South Korean Filmmakers Defend Busan Fest's Artistic Freedom

Myung Films
South Korean veteran filmmaker Im Kwon-taek

Im Kwon-taek, Park Chan-wook and other icons have stepped up amid the Busan International Film Festival's conflict with city officials.

It appeared as though the Busan International Film Festival had been patching things up with local authorities over running the South Korean event — especially since fest head Lee Yong-kwan recently proposed co-directing it with Busan city officials. Top filmmakers, however, are voicing concern about the artistic freedom of Asia's largest film festival and have stepped up to defend it.

Controversies arose earlier this year when Busan city officials reportedly asked Lee to resign. Lee has since promised to better cooperate with the local government, which finances about half of the festival's annual budget. The mayor of Busan (currently Suh Byung-soo) acts as chairman of the festival, which opens its 20th edition in October.

During a press meeting hosted by BIFF organizers on Tuesday night, however, Lee explained that the co-directorship would "not be a solution, but a compromise" for his ultimate resignation.

"I plan to eventually step down … and the co-directorship [with Busan city] for the next one-and-a-half years is meant to facilitate the transition process," said Lee, whose official tenure ends in February 2016.

Local filmmakers strongly opposed the idea, saying such measures would compromise the festival's artistic freedom.

"Conflicts [with local government authorities] will arise even if a new festival director is appointed, and BIFF taking such steps would affect other Korean film festivals," said Min Byung-lock, former director of the Jeonju International Film Festival.

"As someone who submits works to film festivals, I don't think anyone would want to attend an event where the host interferes with [the festival programming]," said veteran filmmaker Im Kwon-taek, regarding how Busan officials found fault with BIFF's managerial direction and programming decisions in its recent audit review.

"We should never allow politics to interfere with the festival programming," said Oldboy helmer Park Chan-wook, adding that he would boycott the festival should this happen. "This incident cannot be viewed as a political paradigm of conservatives vs. liberals, but as a problem regarding artistic freedom."

The 19th run of the festival last October had made headlines as BIFF pushed on with the premiere of a highly politicized ferry disaster documentary, in spite of opposition by the Busan mayor. Local industry insiders had vehemently criticized Suh at the time for trying to interfere with the festival's artistic freedom.

In January, 12 local industry coalitions (spanning directors, producers, film festivals, screenwriters, cinematographers and critics) issued a joint statement demanding that Busan city retract its call for Lee to step down.