Korea’s Film Industry Struggles to Protect Freedom of Expression

Censorship issues have led to public protests

Korean Film Industry Freedom of Speech
Cheyne Gateley/Variety

Freedom of expression erupted as a big issue in the Korean film industry in 2015.

The dialogue was triggered by the Busan Intl. Film Festival’s selection of ferry-sinking documentary “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol,” about the MV Sewol, which capsized off the Korean coast carrying 476 people. The April 2014, tragedy in which 304 passengers, mostly students, and crew died, became a national scandal with finger-pointing in all directions.

Conservative Busan mayor Seo Byeong-soo had requested that the film’s screenings be cancelled, but the festival went ahead. Since then, BIFF has been confronted with a series of challenges, including audits carried out by the city and drastic cuts to its budget by the Korean Film Council. The city has also repeatedly called for the resignation of fest topper Lee Yong-kwan.

When the conflict first arose, local film industry groups formed the Pan-Film Industry Emergency Committee to Defend Freedom of Expression and supported the festival, calling for the city to retract its request and stop censoring the festival screenings. It was the first time that mass solidarity was seen in the Korean film industry since the screen quota protests of 2006.

Sectors of the international film industry also joined the movement. Dieter Kosslick of the Berlinale said in a message, “Never in my 14 years, would (the government and the city of Berlin) have interfered in our program, even if we had shown films they didn’t like. … A film festival and a curator have to be independent.”

In July, the appointment of actress Kang Soo-youn as BIFF co-director seemed to have concluded the months-long saga, and the 20th edition of the festival wrapped up with record attendance.

In December, however, the city of Busan accused Lee of paying illicit sponsorship fees. Lee and BIFF claim that such an accusation is revenge for screening the documentary and that paying sponsorship fees is normal business practice.

Local and international film industries are showing their support of BIFF, which, over the years, has screened many politically charged films.

“BIFF has supported and premiered three of my films including ‘7 Letters’ and ‘To Singapore, With Love,’ which was banned in Singapore,” said Singaporean documentary director Tan Pin Pin on social media. “Asia needs a safe haven for the rest of us.”

A Support BIFF campaign has gone viral and local industry groups have organized charity events to help the BIFF raise funds to hire an attorney for the lawsuit.

One of the fest’s co-founders and now a co-director, Lee’s term is set to end this year. According to the festival regulations, the festival director’s dismissal or reappointment is a matter for a general assembly.