Asia's most esteemed filmmakers gathered in Busan on Monday evening to defend the political stance of the region's largest film festival. Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Korea's Lee Chang-dong and Japan's Hirokazu Koreeda took the stage to discuss the importance of artistic freedom as the Busan International Film Festival struggles to bounce back from political pressure.
Troubles for the event began two years ago, when then-fest director Lee Yong-kwan screened a highly politicized documentary against the wishes of Busan mayor and former Busan Film Festival chairman Suh Byung-soo. The doc, The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, took a critical look at the largely failed rescue mission of the Sewol Ferry, which capsized in April 2014, killing hundreds of passengers, mostly teenage students. The event had a traumatic nationwide effect, comparable to 9/11 in the U.S. Soon after, the Busan metropolitan government, which funds about half of the fest's annual budget, cut its funding by nearly 50 percent (from $1.3 million in 2014 to $731,000 in 2015). Festival organizers called the action "political retaliation," and soon a number of prominent Korean - and international - film industry figures stepped up to defend the event.
"Busan Film Festival can call me anytime it needs help," said Koreeda, who visited Busan solely for the purpose of the panel, even though he had no title included in this year's lineup. "No one other than festival organizers should decide on what kind of movies are shown."
Last year's festival wrapped with record attendance as prominent regulars such as Park Chan-wook and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, as well as Cannes Film Festival chief Thierry Fremaux and Venice's Alberto Barbera, held demonstrations and signed petitions, while major Korean studios and distributors including CJ Entertainment, Showbox/Mediaplex and NEW offered bigger sponsorship packages. But changes in the leadership positions earlier this year have left the Korean film industry largely divided. Lee, however, expressed his continued support for the fest.
"What the film festival had to undergo recently, such as Lee Yong-kwan being forced to leave the festival, was very painful for many people, for not only those in the film industry but also for fans. I hope the festival will continue to try hard to respect the artistic integrity of filmmakers," said Lee.
Said Hou: "The Busan Festival is an internationally significant film festival and it's hard to imagine the city of Busan without the festival. I hope this can be an opportunity for the festival to make leap and bounds to make further improvements."