Busan City Government Under Fire Amid Debate Over Film Festival's Independence

Busan Scene - H 2014
Busan International Film Festival

South Korean film bodies have formed a committee demanding the festival's independence after the Busan mayor reportedly asked the festival director to resign.

Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) organizers have vowed to work more closely with local authorities following a showdown over how the South Korean event is run. However, it appears that a debate about artistic freedom at the event won't be dying down any time soon.

Initial conflicts arose after the Busan city government, which provides about half of the 20-year-old festival's annual budget, reportedly asked BIFF director Lee Yong-kwan to resign over the weekend. Lee, a co-founder of BIFF, has headed the festival since its 16th edition in 2011. His tenure is supposed to continue until February 2016.

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Prior to the showdown, municipal authorities filed a negative audit/inspection review of BIFF last month, finding fault with 19 issues. Among other things, it criticized the festival's standards for choosing lineup titles.

The 19th edition of the festival this past October had made headlines as BIFF pushed on with the premiere of a highly politicized ferry disaster documentary in spite of opposition from Busan mayor Suh Byung-soo, who also serves as the festival's chairman. Local industry insiders had vehemently criticized Suh at the time for trying to interfere with the festival's artistic freedom.

Though government officials have denied asking Lee to step down, Korean filmmakers immediately protested on behalf of the director and the festival. Overall, 12 local industry coalitions, spanning those for directors, producers, film festivals, screenwriters, cinematographers and critics, issued a joint statement demanding that the city retract its call for Lee's resignation.

Some of the filmmakers even threatened to boycott future editions of the festival and said they would no longer shoot movies in the city. Busan, designated as a "City of Film" by UNESCO, hosts not only BIFF, Asia's largest film festival, but is also home to film studios and bodies such as the Korean Film Council. A pan-Asian film school is also set to open doors in the southern port city in October, in time for the 20th edition of the festival.

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Lee has since met Suh and issued a statement on Tuesday vowing to continue cooperating with local authorities.

"BIFF has always worked closely with Busan city to host and manage the festival and to enhance its economic value, as well as to support the development of the local media culture. There is no reason for this to change now. I respect the mayor's concerns and comments, but it is true that I do not agree with all of them. But we will try our best to reach an agreement," Lee said.

This, however, did not stop observers from questioning whether BIFF's artistic freedom would be guaranteed. That was a major topic during the Busan metropolitan council meeting on Wednesday.

"Busan city suggesting that BIFF director Lee resign has stunned the local film and arts/culture community," said assemblywoman Jeong Myung Hee. "Mayor Suh must stop his political influence over the festival and guarantee its independence."

The joint filmmakers' coalition, meanwhile, rebranded itself as an emergency committee for defending BIFF's independence.

"Busan city has not officially addressed the matter regarding Lee's resignation," said the coalition. "Municipal authorities must realize the gravity of the situation and must be clear about guaranteeing the festival's artistic freedom."

Meanwhile the 20th edition of BIFF opens on Oct. 1 in Busan.