Nielsen Impact Award honoree: Kim Dong-ho

Under his shrewd stewardship, PIFF has rapidly become Asia's premier film showcase.

Dialogue: Kim Dong-ho

SEOUL -- In 1995, Kim Ji-seok and his partners were at an impasse. For three years they had worked on creating a major film festival for Korea, a place where people could come and see that there was more to cinema than Hollywood blockbusters and local melodramas. They chose Busan, the port city on the southern end of the Korean Peninsula, to avoid the egos and turf wars of Seoul, the nation's sprawling capital.

But their ambitious plans never got much traction. Few outside Korea's then-tiny movie community knew who they were, and without government or commercial support, raising the $2.5 million they needed for the festival was pretty much impossible.

Clearly, they needed a representative, someone with the clout and connections to open doors, help them navigate the government's Byzantine bureaucracy and force the powers-that-be to take the plans seriously. And so, on a hot August afternoon in a fancy hotel lobby in Seoul, they asked Kim Dong-ho to be their guide and festival director.

It would quickly prove a fortuitous choice.

Born in the mountainous Gangwon Province in 1937, Kim graduated from Korea's prestigious Seoul National University in 1961 and promptly joined the Ministry of Culture. He worked there for 27 years, eventually rising to the rank of vice minister, before serving stints as head of the Korea Motion Pictures

Promotion Corp. (the forerunner of the Korea Film Council), the Korea Performance Ethics Board and the Seoul Arts Center. In short, he was the ultimate cultural insider.

Right away, Kim got to work in his new role. The then-vice mayor of Busan was an old friend, so Kim arranged a meeting. That led to a meeting with the mayor himself and soon they had their first significant pledge of funding -- more than $400,000. Fundraising dinners and special events were arranged, and within a few months they had raised nearly all the money they needed for that first festival.

On Sept. 13, 1996, the Pusan International Film Festival made its debut. It was chaotic but undeniably successful, with 184,000 people attending over the event's nine-day run.

"My great pleasure and honor was that first PIFF," Kim says. "I will never forget it."

"There could have been no better front man for PIFF than Kim Dong-ho," film critic and longtime PIFF adviser Tony Rayns says. "(Kim was) extremely well connected throughout the government and with the heads of various jaebeol (conglomerates). His involvement cut through much red tape and drew sponsorship from all and sundry. Thanks to him, the festival got off to the best possible start."

Another vital impact Kim had was helping the festival overcome the Korean government's infamous penchant for censorship. One of the major goals of PIFF was to present films and ideas that normally could not make it into Korea. Despite opening greatly since the end of military rule, Korea remained a conservative, Confucian culture with a heavy-handed bureaucracy. What good would PIFF be if government scissors could chop up offending ideas before anyone saw them?

Having led the Korea Performance Ethics Board for a time (before being removed for being too lenient), Kim knew just how the organization worked. So he came up with a novel two-pronged strategy: drink and delay. Kim met often with review board members and, while consuming more than a few alcoholic beverages, asked for some leniency and understanding. While Kim played nice by night, the rest of the PIFF staff did their best to gum up the works, holding off answering the committee's questions for as long as possible and backlogging the whole process.

It might seem like a pretty passive-aggressive resistance strategy, but it worked. The committee's reviewers agreed to travel to Busan to prescreen the movies (usually these screenings were only done in Seoul). And by the time they got to the festival's headquarters, there was too little time to review all the movies.

PIFF GM Oh Seok-geun, meanwhile, did his best to distract the reviewers whenever sex and nudity turned up on the videos and kept the most controversial films out of sight as much as possible. The distributor of David Cronenberg's "Crash" ended up submitting an expurgated version to the festival, but most of the films made it to that first PIFF without censorship, and many avoided being prescreened altogether.

Since then, PIFF has grown into one of the most important events on the Asian movie industry calendar. In addition to promoting films from all over the region, PIFF today also features an array of professional and educational events -- including the Asian Film Market, Pusan Promotion Plan, and the Asian Film Academy -- all designed to improve the Korean and Asian movie industries. And this year it will break ground on the Busan Film Center, the future home of PIFF.

"The thing about Kim that I love and respect so much is that he's the picture of integrity," said Richard Pena, program director at the New York Film Festival and Film Society of Lincoln Center. "The reason that PIFF gained so much respect so quickly is that it set a high standard for itself and it kept to it. I don't think it was just a mouthpiece for Korean cinema, it was a mouthpiece for very good Korean cinema, and that's why people began to trust it -- for that and other films."

In recognition of all that Kim has accomplished, The Hollywood Reporter is presenting Kim with a Nielsen Impact Award at this year's PIFF.

In addition to Kim's skills within Korea's corridors of power, he proved equally adept at working with filmmakers, executives and bureaucrats from around the world. He travels constantly, frequently serving on film juries and attending more than a dozen film festivals each year. And his drinking prowess is legendary, with Kim going late into the night, night after night, only to arise early the next day for breakfast and exercise (only in the last couple of years has Kim been forced to cut back, due to doctor's orders).

"I am very proud of my career at the Ministry of Culture," Kim said, adding with a laugh, "But I prefer now, working with the film side at PIFF. It's my second life."