Busan: 20th Edition Wraps With Record Attendance Despite Budget Troubles

Cinema Center
Coop Himmelblau

The ceiling of the new Cinema Center is covered by an elaborate system of monitors that can display full-motion graphics.

Asia's largest festival drew its curtains with the most number of audiences to date with long-term regional projects and platforms for foray into the Chinese film market.

The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) closed its big 20th anniversary edition on Saturday with the largest attendance rate to date, in spite of budget issues and concerns about artistic freedom.

Asia's largest film event drew a record audience of 227,377 as it showed 302 films from 75 countries. Attendance was up almost 1,000 from last year, according to organizers, while the Asian Film Market also garnered the highest number of participants and meetings.

Onlookers had voiced worries about whether the South Korean festival would live up to expectations as the region's premier event. Earlier this year, Korean authorities almost halved its annual budget for BIFF while the Busan mayor reportedly asked fest director Lee Yong-kwan to resign.

Such events had been linked to the festival's premiere of a highly politicized documentary film about the 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy, and coalitions of local filmmakers supported Lee and the festival. BIFF, however, was able to secure funds through new corporate partners including Google Korea, while top local investor-distributors, such as Next Entertainment World (NEW), opted to fund various programs and events.

The festival, moreover, pushed forth by appointing a new co-director, the iconic actress and longtime BIFF committee member Kang Soo-yeon.

"The festival opened rather shakily amid wet and windy weather, but we managed to wrap up a more successful event than the year before," said Kang. "Now that we celebrated our 20th anniversary, it is time to look forward to the next 20 years to come."

Industryites, moreover, suggested that improvements could be made in the future.

"It's bizarre that Busan did not open or close its 20th anniversary with a Korean film. That would be unheard of in France," a staff of a prominent French festival told The Hollywood Reporter. "There were a handful of titles by young Asian filmmakers that got some buzz, but the overall of quality of works by first-time Korean filmmakers was less impressive. Perhaps the festival can attract better works by not obsessing over world premieres," said another French festival programmer.

"I thought major Korean films like Veteran would be willing to hold off on general release, in order to give the fest a big, splashy opening for a milestone year," said a Canadian film critic."I'm not suggesting the fest start embracing Michael Bay or anything, but this year's opener, Zubaan, and the thematically questionable Paradise in Service [last year] don't set the tone. Asia's profile is considerably higher than it was in 1996 — BIFF can take some credit for that — but it's become a victim of its own success. I miss the Nampo-dong days."

This year's festival attracted international A-listers, from screen stars Tang Wei, Harvey Keitel and Sophie Marceau to prominent auteurs Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Claude Lelouch and Jia Zhangke — but a U.S. film fest organizer suggested that the fest could benefit from upping its K-pop star wattage. "BIFF could really make use of Korea's strong pop culture influence in Asia. The Toronto Film Festival, for example, certainly focuses on featuring lesser known Canadian films, but it also takes advantage of the global media attention that it attracts for Hollywood titles and stars."

BIFF nevertheless won praise for showcasing several forward-thinking, long-term projects. 

"The Asian Cinema 100 was absolutely wonderful and will be very helpful for Asian film specialists," said Irene Cho, a U.S. film producer and former staff of the Sundance Film Festival, about the newly launched program that invites experts from all over the world to choose the top most historically and culturally influential films in the region. The list is to be updated every five years.

Another new initiative that drew attention was Color of Asia, a joint venture with China's Youku Tudou and Heyi Pictures. The program funds shorts and features by master Asian filmmakers and newcomers for both on and offline distribution. "This is about sharing and enjoying the unique color of each filmmaker. I believe this project marks an important step in changing the way in which media is consumed," said Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai, who presented The Cornfields as part of the project's inaugural showcase.

In addition to Color of Asia, the presence of prominent Chinese industry insiders was extremely strong this year. This year's Asian Film Market, which wrapped its 10th edition on Tuesday, was all about how Hollywood and other markets can learn from Korea's know-how as one of China's veteran partners.

One-day badges were sold out for the film market's pilot edition of the Entertainment Intellectual Property Market, with China's Alibaba Pictures, Huace Union Pictures, Huayi Brothers and Beijing Alpha Transmedia buying remake rights for Korean web content, literary works and stage shows.

"Countries that want to enter China, the world's second-largest and fast-growing film market, can learn from Korea. Korea has been successful because joint film projects have helped diversify the genre of Chinese films and revamped the quality of local films," said Jacky Y.H. Liu, CEO of Huace Union Pictures.

BIFF closes on Saturday night with the world premiere of Mountain Cry by emerging Chinese filmmaker Larry Yang.