Wednesday 27 January 2016

Tony Rayns writes an open letter to the people of Busan supporting the work of Busan International Film Festival Director Lee Yongkwan

Tony Rayns

As one of BIFF’s foreign advisors, I’ve spent the past year in London watching events in Busan with mounting disbelief. My incredulity began when Busan Metropolitan City Council demanded that a documentary essay-film about the Sewol ferry disaster should be withdrawn from the 2014 festival. When the festival very properly rejected this interference in its programme selection, the City Council stepped up its attack by demanding the resignation of the festival’s director Lee Yongkwan.
Lee Yongkwan, Director of BIFF
And when Mr Lee very properly refused to resign, the national government suddenly decided that it needed to rethink its subsidies to Korea’s film festivals – and it was no doubt entirely coincidental that this entailed making a drastic cut to its support for BIFF. And then, in December, the City Council launched a criminal prosecution of Mr Lee for alleged fraud, citing “irregularities” in his handling of fees paid to sponsorship brokers.  It’s reported in the film-trade magazine Screen Daily that the City Council has made it known privately that it will drop the charge if Mr Lee resigns.

There’s an old English saying: “cutting off your nose to spite your face”. It means doing damage to yourself in an effort to prove yourself right. This old phrase seems remarkably relevant to Busan City Council – and, presumably, to its political friends in the presidential Blue House.

I first visited Busan in 1995 at the invitation of Mr Kim Dongho and his team, who were then busy trying to create Korea’s first film festival. Mr Kim asked me to meet the city’s mayor and some councillors to explain to them (from the point of view of a foreigner who works with both films and film festivals) what a film festival is and why I thought they should support the BIFF project. The then-mayor Mr Moon asked me some pointed questions and I did my best to answer them clearly and persuasively. As we know, the city council did eventually decide to support the festival, and it was launched in 1996.

I’ve been back to Busan every year since then, some years more than once, and have watched both the festival and the city grow. Obviously the city would have grown and developed anyway in the last twenty years; the whole of the country has been transformed since the end of military governments. But I don’t think it can be disputed that BIFF has been one the main engines of the city’s growth.  By basing itself in Haeundae, the festival prompted major improvements to the city’s transport infrastructure: a subway-line extension, a bridge across the bay. By attracting countless foreign visitors, the festival helped turn the city from a rather dingy and parochial port into a spectacular, cosmopolitan metropolis. The name “Busan” was known to few people around the world twenty years ago, but it’s now known to many millions – and that, too, is largely due to the festival. Such changes are worth vastly more to the Korean economy than the government and city council have spent on subsidising the festival.

This is why I’m incredulous:  the government and city council seem hell-bent on damaging one of Korea’s proudest and most cost-effective achievements. Is that what they were elected to do? Are voters happy about the tactics and actions of their elected officials? It seems incredible to me.

Looking at this situation from Western Europe, on the other side of the world, I’m obviously not going to comment on the legal issues.  Those are matters for Korea’s own cultural bureaucrats and lawyers. But the events of the past year raise two big questions which are universal, and I’d like to modestly express my thoughts about both.

The first is the question of competence and professionalism in the running of the film festival.  It’s transparently clear that the Busan Metropolitan City Council’s problem with Mr Lee Yongkwan is political.  The current council is right-wing, and it sees Mr Lee as its political enemy. It takes this political opposition as a valid reason to try to force Mr Lee out of his job. The council must think that Mr Lee could easily be replaced with someone more to their liking: someone who would not protest against political interference in the programme choices. This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve seen bureaucrats thinking this way in many other countries, including my own. But this kind of thinking is hopelessly ignorant of the way that festivals need to be run and need to interact with their audience, both at home and abroad.

Big film festivals are complex institutions. At the most basic level, they need to find the right balance between film as a business and film as an artform – or between the interests of the film industry and the cultural specificity of the medium itself. This means being able to talk to both business people (producers, financiers, distributors) and creative people (directors, writers, actors) in terms that they understand and respect. This perhaps sounds easy enough, but it’s not: understanding the aesthetics of cinema is often not compatible with the nuts and bolts of getting films financed and shown. It’s quite rare to find a festival director and a programming team who are competent to have both kinds of conversations. BIFF has been lucky to be led by Kim Dongho and his successor Lee Yongkwan.

Festivals also need to strike the right balance between the domestic and the foreign, and between crowd-pleasing populism and specialist interests. The days when “cinema” was easy to grasp are long gone, along with Hollywood cinema’s one-time automatic dominance in the world market. “Cinema” now means many things to many audiences. Some viewers want glossy entertainments which give them emotional and experiential kicks, but others prefer more thoughtful and refined films which are more obviously artful. And some are most interested in documentaries, or animation, or experimental films, or even films which cross the boundaries between the movie-theater and the art-gallery. From the very start, BIFF has been sensitive to the differing needs of its many audiences, and has explored all areas of filmmaking with commitment and enthusiasm.

Of course, the obligation to be both generalist and specialist extends to political matters too. I never thought I would agree with film director Park Chanwook about anything, but he was absolutely correct to point out that it was the city council’s attempt to block the screening of the Sewol ferry documentary which made the issue political, not the festival’s initial decision to choose it for the programme. The documentary was one of some 300 films screened by BIFF in 2014, and screening it did not imply that the festival was promoting the film more than other documentaries, or that the festival director and staff endorsed the film’s point of view. It’s very simple:  the festival’s job is to present many points of view, some of which will inevitably seem contentious or offensive to some people. That’s how democracies work.

Thinking about the city council’s concerted attacks on Lee Yongkwan, I can’t help being reminded of the last time that selfish and narrow-minded politicians interfered in the running of a Korean film festival. Does anyone else remember the disaster of the Chungmuro Film Festival in Seoul, hijacked by politicians for what they thought was their own interest? That festival died in its infancy, unable to survive the conflicting pulls of politicians who thought that they could use it to promote themselves and their political parties.

If Busan Metropolitan City Council were to succeed in forcing Lee Yongkwan to resign, what would happen next?  No doubt some opportunist hack could be persuaded to take on the job of festival director, even if it entails constant grovelling to the city council, but many of the festival staff – including the specialist programmers, for sure – would resign in sympathy with Mr Lee, leaving the shiny new director to build a new team of fellow-opportunists. At the same time, BIFF’s many friends around the world would boycott the festival, probably also orchestrating a campaign of protest against the city council’s political stupidity. Many filmmakers would refuse to supply their films, journalists and critics would stop taking the film programme seriously – and BIFF would soon go the same way as the Chungmuro Festival. As I said, this is “cutting off your nose to spite your face”. Is that really what Korea’s right-wing politicians want?  Do they think that these tactics will endear them to the film community at home and abroad? Do they sincerely care at all about Korea’s status as a constitutional democracy?

These considerations bring me to the second big question raised by what’s been happening in Busan. Korean politics changed profoundly in 1993 when the late Kim Youngsam was elected president, and so did Korean society and the Korean economy. Almost everything that we think of as characteristic of modern Korea has developed since 1993, from the global fame of Korean film and television to the country’s ultra-fast broadband network. At the same time, Korea has become a genuinely pluralist society. Women and minority groups have made their voices heard as never before, the lowering of trade barriers has given Korean consumers access to foreign products and culture as never before, and political differences have been debated openly. These are all hallmarks of a modern democracy. They were worth fighting for, and they are worth defending.

Here’s a brief anecdote from my own experience. One of my closest Korean friends studied film-making in London and found himself dissatisfied with the standard of teaching at the school. His graduation film was an attack on the school. It included documentary sequences in which fellow-students discussed the shortcomings of some of their teachers by name. It ended with a fantasy scene in which the protagonist dynamited the school building. The question arose: would the school include this film in its graduate screenings? Yes, it did screen the film.  The school’s director told me that some members of his staff had objected, but he felt it was important to give the graduating student his voice. He didn’t run away from the criticism, as a coward would, but instead faced up to it.

I had very little first-hand knowledge of the “dark days” under military governments in Korea (my first visit to the country was in 1988, when the worst was over), but I know from Russia, China and Singapore amongst other countries how authoritarian governments work. They don’t believe in debate and don’t tolerate opposing points of view. Their first instinct is not to meet opposition with counter-arguments but to silence it. When Busan Metropolitan City Council tells BIFF not to screen a documentary that’s critical of the government, it’s a textbook example of an attack on free speech and an impulse to silence opposing voices. Apparently Korea’s right-wing politicians haven’t noticed or understood the changes since 1993. Apparently they are nostalgic for the “dark days” of censorship, of silencing dissenting voices and of strict social control. I’ve always thought that Korea has a very bright future, and I’ve said so in public many times, but the pig-headed political tactics of Busan’s city council mark a step back into the past. It makes no sense to me.

Tony Rayns is a London-based film-maker, writer, critic and festival programmer with a long held interest in the films of East Asia. He has been a program consultant to the Busan International Film Festival since its inception.


  1. I think in your country Tony the politicians after hearing an eloquent speech like this tap om their tables and shout hear! hear!

    Hear! Hear!

  2. Well stated. It is a film festival. Quit the witch hunt.

  3. What's the next step? What can we all do to help?

  4. Korean students in Australia would agree with Mr Rayns, surely. If Busan damages its own cultural event, they too are damaged.

  5. Where did Tony Rayns first publish this letter?

    1. This blog is the only place the latter has appeared in full in English


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