New Era of BIFF: The Ambitions and Frustrations of the Festival

in 16th Busan International Film Festival

by Sun-Yub Kim

The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) began with excitement, but ended with anxiety due to a series of sudden transformations. There were several prominent changes. First of all, the festival’s name was altered from Pusan to Busan to reflect the government’s Romanization of the Korean language in 2000. The reason that the festival postponed this shift was that it might cause confusion: Pusan was just one of many new international film festivals, and not yet well known. So the official change showed confidence about the festival’s name value; that its title could be altered without worry.

Secondly, directorship of the festival transferred from Kim Dong-ho (now honorary director) to Lee Yong-kwan, one of BIFF’s founding members. As most industry people in South Korea and overseas would agree, at first it seemed impossible that the event could continue successfully without Kim, the most important player in BIFF’s network. BIFF recognized this risk and prepared for a smooth succession by having Lee share the directorship from 2007, and also by organizing festival manpower more systematically. However, we should reserve judgment about Lee’s directorship of the renewed BIFF, so that we can see the long term impact of his changes more clearly.

Thirdly, BIFF moved its main venue from Nampo-dong to Centum City, with the opening of the Busan Cinema Center (BCC), composed of five theaters including the Cinématheque. This new venue was a hot topic during the festival. Almost every guest was amazed by the modern, cutting-edge building. Foreign guests were envious that this grand construction was dedicated entirely to BIFF. But there were still some concerns. Apart from trivial inconveniences such as the lack of signage and the insufficiency of toilets, the venue appeared too big for BIFF to manage properly in the long term. It didn’t take long for this prediction to come true: it rained heavily on closing day, and raindrops leaked through the huge roof. It must have been a disastrous scene for BIFF. But then again, the festival has only just begun its new chapter: let’s hold back any harsh evaluations for now.

Another major change this year was the introduction of the Busan Cinema Forum (BCF). Lee said that his intention was for BCF take the lead in film aesthetics and discourse in the developing film industry in Asia. The opening theme was “Seeking the Path of Asian Cinema in the 21st Century: East Asia.” BCF took place during October 10-12, and many high-level academic societies and journals participated: Film Studies Association of Korea (FISAK), “Cahiers du Cinéma”, Annual Southeast Asian Cinemas Conference (ASEACC), Film Festival Research Network (FFRN), Association of East Asian Film Studies (AEAF), and the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS).

According to Kim See-moo, a director of the BIFF Research Institute and one of BCF’s key organizers, the first day was the most successful and popular: famous Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul gave the keynote speech, followed by a section led by “Cahiers du Cinéma”. This section featured presentations by Dudley Andrew of Yale University, and several former and current editors of “Cahiers du Cinéma”: Charles Tesson, Thierry Jousse, and Stéphane Delorme. There was a program focusing on Korean film’s status within Asian cinema, with a discussion including Tesson, Delorme and the Korean film critics Jung Sung-il and Huh Moon-young. A panel on contemporary Asian cinema and its future was led by Weerasethakul and Korean directors Hong Sang-soo and Bong Joon-ho. Since most of the panelists were well-known among Korean cinephiles, the room was packed with a passionate and active audience, and the discussions were interesting and productive.

Kim felt that BCF was off to a good start: around 500 BCF badges were sold. He explained that this result was very satisfactory, considering the fact that most Korean academic forums and seminars tend to be free of charge. Several panelists and audience members had suggestions for future forums: that it might be better for BCF to focus on more specific themes, and also that the organizers should ensure a lack of overlap between participants’ topics. Some attendees complained that some of the talks were repetitive because so many panels addressed the possible boundaries and definitions of “Asian cinema” and the historical development and current status of the Asian film industry. So a more dedicated and disciplined committee may be necessary to manage the forum as a whole, especially since so many similar conferences take place during BIFF. Organizers need to make sure that these events do not cancel each other out.