(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with opening; CHANGES headline; ADDS more photos)
By Kim Boram
BUSAN, Oct. 6 (Yonhap) -- Led by Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho, silver screen stars and filmmakers at home and abroad returned to the red carpet of the Busan International Film Festival on its opening night Wednesday, celebrating that cinema is on its way to overcoming the yearlong pandemic.
The 26th edition of Asia's biggest film festival opened its 10-day run with a ceremony attended by 1,200 spectators at an outdoor theater of the Busan Cinema Center in this southern port city of Busan. It was co-hosted by South Korean actors Song Joong-ki and Park So-dam.
Japanese award-winning director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, and Korean actors Yoo Ah-in, Doh Kyung-soo and Jeon Yeo-been are also among those who have made the trip to the city, located 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
"This year, BIFF finally hosted the opening ceremony, the highlight of the film festival, thanks to our concerted efforts to comply with virus guidelines," said Busan Mayor Park Heong-joon, declaring the opening of the annual festival. "I hope BIFF will help us get one step closer to our normal life."
With the star-studded opening, BIFF seems to be almost back to its glamorous normal that was lost last year when the pandemic kept the opening ceremony and other outdoor events away, with no celebrities attending. Only invited films were shown once on limited screens of the main festival venue.
Still, the atmosphere was relatively calm without familiar loud cheers or shouts from the crowd for their favorite movie stars. They, instead, gave a huge applause as the stars and filmmakers arrived on the red carpet one by one.
All visitors and participants were required to present proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result upon arrival.
This year, all invited features will be shown two to three times each at six theaters, a normal level, with no online screenings, while some short films will be streamed online. Every screening session will run at a maximum of 50 percent capacity.
The festival authorities said they will take all measures necessary to provide a safe environment under the city's virus-control guidelines.
"Heaven: To the Land of Happiness" by Im Sang-soo was the first film that was screened at this year's BIFF, followed by some 220 invitees from 70 countries, including the closing film "Anita," a biopic film on Hong Kong singer and actress Anita Mui, directed by Leung Longman.
Starring seasoned actors Choi Min-sik of "Old Boy" (2003) and Park Hae-il of "The Host" (2006), "Heaven" is a road movie about two fugitive men. It was an official selection for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival but came to premier at BIFF, as the 2020 event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After hearing he has only few weeks to live due to a brain tumor, No. 203 (played by Choi), a long-term prisoner, breaks out of jail to see his daughter before his last day. He accidentally meets Nam-sik (played by Park), who suffers from an incurable disease and dreams of becoming rich to buy cures, and they start a journey together.
In a press conference held before the opening ceremony, director Im said his latest movie is different from his previous works that portray society in a cynical and satirical way, such as the political drama "The President's Last Bang" (2005) and the erotic thriller "The Taste of Money" (2012).
"This movie looks good and innocent. I've made some skeptical films, but I'm a good and kind man," he said laughing. "As I get older and older, I come across situations that push me to face death and think about it, like when hearing my close friend died. Those experiences moved me to begin this project," he explained.
The number of selected films in 2021 rose slightly from a shortened collection of 192 films in the 2020 edition.
Three films will be shown at its prestigious Gala Presentation -- Leos Carax's "Annette," the opening film of this year's Cannes Film Festival, and Ryusuke Hamaguchi's "Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy," the winner of the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin film fest, and "Drive My Car," awarded best screenplay at Cannes.
Carax will also visit Busan to host a master class, while Hamaguchi will have a special discussion session with director Bong Joon-ho. In this year's "New Currents" competition section, 11 films from 10 countries, including "The Absent Director" by Arvand Dashtaray from Iran, "Photocopier" by Wregas Bhanuteja from Indonesia and "Farewell, My Hometown" by Wang Er Zhuo from China, will vie for the prize.
Canadian director Deepa Mehta will lead the jury for the New Currents Award, along with Cristina Nord, a German filmmaker, and Korean directors Jang Joon-hwan and Jeong Jae-eun.
Three drama series -- Netflix's "Hellbound" and "My Name," and HBO Asia's original series "Forbidden" -- will be shown at the inaugural "On Screen" section this year, designed to screen new drama series to be released on online video streamers, like Netflix.