The Busan International Film Festival opened Thursday under new leadership that hopes an ultramodern multiplex theater and a growing global fever for South Korean-made entertainment will make Asia's top film event even bigger.

The festival has attracted an increasing number of films and film stars from across the world since it began in 1996. This year's edition features more than 300 movies from 70 countries, but also is the first not headed by founder Kim Dong-ho.

Kim, a towering figure in South Korea's movie industry, stepped down last year over health worries and suspicions among conservatives that he had a left-leaning political agenda. The former government official has denied siding with any ideology or administration.

The leadership change creates a challenge, veteran South Korean culture critic Ko Hee-kyung said. "Film festivals tend to face a make-or-break point after their charismatic leaders resign," Ko said.

Kim's successor and protege, Lee Yong-kwan, voiced confidence in his speech kicking off the festival Thursday that the event will stay on course as it seeks to attract more global prominence.

That effort will be helped by a $156 million theater that formally opened earlier in the day with the screening of a South Korean romance featuring two of the country's most prominent stars, So Ji-sub and Han Hyo-joo.

Director Song Il-gon told reporters that his movie "Always" borrowed its theme from the 1931 film "City Lights" by Charlie Chaplin, his most admired filmmaker.

While "City Lights" is a silent black-and-white film about a vagabond and a flower girl, "Always" paints in colors an enduring romantic relationship between a boxer and a telephone operator. Both movies present a blind girl who eventually regains her sight through the sacrifice of her lover.

"We tried to deliver the warmth and honesty of such love," 34-year-old actor So said at a news conference attended by hundreds of journalists. Han, So's popular 25-year-old co-star, said that to smile as she embraced the life of a blind girl was one of the most difficult parts of her acting.

Han and So are two of the stars who are adding to the glamor of this year's festival in Busan, a port city about four hours' drive southeast of Seoul.

Internationally acclaimed directors including France's Luc Besson, Japan's Shunji Iwai and Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul will join movie enthusiasts and stars like Japan's Joe Odagiri and France's Isabelle Huppert during the nine-day festival, organizers said.

Flanked by dozens of screaming fans, stars and directors filed down a red carpet Thursday into the new Busan Cinema Center, or Dureraum.

"I'm very, very jealous," Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong said of the modern facility as she was introduced as a jury member. "I want to take it home."

The audience included dozens of Japanese fans sitting in a special grandstand. They organized a trip to Busan to watch their favorite South Korean movie stars, a sign of the popularity that South Korean entertainment enjoys across the region in what's being called the Korean Wave.

Originally named the Pusan International Film Festival, the event changed the spelling of its name this year to match a change in the spelling of the city's name.

The new name also helps avoid confusion with PIFF, a film festival in Pyongyang, North Korea.

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Online:

http://www.biff.kr