By Youkyung Lee
AP Business Writer
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The future of Asia’s largest, most-awaited film festival is in question as South Korean filmmakers threaten to boycott the red carpet over what they view as government interference.
Officials of the Busan International Film Festival say the feud between organizers and the host city of Busan, its largest financial sponsor, started two years ago when the festival’s program displeased government officials.
Their biggest objection was over the film, “Truth Shall Not Sink with the Sewol,” which excoriated South Korean authorities for botching rescue operations during a ferry disaster that left 304 people, mostly high school students, dead or missing.
Festival organizers defied Busan Mayor Suh Byung-soo’s request they not screen the documentary, and “That’s where all the problems started,” Kim Ji-seok, its executive programmer, said in an interview.
Kim and other festival organizers and filmmakers say authorities retaliated, with the central government slashing its budget for the event last year by half. The city ordered an audit, which found misuse or unexplained uses of some of the festival’s budget, and filed a complaint against festival director Lee Yong-kwan. Lee, whose term ended in February, is under investigation for allegedly providing 474 million won ($416,800) as commission fees to brokers without proper documentation.
The Busan festival premieres films from novice Asian directors and has often spotlighted major new talent, including Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner Jia Zhangke. For the past 20 years, moviegoers and industry officials have watched Busan, hoping to discover Asia’s next-generation Wong Kar Wai or Ang Lee.
The call to withdraw the movie was “a violation of freedom of expression,” Kim said. “It’s no different from censorship. It is unthinkable to censor a film festival.”
Officials say the screening of the ferry disaster film in 2014 was not the reason for the festival’s audit, which they say will help ensure its long-term viability. The city approved a 6 billion won ($5.2 million) sponsorship for this year’s festival, level with last year.
Ahead of the Oct. 6–15 annual event, when they should be focusing on scouting new talent and viewing film submissions from around the world, city and festival officials are deadlocked over how to reform the festival’s management.
The two sides are feuding over who should succeed the Busan mayor as the festival’s executive chairman. Usually, the mayor gets that post due to the city’s role as the event’s biggest sponsor. But filmmakers want someone from the industry to be in charge.
Each side has a big stake in the festival and wants greater control.
Kim, a co-founder of the 21-year-old festival, says it cannot continue if financial sponsors and politicians meddle with the movie selections. In March, local film professionals issued an ultimatum, threatening to boycott the event unless the mayor resigns and, among other things, unless the festival’s rules are amended to ensure its independence.
“If the Busan city government still believes that they ‘own’ the festival just because they are the biggest sponsor … none of the Korean film community will be attending this year’s Busan International Film Festival,” associations of Korean film producers and filmmakers said in a joint statement.
South Korean leaders view the entertainment industry as a lifeline for Asia’s fourth-largest economy that can help offset the weakness of traditional economic heavyweights such as shipbuilders and steelmakers. The blockbuster success in China of “The Descendants of the Sun,” a military romance Korean drama which ended in April, is viewed as a cultural exports success story.
But the authorities are less enthusiastic about allowing artists a free rein when it comes to contentious topics like the ferry catastrophe. Despite the growing economic and regional clout of the Korean entertainment industry, some worry that freedom of expression is being crimped under President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a military dictator.
“It’s easy to forget that South Korea is still a very young democracy. Creative freedom for artists and filmmakers has been mostly achieved over the past few decades, but it is still a work in progress that at times needs to be defended,” said Darcy Paquet, a Seoul-based film critic.
While Park’s government is championing “cultural enrichment,” Nemo Kim, a film critic and lecturer of contemporary Korean culture at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, says the local theater scene is growing less diverse, with big conglomerates, or “chaebols,” gaining influence.
The Busan festival is one of the few places where South Korean moviegoers can watch both big-budget and small-budget movies, she said.
“Several art-house cinemas have shut down mainly due to changes in government subsidy policies. Blockbusters produced and distributed by chaebol-driven companies are the mainstays at Korean theaters, most of which are multiplex chains also run by chaebol companies,” Kim said.
Many in the global film industry are concerned: In February, 114 cineastes, including Cannes International Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux, sent an open letter to Busan’s mayor urging him to respect the film festival’s artistic independence.
“Every year I can see about 100 world premieres in the festival, also from smaller countries in the region, films I would not have seen if I wasn’t coming to BIFF,” said Freddy Olsson, a programmer at Goteborg International Film Festival, the largest film fest in Northern Europe.
Olsson has introduced Asian films he discovered in Busan to European audiences, including an earlier work by South Korean filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho, whose latest movie, “Train To Busan,” was invited to the Cannes Film Festival this year.
“With all my heart I really hope that the conflict can be solved and that I, in October, can visit the good old, independent Busan International Film Festival.”