Busan Film Festival: South Korean Industry to Vote on End of Boycott

Kim Dong-ho
Chung Sung-Ju/Getty Images

This year's festival is the first without beloved founding member Kim Dong-ho, who retired.

Insiders say recent changes will help local filmmakers participate in Asia's largest film festival.

Filmmakers near and far have watched closely as the Busan International Film Festival, Asia's largest event of its kind, has faced numerous perils ahead of its 21st edition in October. And the South Korean movie industry will help decide the fate of BIFF in light of recent debates over its artistic freedom.

On Monday, members of nine Korean filmmaker associations, spanning directors, producers and critics, received letters inquiring whether or not they should lift their boycott of BIFF, the Korean Film Group’s Emergency Committee for Defending BIFF’s Independence told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday. A decision will be made after the vote, for which no dates were detailed. "Media reports suggesting that we have decided to lift the boycott are completely unfounded," said a rep from the group.

The first city in Asia to be designated a UNESCO film city, Busan has been the symbolic heart of Korean — and in the larger scheme of things, Asian — cinema and artistic freedom since BIFF's inception in 1996, as South Korea emerged from a long democratization process throughout the 1980s. It was considered shocking at the time for films to be shown to the public without going through censorship by local authorities.

Since 2014, however, conflicts have arisen between BIFF and the Busan metropolitan government when then-fest director Lee Yong-kwan pushed forth with the screening of a controversial documentary in spite of opposition from Busan mayor and 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." The film groups declared a ban on the festival in a gesture to defend its artistic freedom.

Insiders agree, nevertheless, that filmmakers will most likely lift the boycott — especially since the Busan metropolitan government worked with fest organizers to make major changes designed to ensure more freedom.

"There seems to be little reason for filmmakers to refuse to attend," said Kim Si-moo, film critic and president of the Film Studies Association of Korea. "The new amendments are not 100-percent satisfying, but Busan city officials have made a gesture in terms of guaranteeing the festival's artistic freedom. Now that they've made changes on paper, it's about time they show it in action during the upcoming edition."

On Monday, BIFF organizers announced that Kim Dong-ho, its founder and temporary festival director, would step in as chairman, a position that had traditionally been reserved for the Busan mayor. This marks the first time a non-governmental official assumed the top position. Kang Soo-youn, who was appointed as co-fest director under Lee's tenure, will serve as BIFF director.

"To win our independence back, we did everything we could to amend the articles of association because we are not able to prevent political interferences with the current articles of association. It was very hard for us to do it because the city government didn't let it happen easily," said a written statement from BIFF organizers on Tuesday.

"Actually, there was a time we even seriously thought about not holding the festival this year to protest against the city government," it added. "But we came to conclusion that such a drastic measure won't solve the problems. We realized that it is our responsibility and duty to have the festival no matter what happens for all cineastes who supported the festival from the beginning. And we decided to go on even though things didn't look promising for us as the city government kept sabotaging our attempt to amending the articles of association."

In the meantime, however, some of the country's top investors and distributors may support filmmakers who decide to continue boycotting the festival. "If our filmmakers do not wish to participate in BIFF this year, then we wouldn't try to dissuade them," said a senior rep from one of Korea's top studios.

"Korean filmmakers seem largely divided by generation," said another industry insider. "Younger directors, under 40, still don't seem sure about attending, while the older ones are saying they should support the festival."

July 26, 4:02 a.m. Updated with corrections. A previous version of the story cited Kim Si-moo as the president of the Korean Association of Film Critics and Kang Soo-youn as former deputy director. THR regrets the mistakes.