The argument can and should be made that city lights are most beautiful when glimpsed in reflection in the dark, rolling waters of the sea at midnight, but there are probably a precious few places in the world where such a sight can be captured. Busan, South Korea, is one of those places.
I stood on the beach in the dark, feeling the soft sand between my toes and breathing in the cool air breezing off the water, the only illumination emanating from the multicolored brilliance of Gwangan Bridge and the fluorescent glow of the buildings that seemed to rise up out of the sea itself. As my mind raced with the infinite possibilities of the week that lay before me, the many movies I would get to see, the directors I would have the opportunity to speak with, and the once-in-a-lifetime sights I would be given the chance to glimpse, a unique mixture of peacefulness and excitement washed over me. What had started as a wild notion in the middle of summer had grown into this real, tangible, unforgettable experience that I would come to regard as undoubtedly one of the best decisions in my life.
Just three months ago, I never would have imagined that an adventure-filled trip to South Korea awaited me in the near future. I was, however, thirsting for adventure. Up until that point, a few driving trips to Canada constituted the extent of my international travel experience. I had ambitions to see more of the world, but opportunities just didn’t seem to be presenting themselves. More accurately, I should say that I didn’t seem to be seeking opportunities out. I have never been one to leap without looking, and by “looking,” I mean playing out every possible scenario in my mind and carefully weighing each conceivable consequence. Obviously, going through life with this mentality is a great way to miss out on even the slightest hint of adventure, and I am happy to say that I finally began to realize this last year. My overcautious nature was a quality that I consciously took it upon myself to change this past summer. Thus, when an email popped up in my inbox describing a trip to South Korea to attend the Busan International Film Festival, I didn’t wait around to let the idea ping pong around in my mind for a few days before talking myself out it. I sent my application in as soon as I could.
Over the next couple of months, the wild and adventurous concept of the trip began to take form and morph rapidly into reality, perhaps faster than I expected it to. The trip tied in with one of my classes, “Korean Cinema Today,” and my professor, Dr. Nam Lee, would be attending the film festival with us. Several students in my class would be joining me in Korea as well, and Dr. Lee prepared us by giving us an overview of modern Korean history and an in-depth understanding of recent Korean cinema. Meanwhile, Sora Kim and Eunyoung Kim readied us by detailing the logistics of the trip and giving us some insider tips on the best activities and sights to see in Busan so that we could fill our days with far more than just watching movies.
In a whirlwind, the day of departure arrived and we boarded a thirteen-hour flight bound for Seoul, followed by a far shorter flight to Busan. In the air, I had my first real encounter with Korean cuisine, marking the beginning of a passionate eight-day culinary love affair in which I tried my best to explore every exotic flavor the country had to offer. Korean fried chicken, octopus bibimbap, and pumpkin porridge rank among the highlights of this tasty quest.
Upon arriving in the sunny port city of Busan, we jumped right into our first day. Dr. Lee had organized a meeting with the director, producer, and star of the new Korean film The Unfair, following a screening of the movie. After quickly settling into our rooms in the wonderfully hospitable Intium Guesthouse, located within a Korean film school (which featured a toilet equipped with more buttons than I knew what to do with), we all piled into taxis to travel across town for the screening.
The film was a gripping courtroom drama that miraculously managed to capture and hold my attention even through the thick, sluggish fog of jet lag. And dinner afterwards was even better. My friends and I spoke at length to actor Kim Eui-Sung over a basket of exceptional fried chicken, discussing his acting style, how he likes to work with directors, his favorite types of shots, and his ongoing working relationship with one of the producers on the film. Kim was friendly, down-to-earth, honest, and humorously humble in his description of his work. The fact that I felt totally at ease speaking with him, and his self-deprecating sense of humor, actually made me forget that I was talking to a well-known Korean film star. There was not a hint of entitlement or pretentiousness on his part, he just seemed genuinely excited to share his experiences with American film students. This interaction set the tone for the rest of the week.
The next day, Dr. Lee organized another meeting, this time with popular action director Ryoo Seung-wan. We started the day by watching Ryoo’s newest movie, one of my favorite films from the festival, Veteran. As a Film Studies major, I often feel embarrassed to admit that some of my favorite movies of all time are modern action films. They’re not exactly on the level of Citizen Kane in terms of well-respected cinematic works. But Veteran indulged my childlike love of well-choreographed fight scenes and satisfying one-liners while also offering a look at the conflict between large corporations and common middle-class citizens in South Korea, a conflict that admittedly felt quite familiar from an American perspective.
After kicking the day off with a healthy dose of bone-crunchingly brutal fight scenes and thrilling car chases, our group had the chance to chat with Ryoo Seung-wan himself in a coffee shop. Again, I felt totally comfortable speaking with this high-profile star of Korean cinema, because the setting was so casual and the director was completely open and relaxed. At first, I worried that my questions would not be insightful enough, but then I figured that I might as well ask what I was genuinely curious about, so I brought up his use of Batman references in the film. Surprisingly, this led to an in-depth discussion of Ryoo’s reverence for the Joker as a villain and the way in which Batman has inspired his films and the use of violence in his films. As a massive superhero fan, I can say that there are few greater feelings in the world than the one I had while chatting with a Korean director about our shared love of Batman.
As excited as I was about my first couple of days in Busan, I knew that the adventure was just beginning. My friends and I started to plan out which films we wanted to see and which day of the festival we wanted to see them, but we were also able to leave blocks of time open to explore the city and experience all that Busan had to offer firsthand. I loved the fact that we were able to create our own schedules and really make the week our own because it allowed me to ensure that I got all that I wanted out of the trip.
One day, before an evening screening, Eunyoung Kim led one of my friends and I on an eight-mile hike in which we visited Beomeosa Temple, a traditional Buddhist temple, and reached the peak of Geumjeong Mountain. The journey was long and tiring, as we significantly underestimated the number of hills involved. Additionally, watching several elderly Korean women power past us during the hike didn’t do much for our confidence. But it all proved to be more than worthwhile when we took in the extraordinary sight at the top, a sweeping view of an ancient fortress wall snaking through the hills around us and the sprawling city of Busan gleaming by the water in the distance.
Another day, my friends and I visited SpaLand, a Korean spa located within the largest department store in the world, Shinsegae. As one might expect, this was the ultimate experience in relaxation. I wish I could fully convey in words the sense of peace that washes over one when one indulges in a foot spa complete with therapeutic stone pathways and foot baths heated to specific temperatures, but I doubt that a mere description will ever be able to do it justice. I won’t even attempt to explain the otherworldly magic of SpaLand’s massage chairs except to say that they took me to a place I haven’t been in a long time, perhaps ever, both physically and mentally.
My other adventures throughout the week included a walk along the water at Haeundae Beach, a visit to the Busan SeaLife Aquarium, Korea’s largest aquarium, a couple of invigorating runs beside Nakdong River, and a journey to Dongnaeeupseong Fortress and the ancient chamber tombs located near it. This last experience was particularly unforgettable. Walking under the Fortress gate and glimpsing the excavated burial sites made me feel like I had either literally stepped back in time or become Indiana Jones, both of which were thrilling possibilities to me.
The best aspect of this extraordinary trip was that all of these unforgettable adventures were only half of the experience. I spent the rest of the time absorbing as many films as I could from countries all over the world, including Turkey, China, France, Poland, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. I listened to a German director and producer team laugh about the miraculous fact that they had successfully made a funny German movie, and watched as a humble American director spoke about how he had shot his entire film on an iPhone and had worked with his actors to improvise most of the dialogue. Hearing the passion in the voices of these filmmakers as they spoke about the stories they were telling and why they wanted to tell them was exceptionally moving, and I know that there is no other place in the world where I could have experienced all of this.
As I look back at this incredible week, which I feel took me a month to fully process, I cannot help but marvel at my extraordinary luck. I’ll be forever grateful that I received that email when I did, that this trip presented itself right at the pivotal moment that I had decided to step outside my comfort zone, and that I had the opportunity to split my time in this amazing country between watching fascinating international films while listening to filmmakers discuss their craft, and exploring the many wondrous sights of Busan. This was exactly the adventure I was hoping for, and in addition to building upon my film knowledge, it allowed me to expand my understanding of the world and my place in it by leaping headfirst into a new culture, losing myself in it for a week, and pulling myself back out, more fulfilled and enlightened than ever before.