I walked out of my hotel and into the morning light, heading for Haeundae Beach. I passed the back-alley street vendors that populated the dingy recess behind the building, where they sold squid, eel, and bulgogi. The smell of sizzling chops on grills and stone-pot mixtures reached out to grab me.
I wasn’t hungry, but sure as hell—I was hungover.
South Korea’s 2014 Busan International Film Festival, arguably the biggest film festival in Asia (and at twenty-one years old, my first major film festival ever), had been less about watching films and schmoozing than… well… drinking.
Lots of drinking.
The night before, I’d accompanied my director and producer to yet another party, this one hosted by the French Embassy’s Cultural Delegation to South Korea. It’s worth noting that the entire festival was hosted by Jameson Whiskey, which had massive booths decorated with mountains of ice and limes located at each event, and they gave out an endless supply of free whiskey in whatever fashion you could conjure up. The Jameson logo was plastered on everything you could think of: inside theatres, on the back of festival guidebooks, tapered on fifteen story buildings. It was to the point where you couldn’t escape it if you tried. I remember even seeing a bus pass by with a massive Jameson advertisement in Korean starring Robert DeNiro, which was sort of like seeing your gym teacher at a karaoke bar: surprising, but plausible.
I remember even seeing a bus pass by with a massive Jameson advertisement in Korean starring Robert DeNiro, which was sort of like seeing your gym teacher at a karaoke bar: surprising, but plausible.
The party venue was darkly lit and smelled of cigarettes and musk, and there were loungey couches and tables everywhere with ashtrays on them. After grabbing a drink, we found a corner table and chatted with a loud-talking director from Austin, Texas, whom we’d met earlier in the week. I remember him being a nice guy, just incredibly intense in everything he did. His voice would rise and rise without him noticing to the point where he was basically screaming at us. We would politely remind him that we were a mere few feet from him, and he would laugh it off and start again. Regardless, there was a mutual sense of safety for us there, as we were linked by the shared feeling of being strangers in a strange land.
For a moment, I realized how equalizing that feeling was. Directors and actors, journalists and producers—all visitors, staring into the unknown. Searching for a sense of familiarity or belonging. I remember the power I felt then, starring in a feature film. It was something I could armor myself with, a helmet that once donned provided a sense of ease and grace. Without it I probably wouldn’t have met said director from Austin, or Yannis Sakaridis, a director from Greece who was exhibiting his movie Wild Duck in the same competition as ours.
I had met Yannis on the second night of the festival at the Irish Embassy’s event, and we had gotten completely trashed (on Jameson Whiskey, of course). I had promised him that I would meet him in the lobby of the hotel the next morning at 10 a.m. to accompany him to the screening of his film. I woke up the next morning at 9:50 a.m., feeling like a wolverine had shat into my brain. I contemplated going back to sleep, but decided to stand by my word. To my surprise, he himself was surprised that I had even showed up. We grabbed coffees and rode together to the screening. It was a fantastic film, and afterwards he made a point to thank me, expressing that it meant the world to him that I would meet him so early, given the “spirited” escapades of the night prior. I barely knew him, but was touched by how much this act had meant to him.
It made me think about our own premiere and screenings that week, which were packed with spirited movie-goers, but ultimately filled with strangers. Of course, that was to be expected: we were thousands of miles from home, but I did think of my parents, my friends, coming to see a screening in Montreal or Toronto of other things I’d done before. A few years later I would perform in Canadian Stage’s Five Faces for Evelyn Frost, a gut-punch of a piece centered on the effects of social media on society, and I would take part in countless discussions after the curtains closed with audience members and friends alike, both at the theatre and then later at the bar.
But there was none of that here in Busan, just the initial rush of endless crowds of movie-goers that waited for me after my screenings, offering tickets and pamphlets for me to sign. I had a repressed feeling that this thrill of signing my name, something I’d always dreamed of, although gratifying at the moment, would surely fade like a catchy yet synthetic riff. I couldn’t help but think that they probably had no idea who I was, and if they thought that I actually was “somebody” back home in Canada, well…for the sake of their autographs and my pride, I hoped they wouldn’t do their research.
Later on at the French Embassy party, I reattached myself to a Czech Embassy delegate with whom a certain fling had developed over the past week. We had met during the opening ceremony on my first night there, after I’d walked the most terrifying red carpet known to society, where you wait in an ominous line, give your name to someone, and then are thrust into a barrage of camera flashes after which you stumble into a stadium where ten thousand people are cheering at you and some godlike voice from an unseen megaphone introduces you in Korean before you walk down a carpet that goes on forever.
I probably should have enjoyed it more than I did, but in all honesty, I don’t remember any of it.
It was a blur, but the blur ended when I sat down in a predestined seat, looked to my right, and there she sat.
There was an immediate attraction, and I remember her expressing how confidently I had walked down the carpet, to which I replied by divulging my sheer terror at the experience. We talked easily throughout the evening, and saw each other multiple nights throughout the week, and as we danced and drank ourselves into oblivion on the night of the French Embassy Party, I thought of how even if this entire festival wouldn’t turn out to be what I thought it was— that even if it didn’t catapult me upwards into the stratosphere—at least I would have this night with her. Another sexual escapade for this thirsting leading man from Montreal to hang on his wall of private legend, right next to Leonard Cohen’s.
When we got back to my hotel room at 3 a.m., however, she had second thoughts, and kindly left me to myself, contemptuously eyeing the bottle of soju I had only ever managed to drink alone.
A freak typhoon had slammed into Busan that night, starting at around 4 a.m., and it had raged on as I slept. As I reached Haeundae Beach that morning, I noticed the fallout: what had up until then been a lavish, tourist-destination beach, famous for its endless rows of colourful parasols, had become a total mess. Torn down trees, scraps of tarp and fabric here and there from the ravaged media booths that were untimely ripped from the sand. There was barely a soul out here, and it was 11 a.m.
But there was a beauty to it, I thought. A beauty that can only be found on a cloudy day after a storm. I stopped for a moment in the sand and looked out across the Japan Sea. Its waters mirrored the sky, creating a glass-work of silver and gray with shades of blue surfacing from the depths occasionally, like hidden scales. It’s one of those views that truly solidifies the fact that you are far from home, as even the air itself seems to have a foreign hue; painted from a different palette than the one providing the dark greens, blues and browns that saturate the wilds of the Canadian Shield. At Haeundae beach, the air was a light blue, and the mist that went through it was pink and orange. Apparently, on a clear day, you can see Japan from here, though I had been there on sunny days and not seen a thing. Perhaps it had been so hot that the mirages worked in reverse.
It’s one of those views that truly solidifies the fact that you are far from home, as even the air itself seems to have a foreign hue; painted from a different palette than the one providing the dark greens, blues and browns that saturate the wilds of the Canadian Shield.
I continued along the beach, determined to walk the length of it and get to a small group of buildings at the far end that seemed of interest. The air was refreshing, and the sea calming- a welcome change of pace from the last few days.
“Clyduh! Clyduh!” a voice called from behind me. I turned.
About seventy yards away was an old man, running towards me while wagging his cane
in the air enthusiastically. An old woman trailed behind him, holding her hat from the wind. I recognized the word “Clyduh” as being the rough translation of the title of the film I was starring in, called “Clydecynic”.
The old man came up close and extended his hand, “Hello. I am Johnny.”
I shook it. “Hi Johnny, I’m Alex.”
Johnny nodded. “I recognized you from your movie. You are a very talented actor!”
I did that stupid thing I do sometimes when someone gives me a compliment, shifting on my feet and looking down sheepishly at the earth.
“Is this your first time in Korea?” asked Johnny.
“Yes, it is,” I replied. “It’s very beautiful.”
“What have you seen?”
“Well I went to… Jigalchi?”… I couldn’t exactly remember how to pronounce it.
“Ah yes,” Johnny said. “Jigalchi. The fish market.”
I nodded, “yes. I actually ate some live octopus there.”
It was partly true. I had eaten some “live” octopus, though not whole, but sliced into wriggling pieces of tentacle that clung to my teeth, holding on for dear segmented life before being slurped down into the acid hell of my Jameson-infused stomach. My greatest fear had not been indigestion, nor infection, but taking a shit the next morning, for fear that I would look into the bowl and see that it was still moving.
The conversation with Johnny went on for another few minutes, at which point he gave me his business card, explaining that he was an immigration lawyer, and that if I wished to come to Korea for work sometime down the road I should let him know so that he may “turn the light on for me.”
It was at this moment that Johnny’s wife, who had been sitting apart from us this whole time, came over and regarded me with sad, and strangely piercing eyes.
“Why are you walking alone?” she asked.
I considered, “Well, I don’t know… I don’t mind walking alone. I like to look at things and think.”
“Ah,” she said, smiling. “You are a poet.”
For some reason, at that moment, I felt a shift in reality, as if I had woken up from a dream. I smiled at her and nodded. Johnny laughed. “My better half,” he said, holding her shoulder.
I had many memorable moments at this festival, and I did things that any actor would give a year of their life to be a part of. In the end though, it wasn’t the parties, the hotel room with the fancy shower, the black car rides, the photographs, the autographs, the red carpet, the boastful conversations or the Jameson that I will remember forever, it’s the people. All the other moments were a blur, a dizzying dream that I can only partly recall, but the people are clear in my mind. I can still see them, and remember them. Yannis’s glasses and bald head, the Austin director’s loud voice and toothy smile, the delegate’s laughter and quick wit.
A simple word of kindness in life can take us out of our sorrow and into our joy, just as an unexpected action can take us out of our heads and into the scene we are playing as actors. If we have our armor on too tightly however, a gentle word might just ricochet off the metal and drift off, unreceived. Just like in acting, it’s in those moments of vulnerability that true beauty can be found. At one point though, through necessity, all armors will inevitably rust and break, and as Leonard Cohen said in Anthem: “there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
It’s in those moments of vulnerability that true beauty can be found.
I think I really needed Johnny and his wife that day, and I wish I had learned her name. I’m sure she had one. Regardless, I’ll never forget them.
We bade each other farewell and I watched them go for a bit. After a moment, I turned and headed where I was going.
As I walked I became a part of the scene. The sand felt light on my sneakers and the water of the sea unfurled and folded onto the shore like a silk sheet, back and forth with the rhythm of the tide. Seagulls soared and dipped around me, celebrating the newfound calm of the empty beach. The air smelt of kelp and salt.
I breathed it in.