Battle for Busan Festival Continues as Industry Says Founder's Return Doesn't Solve Core Problem

2015 Busan Asian Film Market 1 - H 2015
Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival

The South Korean fest recently reconciled with the Busan city government over issues concerning its artistic freedom, but some filmmakers are saying they should still boycott the premier Asian event.

It appeared the long-running battle between South Korea's Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) and its main host/sponsor, the Busan metropolitan government, had come to a happy ending — with Kim Dong-ho, the fest's founder and honorary director as well as a local film icon, stepping in as temporary fest head to make sure the top Asian event opens as scheduled in October.

Industry insiders, however, have begun claiming that the "Kim solution" is just making things look good on the surface.

Conflicts between fest organizers and Busan city officials first arose in September 2014 when then-fest director Lee Yong-kwan pushed ahead with the screening of The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, a politically sensitive documentary about the April 2014 sinking of a ferry that left hundreds of teens dead. This was in spite of opposition from Busan mayor Suh Byung-soo; the local mayor has traditionally served as chairman of the event, of which the city funds about half the annual budget.

The fest has since suffered major setbacks that organizers have claimed to be "political retaliation" — from the local state body, the Korean Film Council, halving its annual support for BIFF to local authorities carrying out an unprecedented audit that resulted in some of the fest's core founding members being questioned by prosecutors about bribe allegations.

Lee's tenure was not extended by the chairman in February, and in March major Korean filmmaker coalition groups proclaimed a boycott of the fest in deference of its artistic freedom — marking the largest collective action by the Korean film industry for the first time in a decade since efforts regarding the local screen quota policy in 2006.

"I've already left the festival committee, and only hope that the matter will be resolved in due time. I think I've already said what I've had to say," Lee told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday. "This is, in reality, political oppression," the former leader told local daily The Hankyoreh on Friday after long refusing to speak to the press. "It was one of my [many] mistakes not to oppose the reinstatement of Kim Dong-ho. Mr. Kim has previously served as deputy culture minister and this is an issue that he cannot handle. I am opposing his return for the sake of saving both Mr. Kim and the future of the festival."

The former head added: "The problem is that this problem at hand, namely outer forces such as the government trying to interfere with a festival's programming, can happen again if we do not get to the bottom of things."

Back in BIFF's early days, Lee, a founding member of the fest who worked as a programmer, had been noted for pushing forth with the screening of several films that were not approved by the local media rating board. Though some critics have pointed out flaws in Lee's leadership, such as his alleged preference for fellow graduates of his alma mater, even the Korean Film Reporters Association demonstrated its support by awarding him the 2016 Cineaste of the Year Award in January while local filmmakers, film critics and actors held a fundraising event to hire a lawyer for Lee after local authorities accused the former head of fraud.

Kim could not be reached by THR for further questions.

"It seems to undermine the entire situation, such as halting the boycott, as Busan City has not made a formal apology nor provided a clear explanation of the past struggle," said a filmmaker, who has been a vocal activist as former head of a local filmmakers' association, but asked not to be named. "The real problem at hand is guaranteeing the artistic freedom and autonomy of the festival, and Kim Dong-ho's return really doesn't solve anything."

Another filmmaker, who also asked to remain anonymous, said many others are considering reviving the boycott of the fest that is slated to run Oct. 6-15. Should this be the case, it is highly possible the event would be shunned by the likes of director Park Chan-wook, who previously stated that he would take part in the boycott if the festival's autonomy is not guaranteed — in other words, his Cannes competition entry The Handmaiden would not be a candidate in the fest's lineup.

Meanwhile, a staff member of Busan City told THR: "Busan City has made amends to move forward with the festival. We have a big homework assignment ahead of us, many issues to smooth out, and we feel confident that we can work well with Kim Dong-ho and [co-director] Kang Soo-youn to make improvements."

Said Jay Jeon, director of BIFF's Asian Film Market and a founding member of the fest alongside Lee, in a previous interview with THR: "Kim Dong-ho and other veteran members are still onboard and making sure things are running smoothly. 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."