Busan Film Festival Organizers: "Political Retaliation" Behind State Funding Cut

Busan International Film Festival
Busan's Asian Film Market

The Korean Film Council has virtually halved its annual support for Asia's largest film festival, and organizers are demanding an explanation.

Organizers of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) submitted a letter of complaint to the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) on Tuesday, demanding an explanation for cutting its annual funding to almost half.

KOFIC, the South Korean state-backed body that promotes local films, had recently announced it would provide roughly $730,720 (800 million won) this year to BIFF, which will open its 20th edition in October. That's almost half of last year's $1.3 million (1.46 billion won).

KOFIC said it made the decision in order to distribute funds more equally among other film festivals, because BIFF had in the past received more than 40 percent of the council's annual budget. Accordingly, the state body has increased its support for other major local events, such as the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (formerly called Puchon or PiFan) and Jeonju International Film Festival.

BIFF organizers believe there are political reasons behind the drastic cut.

"This decision makes no sense, considering how Busan faces increasing competition from other regional film festivals in China, Japan, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia," said organizers in a written statement to KOFIC that was revealed to the press. "It is easy to suspect that KOFIC's budget cut is a political retaliation because we tried to defend BIFF's artistic freedom."

"Ever since we screened the [controversial ferry disaster] documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol last year, our artistic freedom has been under much threat, such as pressure for director Lee Yong-kwan to resign," continued the statement. The festival has been at odds with the Busan metropolitan government ever since Busan mayor Suh Byung-soo opposed the premiere of the film. Though Busan city denied ever forcing Lee to resign, local filmmakers have defended Lee and the festival.

"We are demanding an explanation whether KOFIC's recent decision had anything to do with [this conflict]."

The festival organizers also questioned why KOFIC's annual budget decision, previously announced through public meetings, was transmitted via telephone.

KOFIC immediately published a statement on Wednesday to address BIFF's concerns. "The meetings were kept closed because the budgeting decision had to be made very quickly, before the start of the Jeonju Film Festial.. [and] because we feared there would be much protest [from organizations like BIFF]," said the statement.

More importantly, it denied that the cut had anything to do with the screening of The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol. "It is in order to provide more state support to emerging film festivals," read the statement. "There was no mention of The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol during the meetings," it said, adding that the decisions are based on legitimate procedures.

The council argued that it was a sensible move, and compared how much state support other festivals around the world receive.

Recent editions of BIFF have operated on a budget of $10.9 million (12 billion won), of which 57 percent or $6.2 million (6.8 billion won) came from state funds. This is a little bit more proportion-wise than Cannes, which collects half of its resources from the French government, but much less than Berlin's 80 percent. By contrast, the portions are considerably less for Toronto (15 percent) and Sundance (5 percent) festivals.

This year's BIFF will open Oct. 1-10 in the southern port city of Busan. Industry observers are closely watching how the film festival will react to KOFIC's explanations, and more importantly, how it will complete the finances for its big 20th anniversary edition.

May 13, 2:50 a.m. Updated with additional reactions from KOFIC, based on its statement released on Wednesday.