The Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) arose from nothing in 1996 and, within a decade, became the leading international film festival in South Korea and Asia with a growing respect across the globe. While many of us have heard about this phenomenon, attended PIFF, desired to replicate it in a different location, and wondered if PIFF could ever reach the exclusive rank long held by Cannes, Venice, and Berlin as one of the world's top international film festivals, there was no easy way to understand the actual forces that transformed an idea and an industrial port city into a dynamic nexus for cinematic celebration. How this came to be and what it might mean stand at the center of SooJeong Ahn's book. As the first scholarly book-length investigation in English into this important international film festival, it is an invaluable starting point. Here, Ahn remains true to her stated goal, "This research is more concerned with understanding the [sic] PIFF, rather than Korean cinema itself" (p. 12).
Ahn's position on PIFF is that "it can be argued that the rise of non-American film festivals since the 1990s can be seen as a countermovement in responding to the worldwide domination of US cultural products" (p. 26). This thesis is couched in hesitation—a position made all the more apparent by the author's use of "can" twice in the same sentence. This hesitation becomes self-evident since the rise of non-American film festivals such as Cannes, Locarno, Berlin, and Toronto, let alone Pusan, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, all arose to create a means to showcase the national films of each host country and to create an alternative global film distribution network, based on art cinema, to bypass, or at least run [End Page 423] parallel to, Hollywood's domination of global film distribution on the commercial level. Thus, Ahn's statement represents not so much a new thesis but an extension of an already known assessment of international film festivals in particular and art cinema in general.
Ahn approaches her subject as both insider and outsider. As a staff member of PIFF from 1998-2002 (she does not disclose in what capacity), she experienced firsthand the ramifications of the many negotiations, policy changes, and strategies that were contemplated and enacted to enhance PIFF year after year. This insider position also provided her with a number of important personal contacts upon whom she could call for otherwise unavailable data from 2003-2007. The author identifies this methodology as an extension of Dorothy E. Smith's "institutional ethnography" (p. 5). While this methodology is useful, it falls short in that Ahn's list of interviewees encompasses only seven individuals, with Variety's Derek Elley as the dominant voice. Ahn even ends her introductory chapter with an uncritical inclusion of a warning from Elley. Does this mean that Ahn agrees with Elley that "Western film-making has never looked East for 'validation' and Korean cinema should not do the reverse. It's rich enough, inventive enough, and exciting enough not to need it" (p. 27)? If so, should PIFF be abandoned as unnecessary? Only Kim Hye-joon (Kim Hyejun), the general secretary of the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) is granted a second interview. Noticeably absent from her list of interviewees is Kim Dong-ho (Kim Tongho), the chairman of PIFF from 1996-2010. If anyone can give an insider's account of PIFF, it is he. Ahn limits her access to Kim by depending only on PIFF publications so she is not in a position to delve beyond his official statements. If in-person interviews were not possible, then written interviews by mail or e-mail should have been possible since she was formerly a PIFF employee. These gaps in the use of institutional ethnography limit her ability to reveal the deeper backgrounds of PIFF transformations.
Ahn's outsider status stems from her newfound position within the academy as she engages with the leading...