Key market events that have been held annually by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) during the Beijing International Film Festival have been canceled this year.
The move has led to questions in the South Korean media and film industry as Korean movies are also missing from the festival lineup amid strained ties between Seoul and Beijing over a U.S. missile defense system.
KOFIC, a state-backed organization for promoting Korean films overseas, has opened a promotional booth during the market period every single year since the festival's second edition in 2012. Until last year, some 20 Korean companies participated in the KOFIC booth, providing information about the local postproduction technology, which had been in high demand in China.
On March 15, however, market organizers informed the council that it would not be possible to host the booth due to "safety concerns," Han Sang-hee, director of KOFIC's international promotion team, told The Hollywood Reporter.
"We were informed about potential fire hazards and had to notify 16 Korean companies that the booth will not open this year. Each market has its set of rules and regulations and we respect it," said Han.
KOFIC, Han added, also voluntarily decided not to hold its Korea-China film co-production meetings, which had taken place every year as one of Beiing's official market sideline events during recent editions. "We are looking into other ways to help Chinese and Korean filmmakers who want to collaborate," said Han, refusing to give a more detailed explanation about KOFIC's decision not to host the popular meeting.
Organizers of the fest that kicked off Sunday have said that the lack of South Korean films among this year's lineup of 500-plus films "was not a political decision."
But one major Korean investor-distributor, which asked not to be named, said its films had been disinvited. "We received an email from a programmer informing of us of the disinvitation and an apology. But you can't really say anything, because it was done before the festival announced its official lineup and festival programming, not only at Beijing but at any given film festival, is always bound to change," said a spokesperson for the investor-distributor.
No Korean star will grace the event either. The absence of Korean films, events and stars strikes a noticeable contrast from last year's festival, when pan-Asian superstars such as Lee Min-ho and Kim Woo-bin attended.
Korean media and film industry representatives have claimed that there is political motivation behind the move, as Seoul's and Beijing's ties have become increasingly strained over South Korea's deployment of a U.S. missile defense system known as THAAD. Since October, no Korean star has obtained permission to perform or work in China.
Actor Ha Jung-woo, who was set to appear in a Chinese film opposite actress Zhang Ziyi, and director Kim Ki-duk, who was contracted to helm a big-budget Chinese project, were unable to secure working visas. Last year, no Korean film was shown in Chinese theaters in spite of how more foreign films were being imported than ever.
As observers are noting that relations between the two Asian countries have reached their worst since diplomatic ties were forged in 1992, the Korean Film Council opened on March 23 an online help center for local companies that have suffered damages from the political situation. Small- and medium-size firms whose revenue has plummeted 10 percent or more due to Beijing's closed port doors are also eligible to apply for financial support. As of April 4, two cases have been reported to the council; though neither case was deemed eligible for support, KOFIC plans to continue working with members of its Beijing Film Business Center to possibly help other reported and approved cases.
Meanwhile, Korean film industry folks are keeping alert. "The Beijing Festival is a very young event, with programmers constantly changing and rapports with international companies still being forged. If there are zero films in the lineup, however, we can safely say there are political intentions behind it, since Korean movies have had quite a presence in its lineup," said a senior vp of a Korean studio. "We will have to see how the Shanghai International Film Festival will deal with Korean films. It will be a better barometer of the political situation, since it is a much more seasoned event with stronger ties with Korean companies," said the studio employee.
Meanwhile, Showbox, which opened a bureau in Beijing in 2015 for joint ventures with China, said it is patiently waiting.
"We are continuing to work hard on developing our projects, which, unrelated to the diplomatic situation between South Korea and China, always take a long time. We are hoping they will bear fruit in the not-too-distant future - though given, of course, that the political situation will become better," said Jung Soo-jin from Showbox.
"The worst case scenario would be Chinese audiences turning their backs on Korean content. Even if diplomatic ties smoothen, it would be much more difficult to win back audiences' hearts. However, Korean films and TV dramas are still being widely consumed in China, even if it means through piracy. This is a great relief," she said.