South Korean Filmmakers Mourn Late Busan Co-Founder Kim Ji-seok

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Kim Ji-seok

The deputy director's unexpected death reignited the debate on artistic freedom in the country as well as raised pertinent questions on the future direction of the troubled Asian festival.

South Korean filmmakers gathered in Busan on Monday for the memorial service of Kim Ji-seok, co-founder, deputy director and head programmer of Busan International Film Festival who passed earlier this month. He was 57.

The noon service began with a moment of silence at one of the main theaters of Busan Cinema Center, the official festival venue. Over 400 guests from near and far, including Japan, Taiwan and other Asian neighboring countries, arrived for the solemn occasion.

"It seems like yesterday when you [Kim Ji-seok] asked me to officiate your marriage, and but it pains me that you are making me play the villainous role of bidding you farewell," said Kim Dong-ho, founder, former director and current chairman of the fest, in his eulogy, about the deceased who married in 1996, the same year BIFF launched.

"Countless friends paid their respects at the memorial that was set up at the Korean Film Council booth during the Cannes Film Festival," recalled Kim about how the late deputy passed away from a heart attack during the French festival, and said guests included Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Eric Khoo, among other Asian cinema icons. According to a spokesperson for BIFF, Kim's body was cremated in Cannes on Tuesday in order to hurry the process of the return home. The spokesperson also said that Kim had paid visits to the doctor since late 2014.

"He said he was heading to the pharmacy after we arrived in Cannes, and I never thought that would be the last time I saw him," added Kim Dong-ho.

Others commemorated the head programmer's dedication to the festival's struggles to launch and ultimately survive against a government censorship crisis.

"The crazy bastard offered the money he had saved for his wedding for launching the festival," said Oh Seok-geun, a longtime friend of the late Kim and BIFF founding member who currently heads the Busan Film Commision, during his speech. "I knew nothing about administration and didn't do the paperwork properly. There was no way to pay him back when we finally got the funds from Busan city, but not once did he complain."

Moreover, Oh emphasized the need to shed light on the issue of artistic freedom.

In October 2014, Busan Mayor and then-fest chairman Suh Byung-soo tried to stop the Busan Film Festival from screening a controversial documentary about a tragic April 2014 ferry sinking, The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol. The local film industry rose up, organizing some of the largest protests to date and even threatening to boycott the 2016 edition of the festival.

Filmmakers condemned Suh's censorship attempt, while fest organizers claimed that it suffered "political retaliation" in the form of drastic state budget cuts and unprecedented audit reviews after premiering the documentary. Several founding members of the fest, including former director Lee Yong-kwan and market head Jay Jeon, were forced to resign and have since faced troubles with the law over what many local industryites' view as unfair charges of corruption. Mayor Suh, who has since resigned from his festival post, attended the memorial service.

Last year in October, the entertainment industry rose up in protest once again when it became known that the former Park Geun-hye administration ordered the blacklisting of artists, including the likes of Oldboy helmer Park Chan-wook, which excluded them from government funding. The government censorship was a major issue in the impeachment of Park earlier this year.

"Ji-seok died dramatically like in a movie, early in the morning of the day that [former fest director Lee Yong-kwan's] last appeal trial took place," Oh said. "Not a single person involved in the Busan Film Festival incident can be free before the death of the deceased. Just as the blacklisting revealed the [wrongdoings] of the former government, it is imperative to lay bare the oppression against Busan International Film Festival stemming from Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol incident. Those who carried out, supported or kept silent about the oppression must take responsibility."

Oh added: "The era that my friend so aspired to has finally begun. Busan has become a city of film through the Busan International Film Festival, while Korean cinema, along with Asian cinema, is spreading its wings out into the world. We must carry on our friend's dream of uniting together Asia as one through cinema."

Veteran filmmaker Im Kwon-taek shared a quote--lines from a traditional local funerary song originating from Jeolla Province--from his film Festival, about a traditional Korean funeral that he directed in 1996, coincidentally the same year BIFF was inaugurated. Other iconic filmmakers in presence included Jung Jin-young and Lee Chang-dong.

However, Lee Yong-kwan and Jay Jeon, who co-founded BIFF with the late Kim, were conspicuously missing during the ceremony.

Along with Oh, Lee and Jeon had hosted Kim's funeral. As is custom in Korea, the funeral took place over three days from Saturday through Monday at the funeral hall of a local hospital. According to a source close to the festival organizing committee, the two were not included in the official order of events because they were no longer part of the fest. "Many people thought it was a gesture that they should not attend," said the source.

"Prof. Lee Yong-kwan and I fulfilled our duty as hosts of the funeral. We did not attend the memorial ceremony. Prof. Lee went straight to the burial ground while I headed back to Seoul," Jeon told The Hollywood Reporter.

Moreover, several events during the funeral suggested that internal conflicts are ongoing within the festival organizing committee and related members. According to several witnesses, Lee was seen rejecting the handshakes of Kim Dong-ho and Mayor Suh on Saturday. Last year in June, the deceased was named deputy director of BIFF. His stepping into the position was met with some controversy, as he had filled in for the much-contested absence of Lee and Jeon. However, as BIFF became further wrapped up in the aforementioned government censorship scandal that left the South Korean film community divided and torn, he was seen as one of the few veterans that could help hold the fest together.

Some questioned the absence of those closest to Kim during the ceremony, which featured eulogies by just a handful of guests including Kang Nam-ju, former president of Pukyong National University. The late Kim is not a graduate of Pukyong but that of Busan National University. "I really have nothing to say. I don't know him personally, but I mourn the loss of the Busan International Film Festival," said Kang. According to BIFF's spokesperson, Kang was chosen as "a representative of Busan," while Oh Seok-geun spoke on behalf of Kim's closest friends and colleagues including Lee and Jeon.

Meanwhile, Kim is survived by his wife, Hong Eun-ok, and 20-year-old son, Se-hyeon. "My father was a man who loved movies," said Kim Se-hyeon. "Never once has my dream of becoming a programmer like my father changed since I was seven. He was my greatest inspiration, and I regret that I won't be able to show him my becoming a cineaste after him."

May 29, 6:53 a.m. Updated with additional details about the memorial service.

May 29, 4:53 a.m. Updated with a quote from BIFF regarding the choice of eulogy speakers.

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