Busan: Asia's Biggest Film Festival Tries to Overcome Hurdles

Busan in the Crosshairs - H 2015
Courtesy of Richard Foreman Jr. / Lionsgate

Despite a censorship conflict over an anti-government doc (and slashed funding that followed), the event celebrates its 20th edition thanks to the help of some very powerful friends.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Since its humble beginnings in 1996, the Busan International Film Festival has grown to become Asia's largest and most prestigious film event. But instead of enjoying a much-deserved victory lap for its 20th anniversary edition in 2015, the celebrated South Korean fest unexpectedly finds itself at a crossroads.

The trouble began in October, when festival director Lee Yong-kwan refused to heed political demands to cancel the world premiere of The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, a trenchant guerrilla documentary about government incompetence and media collusion in the aftermath of the April 2014 South Korean ferry disaster that left more than 300 passengers, mostly high school children, dead. After the fest went forward with the screening, the mayor of Busan reportedly called for Lee's dismissal, making BIFF's artistic freedom a subject of heated debate. Soon thereafter, the state-supported Korean Film Council nearly halved its annual funding for the event, cutting its contribution from $1.3 million in 2014 to $730,720 this year.

The Busan Cinema Center will play host to several major fall releases.

Despite the blow, organizers say BIFF has taken the occasion to chart a new path for its future — one less reliant on government largesse. "We were able to go on and prepare our 20th edition with the support and friendship of many friends both near and far," says Lee.

In the wake of BIFF's struggle against censorship, Cannes Film Festival chief Thierry Fremaux, Venice's Alberto Barbera and renowned filmmakers like Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul sent strongly worded statements supporting its artistic integrity.

On the domestic front, Kang Soo-yeon, one of the country's most iconic and beloved veteran actresses (think a South Korean Meryl Streep), stepped forward to serve as festival co-director, shoring up public support for the big 20th anniversary edition.

Oct. 1-10 Busan, South Korea

In addition, top local film studios and distributors including CJ Entertainment, Lotte Entertainment, Showbox/Mediaplex and NEW are said to have pledged bigger sponsorship packages to overcome BIFF's budget shortfall. Former actress and current Seoul Cinema CEO Ko Eun-ah made headlines with a personal donation of 100 million Korean won (about $85,000). Meanwhile, the festival's VIP guest list is longer than ever before.

"So many cineastes have promised to be there in these times of trouble," says Kang. Tilda Swinton, Sophie Marceau and Chinese megastar Tang Wei will walk the red carpet, as will favorite international art house directors including Palme d'Or winner Weerasethakul, China's Jia Zhangke and Claude Lelouch. The fest lineup also has a strong Hollywood presence, featuring screenings of such awards hopefuls as Patricia Rozema's Canadian drama Into the Forest, starring Ellen Page, and Denis Villeneuve's drug-cartel drama Sicario.

"It's most important for the festival to continue showing great movies and helping discover and foster talent — but with long-term goals," says Kang. "This year is Busan's 20th anniversary, but the next 20 years are much more important."

Johnnie To's 'Office'

4 Things Not to Miss at BIFF

1. Meet Johnnie To

Hong Kong genre master Johnnie To will leave his mark in Busan through a special handprint ceremony and talk. Fans also should catch his latest genre mash-up Office, starring Chow Yun-fat.

2. Asia Cinema 100

Industry figures have selected the 100 best Asian films, and festgoers can take in rare presentations of such classics as Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

3. French Night

The must-attend French Embassy bash will take place Oct. 9. In 2013, the French won the festival’s unofficial swag smackdown by dishing out free clutches from luxury fashion label Louis Quatorze.

4. Asian Film Market

The producers behind some of China's hugest box-office hits will be on hand at BIFF's concurrent Asian Film Market (Oct. 3 to Oct. 6) to talk shop and meet with prospective business partners.