As the 20th Busan International Film Festival launches, new co-director Kang Soo-youn tells Jean Noh why the event is stronger than ever despite a year of political turmoil and funding cuts


The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) is celebrating its 20th anniversary at the end of a controversial year, including facing what many have seen as retaliatory budget cuts following its decision last year to screen documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol despite government opposition.

One of the outcomes of the tug of war with Busan City Hall was the July appointment of a new co-director, the award-winning veteran actress Kang Soo-youn (The Surrogate Woman). The local industry found this a welcome compromise, and subsequent developments include the CEO of Seoul Cinema, Ko Eun-ah, also a veteran actress, contributing $86,000 to the festival in support.

Other film industry figures and sponsors have been rallying around the festival throughout the past year, and BIFF has managed to pull through. It will screen 304 films from 75 countries between October 1-10, with 121 world and international premieres, comparable with last year’s 312 films from 79 countries (132 world and international premieres). Here, Kang Soo-youn reveals why she has a positive outlook for Busan’s future.

How are you settling into the new job?

It’s completely different from being an actress and I’ve been with the festival from the first edition, but I’ve found it’s very different from that, too. Up until now, I was attending the festival from a guest’s standpoint but now I’m a host.

It’s been a controversial year for the festival, particularly with its reduced budget and perhaps some residual political manoeuvring. Can you comment on that?

This has been a uniquely difficult year for the festival, domestically. But I don’t think there has been a single year that wasn’t difficult. The only thing is that the problems of this year, domestically and internally, with Busan City and the government, were made more of a [public] issue. But since we are 20 years old now, we think of it as meaning we are becoming grown-up and accept it — and I dare say that, from next year, [other] difficult and troublesome issues will arise, too. So this is the time to start a plan that can look out over the next 20 years.

The budget cutback was the most difficult problem to solve but it looks like this year we will have more sponsorship than ever. We have so many people helping us. With the festival in crisis, Korean film-makers united in solidarity and made efforts to defend and uphold the Busan festival, and corporations have helped unconditionally.

Aside from the issue of budget, we’ve had tremendous help emotionally and by everyone coming together, with affection towards the festival and a united heart to protect it, and that has helped us get to this point of opening it again this year.

What is the budget this year?

An estimate of this year’s budget is about $10.3m (KW12bn), a little less than last year’s $10.4m (KW12.1bn).

What’s the main focus this year?

With the festival’s difficulties, everyone has been pulling together, concentrating on substance and internal stability. We have prepared the festival’s programme and events  to be more diverse and plentiful than any other year. We have a lot of events and programmes for general audiences and I think they will be very satisfied. There are a lot of programmes that people who study film, and film experts and film-makers, will be able to participate in with curiosity and a favourable impression. Executive programmer Kim  Ji-seok says the programme selection this year is our best ever.

What are you most looking forward to?

The Korean cinema retrospective. It’s a rediscovery of 1960s classic Korean films and, when I watched the films, I was startled by how moving they were. Also, the Asian Cinema 100 Special Focus. I’m confident everyone will like the films in these two sections. To have them in Busan during the festival to watch with audiences on the big screen — I’m already excited about how moving that will be.

How do you think the Korean film market and the position of Korean cinema in the international marketplace have changed since Busan first launched?

Korean films have recently been produced to surprisingly high quality and audiences love them. And they are attracting global attention. In the past 20 years, the festival too has also grown into one that attracts the most attention in Asia and is continuing its growth. I’m proud that Korean cinema and the Busan film festival have been growing together simultaneously. That Korean films have grown in quality and in admissions, and that BIFF has taken its place as the representative film festival of Asia — I think the timing was right and that these two facts were of great help to both sides. I believe we should continue this way.