly screened in theatres, and this risk is directly linked to their survival. The same applies to film festivals. I believe that the great efforts that have gone into holding film festivals during these harsh times can be understood as being synonymous with an effort to save and protect both theatres and independent/arthouse films.
Today, festival organizers everywhere are unsure if they can continue their scheduled programmes. Yes, some festivals will be cancelled while others will go on. But the process will not be easy. In the current situation, the future of film festivals is not too bright. If the pandemic continues, funds and sponsors who have kept festivals afloat will no longer be available. The time is crucial. Festival organizers must ask themselves the fundamental question: What is the underlying meaning of film festivals? We need an answer. We must ask politicians, administrators, sponsors, and the general public to understand the importance of festivals and the justification for holding them. If we cannot provide solid reasons, festivals will be under threat. And if they are to be scaled down, independent/arthouse films will obviously be in the same difficult situation, as before the COVID-19 outbreak. Worldwide, and especially in Asia, festivals face a grave challenge. Our storytelling, nevertheless, will continue - as it has always done. I, together with other NETPAC jury members of BIFAN2020 would like to extend warm greetings and support to all Asian filmmakers who are doing their best to create new films despite the harsh conditions.
-- Author Ji-hoon JO -- Edited by Latika Padgaonkar