By Jonathan Hopfner
BUSAN, South Korea (Reuters) - With a new name, a new venue and an emphasis on actors and directors from lesser-known parts of Asia, this South Korean port city is moving decisively to assert its status as the region's pre-eminent film industry destination.
The 16th annual Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), Asia's largest, kicked off earlier this week at the new Busan Cinema Center, an eye-catching, $140 million complex designed by Austria-based architectural collective Coop Himmelblau.
Over 300 movies from 70 countries will be screened at the festival, including 89 world premieres.
Organizers have spared no expense on infrastructure and expanded the festival to include industry forums and educational activities as the number of competing regional events grows.
Beijing launched its own international film festival this year, and similar events have emerged in such seemingly unlikely places as Luang Prabang, Laos.
Even South Korea's hostile northern neighbor is getting in on the act, with the next edition of the biennial Pyongyang Film Festival slated for September next year.
Organizers expressed hopes the 30,000 square foot venue, topped by a sprawling, LED-covered roof that resembles a pair of wings taking flight, would become a "symbolic structure" representative of the region's burgeoning film business.
One of the jury members, Australian director Gillian Armstrong, said of the venue at a news conference earlier this week that she was "very, very jealous. I want to take it home."
Among the most anticipated films are local director Song-il Gon's "Always," which chronicles the romance between a troubled boxer and a young woman losing her eyesight, and "Chronicle of My Mother" by Japan's Masato Harada, about an author coming to terms with his elderly mother's progressive dementia.
European and North American film luminaries are also well-represented, with France's Luc Besson visiting to promote his latest work "The Lady," a biography of Myanmar democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi starring actress Michelle Yeoh.
"What makes the Busan festival special is the city itself, it's by the sea," said Vincent Sung, creative director at Seoul-based communications agency Visual Sponge and a longtime festival-goer.
"You have glamour mixed with the normal Busan inhabitants, it's casual and relaxed but still keeps a very chic air ... it also gets really amazing lineups of directors and actors, this year is one inch up compared to the other years."
Veteran French actress Isabel Huppert also attended, announcing on Friday a new collaboration with Korean director Hong Sang-soo and praising the region's "alive, vivid" film culture.
The festival will culminate October 14 with the "New Currents" prize, which awards $30,000 to two outstanding films by first or second-time Asian directors.
Among those competing for the title this year are Sri Lanka's Aruna Jayawardana, whose "August Drizzle" chronicles a power struggle in a remote village, and Indonesia's Kamila Andini, who details a young girl's efforts to accept her father's death in "The Mirror Never Lies."
The festival's focus also appears to be shifting westwards, with several works from Central Asian and Iranian filmmakers figuring prominently on the agenda, including "Cut," a Japan-set crime fable from exiled Iranian director Amir Naderi.
Streets around the center and the towering luxury hotels of nearby Haeundae Beach were awash with red carpet over the weekend, with police cordons struggling to hold back energetic fans determined to catch a glimpse of one of the festival's many high-profile guests. Formerly known as the Pusan Film Festival, the event also adopted the BIFF moniker for the first time to fall in line with the official name for the city.
Sung had guarded praise for the changes.
"The new venue is really impressive, the design is amazing ... but compared to past festivals it lost the human touch, it's huge and you can get lost really easily," he said.
"(But) it's very futuristic and shows Busan wants to go forward in terms of design."
(Editing by ELaine Lies)