How the Busan Film Festival Is Bouncing Back Despite Political Pressure

Courtesy of Warner Brothers
'The Age of Shadows'

After two years of controversy, boycotts and infighting between fest organizers and city officials, South Korea's biggest film event looks to regain its footing with a 301-film lineup and Hollywood's support.

Two years after facing a crisis that threatened its status as one of Asia's premier film events, the Busan Film Festival is attempting to start over.

The trouble began in 2014 when then-fest director Lee Yong-kwan pushed forth with the screening of a controversial documentary in spite of strong opposition from Busan mayor and former Busan Film Festival chairman Suh Byung-soo. The doc, Diving Bell, took a critical look at the largely failed rescue mission of the Sewol Ferry, which capsized in April 2014, killing hundreds of passengers, mostly teenage students. The event had a traumatic nationwide effect, comparable to 9/11 in the U.S. Soon after, the Busan metropolitan government, which funds about half of the fest's annual budget, cut its funding by nearly 50 percent (from $1.3 million in 2014 to $731,000 in 2015). Festival organizers called the action "political retaliation," and soon a number of prominent Korean — and international — film industry figures stepped up to defend the fest.

Prominent regulars such as Park Chan-wook and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, as well as Cannes Film Festival chief Thierry Fremaux and Venice's Alberto Barbera, held demonstrations and signed petitions, while major Korean studios and distributors including CJ Entertainment, Showbox/Mediaplex and NEW offered bigger sponsorship packages. Individuals also reached into their own pockets: Seoul Cinema CEO Ko Eun-ah donated 100 million Korean won (about $85,000) to keep the fest going.

In one respect, the festival supporters won: In July, the Korean culture ministry approved protestors' efforts to amend the Busan fest's bylaws by adding a clause that guarantees complete artistic freedom for the programmers, festival director and members of the organizing committee.

But the victory came with a price: Fest director Lee and market head Jay Jeon were forced by local government officials to leave the very event they co-founded. This left Kang Soo-youn, an iconic actress who became fest co-director in 2015, as the sole director making executive decisions. Committee and board members recently voted to appoint former fest head Kim Dong-ho to handle administrative details as the new chairman. But bringing back the 79-year-old Busan Film Festival founder — who had retired six years ago — is deemed by one industry figure as "a makeshift emergency plan."

Bleed for This

The power shift has left the Korean film scene divided. Earlier this year, major Korean film figures formed numerous coalitions spanning directors, producers and critics to declare a boycott of this year's festival if local authorities did not step aside. Of the nine groups, four decided to end the boycott as the fest opening neared and four — including the Directors Guild of Korea, headed by Snowpiercer helmer Bong Joon Ho — chose not to attend, while the remaining one association stayed undecided.

"Many are upset that key figures had to leave leadership roles of the festival, and others are doubtful about whether [the amendments to the bylaws] would completely deter political pressure and are thus maintaining the boycott," says Kim Si-moo, president of the Film Studies Association of Korea. "Now that BIFF has made changes on paper, it must realize the new bylaws by showing that it is a festival operated by filmmakers, not government officials."

The Wailing

The fest still is facing financing challenges. The Korean culture ministry has increased its annual funding, from last year's 800 million won to 900 million won (about $805,000), but sponsors have been reluctant to pledge as much support due to the uncertainty surrounding the event.

Despite all the trouble, festival organizers have put together a lineup that largely holds up against previous editions.

"BIFF seems to have [somehow] put together a program we can look forward to," says Kim Si-moo of this year's presentation of 301 films from 69 countries, a lineup size that remains largely unchanged from past festivals.

Arrival

A strong Hollywood presence is expected, such as a gala presentation of Bleed for This, with the boxing drama's star Miles Teller on hand for the screening. The fest also will showcase Korean-language productions backed by major U.S. studios, including Fox International's summer blockbuster The Wailing and Warner Bros.' recent box-office smash The Age of Shadows, which was chosen as Korea's Oscar entry for best foreign-language film.

Says Kim Dong-ho: "We believe hosting this year's festival no matter [what] would be the best way to defend BIFF, and we are planning things accordingly. We are hoping this will be an opportunity to turn things around for the better, to make the next 20 years of the festival a new and meaningful one."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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