Busan Film Festival Back On Track With Star Power & Strong Line-up Following  Management Turmoil

It’s no exaggeration to say that Korea’s Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) has been through a fair amount of drama this year. 

The turmoil started in May when BIFF chairman Lee Yong-kwan appointed a close associate, Cho Jongkook, as managing director alongside artistic director Huh Moonyung, a decision that proved highly unpopular with some sectors of the local Korean film industry. 

Huh resigned, and in an apparently unrelated development, was accused of sexual harassment by a festival employee around the same time. Lee also resigned, Cho was dismissed by the BIFF board, and Oh Seok-geun, director of Busan’s Asian Contents & Film Market (ACFM), who had supported Lee’s decision to hire Cho, also stepped down. By early July, four of the festival’s top management were out of the door. 

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Fortunately, the festival has a strong layer of middle management with many years experience. When the top brass departed, the BIFF board appointed program director Nam Dong-chul and deputy director Kang Seung-ah as acting festival director and managing director, respectively, to get this year’s festival over the line. 

And yet despite the drama, the festival has managed to pull together an impressive edition, both in terms of the programming and the guest attendance, which includes stars such as Chow Yun-fat, who has been named Asian Filmmaker of the Year, Chinese actress Fan Bingbing and Korean actor Song Kang Ho. Also gracing the red carpet will be a long list of top directors including Luc Besson, Ning Hao, Bertrand Bonello, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Lee Isaac Chung, Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Hirokazu Kore-eda.

“I never imagined such a huge task would come to me, but I was relieved after the press conference where we announced our line-up, because the reaction from both the media and audience was great,” says Nam. 

He adds, however, that the management turmoil spooked some of the festival’s sponsors, meaning it faces a shortfall of around $820,000 (KRW1.1BN) from an initial budget of $9M (KRW12BN). To mitigate this, the festival cut down its programme from last year’s 243 films to 209 this year, and dropped its annual film conference, although more industry-leaning seminars will take place during ACFM. 

BIFF kicks off on Wednesday (October 4) with the world premiere of Because I Hate Korea, from local filmmaker Jang Kun-jae, and closes on October 13 with Chinese filmmaker Ning Hao’s The Movie Emperor, starring Andy Lau. Gala screenings include Kore-eda’s Monster, Han Shuai’s Green Night, starring Fan, and Bonello’s The Beast.

In addition to the New Currents competition and Jiseok competition (named after the festival’s late deputy director Kim Jiseok), the line-up includes the core A Window on Asian Cinema section; Icons, screening 30 titles from the recent festival circuit, including Cannes Palme d’Or winner Anatomy Of A Fall and Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist; Korean Cinema Today, World Cinema, Midnight Passion and Open Cinema, featuring six outdoor screenings including Besson’s Dogman and Karan Johar’s recent Bollywood hit Rocky And Rani’s Love Story. 

Meanwhile, BIFF’s special programmes demonstrate that the festival continues to spot interesting cinematic trends – dedicating two sections to cinema from Indonesia, a current hotspot in Southeast Asia, and Korean Diasporic Cinema, celebrating the work of filmmakers of Korean origin based in North America. 

‘’Renaissance of Indonesian Cinema will screen six features, including the world premieres of Yosep Anggi Noen’s 24 Hours With Gaspar and Ismail Basbeth’s Sara; five shorts and the first two episodes of Kamila Andini’s Netflix series Cigarette Girl. Andini, who is also on the New Currents jury, will be attending with the series’ stars, as will other leading Indonesian filmmakers such as Mouly Surya, Joko Anwar and Edwin. 

“Indonesia has a huge audience and recently the market share for local cinema has been growing,” comments Nam. “They have very interesting filmmakers in both commercial, genre cinema and the arthouse space – festivals are all waiting for their new works – so it seemed like the perfect time to have special programme.” 

Korean Diasporic Cinema is screening six films, including Celine Song’s Past Lives, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari and Justin Chon’s Jamojaya, and will also host public talk sessions with talent including Youn Yuh-jung (Minari), Teo Yoo (Past Lives), John Cho (Star Trek) and Steven Yeun (Burning, Beef). 

However, as with all other festivals, BIFF has to contend with the fallout from the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike. As a festival that celebrates Asian and world cinema, BIFF doesn’t focus on Hollywood talent, but many Asian stars, and of course many Korean American actors, have SAG membership or affiliations. 

The festival warned in advance that actors such as Cho and Yeun are “not allowed to respond to nor comment on any questions related to American films and TV series they starred in during all festival events, including press conferences.” However, they’re allowed to talk about films such as Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, as it’s a Korean production, and Song’s Past Lives, which received a SAG waiver. 

Nam points out that Song’s father, Song Neung-han, was a filmmaker in Korea before emigrating to Canada, making Korean films such as No. 3, which helped kickstart the career of Parasite star Song Kang-ho. “Ever since Parasite, the U.S. audience has shown so much interest in Korean films and talent, and yet there is so much talent also working in North America waiting to be discovered,” Nam says. 

Ironically, Korean cinema back in its home territory is still going through a post-pandemic slump – local audiences are not returning to cinemas in big numbers for Korean movies and only The Roundup: No Way Out has scored impressive numbers since the start of the year. Various theories have been touted for this, including the fact that many films were kept in storage for too long during the pandemic and now feel old; the high proportion of leading filmmakers who are now busy working for the streamers, and the way in which cinemas almost doubled ticket prices when they reopened. 

But Nam says there is still some vibrancy in Korean indie cinema: “Our best hope right now is independent cinema as we’re still seeing a decent number of quality films that you can find in Busan or another festival.” He also points to Japanese cinema as a highlight in the BIFF line-up, with films from Kore-eda and Hamaguchi, as well as Ishii Yuya’s The Moon and Toda Akihiro’s Ichiko playing in the Jiseok section. “Japan’s film industry seems to be in a much better situation than Korean cinema,” he says. 

As usual, BIFF is also screening a broad array of European and other world cinema through sections including the Galas, Icons, World Cinema, Open Cinema and the Flash Forward competition. And despite its recent issues, the festival also continues to train the Asian filmmakers of the future through the BIFF Asian Film Academy, which this year has Japanese director Suwa Nobuhiro as dean.

BIFF has weathered storms before. In 2014, the festival refused a government request to withdraw the screening of documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, which was critical of then-president Park Geun-hye’s handling of the Sewol ferry disaster, a move that resulted in political blacklistings and another management crisis. Around the same time, former deputy director Kim Jiseok died of a heart attack in Cannes. 

But the festival has strong institutions and a highly engaged local film industry behind it. BIFF’s future management structure and strategic direction is currently being debated by an “Innovation Committee”, comprising members from the local industry, Busan city council and BIFF organization, with decisions tentatively expected before the end of the year. BIFF is also working with an external investigation team to look into the allegations of sexual harassment. 

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