Battle for Busan Festival: South Korean Filmmakers Threaten Boycott

Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
The Busan film festival and Asian film market are big events.

Showing solidarity, they say "we will refuse to attend this year's event," if the city doesn't ensure the festival's independence.

The future of Asia's largest film festival is the topic of much debate as the Busan International Film Festival's (BIFF) long-standing conflict with Busan's metropolitan government has escalated into a legal dispute.

Local filmmakers on Monday defended the South Korean festival and threatened to boycott the event altogether if Busan authorities do not ensure its independence.

"If Busan city refuses [to ensure] the festival's autonomy, then we will refuse to attend this year's event," said members of an "emergency committee" comprised of nine local film organizations, including the Korean Film Producers Association, during a press conference Monday in Seoul. The 21st edition of BIFF is slated to run Oct. 6 to Oct. 15 in the southern port city of Busan.

The committee also demanded that Busan mayor Suh Byung-soo, who also serves as chairman of the festival, resign immediately. Last month, Suh announced that he would step down as chairman with plans to hand over the position to someone from the private sector.

In a statement, the emergency committee added: "BIFF is not a property of Busan city government. It is true that the government’s financial support to the festival is a part of the reason for the success of the festival, but the festival is entitled to make decisions on how to run it [autonomously] without any external interference."

Busan government officials said they are trying their best to resolve the situation. BIFF organizers and Busan have been struggling to revise the articles of association. Earlier this month, the city filed a lawsuit against the festival's organizing committee for appointing new members to the advisory board without the consent of the chairman. BIFF maintains that advisors have always been appointed without the chairman's approval.

Busan's mayor has traditionally served as chairman of the Busan festival, and Suh was elected in June 2014. Conflicts first arose between Suh and festival organizers during the months after his appointment ahead of the 20th edition in October, when then-fest director Lee Yong-kwan decided to screen The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, a highly politicized documentary, in spite of the mayor's request to exclude it from the lineup. Lee has since said that he had been pressured by the city to resign. He was also accused of misusing funds following an unprecedented inspection by the Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea that was carried out at the request of the Busan government.

In the meantime, Kang Soo-youn (a.k.a. Kang Soo-yeon), the iconic Korean actress who was appointed co-director of the festival last year, is flying the fest solo. In late February, the mayor announced that Lee Yong-kwan would not be re-appointed as fest director. Lee has held various leadership positions for the past nine years since co-founding BIFF in 1996.

"[BIFF founder and honorary director] Kim Dong-ho and other veteran members are still onboard and making sure things are running smoothly," said Jay Jeon, director of BIFF's Asian Film Market and a founding member of the fest alongside Lee. "Though we are trying hard to work out details with Busan City, it remains unchanged that we both want to host a successful festival. I believe the filmmakers have made the boycott statement in hopes that the festival will prosper in the long run," he added.

The fest, in the meantime, won't be facing financial concerns like it did last year, as the budget for the event has reportedly been increased. In 2015, the Korean Film Council, a state-backed body that promotes local films, was criticized for virtually halving its annual support for BIFF, from $1.22 million in 2014 to $660,000. Despite concerns, support from various donors and sponsors compensated for the reduction in state funds, and the 20th edition came to a successful close with record attendance and record market sales. This year, the government is known to have pledged $1.26 million (1.5 billion won), and Busan city will provide $5.5 million (6.5 billion won), a fixed amount since 2012 that has accounted for about half of the fest's budget.

Meanwhile, other filmmakers and industryites both near and far have spoken out in defense of BIFF's artistic freedom.

During the Berlin Film Festival last month, Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux, Berlin Festival director Dieter Kosslick and Venice Festival director Alberto Barbera were among 114 people who signed an open letter to Suh, urging that the city "stop applying political pressure" on the festival. Supportive campaigns under the slogan #ISupportBIFF campaign have continuously popped up at other festivals, including at Rotterdam earlier this year.

On March 14, a group of Busan-based artists and citizens held a demonstration demanding the autonomy and artistic freedom of the festival, while BIFF organizers have opened an online petition for civilians. Even local media have largely criticized Busan city for taking matters to court, and the Korean Film Reporters Association demonstrated its support for the festival in January by awarding the 2016 Cineaste of the Year Award to Lee. Local directors, actors and critics also held a fundraising event to hire a lawyer for Lee.

March 22, 9:26 p.m. Updated with additional quotes.

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