Bitter Battles Beset Busan

Busan Film Festival
Courtesy of Busan Film Festival

It could have been worse.

This year’s Busan Intl. Film Festival was, at minimum, a qualified success. It took place after months of strife, with audience numbers down by a third compared to 2015.

But from the point of view of Kang Soo-youn, the actress who found herself installed as festival director after an 18-month political feud caused the ousting of her predecessor, it was a “miracle.”
The festival welcomed international guests, screened some 300 shorts and feature films, and sold more than 150,000 tickets. It even dodged a typhoon, which destroyed some temporary structures and forced more of the public events to relocate closer to Centum City and the Busan Cinema Center — the city’s boldest architectural statement.

On the other hand, the streets and hotel lobbies of the Haeundae area, normally thronging with stars, fans, and executives, were eerily empty for much of the festival’s duration. Similarly, there were holes in the Korean part of the programming and a significant number of no-show domestic visitors, as a partially observed boycott lingered.

So, although the 21st edition is now completed, the work of rebuilding healthy relations with the Korean film industry still has a long way to go.

Kang brightly suggests that the folks who continued to boycott and the festival management are really on the same side. She argues that the holdouts want the best for the festival and are determined to see that all of the proposed changes to the regulations really come into place.

Two separate, but related, court cases involving the festival’s co-founders, however, threaten to keep wounds from healing.

Former festival director Lee Yong-kwan risks jail time for alleged mismanagement, while former head of the market Jay Jeon is charged with fraud relating to the manner in which BIFF raised its sponsorship cash. Their supporters and opponents of the Busan mayor’s intervention in the running of the festival say that the two men are being subjected to trumped-up charges, and that imprisonment of either would be an outrage.

Film festivals in South Korea have long been political minefields. The country’s other top film events in Bucheon and Jeonju have both suffered politically initiated turmoil in the past. But the issues at BIFF go deeper than a spat between the mayor and the Busan festival organizers.

Even if Lee and Jeon escape harsh punishment, levels of mistrust between political authorities and filmmakers are likely to remain high. That’s because the fundamental issue at the root of Busan festival’s recent travails — freedom of expression, which, for Busan festival means being able to screen films regardless of their political stance — has not been settled.

Kang concedes that the festival is not financially strong enough to be independent of the city and central governments but argues that this need not be a problem if the new rules are followed. But many in the industry are skeptical that the festival can have programming independence unless it stops taking government cash.

“Though the festival regulations have been revised to guarantee its freedom [of programming], the same problem can come back at any time if the city council undermines the BIFF again, on the grounds that it provides significant funding,” said director-producer Kim Jho Gwang-soo at a panel discussion held during last month’s BIFF.

In South Korea, freedom of expression has been increasingly curtailed over past eight years under the right-of-center government, not only for artists and but also for the press. During Lee Myung-bak’s presidency, South Korea sank to 69th place in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, down from its previous 31st spot. Under the current Park Geun-hye regime, it has fallen to 70th — the country’s historic low.

“Relations have been very tense between the media and the authorities under President Park,” Reporters Without Borders said in its latest report. “The government has displayed a growing inability to tolerate criticism and its meddling in the already polarized media threatens their independence.”

Only last month, members of parliament accused the Park government of operating a blacklist of some 9,000 political dissenters, including the country’s top filmmakers Park Chan-wook and Lee Chang-dong. Following that revelation, filmmaker Kim Ki-duk called for the state-owned Korean Film Council (Kofic) to explain its funding decisions for arthouse films. Kofic has also been accused by the local industry of abusing the film development fund, which is raised through a mandatory 3% levy on all cinema tickets.

South Korea’s central government has relocated Kofic and the Korea Media Ratings Board from Seoul to Busan. And the Busan region boasts a host of film industry assets. In addition to Asia’s leading film festival it has a proactive film commission, a new film school, and studios under construction. But a long history of conservative mayors, combined with the recent events, make the city an increasingly uncomfortable place for the film industry’s private sector.