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Busan: Making Asian Film Market Ready For the Next 20 Years

The Busan Film Festival was born of a burst of creative effervescence in 1996 when the Korean film industry was a tiny bubble that had yet to explode onto the international scene. Its founders, many of whom are still attached, defied the country’s censorship authorities and dared to show Japanese films that at the time were banned and Asian films that were unseen in Korea.

The Busan festival can take a large degree of credit for sparking a virtuous cycle of filmmaking creativity, multiplex building and industrial activity in Korea. Asian cinema may have emerged anyway, but without Busan it would certainly have done so more slowly.

Today Busan – the festival, the city and its proactive film commission – would like to be seen as the hub of Asian cinema. They are not quite there and the festival has lost some of its fizz.

Similarly, the Asian Film Market’s 10-year-old sales confab was a sad place this week. A cavernous Bexco Exhibition hall dwarfed the number of buyers and sellers. The deal flow felt flat.

That left some sellers wondering why they had forked over up to $6,000 for a booth. Many visiting executives came to look and see, to meet and greet, rather than to open their wallets. That said, the festival’s enviable party circuit make it a terrific place to pack in a huge number of informal meetings over shots of soju and plates of Korean BBQ.

City and national lawmakers may have stepped back from confrontation for the moment – the fuss they made over the last year’s “Sewol” screening and the punitive 40% cut in the festival’s government funding are a disgrace inflicted on the festival by the political classes – but pressure may well return once festival co-director Lee Yong-kwan steps aside. His contract is up early next year.

New efforts to add in a casting market and an entertainment intellectual property strand are laudable. They show the mart is trying to keep up with the times. But unfortunately they also put the Asian Film Market in competition with similar catch-all events, such as the Japan Content Showcase which sits alongside this month’s Tokyo festival, and the Singapore Media Festival umbrella event only seven weeks away.

One example of forward-thinking may be at hand. Busan is already working with the Hong Kong and Tokyo festivals to deliver the annual Asian Film Awards. The collaboration reduces bias and adds legitimacy to that event. Further regional co-operation between Asia’s biggest festivals – on film selection, dates, talent participation, financial incentives, etc. – could work wonders. Prizes could be richer, movie premieres more meaningful and major stars more willing to attend.

All of this means Busan’s festival and market have no time to sit back and enjoy their two decade legacy. They must keep moving forward, to regain relevance, and rediscover the fizz.

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