Irish cinema’s Korea move

Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan are among the film-makers hoping that an Irish showcase at Busan International Film Festival will open cinema doors for them

It's the kind of experience that could only really happen to a group of Irish film industryites making an exploratory visit to Asia's biggest film event, Busan International Film Festival, in South Korea.

The beachfront part of Busan, South Korea's second-biggest city, is hosting thousands of film-industry figures from the region, a high-profile group of Irish film-makers and an aircraft carrier, USS George Washington.

"We ran into a bunch of marines, all built like tanks. 'Are you from Ireland? Tell me about Ireland. I loved this movie Michael Collins,' said one, so I told him I directed that," says Neil Jordan. He is speaking at an event in O'Kim's, an Irish bar in the Westin on Haeundae beach.

The idea for the festival’s Irish strand, called Rogues, Rebels and Romantics: A Season of Irish Cinema, came from Gráinne Humphreys, of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, and Louise Ryan, of the Irish Film Board.


Travelling to Busan is a group of leading Irish talents, including Jordan and Jim Sheridan, as well as the emerging film-makers Lance Daly (Life's a Breeze) and Brendan Muldowney (Love Eternal), the comedian Pat Shortt and John Butler, whose comedy The Stag caused a sensation.

“For me the best comedies engage the heart as well as the head,” says Butler. “I wanted to tell a story that reflected Irish masculinity in a way that was funny and true. The screening here had a fantastic response, so it appears it’s not just about Irish men but about men all over the world.”

Independent spirit
The festival has a refreshingly independent spirit, with the muscle coming from Korean and Chinese cinema. Korean films make up nearly 60 per cent of the box office in the country, a testament to the strength of the local industry.

There are few western stars at Busan: the biggest names are the Academy Award-nominated Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, the directors Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Jia Zhangke and the Hong Kong actor Aaron Kwok.

The opening film is an obscure drama from Bhutan, Vara: A Blessing, directed by a Buddhist monk, Khyentse Norbu, who doesn't show up for the event as he is on a retreat in the tiny Himalayan kingdom.

Luckily, the Irish contingent is not tied up with devotional activity. “I came here to Busan because it’s the focus for Asian cinema, and for the last 15 years the Asian industry has been really dynamic,” says Jordan. “There is an excitement here about genre films. And they have the things necessary for a cinema: they’ve got money, they’ve got an audience and they’ve got a buzz going.”

Rogues, rebels and romantics
Eleven movies by Irish film-makers have been chosen for Rogues, Rebels and Romantics. Teresa McGrane, head of business affairs at the Irish Film Board, says it has taken four years to build a relationship with Jay Jeon, the festival's deputy director, to help secure the Busan slot. "It's quite hard to break into Asia, but using a platform like this highlights the industry and we gain penetration," she says.

Sheridan is impressed by the Korean industry: “Businesswise, we can definitely learn from Korea. These guys are like killers.” While he is in Busan, Sheridan gives a masterclass and is chosen for a hand-printing event.

Hollywood is making films for China, India, Brazil and Russia, which want less of a focus on dialogue, he says. “Can’t we do that? We have to get out of our safety zone. We need to be a bit madder, less language-based, more images.”

Sheridan says the films are more violent than those he would normally make, but he is struck by Korea’s ability to make outward-looking, commercial movies.

At an earlier panel meeting, Sheridan says that he regrets the way each industrial advance has simplified cinema and made it less interesting. He also talks about the “tsunami of the modern internet”.

One of the biggest Korean hits of recent years was, coincidentally, about a tsunami hitting Haeundae beach, where we are talking. But nobody is worried about that tonight. Time for more film talk and Korean food.

Anyone fancy some live octopus?