Launched in 1996, the Pusan International Film Festival (Oct 7-15) quickly became established as an international hub for Asian cinema. As he prepares for his final festival before retirement, founding festival director Kim Dong-ho speaks to Jean Noh about Pusan’s swift growth ― and its future

Legend has it that the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) started life with a bottle of soju stuck in the sands of Haeundae beach. Sitting around it were current festival organisers Lee Yong-kwan, Jay Jeon, Kim Ji-seok and parting Busan Film Commission head Park Kwang-su, talking about starting a small film festival in Busan, like the Pesaro festival they had just attended for a Korean cinema retrospective.

It wasn’t until founding festival director Kim Dong-ho appeared on the scene to raise funding and support that the dream became reality.

“I had just retired from the position of the ministry of culture’s vice-minister and had headed the media ratings board for two years,” Kim says. “I had been very interested in establishing a film festival and their youthful passion inspired me.”

PIFF was launched in 1996 and the famously well-connected Kim says that mounting that first event was a battle. “At first the media and everyone were tremendously doubtful and tried to ­dissuade us. But the first year200,000 people flocked to the festival from around the country.”

PIFF’s overseas profile began to rise steadily, helped by the 1998 launch of the Pusan Promotion Plan, a co-production market for Asian projects, now open to world projects.

Kim attributes PIFF’s rapid success to choosing the right niche as a festival of discovery for young Asian film-makers and new films. It also supports Asian film-makers and productions through the Asian Cinema Fund(ACF), the Asian Film Academy (AFA) and the Asian Film Market. Busan Metropolitan City’s aim to become an Asian media hub continues to be a factor in strong support from the local government.

This year, PIFF’s total number of titles is down from 355 to 308 films from 67 countries. Nonetheless, it has a record 103 world and 52 international premieres, including opening film Under The Hawthorn Tree directed by Zhang Yimou and closing film Camellia, the omnibus produced by PIFF and directed by Wisit Sasanatieng, Isao Yukisada and Jang Hoon-hwan.

Also this year, the Asian Film Market has launched online market screenings, and the festival introduced smartphone ticket reservations. Luminaries attending Kim’s last edition include Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Aishwarya Rai, Zhang Yimou, Abbas Kiarostami, Oliver Stone and Hou Hsiao-hsien.

On October 14, PIFF is holding a farewell party for Kim, which will also be the book launch for a collection of his newspaper columns about film festivals. An exhibit of his photographs taken at festivals opened on October6 at PIFF Village. “Once construction on the PIFF media centre is done next year, a new era will open for Pusan. The ACF, AFA, and Pusan Cinematheque will have facilities that will allow them to function on a level to help lead the Asian film industry,” he says, suggesting PIFF will be more centred on Asia than on Korea in future.

The plan, says Kim, is for his co-director Lee Yong-kwan to continue as the festival co-director, although this will not be confirmed until the official organisation committee meeting in February. It has also been suggested that Kim remain as honorary festival director.

When he retires, Kim is looking forward to indulging his own passions. “I’ve done still photography and now want to focus on moving pictures,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to make a film of my own.”

Kim dong-ho’s Key Pusan Milestones

  • “The success of the launch of the Pusan Promotion Plan (PPP) at the third edition of PIFF in 1998 was a taking-off point for the festival, establishing it as the place to discover new Asian film-makers and films.”
  • “The 1998 presidential election when both the ruling and opposition party candidates came to Pusan and we didn’t give them any special opportunities to be introduced or make speeches. We kept the festival politically neutral, which has allowed us to stay free from interference from both the central and local governments and operate independently.”
  • “In 2001/2002 the top three festivals, Cannes, Venice and Berlin, appointed new festival directors and they all came to Pusan at the same time. Also, the European Film Academy held a spotlight summit conference in Berlin where nine heads of major film festivals were invited and PIFF was one of them. That was an occasion that signified our international profile.”
  • “In 2005, on our 10th anniversary, we established the Asian Film Academy (AFA) and the Asian Film Market, contributing to the development of new film-makers and the industry.”
  • “In 2006, we established the Asian Cinema Fund (ACF) and PIFF became a festival that directly supports the Asian film industry and production.”