Busan Film Festival Leadership Shuffle Leaves South Korean Film Industry Divided (Exclusive)

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Lee Yong-kwan, left, and Kim Dong-ho

As the head programmer of the fest steps in as deputy director, the fate of Asia's largest event lies in the hands of local filmmakers who have yet to cancel their boycott of the upcoming 21st edition in October.

South Korea has been a giant in Asian cinema, hosting the region's largest film festival and playing a critical role in the development of neighboring markets, including China's rapidly growing industry. Local filmmakers, however, stand at a crossroads like never before, as a political divide within the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) speaks to larger discourse on artistic freedom.

Kim Ji-seok, head programmer of BIFF, is stepping in as deputy director, leaving the fate of Asia's premier event in the hands of local filmmakers, who have yet to cancel their boycott of the upcoming 21st edition of BIFF in October.

"I will be assuming a substitute executive role for the meantime," Kim told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday as fest organizers have yet to officially announce the head programmer's new role that replaces Jay Jeon, BIFF's deputy director and head of the Asian Film Market, the region's largest market.

"Kim's new role reflects a power shift within not only BIFF, but a larger rift that may leave the entire industry divided," said film critic Kim Si-moo.

The first in Asia to be designated a UNESCO Film City, Busan has been the symbolic heartland 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 that continued through 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 arose between BIFF and the Busan metropolitan government when then-fest director Lee Yong-kwan had 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 since followed were a result of "political retaliation."

Over a dozen film coalition groups spanning filmmakers to producers to critics have since decided to boycott the fest in order to defend BIFF's artistic freedom.

BIFF founder Kim Dong-ho has since stepped into the vacant directorial position as BIFF's leadership lay in the hands of the rather inexperienced Kang Soo-youn, who may be one of the country's most iconic actresses but joined as co-director under the auspices of Lee less than one year ago. Kim Ji-seok said he and other fest organizers felt that the arrangement was "the most appropriate" alternative, given how co-founders Jeon and Lee are currently being investigated by prosecutors for fraud allegations.

Lee's three-year tenure ended in March, and THR has learned that Jeon has been placed in a rather precarious position where he has been forced to leave the very festival that he co-founded. "Last week the [BIFF] organizing committee informed me of my release from my position," Jeon wrote Friday on his Facebook page. "No one would have imagined that the three of us [Lee Yong-kwan, Kim Ji-seok and Jeon], having built a friendship spanning 30 years, would be walking separate paths as we became embroiled in a political conflict."

Industry insiders largely agree that Lee and Jeon were unfairly charged in a politically motivated scheme that undermines the autonomy and artistic freedom of BIFF, and scores of local film icons including directors Kim Ki-duk, Lee Chang-dong and JK Youn, producer/filmmaker Kang Woo-suk, veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki and Jeonju International Film Festival director Lee Choong-jik have recently signed a petition in deference to Jeon. Kim Ki-duk and Lee Chang-dong, in particular, further demonstrated their support with handwritten letters for Jeon, who is largely credited with putting BIFF onto the international scene.

With the 21st edition of BIFF set to kick off in less than four months, its future now heavily depends on whether or not Korean filmmakers decide to call off the boycott.

The situation, moreover, has become further complicated by internal strife. Shortly after Kim's reinstatement, Lee had told local media that he felt concerned about Kim's ability to withstand political pressure given his roots as a civil servant. The move has since caused a rift among the co-founders of the festival, largely divided between Kim and Kang versus Lee and Jeon. Many filmmakers are said to be feeling torn about the rift. Kim, who is currently traveling overseas, was not readily available to comment.

"Many insiders including myself were surprised that Mr. Kim Dong-ho decided to let go of Jay Jeon even though he has yet to be proved guilty [about the fraud allegations]," said film critic Kim Si-moo. "We were expecting Mr. Jeon to play a more active role as deputy director, especially since he is among the five original co-founders. Kim Ji-seok will be playing a critical role in terms of mediating between [Kim and Lee]. But in any case if Lee Yong-kwan and Kim Dong-ho do not reconcile the festival will end up collapsing. This is unfortunate given how BIFF grew into one of the world's most important events through their hard work spanning over 20 years."

The 21st edition of BIFF is slated to run Oct. 6-15 in the southern port city of Busan.