Busan: Festival Wraps With Smaller Attendance But Big Hopes for the Future

Busan International Film Festival
'The Dark Wind'

"It was a miracle that this year's festival opened," says director Kang Soo-youn, as the South Korean event concluded amid typhoon damages and boycotts from local filmmakers.

The 21st Busan International Film Festival wrapped its 10-day run on Saturday with a significantly smaller attendance rate, following several consecutive years of breaking records as Asia's largest and most prestigious cinema event.

Though this year's lineup of 299 films from 69 countries was similar in quantity to that of previous editions, there was a significant drop in the number of festgoers. The attendee figure of 165,149 plummeted 27 percent from last year's record-smashing 227,377.

"There were about 3,700 less seats available in theaters this year compared to last year, and there were also 65 less screenings. Typhoon Chaba also cut off the flow of festivalgoers," explained actress and fest director Kang Soo-youn. The typhoon that hit Busan before the fest's opening had left seven people dead and also destroyed some of the fest's key outdoor facilities.

Expectations, frankly, had been rather low for this year's edition, as Busan had experienced two grueling years of power struggles, internal fights and budget cuts. Corporate sponsorships are known to have been about 30 percent less than last year's estimated 5.3 billion won (about $5 million).

In 2014, conflicts arose between BIFF and the Busan metropolitan government when the fest premiered a controversial documentary against the wishes of Busan mayor and then-BIFF chairman Suh Byung-soo. The city of Busan funds about half of the fest's annual budget, and event organizers have claimed that the unprecedented audit reviews and drastically cut state funding that followed were a result of "political retaliation."

Nine film associations spanning directors, producers and critics had declared a ban on the fest in a gesture to defend its artistic freedom. Last year's edition had brought about avid solidarity and support from the local and international film communities, paving the way for discourse on artistic freedom and yielding a record-breaking attendance rate. But recent power shifts in the organizing committee have left the Korean film industry largely divided. Last month, four film groups decided to end the boycott on Busan, while four insisted on continuing the ban and the one remaining coalition chose not to take part in the vote.

As such, the VIP guest list was significantly shorter for the opening-night gala on Oct. 6, while top Korean actors and filmmakers were rarely spotted throughout the fest's run, compared to the glitz and glam of previous editions.The overall festivity — Busan had been notorious for all-night parties — was further dampened due to a new act on curbing corruption and bribery.

"There was also an overall sense of caution and reservation due to the act," said Kang. The so-called Kim Young-ran law prohibits civil servants, educators and journalists from being treated to meals valued over 30,000 won (about $27), gifts worth more than 50,000 won ($44) or congratulatory or condolence money of more than 100,000 won ($88). As such, Korea's major film distributors — CJ Entertainment, Showbox/Mediaplex, Next Entertainment World and Lotte Entertainment — skipped their annual parties and receptions.

But Kang said the fact that the festival opened at all was "a miracle," and she promised a better edition next year.

"We were unable to receive the full support of the Korean film community, but it was a meaningful edition in that we tried our best in spite of all the difficulties," said the fest director. "We focused on the basic foundations upon which the festival stands, which is the unearthing and supporting of new Asian films, to help solidify their place in world cinema and to provide new visions."

She added, "It was a miracle that we were able to hold this year's edition. We were able to solidify our position, nevertheless, as the hub for intellectual properties through the Asian Film Market, and we are confident about turning things around for the better next year."

"The beauty of Busan is that it's the place to discover new Asian films and filmmakers. Diversity thrives here," said Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, the Bangladeshi director who was a judge for Busan's Sonje Awards this year. His film Television closed the 2012 Busan fest.

This year's closing film was The Dark Wind by Iraqi filmmaker Hussein Hassan, the story of a man who succeeds in rescuing his fiancée after she is kidnapped and raped by the ISIS but still must fight social and religious codes that shun her.