A Bhutanese film directed by a monk opens Asia’s largest cinema festival in South Korea on Thursday, a selection organisers say celebrates the diversity of talent in a region where box office takings are overshadowing Hollywood.

"Vara: A Blessing" directed by Khyentse Norbu -- who will miss the festival because he is taking part in a silent mountain retreat -- is the first of 301 movies to be screened at the 18th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF).

“When we received word that 'Vara' had been selected as the opening film, both Khyentse Norbu and I were incredulous,” producer Nanette Nelms told AFP, praising the festival for its "curatorial courage."

The story of a woman’s fight against daily adversity will be among 95 world premieres in a programme that includes works from Central Asia as well as a World Cinema section drawing together 50 productions.

With films from 70 countries screening over 10 days, an impressive lineup of both Asian and international filmmakers will be in attendance, led by Academy Award-nominated actor Ken Watanabe who stars in the Japanese remake of "Unforgiven", Clint Eastwood's 1992 Academy Award winner.

The presence of a number of internationally funded, Asian-produced films in Busan highlights the erosion of cinema's traditional geographical boundaries as filmmakers look beyond single markets. Box office takings in Asia are currently growing faster than those of North America.

The US-based Motion Picture Association recently reported that box office receipts from the Asia-Pacific region grew by 15 percent to $10.4 billion in 2012, compared to 6.0 percent growth in North America to $10.8 billion over the same period.

Five of the world’s top 10 box office markets are now in the Asia-Pacific region, led by China where cinema takings for the first half of this year hit $1.8 billion, up 36 percent year-on-year. Industry insiders predict that market alone will surpass North America by 2020.

The festival also comes on the back of a record-breaking first six months of the year for the South Korean film industry.

“The industry continues to grow very quickly, while we've been surprised by its reach world-wide," said Busan festival director Lee Yong-Kwan.

A record 98.5 million admissions were collected over the first half of 2013, a year-on-year rise of 18.3 percent driven by local productions.

Included among the box office hits to be screened in Busan is Bong Joon-Ho’s critically acclaimed smash "Snowpiercer", a rare English language film to come out of Korea. Starring "Captain America" star Chris Evans and British actress Tilda Swinton, it has taken an estimated US$60 million from the domestic box office.

The science fiction adventure, which depicts a future where life on the planet has been threatened by a failed global warming experiment, will screen as part of the Gala Presentation programme.

Unearthing talent

The festival's emphasis on fresh talent can be seen in its main New Currents award, a competition open to first- and second-time Asian filmmakers. Two winners from a shortlist of 12 will receive US$30,000 each.

“The ‘discovery of up-and-coming directors’ is a particular emphasis in this year's programme," said Lee.

"It's perhaps the strongest effort yet by BIFF in its search for the identity of Asian cinema, and for what the future holds for this fast-developing industry.”

Veteran director Im Kwon-Taek is meanwhile the focus of a 70-film retrospective.

The Busan festival draws to a close on October 12 with the announcement of the New Currents award winners and with the world premiere of Kim Dong-Hyun’s family drama "The Dinner".

Six-time Academy Award-nominated Irish director Jim Sheridan ("In the Name of the Father") will host a Master Class while Cambodian director Rithy Panh will collect Busan’s prestigious Asian Filmmaker of the Year award, following his success in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes festival for the epic “The Missing Picture.”

 

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