“At our 30th year, the Busan Intl. Film Festival will have become a world-class film event, both nominally and virtually, where the three important elements — festival, market and conference — are organized in great balance,” says Lee Yong-kwan, BIFF co-founder and co-director.
The seemingly ambitious statement comes from the head of festival that has brought a new era to the Korean film industry and styled the country’s port city, Busan, as the hub of Asian cinema over its two decades.
When Busan fest launched, there was hardly anyone who expected it to be successful, given that the Korean filmmaking industry was concentrated in Seoul. Similarly, Busan was already lagging far behind other such Asian fests as India, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
Busan finally came into being when the city saw a need to rebrand itself while preparing for the 2002 Asian Games in 1994. As the festival’s co-founding troika — Lee, deputy director Jay Jeon and executive programmer Kim Ji-seok — pitched a film festival at the city-hosted seminar, corporate sponsors came on board. Kim Dong-ho was appointed the first festival director. Two years later, Busan was launched with a budget of 2.2 billion won and some 184,000 in attendance.
How times have changed. Over the two decades, Busan has not only changed the dynamics of the Korean film industry, but also has become the most prominent film festival of its kind in Asia, with a growing number of screenings and industry bigwigs distinguishing the event.
“Busan may not be the largest festival in the region, but as it gets into its 20th year, Busan remains by far the leading festival in Asia, in terms of prestige and programming quality, if not in terms of physical size,” says New York Asian Film Festival director Samuel Jamier.
Along its way, Busan has left significant footsteps in the film industry in South Korea as well as Asia at large.
“From a more domestic-oriented perspective, Busan’s most remarkable achievement is that it gave the city a new identity,” says Oh Seok-geun, director of the Busan Film Commission.
Owing to the fest’s success, the city came up with plans for forging a film industry in Busan that led to South Korea’s first film commission, established in 1999. With the organization’s administrative and financial support, more productions, both local and foreign, are using the city as a location each year. The Unesco City of Film designation handed to Busan last year can be attributed to the festival and the film commission.
“Busan’s survival strategy as an international event is its full-scale focus on Asia that’s unprecedented in the region,” Kim Ji-seok says. “As far as Asian cinema is concerned, I believe that we have become the most influential film festival in the world.”
Indeed, the festival has boosted fledging independent filmmakers in Asia by showcasing their early features in its main competition program, New Currents; supported new projects through Asian Project Market and Asian Cinema Fund; and discovered emerging talent through the Asian Film Academy, its annual filmmaking workshop. Works of then-rising Asian helmers such as China’s Jia Zhangke (“Pick Pocket”), South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo (“The Day a Pig Fell Into a Well”) and Thailand’s Aditya Assarat (“Wonderful Town”) were globally introduced through Busan.
In addition to its commitment to discovering talented emerging filmmakers, Busan’s resistance to political repression has added to its cachet. BIFF has shown films from exiled filmmakers whose films were banned in their own countries due to politics. Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a frequent participant, is testament to BIFF’s safe-harbor status.
Busan’s political and artistic independence was challenged, however, when it pushed ahead with screening the documentary “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol” against conservative Busan mayor Seo Byeong-soo’s wishes in 2014. The mayor subsequently requested Lee’s resignation, which he refused to give. The issue immediately pushed the film industry to support Lee. Months after the imbroglio, the festival proposed co-directorship and appointed actress and a long-term BIFF collaborator, Kang Soo-yeon, helping to break the impasse — at least temporarily. In her first official address, Kang declared that the fest will keep showing quality films, regardless of their political or artistic persuasion.
“It was an unexpected obstacle,” Lee tells Variety. “But it also inspired us to overcome such crises and work even harder for a better future.”
One of Busan’s plans is to develop a distribution platform for arthouse films, which account for the majority of the festival’s selections each year.
“We feel that it is down to us to create an ecosystem where Asian auteurs can make, showcase and sell their films internationally,” Kim says. “We regret that art films get good response during the festival and find nowhere to screen afterward. We have worked on alternative distribution solutions for many years, but neither our specialty distribution company CAC nor the cable TV channel has worked out significantly. It will be our foremost mission for the next decades.”