Busan Film Festival Unveils Lineup Amid Ongoing Power Struggle

Courtesy of the Busan International Film Festival
'A Quiet Dream'

Asia's largest film fest tries to put aside recent internal and external conflicts, but budget issues have yet to be secured while it remains unclear whether a majority of South Korean filmmakers will attend this year's event.

The Busan International Film Festival will present 301 films from 69 countries during its 21st edition that is set to run Oct. 6-15 in the South Korean city of Busan.

Though BIFF's signature programming remains largely unchanged from previous editions, organizers of the fest say they are working hard to pull themselves together from a two-year conflict with South Korean authorities and filmmakers.

Asia's largest film fest will open with South Korean comedy-drama A Quiet Dream, marking the first time in five years that the event will open with a local production. Directed by Korean-Chinese filmmaker Zhang Lu, Quiet Dream pays homage to three iconic films in Korean indie cinema: Breathless, The Unforgiven and The Journals of Musan. The actor-directors of these films play their respective characters as young men competing for the affection of the same woman.

The fest will close with the international premiere of Iraqi filmmaker Hussein Hassan's The Dark Wind, a drama about love, traditional values and conflicting religious beliefs. The opening and closing films are among 123 titles that will make their world and international premieres.

Organizers said that this year's festival programming reflects "the solidarity of Asian cinema." 

"There is a strong focus on up-and-coming Asian filmmakers, particularly originating from South Asia and China. We have seven festival programmers, but we received a great deal of help from Asian film industryites for this year's selection," said Kim Ji-seok, head programmer and newly named fest deputy director. "Esteemed Asian filmmakers such as Lee Chang-dong have volunteered to take part in the festival even though he does not have a film showing this year, while [Singaporean director] Eric Khoo expressed his wish to premiere his latest film [Art Through Our Eyes] at Busan."

A highlight event feting Asian solidarity is a special talk featuring three regional master filmmakers: Lee, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Koreeda Hirokazu. Festivalgoers can also look forward to special programs, including 1970s-1980s titles by Korean genre master Lee Doo Yong, a retrospective dedicated to the late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (recipient of 2016's Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award) and a showcase of Colombian cinema. The Asian Film Market, the largest event of its kind in the region, will run Oct. 8-11 with a continued focus on intellectual property, or providing a platform for filmmakers to adapt books, online cartoon strips (regionally known as "webtoons") and animations, among other original sources, for the big screen.

It remains to be seen, however, whether BIFF will succeed in bringing about the solidarity of the local film industry.

Conflicts arose in 2014 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 former 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 declared a ban on the festival in a gesture to defend its artistic freedom. Last month, four film groups decided to end the boycott while four insist on continuing the ban and the one remaining coalition chose not to take part in the vote.

"We have managed to amend the festival's articles of association, in order to defend the independence and autonomy of BIFF. But I believe it is difficult for everyone [in the film industry] to agree on what is best for the festival, and I sincerely regret how we have caused a great deal of concern for filmmakers and fans near and far," said Kim Dong-ho, BIFF founder and former director who was tapped as its first "civilian" chairman. The chairmanship had traditionally been reserved for the Busan mayor.

Budget issues, moreover, remain to be fixed. "The Korean culture ministry has increased its annual funding, from last year's 800 million won to 900 million won (about $805,000), but sponsors have been reluctant due to uncertainties about this year's festival," said Kim. "We are working hard to secure more sponsorship funding before the festival opens and hope to make up for next year's fund through sideline events and other sources."

He added, "We believed that hosting this year's festival no matter would be the best way to defend BIFF, and are planning things accordingly. Because everything was finalized in late August there may be shortcomings. But we are hoping this will be an opportunity to turn things around for the better, to make the next 20 years of the festivals a new and meaningful one."