Can Pusan survive without Kim Dong-ho

Kim Dong-ho

After 15 years, the film festival's director is moving on

Vietnam Int'l Film Fest to debut this month

Kim Dong-ho is standing in the concourse of the Pusan International Airport, fumbling with his brand new smartphone. He's attempting to call his driver, but while on the flight from Seoul he set the phone to "flight mode" and now he has no idea how to switch it back. After playing with the keys for a few minutes, the man who put Pusan on the global film festival map gives up.

It's 8:05 a.m. and Kim, the 73-year-old director of the Pusan International Film Festival, has a long day ahead -- though, he's quick to point out, it is actually slow compared to how things will be in the lead-up to the festival's opening this month.

After leaving his home in Seoul at 5 a.m., he took a subway to Kimpo Airport and caught a 6 a.m. plane to Pusan to be in the city for a 10 a.m. meeting with the festival's chief organizers. At noon, he has to rush to a lunch meeting with government officials from the Pusan City Council, followed by another briefing with the festival's guest team, then an interview with a local paper and a press banquet. He'll fly back to Seoul on the first flight the following morning.

On the ride between subways, trains and flights, he is constantly reading. He recently picked up "1Q84" by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, a novel inspired by the Aum Shinrikyo cult's gas attack in a Tokyo subway in 1995.

"I've read about four-fifths of the third volume now," he says with a tinge of pride. Gentle and soft-spoken, he is clad in a gray-striped suit and blue tie, with his silvery hair neatly combed back in the same style he's worn for years.

His natural mildness is hinted at in "All That She Allows: Star, Actress and Jimi Kim," a retrospective of veteran Korean actress Jimi Kim for this year's Pusan fest. The actress, whose films dominated commercial Korean cinema under the country's military regime during the '70s and '80s, has long been brushed aside by mainstream film critics for lacking a "resistant spirit."

Receiving Nielsen's Impact Award at Pusan in '08

"The political divide in Korean film has been noticeably rising in the past few years," says Kim (no relation to the actress). "It's time to find harmony, and having Jimi Kim will embrace the other spectrum that has long been neglected."

Kim is about to enter a new era when he retires from his post as Pusan festival director after this year. "I've done it for 15 years," he says. "It's long enough, and it's a good number to back off."

Pusan, under Kim, went through a dramatic transformation. As the country's first international film festival, few thought that the city -- a bustling resort town of scenic beaches and seafood joints -- could grow into hosting one of Asia's most prestigious film festivals.

But since the festival kicked off in 1996, Kim and his staff worked closely with the surprisingly supportive local city government. After contributing 300 million won ($260,000) for the inaugural edition, the budget this year is nearly 6 billion won ($5.2 million). That Pusan has been able to adhere to its art-house roots despite such government involvement is no small accomplishment in a country where many city-sponsored events have been derailed by rampant bureaucracy.

"That's the No. 1 rule we stand by," Kim says. "The government gives us the money but they stay away from our content." As a fundraiser and lobbyist for his festival, Kim has become legendary. It helped, of course, that his high school friend happened to be the head of a local conglomerate, Daewoo Group, and offered 300 million won on the spot for the first edition, which attracted 200,000 visitors. The stable funding sources, plus the lineup of compelling Asian films -- a niche many other Asian festivals failed to embrace -- helped build Pusan into a credible international film venue.And by next year Kim will see the completion of one of his pet projects: Dureraum, an ambitious film center he hopes will bolster the market side of the region.

Thanks to Kim's support of the Dureraum project, the government expects to see a number of film agencies relocate to Pusan in the next few years, including the Korean Film Council.

It's easy to see why Kim is often called tireless. In the off-season he continues to lobby for funds, coordinate with the government and check in with VIP guests. He also travels constantly as a jury member for numerous international film festivals.

If you get him excited, he can go on for hours about the neighborly warmth of Udine, the glitz of Cannes and the glamour of San Sebastian, where Kim drove miles to see the exhibition of travel photographs by Wim Wenders at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The rich anecdotes of his travelogue were recently published in a series of journals he wrote for a local newspaper under the title "Journey of World Festivals." The journals will be put into book form and translated into English next month.

Separately, his selected photographs from the world festivals will be on display at PIFF Village during Pusan. They capture "some juicy bits from behind the curtain" and some glorious moments of Korean cinema, including a shot of Maggie Cheung hugging the overwhelmed Jeon Do-yeon when she won the best actress award at Cannes for her role in 2007's "Secret Sunshine."

All this from a man who studied law and spent 30 years working in government. It seems that behind the crisp suit and gentle demeanor is a former bureaucrat bursting with creative energy. It's a side of his character Kim clearly relishes.

"I won a national calligraphy competition back in the days in the government," he says cheerfully. "I am going to go back and study contemporary art after I retire." For the festival staff, his retirement is still disheartening news, though he has been consistently reminding them about his impending retirement for the past few years.

"His presence to Pusan is almost symbolic," says Kyung Huh, a program coordinator of Korean cinema for the festival. "I'm sure the practical administration will be managed fine by other staff, but still there is certain anxiety in us about his absence. We know it's not going to be the same."

Among the local press, the news of his retirement replaced the headlines of this year's festival. The response was somewhat predictable: On a recent weekday morning, Lee Yong-gwan, the festival's deputy director, told his chief programmers at a meeting to keep their statement short during the news conference because most journalists would be more interested in Kim's retirement than the festival's lineup.

"I want this to be a neat ending for me," he says, adding that as far as the future is concerned, he doesn't know where he will be a year from now. He just wishes that with the opening of Dureraum -- which will have a new owner after he leaves -- Pusan will enter a productive new era.

"That's the rule in this business," he says. "The person who's doing the preparation is always different from the one who's moving in."

After a pause, he grins broadly and says: "The new wine goes into a new wineskin."