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Star-Packed Busan Festival Opens Under a Cloud

The 22nd edition of the Busan Intl. Film Festival got under way Thursday under a deluge of pouring rain. That felt like another burden for a festival that has suffered plenty of late.

Indignities vented against the festival by a right-wing government, that itself was booted out of power earlier this year, include budget cuts and the ousting of former festival director Lee Yong-kwan and former deputy director Jay Jeon. And in May, co-founder and lead festival programmer Kim Ji-seok died suddenly while on festival business in Cannes.

Despite the ongoing issues, the red carpet had more stars and especially local figures.

Notable Korean filmmakers such as Jang Sun-woo (“Lies”), Kwak Kyung-taek (“The Classified File”), Jeon Soo-il (“El Condor Pasa”) and Kim Tae-yong (“Set Me Free”) walked the red carpet along with their cast. Star actors included Moon Geun-young (“Glass Garden”), Son Ye-jin (“The Last Princess”), Kim Jae-uck (“Butterfly Sleep”), Cho Jin-woong (“The Handmaiden”), Ahn Seo-hyun (“Okja”) and Choi Min-ho (“Derailed”). Another notable attendee was Busan mayor Seo Byung-soo, who was absent at the opening ceremony last year.

In the past year, it has emerged that, during the regime of the now impeached president Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s entertainment industry was targeted for punishment by Park and the culture ministry. A blacklist of some 9,000 artists was created in order to exclude film makers and stars who were deemed unfriendly to Park’s regime, from accessing funding by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC).

Other high-level political-industrial scandals, including the arrest of the head of Samsung Electronics, have also impacted the film business. But while a mass of political dirty laundry has been aired in public over the past year, and a new government has been elected, very little has been resolved.

Roughly half of the local film industry has declared a continued boycott of the festival, in order to stand against the government’s political oppression. The Directors’ Guild of Korea, Cinematographers’ Guild and the Federation of Korea Movie Workers’ Unions want an apology from the city authorities for past indignities, and hope for the reinstatement of Lee, as a condition of their participation.

Even the festival’s remedies have been so unpopular that Kim Dong-ho and Lee’s replacement as festival director, Kang Soo-youn, have resigned and will leave later this month.

“In 2015, we thought the festival might not be able to take place and I joined as a co-director alongside Lee. We managed to make it happen, but the underlying problem was never resolved. So we brought Kim Dong-ho back as our chairman and opened last year’s edition. But this year, it is no easier [because of] deputy director Kim Ji-seok’s sudden death and the film industry’s boycott,” said Kang.

This year’s edition then has something of the air of a requiem for Kim Ji-seok and his legacy. Two out of the 10 films in the Window on Asian Cinema section will receive Kim Ji-seok awards, with cash prizes worth $8,900 (KRW 10 million) each. Platform Busan, a new networking program for Asian filmmakers, will also launch. And a formal memorial service for Kim, who had long headed BIFF’s Asian film selection, will be held on Sunday.

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