BUSAN, South Korea (AFP) - The 19th Busan International Film Festival opened on Thursday with a parade of stars on the red carpet and the screening of a controversial Taiwanese film set against a backdrop of tension with China.
Director Doze Niu fell foul of authorities in Taiwan last year when shooting coming-of-age Cold War drama Paradise In Service after he was accused of attempting to smuggle a Chinese national on to a militarily sensitive site.
He and Chinese cinematographer Cao Yu have been indicted for the offence and await further action from authorities. He has remained tight-lipped about the incident but told AFP it was "a great honour" to have his film - which follows the story of a boy undertaking military service in preparation for a possible war - selected to open Asia's biggest film festival.
"There has been a lot of despair and pain in history and I think Chinese people and Korean people share this kind of history and can recognise this part of our history best," said Niu, speaking before taking to the red carpet. "The Chinese people on the mainland and in Taiwan are one and the same and I hope this film will help pave the way for us to find ways to work for a better future."
Festival director Lee Yong Kwan said he hoped the film, starring Ethan Juan, might lead to "reconciliation in Asia." Two of the film's stars - Ivy Chen and Regina Wan - arrived in Busan to learn they had both been nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category at November's Golden Horse Awards, considered to be Chinese cinema's version of the Oscars.
The film was screened in front of a star-studded opening night crowd that featured A-listers Ken Watanabe, Tang Wei, Zhang Yimou and Tadanobu Asano, as well as Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi and fellow art-house favourites Bela Tarr and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
Hong Kong director Ann Hui, whose feature about Chinese author Xiao Hong titled The Golden Era is screening here, was on hand to accept the festival's Asian Filmmaker of the Year award.
Workers had been toiling overnight to ready the sprawling Busan Cinema Centre for Thursday's opening ceremony, while down on Haeundae Beach - the setting for many of the festival's public events - sand barriers continued to be dug up with one eye on the progress of Typhoon Phanfone which is tracking towards the region.
Much attention in the lead up to the 10-day festival was focused on Monday's sold-out world premiere of the Sewol ferry disaster documentary Diving Bell but festival director Lee on Wednesday refused to discuss the film.
The 85-minute production raises questions about the handling of rescue attempts during April's disaster, which claimed the lives of more than 300 people including 250 school children. The diving bell of the title was a piece of specialised equipment that was drafted in for the widely-criticised rescue and recovery operation, but hardly used.
Critics, including a small number of the Sewol victims' families, say the film is insensitive and overly politicised, and have called on the festival organisers to scrap the screening.
Lee last night preferred to shift focus back to a programme boasting more than 300 films - including around 100 world premieres - drawn from 79 countries.
The opening ceremony proved a more demure affair than in previous years.
One section of the red carpet area previously set aside for photo opportunities with celebrities was unavailable as the festival looks to "shift the spotlight to the directors, actors and actresses," a festival official told The Korea Times. The official said female celebrities had previously received more attention for their revealing dresses. The festival ends on Oct 11.