His three-year contract will expire at the end of January, and he will not seek its renewal. A senior source at the festival told Variety that management will meet towards the end of February to decide his successor.
Jeon announced the unexpected decision on his personal Facebook account with text written in both Korean and English. “I will be leaving the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) as of 31st January 2021 to pastures new after 25 years, time which has mostly been happy and rewarding although some of it was peppered with some painful moments,” Jeon wrote.
“As for my future plans, I will most likely be working at another film festival and will give you details when they come out,” Jeon’s Facebook posting concluded.
Busan is now often considered as the leading film festival in Asia, but its beginnings were a struggle. It launched at a time when censorship was heavier and certain foreign films were considered taboo.
With Kim Ji Seok and Lee Yong-kwan, Jeon was one of a trio who co-founded Busan festival. With the help of former government official Kim Dong-ho, they got it off the ground in 1996.
Its success contributed to the “Korean Wave” of Korean artistic films that traveled to international festivals and the dawn of the multiplex era in Korea, which in 2019 became the world’s fourth largest box office market.
For many years Jeon headed the Asian Film Market, the rights market that accompanies the festival. He became festival director in 2018 after the festival and the wider Korean film industry had become embroiled in several years of infighting over political interference. Jeon’s letter hints at the lasting damage done to personal and professional relationships.
“There are no regrets as I feel that I did my part in founding BIFF and developing it to become Asia’s only major film festival but I do feel extremely sad that I am leaving BIFF not having resolved the difficult issue of the founders and leaders of BIFF being pitted against each other as they are exploited by politicians driven by various ulterior motives,” he said.
In the early part of the last decade South Korea’s then president Park Geun-Hye, who is now in prison, meddled with the Korean Film Council and set up a blacklist of cultural figures. One of her political allies, the then mayor of Busan, intervened in the festival’s programming, and then slashed the festival’s funding after it went ahead with the screening of a film that was critical of the Park government.
The following years saw a boycott by large parts of the Korean industry, dubious prosecutions, and the festival adopt interim leadership. Much of Jeon’s letter is a list thanks to friends, mentors and colleagues. The omission of any reference to Lee, who was Jeon’s predecessor as festival director and remains its current chairman, is sadly telling.