Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival
The Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, also known under the abbreviation PiFan, is South Korea's second-largest film festival (the festival in Pusan being the biggest).
As its name implies, it specializes in the "fantastic", a term which is very broadly interpreted by the programming staff. In some instances "fantastic" means horror movies to the programmers but mainly it translates to strange / unusual or otherwise far-out movies that in the most cases are unlikely to play Korean mainstream cinemas.
The movies chosen for the festival come from all corners of the world, with an emphasis on recent Korean and Japanese productions. The crowd attending the festival is very international and many of the movie directors are flown in for personal appearances.
The PiFan festival is also a main stop-over for the nomadic crowd of international film critics who always try to file their reports whenever a movie is shown for the first time. World premieres of North-East Asian movies are common at PiFan.
The festival always takes place in July, towards the end of the rainy season. Visitors should be prepared for some heavy rain on the way to the movies. Wet clothes and the icy air conditioning in the theaters don't mix well.
When the festival took place for the first time in 1997, South Korea still held on to the McCune-Reischauer Romanization system. The name of the town was Puchon then, hence the name of the festival. Since a new Romanization system was introduced in 2000, the name of the town of Puchon was changed into Bucheon. The name of the festival remains the same, however.
The reality of Bucheon is brutal. It's a new town rapidly built up from the 1960s on a flat area formerly known primarily for its large peach orchards. By now it has reached a population of about 850,000 and it is located halfway between Seoul and Incheon, Korea's largest West Coast harbor.
While the oldest parts, those from the 1960s, still maintain a few neighborhoods of small buildings and shops, the rest of the city is a continuously growing sprawl of identical-looking apartment high-rises. Without the large identification numbers painted on them, there would be no way of telling them apart. Sprinkled in between are colossal but bizarrely tacky department stores, wedding halls and indoors sports centers.
At first glance, the town appears to be just another typical drab and boring place where people sleep who commute to work in Seoul.
A second look reveals more: In the era of military dictatorship, which lasted well into the 1980s, Bucheon (or rather Puchon, as it was called then) was exempted from the curfew that emptied the streets of Seoul at night. Thus, Seoulites who wanted to spend a night out were forced to go out to Puchon. At the time, "a night out" in Korea usually included, besides copious drinking, going to a red light district or attending some other sort of sex business. For men, anyway. For couples, there were love hotels.
Puchon (to stay with the old name of the city for the time being) became a booming center of the sex industry. It still is to this day - though that may not be as obvious anymore to the casual visitor as most of the clubs and love hotels prefer to maintain a more or less "mainstream" fade nowadays.
By the 1990s, Puchon was affluent, growing rapidly as it attracted lots of families who looked for cheaper but comfortable quarters close to Seoul. The reputation of the city however was poor due to the prevalent sex business. A new image for the city was urgently, desperately needed.
Someone at Puchon City Hall somehow stumbled over one of the most unlikely city-rejuvenation projects ever conceived: the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in Hokkaido.
Yubari was (and still is) a former mining town rapidly losing large parts of its population after the mines were shut down. Yubari tried to escape its woes by starting a fantastic film festival back in 1990. In Europe, fantastic film festivals were already established. In Asia, Yubari was the first. The festival seemed to work for Yubari - it made the city part of the international movie scene, it received the attention of the international media and even attracted major stars. Yubari, destitute as it was, had become a symbol of glamour.
Puchon craved the same - and it teamed up with Yubari to create its own Fantastic Film Festival. Puchon had more money to spend than Yubari but the basic ideas and the general structure of programming were all imported from Hokkaido. That included the notion of reaching out in a big way.
As the head of the jury for the very first PiFan in 1997, the organizers got Roger Corman, the legendary American independent movie producer who had given some of the biggest names in American cinema today their first start in the business.
PiFan rapidly built up its reputation. Under the management of festival director Kim Hong-joon and head programmer Ellen Kim, PiFan became in the early 2000s Korea's main outpost for the outrageous, the beyond-the-limit, the transgressive.
Under the label of "fantastic", they were able to show even the most severely forbidden. Hardcore vintage porn from the 1920s in a country where all porn was prohibited? They found a way to legally screen it. Jg Buttgereit's notorious 1987 necrophilia flick Nekromantik? Not only did they show the film, they even had Buttgereit as DJ at one of the festival parties.
The wild fun came to a screeching halt when in autumn 2004 a new mayor took over City Hall. Hong Gun-pyo of the conservative Hanara party fired festival chief Kim Hong-joon immediately once he came to power. Not because of the programming of the festival as such but because he wanted to see someone more to his political liking in that position.
Kim and his programmers left under protest and initiated an almost complete boycott of PiFan by the Korean film industry in 2005. To add insult to injury, they arranged their own festival in Seoul under the moniker"Real Fantastic Film Festival" at exactly the same time as the 2005 edition of PiFan was held. Theirs was a success, PiFan suffered terribly that year.
Although the "Real Fantastic film Festival" was staged only once, it proved to be hard for PiFan to bounce back. Eventually, new programmers were hired who slyly returned to the old scheme of far-out, challenging movies. Mayor Hong was eventually thrown out of office in a new election and by now the festival has recovered.
In fact, the city recently took on the theme of "fantasy" to promote itself. All over Bucheon you find advertising today that claims that the city is a town of "fantasia". Seen against the background of the real city, this campaign is just bizarre. But it actually fits the somewhat surreal, prevailing atmosphere - the strange mix that is Bucheon - outrageously ugly architecture, family residence, sex biz capital and those very public dreams of the town being a "place of fantasy".
Songnae Station on the Seoul Subway Line #1 (Seoul - Incheon) is the main access point for visitors to the festival. Right outside the station you will find plenty of young festival volunteers in their trademark red T-shirts providing festival info. They will quickly point out the stop of the free festival bus.
Take that bus to the Koryo Hotel - the festival center. Even if you are not an accredited guest, the Koryo Hotel is the place where you will get all the inside scoop on what is going on at the festival beyond the regularly scheduled screenings.
The Koryo is located at a wide road lined with the typically tacky buildings of Bucheon. The name of that road is Gyenamkeungil. That's the main strip during festival time. Almost all the main movie theaters are located within walking distance on that road from the Koryo. The Dijong Family Restaurant is just a few hundred meters to the right on the other side of the street. That's where most of the festival parties take place. Maybe needless to say at this point but of course, the Dijong is incredibly tacky in typical Bucheon style.
Most festival guests, official or not, stay in the vicinity of the Koryo. The area is dotted with love hotels which also offer deals on longer terms than merely hours - which they were actually designed for. A night in one such love hotel is about 80.000 Won (6000 Yen) and it encompasses free internet via high-speed computers in the room, an ultra-large bath and all the other amenities you would expect from a hotel generally geared towards customers looking for a quiet place with a sex mate. Free condoms are standard.
One crucial thing not included in the deal is daylight. If the hotel room has a window at all it is just facing a wall a meter away. Bring an alarm clock if you don't want to miss your morning screenings - the hotel room will perpetually look like it's night time.
The movies at the festival run from morning until way past midnight. In fact, the midnight screenings are the ones that show the most far-out of the program selection.
After that, it's the small bars in the area around the Koryo again where everyone meets in informal fashion, the movie directors, the journalists, the public. Drinking cups of makkoli (rice wine) with cool people on the outdoor chairs in the pitch black night lit up with an endless array of neon signs, Bucheon actually does start to feel like the Fantasia town it proclaims to be.
Festival website in English: www.pifan.com/eng/index.asp
Accommodation in Bucheon