After soldiering through COVID with hybrid editions, South Korea’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan) is getting ready to hold a scaled-up, largely in-person festival beginning Thursday, complete with a red-carpet opening ceremony and foreign visitors. But BiFan organizers say that the ground has moved under their feet.
Variety spoke to producer Shin Chul, who once said he was tricked into becoming festival director, and BiFan head programmer Ellen Kim on the eve of the event.
Festivals have had a tough time under COVID, but Korean entertainment has found new audiences. How do you explain that?
Shin: For past two years the Korean entertainment industry experienced the deployment of a highway connected to the world. But we need to be aware that the highway comes in and it goes out.
Cinemas have experienced huge difficulties. So too have production and distribution companies. They have difficulties releasing their films and recouping their costs. So, they stopped investing money for some time. But the streaming services kept on investing money and achieved good results with Korean content such as “Squid Game” and “Hellbound.”
At the same time, the Korean market was invaded by the most monstrous powers. We need to find a balance between the two. Korean content creators are doing pretty fine. But what we are not sure of is what is waiting for us next.
Is the Korean film industry being permanently damaged, losing talent directors and actors and money to the TV and streaming sector?
Shin: It is time to redefine the definition of the film. Why do you call “Squid Game” a TV series? But “Harry Potter” a film?
This a wonderful time to embrace series like “Squid Game” or “Game of Thrones” as films. Audio visual storytelling has changed along with technological development. These days, every device we are using is unified with technology. So why do we stick to calling things “films” or “TV series”? There is no boundary at all.
So, BiFan has decided to give a film award to “Squid Game” this year. It will be part of the opening ceremony [Thursday]. Please let the world know.
What difficulties have you encountered putting on a festival so soon after Korea’s COVID restrictions were eased?
Shin: For the last three years we had held the festival, albeit on a reduced scale and in hybrid mode. The in-person event was 90% reduced, but we held online screenings and online industry programs. So, this year, we are looking forward to a big and very festive festival.
We are resuming all the events, including the opening ceremony, inviting foreign guests and holding concerts. We are launching a new event called “Halloween in July” for local citizens. Over two days, we will make a fantasy kingdom with many characters and events.
What has been difficult for us is managing human and financial resources. Inviting foreign guests costs almost double compared to two years ago. There’s a very complicated visa process. And we have to take care of PCR tests when the guests arrive.
We have spent up to the limit of our spending power to make this year’s event happen.
Have government and sponsorship financiers been supportive?
Shin: For the past two years we have not had much sponsorship. This year, government and city subsidies have increased a little. They remain very supportive, but they also expect a lot.
The officials are very understanding of what culture has done for Bucheon city. Bucheon used to be a very, very bad city. It was where people pushed out of Seoul due to development came to settle. It was poor and on the outskirts of metropolitan Seoul. Factories followed because of cheap labor costs. And it was here that the labor movement took root, making Bucheon famous for strikes. There was a notorious police sexual harassment case here. And when dams were opened to save the Han River from flooding Seoul, Bucheon was flooded instead.
Bucheon doesn’t have traditional cultural heritage or tourist attractions. People didn’t have anything to do but go to the movies. The mayor at the time decided to change the city image through culture, setting up the film festival, the animation festival and the philharmonic otchestra.
Since then, their accumulation of cultural power has been amazing. And we have an audience of die-hard cinema lovers.
What is the particular value of a genre or fantasy film festival?
Shin: The Bucheon film festival is a festival for underdogs. [Fantasy films] sit on the border between the mainstream and the subculture. Our mission is to discover the latent talent of the subculture.
What are the highlights of this year’s selection?
Kim: The opening film “Men” [directed by Alex Garland] represents our theme and is made with the kind of style that goes a little bit beyond the zeitgeist. The closing film “New Normal” [directed by Korea’s Jung Bum-shik] will be another highlight.
We have restarted the midnight screening section. That’s something core fans are looking forward to. We had especially high applications for this section from Japanese filmmakers. Some are really renowned. Some of them are proposing two new films!
We have Miike Takashi, Harada Masato [presenting a masterclass] and Hiroki Ryuichi all coming to the festival. We have Danny Pang’s latest horror movie [“Warning From Hell”] in the new Mad MaxX section.
And for the international competition, we have new directors from Japan, Indonesia and Thailand. For the filmmakers from Southeast Asia, this festival has become a very important platform to premiere a film, before a release in their local market.