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Korea’s Entertainment Business Finds Hope as New President Takes Power

Seismic shift in government may end tumultuous times for filmmakers and film festivals

During the presidency of the recently impeached Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s entertainment industry languished in a political funk.

The story goes back to the 2014 Busan Intl. Film Festival’s screening of “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol,” the documentary about the capsizing of MV Sewol, directed by Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong.

Busan city mayor Seo Byung-soo, who is also a member of the then-ruling conservative Saenuri party, tried to stop the festival from screening the highly politicized documentary about the ferryboat in which 304 people — mostly high school students — perished that year.

The film focused on the use of a piece of equipment that might have saved lives in the government’s largely failed rescue attempt. As the festival went ahead with the screening, the Busan city authorities pressured the fest’s management and sought the removal of fest director Lee Yong-kwan.

Lee was then ousted from his position and accused of fraud and embezzlement by the city. Outraged, the local film industry formed a committee to organize protests and threatened to boycott the 2016 edition of the festival, calling for the mayor’s apologies and Lee’s rehabilitation, neither of which were accepted. Lee was found guilty and sentenced; his case is currently in appeal.

The fest as an organization also suffered political retaliation in the form of state budget cuts and unprecedented audits. It was recently revealed that the Korean Film Council deliberately manipulated public opinion by writing a column justifying the draconian budget cut and contributing it to local newspaper through an outsider.

The entertainment industry as a whole suffered even more. Last year, it was revealed that more than 9,000 artists and cultural industry figures were on a blacklist operated by the former South Korean president’s right-wing government. The list was created and circulated in order to exclude artists who were deemed critical or unfriendly to Park’s regime from state-controlled support programs.

“The blacklist is a national violence [against art and artists] that infringed upon the fundamental basis of democracy.”
Moon Jae-in

Among those on the blacklist were some of the country’s top filmmakers such as Park Chan-wook (“The Handmaiden”), Lee Chan-dong (“Poetry”), Ryoo Seung-wan (“Veteran”) and Bong Joon-ho, whose latest film “Okja” is competing in Cannes.

Furthermore, Cinema DAL, the distributor behind “Sewol,” was excluded from Film Council funding, which it had regularly received until distributing the doc. The company had to undergo an intense tax investigation and inspections of its employees’ personal cellphone bills. “It was even ordered that films by [anti-government] filmmakers such as Park Chan-kyong and Lee Song Hee-il should not be funded,” said Kim Il-gwon, CEO of Cinema DAL, at a protest.

Authorities were also shown to have pressured companies to help the Park government’s agenda by making nationalistic, patriotic films. Beneficiaries of the state-controlled funds-of-funds, which almost 40% of homegrown films receive each year, were limited to right-wing-tinged films about military security such as “Northern Limit Line” and “Operation Chromite.”

Films that were not pro-government, including “The Attorney,” “Pandora” and the upcoming “Taxi Driver,” were denied finance from the fund-of-funds. Park even called in the chairman of CJ Group, parent group of the country’s largest entertainment conglomerate CJ E&M, to convey the message that the company’s films and TV shows had been anti-government. Afterward, CJ’s films included nationalistic titles such as “Roaring Currents,” “Ode to My Father” and “Chromite.”

Things, however, have slowly changed. As anti-Park sentiment grew in 2016, films that indirectly criticized irresponsible government and corrupt power enjoyed box office success. Such titles include zombie thriller “Train to Busan” and disaster pic “Tunnel,” in which the government ends up not saving people in danger.

Albeit a little late, Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun and former chief of staff Kim Ki-choon were arrested in connection with the blacklist earlier this year, while Park was impeached following a series of corruption and cronyism scandals that involved her personal mentor. And on May 9, Moon Jae-in, a liberal politician and former human rights lawyer, was elected as South Korea’s new president.

In advance of the election, some 484 film industry professionals had declared their support for Moon. “The film industry’s ongoing problem, such as polarization and vertically integrated conglomerates’ oligopoly can only be solved under Moon’s regime,” they said in a statement.

“The blacklist is a national violence [against art and artists] that infringed upon the fundamental basis of democracy,” said Moon at a forum held in April. “Thorough fact-finding and uncompromising rebuke are necessary.”

Moon also agreed that heads of state-owned agencies allegedly involved in the political pressure exerted on the cultural industry, such as Korean Film Council head Kim Sae-hoon, should resign, as well as promising to ensure fair process in appointing new heads. Indeed, on May 11 Kim offered his resignation.

In his interview with the Hankyoreh news, Moon also stated that city mayors should not be allowed to concurrently serve as festival head, which is a prevailing practice in South Korea, adding that he would provide an institutional strategy for film festivals’ independence and autonomy in operation.

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